Our parents didn’t seem to care about differences in religion. So why was I suddenly looking for challahs on a Friday afternoon?
Who doesn’t love a bris? Or so I was thinking a couple of years ago, when I brought along my non-Jewish girlfriend to the apartment of some friends to watch their newborn son go under the knife. What better way to introduce Danielle to the transcendent appeal of Judaism?
Imagine the scene: It’s a sunny November morning, and about 40 people are gathered in the living room of a classic six in Park Slope, Brooklyn. At center stage we have our infant, lying unsuspectingly on a pillow in the lap of his maternal grandfather. The mohel leans down, Mogen clamp in hand, and the room falls silent. The father looks understandably tense. The mother is starting to weep.
I look over at Danielle expecting to see her caught up in the drama, maybe even tearing up a bit herself. She isn’t even watching! I tap her on the shoulder and she turns toward me, horrified. “This is barbaric,” she mutters.
The baby begins wailing, the mohel makes kiddush, and the crowd starts singing “Siman Tov U’mazel Tov.” For the past eight days, I had been talking up the tribal feast that would follow the tribal ritethe bagels and lox, the whitefish salad, the pickled herring. In a cruel gesture that I can hardly fail to notice, Danielle passes over the array of smoked fish and settles on the coffee cake instead.
My history with Danielle began long before we ever met. In the mid-eighties, I attended Deerfield Academy, a prep school in western Massachusetts where her father was a dean and her mother a teachermy sophomore English teacher, in fact. Back then it was all boys, 550 of them. Danielle and her sister rarely, if ever, showed their faces on campus, but it was known that the Mattoons had daughters. They were rumored to be blond. And attractive.
In the late nineties, we were both working at the same magazine, me as a writer, Danielle as an editor. I saw something auspicious in the coincidence; she did not. Over the years, Danielle had received more than her share of advances from Deerfield boys, who she invariably suspected were acting out some latent crush on her mother. But after a few late-night edits and countless reassurances that I was different, I succeeded where many of my fellow alumni had failed.
Dating a non-Jew should not, at least in theory, have been an issue for me. When I was an infant, my parents left New York for Palm Springs, land of rich retirees, manicured country clubs, and streets named after aging celebritiesBob Hope Drive, Frank Sinatra Way. The local Reform temple, which was around the corner from Liberace’s house, didn’t provide much of a counterpoint; the rabbi collected antique cars.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression; my parents were proud of their religious heritage. They gave generously to Jewish charities and took the family to Israel, and the ashtray on my mother’s night table sat on a stack of Holocaust histories, which she devoured like romance novels. But unlike my maternal grandparents, who kept a strictly kosher home, my parents had drifted away from observance.
As an adult, I continued along the same path with one small detour: in my mid-twenties, I worked at the Forward. I took the job because it was an exciting newspaper, and because I was desperate to stop covering business. As it turned out, working at the Forward made it easier for me to ignore my own religious identity. Any unexpressed desire to express my Jewishness was satisfied by going to work every day.
From the first time I brought Danielle home, my parents set about making her feel comfortable. On Rosh Hashanah, one of the three days a year that my family spends in synagogue, my mom told Danielle that she looked tired and that, if she didn’t feel up to it, she should stay home. At lunch that afternoon, my mom, always on the lookout for the smallest disqualifier, barely seemed to notice when Danielle passed along the bowl of gefilte fish without spearing a piece. My mother seemed to like my shiksa girlfriend; I should have been thrilled. Somehow, I wasn’t.
As Danielle and I got more serious, something strange started happening. I can trace the first sign of it back to a warm afternoon in Brooklyn. I had just done a lap around Prospect Park and was walking home when a couple of cheerful Hasidic teenagers accosted me. “You Jewish?” they asked. I had been approached by young Lubavitchers at least a dozen times before and had never given them more thought than I would a Hare Krishna slapping a tambourine. This time, I stopped and answered yes.
