When Manny and I told our families we were getting married they were not surprised. We had taken seven years to consider our different religious, cultural, national, linguistic and class backgrounds. We were old enough–he was 36 and I was 31–not to feel pressured by our parents, anyway. Most of our friends and family were supportive, some disapproved, and a few surprised us. Some comments were direct, some overheard in whispers, and some we never heard.
My father is an Ashkenazi Jewish doctor, my mother a health professional and convert to Judaism from an English Protestant family that has been in America for several centuries and has a history documented to before the Crusades. I have two Ivy League degrees and had begun a Ph.D. program when we met. Manny emigrated at 10 from the Azores, a tiny, remote archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic. In America he was happy to have shoes in the winter, indoor plumbing, electricity and medical care. Manny had dropped out of high school because his parents needed him to support the family, though he had later earned a GED.
Manny’s family was glad he was getting married at all. Most of his siblings were already the parents of teenagers, having gotten married in their teens after exchanging photos and letters by mail to spouses from their island selected by relatives. Two decades earlier Manny had refused to marry the cousin his family selected for him to help her family qualify to emigrate.
My father-in-law, who had worked hard to learn English and assimilate, was proud to have an “American” daughter-in-law. My mother-in-law, who had never learned much English, was pleased that I was learning to speak Portuguese and cook Portuguese recipes. Manny’s siblings and cousins were glad I helped to care for his ailing parents. I knew enough Portuguese to understand that some were impressed that my father was a doctor, that my mother is blonde and fair, and that I had worked as a teacher. Only Manny’s brother was concerned about his marrying a non-Christian in terms of the fate of our souls and those of any future children. After many discussions with me about religious doctrine, he now says he respects my beliefs and religious education. Other relatives reassured me that they don’t mind that I am not Catholic.
My parents could hardly complain about my intermarriage since they intermarried themselves. In addition, my youngest sister is married to an Irish “lapsed Catholic” and my other sister married her African-American boyfriend of many years the summer after my marriage. My parents warmly welcomed all their sons-in-law.
My extended family was also welcoming, and at our Jewish wedding reception both sides of the family shared their common interest in food, family, music and dancing. The only negative comment I heard was from a cousin who said, with pursed lips, “You can do anything [for the ceremony] if you marry out.”
At my workplace, a “job with Jewish content,”1 I decided to tell people about my engagement to a non-Jew to avert the disapproving whispers I had heard the previous year when a Jewish friend at work intermarried. Several people in positions above mine had published works opposing intermarriage. One person responded to my announcement as if I was giving him “some sort of confession”; most had little to say.
However, the confessions my disclosure drew forth at work from some of the most observant Jews surprised me. One admitted to having modified his staunch position against intermarriage when a family member ended an interfaith relationship, never married and regretted the choice. He said he felt less conflicted in my case because any children we might have would at least be Jewish according to halakha, Jewish rabbinic law. Since then, another outspoken opponent of intermarriage has confided to having a child who is engaged to a non-Jew who will convert. An ultra-Orthodox colleague confided that he could accept a daughter’s intermarriage (with certain restrictions) if she was unable to find someone Jewish. I doubt they have discussed these positions with each other.
I was surprised to find that more eyebrows seemed to be raised by my marrying across lines of class than religion. I overheard whispers at work and between relatives that Manny never went to college, or that someone saw him street performing on a weekend. Most didn’t recognize him when he served them as a waiter; others hired him for handyman jobs and asked for home repair advice. Some stopped themselves mid-sentence from asking me about his job as if it were a dirty secret, or tried to help him find “better work” or more education. Someone I had thought was a friend told me, “You help these people but you don’t marry them.” It was a very traditional rabbi at work who most accepted Manny’s class background, emphasizing the importance of his “kind heart.” Still, he was the only person I did not dare tell that Manny was not Jewish.
Since then, I have learned that Manny likely has Jewish ancestry. The Azores were settled when Jews fled the Inquisition in Portugal, Torah scrolls have been recovered from caves and grottos and Manny’s mother revealed multiple convincing signs of crypto-Judaism to me before she passed away. But whether or not we actually share a common Jewish heritage, cultural or class background does not change the fact that we are still happy together 10 years later.
1 Term used by Tobin Belzer in “Jewish Identity at Work: Gen-Xers in Jewish Jobs.” Unpublished Dissertation, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., 2004. Pending publication, SUNY Press.