“I knew one little girl who tried to hide herself after her parents were killed,” my grandfather told me, “She dug a hole in the ground and lay in there, but it was not big enough.”
“Did the Nazis find her?” I asked.
“Of course,” he answered, drawing out the words and crinkling his brow in sad and disgusted recollection. “They found her, they killed her and they took all her blood to use for the soldiers.”
I can only assume that my grandfather meant that the Nazis took the child’s blood to use for transfusions in Nazi soldiers. But I never got to ask, because, as usual, my grandmother cut off his story, telling him in Yiddish it was “no talk for the grandchildren.” Often, I was relieved by her intervention. I wanted to know more, but the memories were obviously very painful and I didn’t want to push.
And yet my grandfather seemed unable to let those memories lie quiet in his mind. They came to him at any time, for no apparent reason, and he had to get them out. My mother and her two siblings grew up hearing them, and so did all their children. Whether my grandfather intended it or not, his stories weaved their way into our consciousness from a very young age. Although we had not experienced them ourselves, they were part of us.
And Grandpa was not the only one in the family with stories. On my father’s side of the family, many more relatives were killed than survived. Both of my grandparents lived because they came to the U.S. before World War II began, but nearly all of their family members perished.
It is not such a curious thing, then, that my family defines its Judaism largely in response to the Holocaust. In fact, many sociologists and religious scholars have recognized the same Holocaust-centered religious identity in modern Jews all over the world. For these people, there was Judaism before (the war) and Judaism after (the war), and though they share the same roots, they do not have the same focus. Holocaust-centered Judaism emphasizes, above all, Jewish perseverance and preservation. This is often defined as “not letting Hitler win” by doing anything to [maintain] the size of the remaining Jewish population, including marrying those who are not Jewish.
This is the mindset in which I was raised and with which I found myself struggling when I fell in love with my fiancé, Nathan. Nathan is intelligent, ambitious, thoughtful and kind. He is also clean-cut and polite. In short, he is the kind of guy many girls would be thrilled to take home to their parents. But Nathan is not Jewish, and for my family, that was all they needed to know.
But familial disapproval was not the real problem. The core of my struggle was figuring out my own feelings. I knew I loved Nathan and wanted to be with him, but what was my responsibility to Judaism? The answer to this question did not come easily. I brooded over it until I felt I was thinking in circles, and I spent many hours crying in frustration. I believe this is an experience to which most Jews who struggle with interfaith relationships can relate. We know our family’s opinion on the matter, but we have never stopped to fully develop our own. And developing our opinions—under what seem to be mutually exclusive desires to fully honor our grandparents’ Holocaust stories and to feel good about loving someone who is not Jewish—is perhaps the most difficult aspect of coming to terms with our interfaith relationships.
For me, the ability to stop questioning myself came in three phases. The first phase was: I love this person, and I cannot imagine the rest of my life without him. Once I acknowledged this, I got down to brass tacks with phase two: Can he accept and support my need to raise my children in the Jewish faith? And after Nathan and I settled on an agreement in this regard, I was, thankfully, able to see my way to the third phase: This relationship does not change my history or alter the fundamental elements of my Jewishness. No matter what others may think, I am still very much the product of my family’s stories.
Of course, this does not mean that all the questions have gone away. Being in an interfaith relationship, at least for me, implies that, like rabbinic scholars, I have to keep questioning. How significant is the symbol of the Christmas tree? Will a child be confused if his mother, but not his father, fasts on Yom Kippur? And, on my less scholarly days, good old Jewish guilt can force some questions, as well. Does this relationship keep me from fully honoring Grandma and Grandpa’s struggles during the Holocaust? This last question might be the most painful to ask myself, as I know my grandparents would have preferred that I be with someone Jewish. But in the final analysis, I know that being in an interfaith relationship does not prevent me from keeping my grandparents’ Holocaust stories alive and passing them on to my children someday.
Last March, my grandfather passed away at the age of ninety-two. All his life, he was nothing if not a family man, someone whose greatest joy was watching his children and grandchildren grow and flourish. But when Nathan and I became engaged, I debated about telling him the news. He was already ill, and I was afraid that if I told him he might get upset and start asking questions about our religious differences, thereby agitating himself and worsening his condition. And, honestly, I didn’t want our final moments together to be unhappy ones. Finally, I decided I could not keep such an important event a secret from someone I loved so much.
“That’s the best news,” Grandpa said quietly. He probably had reservations, but he made no mention of them. I can only guess that, as he looked at his smiling granddaughter, he thought it was time for her to add her own stories to the family’s history. And, as time marches on, I do add my own stories, some of which include a partner who isn’t Jewish and the home we make together. But I have made a promise to my grandparents and to myself that my children will know that the legacy of the Holocaust is their legacy and a critical piece of their evolving family history.