Before I knew it, I was wrapping my sweaty arm in tefillin for the first time since my bar mitzvah. A few weeks later, I found myself driving around looking for challahs on a Friday afternoon. The next day, standing in line at the butcher shop, I spotted the thick-cut pork chops, my favorite quick-and-dirty weeknight dinner, and opted for lamb instead.
These are, admittedly, modest life adjustments. but to Danielle, I professed to be diving in headlong. And so there I was, spending a Saturday in front of my computer only to come home and extol the salutary effects of honoring God’s command to preserve a day for rest.
A psychoanalyst would have told me that I was overcompensating for my feelings of guilt about falling in love with a woman whose father was named Skip. After a lifetime of feeling perfectly comfortable surrounded by gentiles, I suddenly felt like an embattled minority. I fed my growing paranoia on the Web sites of various Jewish organizations for the latest studies on the “continuity crisis.” There seemed to be no way around it: I was a traitor to my people, and nothing drove the point home quite so powerfully as Christmas at the Mattoons’.
Danielle’s parents had always been warm toward me. I was in many ways a more familiar breed to them than the non-Jews whom Danielle had bought home before, which is another way of saying that I drank beer and played team sports. There were no signs that the Mattoons were at all uncomfortable with my being Jewish.
And yet, when we set out for rural Connecticut for my first Christmas, I felt as though I were heading into enemy territory. Danielle and I were both silent as we drove over the Triborough Bridge and north through the Bronx listening to Coldplay. No doubt Danielle was thinking about her Christmases past. I was thinking nostalgically about those afternoons spent eating Chinese and going to the movies.
Two hours later we were pulling up the long driveway to their white-shingled house. It was a postcard picture of Christmas, complete with candles in the windows and a green wreath on the door. Danielle’s parents and sister came out to greet us. I smiled weakly.
We made our way inside and my eyes quickly found the tree. The Christmas tree. With presents for me, no less. And as if my betrayal weren’t already manifestly clear, dangling from one of the branches was an ornament with my name on it.
A little later in the day, after ham was consumed, I stopped Danielle in front of the tree. “Don’t they know I’m Jewish?” I sputtered, stabbing my finger at the offending object.
“Oh, relax,” she told me. “It’s a snowman, not a crucifix.”
“But it’s a Christmas ornament,” I tried vainly to explain.
If I could have ended the relationship there, I would have. But it was too late. I was already in love. What’s more, Danielle was perfectly suited to me. I’m not talking about the blond hair and willowy figure. She was an expert at dealing with my neuroses and she seemed constitutionally incapable of nagging.
And so I launched my conversion campaign.
I would like to say now that I introduced the idea subtly, imperceptibly, in the spirit of, say, Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. In truth, my approach was more Great Santini. Knowing that Danielle had developed an interest in Jewish day schoolsas she put it, they seemed “so anti-touchy-feely”I informed her that they were off-limits to children born of non-Jewish mothers. Then, wrapping up a phone conversation one afternoon, I wondered aloud if she was aware that if we were married and she didn’t convert, we couldn’t be buried in the same cemetery.
Not surprisingly, Danielle wasn’t ready to plunge into the mikvah, but she was willing to register for a six-month Introduction to Judaism class. It was a start.
Leading us into an office cluttered with Judaica, the rabbi sat us down for a casual, pro forma interview. “So, Danielle,” the rabbi asked, “how would you describe your Jewish identity?”
Danielle looked at him blankly. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” the rabbi said, “how would you describe your relationship to Judaism?”
Danielle pointed at me. “Him. He’s my relationship to Judaism.”
A long pause followed. “Well,” the rabbi finally said, straining to sound optimistic, “I guess that’s something.”
“Jew school,” as Danielle soon took to calling it, consisted of mostly interfaith couples, engaged or soon-to-be-engaged, navigating their paths to marriage. Among our classmates was Ira, a Polish-born cyclist whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, and Kathleen, who came from a big Irish Catholic family. They had ended their relationship several times over religious issues. Ira’s mother refused to speak to Kathleen.
