My parents were relieved when I finally married a nice Jewish man. My adult life had been jump-started by an actual job after long years of school. But I was thirty-two and lived alone in Miami. They were worried about me. So when I met Jack, whose extended Jewish family stretched from New York to Cuba, they were elated. My parents and their many Jewish friends liked Jack’s family and we had a gala wedding in upstate New York. It was lovely. It was just not a Jewish wedding, as I’m not Jewish.
A year later, just before my first son was born, my sister asked what ideas we had for names. She delicately suggested that we might not want anything “too Jewish.” This was in keeping with our upbringing in the sixties that any show of ethnicity was old-fashioned. Progress in our family was measured by lack of cultural indicators. We celebrated every Christmas eve in snowy Vermont with our many Jewish friends. They invited us to sit in the soft light of their sparkling tree while A, our host, sliced the roast beef. It was a blast. And I’m sure that every person in the room felt that this indeed was progress. I have to say that our friends threw the best Christmas parties ever. I honestly didn’t think twice about it. And when I met a Jewish man, I had no qualms about marrying him. As long as he wasn’t “too Jewish.” Frankly, he didn’t seem to be. Nor did his family. In none of her three languages–English, Spanish or Yiddish–did his mother ever protest our marriage.
When my son was born, my husband surprised me by arranging for a bris, the ritual circumcision of an eight-day-old boy required by Jewish law, before I even left the recovery room. Prostrate from spinal anesthesia, I saw my father-in-law beam at me from the hospital hallway and wave. Then I heard him phone the kosher caterers. I think my parents considered the ceremony a quaint holdover from the old country and it was in a benevolent narcotic-enhanced mood that I consented to it, rather than in regard to any well-thought-out plan my husband and I had previously agreed upon.
Eight days later I found myself in my mother-in-law’s house surrounded by the entire Jewish-Cuban sisterhood of North Miami Beach. They apparently felt my pain. They sized me up from the plastic-covered couches and patted me gently on the shoulder when my husband took the baby from me to the room where the men waited. It’s hardest on the mother, they confided. When my father-in-law toasted the newest member of the Jewish people, he cried. Never mind that I wasn’t Jewish. No one cared. The pride flowed like the nice Chilean wine and I started to get the idea that I wasn’t dealing with any quaint old-world custom. This was serious business and when the pain medication wore off, I intended to find out what was going on.
I started the investigation with Jack. Now, why would a man who married a woman who wasn’t Jewish be so intent on obtaining a bris for his son? All I knew was every time the subject came up, he got a look of grim determination that haunted me. That look kept resurfacing when I objected to various events that arose during our first years, such as our compulsory attendance at not one, but two, Passover seders each year.
Things quieted down after the bris. I took Spencer, my son, to enjoy Christmas in Vermont with my parents, and Jack and I lit the menorah for Hanukkah as well. We continued in this way for several years while I studied Judaism and grew to love it. I realized the look of determination Jack wore had been forged by an awareness of thousands of years of being cajoled, persuaded or just simply forced to not be “too Jewish.” I never wanted to see that look again. I finally decided that we would raise our children in a Jewish home.
We had problems when I made my decision. My mother, who had not attended church in thirty years, felt compelled to announce that she was a Christian grandmother and would never change. Jack’s parents, upon learning that we would send Spencer to a Jewish day school, deemed it the wrong one and, I thought, secretly missed the old Nancy who had no compunction about serving meat and dairy in the same meal. My father disliked the school as well and deemed it old-fashioned. And, of course, where there had been the holidays was left a gaping hole.
It was most difficult for my mother. She finally had grandchildren and could not recreate her holidays with them. It was painful for her. I sent her a Christmas gift and for the first time ever, did not receive one in return. By New Year’s she had relented, but it was clear that she felt lost outside our new priorities and it was not until I was pregnant with my third child that we found some peace. In the middle of my pregnancy, in early spring, I became very ill and anxious. My mother arrived on an emergency visit to help with my two boys. For weeks, I was too sick to function. The only thing that offered any comfort was my Jewish studies. My mother noticed this and as Passover neared, took it upon herself to arrange a beautiful Passover dinner. I could only manage the peripheral details, but as I ate my first real meal in weeks, I could feel each of us gaining strength: the baby, me, and my mother.
I realized that we could not simply excise my mother’s holidays from our lives. We also needed to fully include my family in our new Jewish lives in a way that was comfortable for them. Several things made this easier. We started by acknowledging our limitations. We did not expect my family to curtail their Christmas celebration. We acknowledged their Christmas gifts and cards and sent them gifts and cards as well. We did remind the children that this was not our holiday, as we had chosen to be a Jewish family. When my family visited, we included them in beautiful Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath, celebrations and asked them to prepare or bring special foods. We imparted a lot of information to them about Jewish celebrations via our explanations to the children. We invited Jack’s mother to the same dinners and asked her to describe her girlhood in Cuba. We found a welcoming synagogue that had accessible services and a friendly rabbi and brought the extended family to meet him.
My mother enjoys music, so we invited her to listen to a wide variety of Jewish music and songs. We went shopping together in Israeli gift and grocery stores. We learned a lot this way together. We were able to explore any number of topics in this way, including dietary laws. The question of how to observe kosher dietary laws is difficult sometimes for families who are completely Jewish. It was even more so for me. As a newcomer to Judaism, I felt it was my obligation to be completely educated on the topic, so I took a class from a Hasidic woman who taught me in exhaustive detail her kitchen rules. It was fascinating, but it would be quite another thing to dictate them to my mother.
I voiced preferences rather than rules. We all have diets we would like to adhere to and I felt with a little creativity we might make everyone happy. For instance, if I preferred that my parents not take the children to a fast-food restaurant, I had no qualms about saying so diplomatically. We tried new recipes together at home when they visited.
Sometimes, though, people are just tired and cranky and nothing works. But it seems to be the sum of our efforts, rather than one or two events, which define us as a family. Are we making an effort? Do we succeed occasionally? These are the important questions.