Each class was two hours long, with a break for a (kosher) snack in the middle. During the first hour, one of the students would present an analysis of a passage from the Torah. During the second half, the rabbihappily, not the one who had interviewed uswould discuss a Jewish ritual.
The first couple of months were rocky. The Torah was far more violent than I remembered, and I suspected that Danielle, who averts her eyes during action movies, was not having an easy time stomaching the wholesale destruction of entire biblical villages. I had also underestimated how much of the Torah is devoted to God ennobling the struggles of his chosen people, which also didn’t exactly strike a chord with her.
As the class progressed, Ira emerged as our most feverishly committed student, bringing in articles on the return of anti-Semitism in America and reporting on the latest synagogue he and Kathleen had auditioned. For a while, I cheered him on. Over time, though, as I watched Ira nudge his shy fiancée to volunteer for the weekly Torah commentary, my allegiances began to shift. Self-recrimination quickly followed. With my passive-aggressive references to cemeteries and Jewish day schools, was I any better?
Near the end of the course, I decided it was time to fashion a compromise. We would have a Jewish wedding and bring up our children Jewish, but the conversion question would remain open.
We raised our chuppah on a July evening on the greensward of Hotchkiss, where Danielle’s parents now work. I studied the skies nervously all day, fearing we’d have to put the backup planthe school’s “nondenominational” chapelinto effect. But the rain held off, and during the reception, while watching Skip bounce gamely on a chair hoisted high above the dance floor, I made my peace with my future.
A few weeks after we returned from our honeymoon, Danielle came home from work one Friday evening with candles and a couple of challahs. She announced that she wanted to try to make Shabbat dinners as often as possible. I was stunned, but over the next couple of days it slowly came into focus for me. During those six months of Jew school, as I worried obsessively about how Danielle was taking to the Torah, she was starting to find her own route into Judaism.
A little over a year later, Danielle was pregnant and Christmas was again upon us. Under the tree was a gift for her from her sister, a book about raising Jewish children called The Blessings of a Skinned Knee. The stereotypical Jewish mother is overprotective, indulgent, prone to living vicariously through the achievements of her children. But this book argued that, at bottom, raising a Jewish child is in fact about ensuring that there will be someone around to honor God and try to make the world a better place after his or her parents are gone. Danielle was soon quoting from it.
Any fantasies I had about my wife suddenly deciding to zealously abide by the letter of Jewish lawand believe me, I had themwere soon banished when she announced that a friend was throwing her a baby shower. (Jewish custom prohibits acknowledging the impending arrival of a child.) Once again, a compromise was reached. She would have the shower, but gifts would be discouraged, and she wouldn’t open any until after the baby was born.
I picked Danielle up after the shower. She tottered toward the car carrying two heavy shopping bags. This was not a good sign. Driving home, I asked, warily, how it had gone.
“I had to open some presents,” she blurted.
“How many?” I asked, as if the number mattered.
“All of them.”
Danielle tried to justify herself”It felt rude not to,” she saidand apologized repeatedly, but I wasn’t interested in her explanations. I dropped her off at our house and sat stewing in my car for an hour, half-listening to the Mets game on the radio. When I went inside, she was asleep.
We both woke up early the next morning and didn’t speak until Danielle was about to leave for work. She apologized again, wiping tears off her face as she did. By then, I had already forgiven her.
A little more than a month later, Frederick GustaveGimpel Ya’acov, after my maternal grandfatherwas born. On the morning of Gus’s eighth day, he found himself lying atop a pillow on a table in our crowded living room, shrieking. The mohel stood above him admiring his handiwork. “Now he looks like a nice Jewish boy,” he said. With that, our friends and families started singing.
What do you do when you break up with your life? A trove of old love letters leads to the Mississippi swamp and a murky search for roots.