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The Half-Life

How do the products of an interfaith marriage choose their identities?

Rebecca Spence
May 22, 2008

At age thirteen, it never occurred to me that there was anything particularly striking about my bat mitzvah. Growing up in the secular humanist mecca of Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had little by way of comparison. But with nearly two decades of hindsight, it’s obvious that mine was not your typical Jewish American rite of passage. Here’s the dead giveaway: It took place in a church. A Unitarian church, granted, but a white clapboard church nonetheless, situated in the WASPiest of New England enclaves, Concord, Massachusetts.

With too few Jews around to merit a synagogue, the Concord Area Jewish Group, which we joined when my mother took a job in town, found a temporary home in the historic First Parish Church, set back from the oak-lined road that led off Route 2 from Cambridge.

The odd locale of my bat mitzvah would be merely idiosyncratic if it weren’t indicative of a much bigger karmic joke. My Jewish lineage—which on my Sephardic side can be traced back to Hebron, where my ancestors touched down in 1492 after leaving Spain, and on my Ashkenazi side includes the celebrated Yiddish writer who coined the term yenta—is rivaled only by my father’s Episcopalian Anglo-Saxon pedigree. “Don’t you ever forget it, young man, that’s blue blood that flows in those veins, the finest, purest blood that God ever gave to man,” my great-great-grandfather, John Robertson Dunlap, once told my paternal grandfather, Lewis Spence.

Had Dunlap lived to see his great-great-granddaughter recite her haftorah (even in a church), he surely would have blanched. He was not just an anti-Semite but a racial purist so consumed with the superiority of his Scotch-Irish bloodline that he wrote a thousand-page book on Dunlap genealogy, which wound back through antebellum Kentucky and still further back to the early Highland Scots.

He even made a point of avoiding Jews in public places. Family legend has it that Dunlap—a self-styled publishing tycoon who founded the first trade magazines, among them the scintillatingly titled India Rubber World—struck a deal with the head waiter at his favorite Manhattan restaurant that no one with “Jewish features” would be seated near his regular table by the window. But one afternoon, the joke was on the old man: When he sat down for lunch wearing a skullcap (his doctor had insisted that he cover his bald scalp), a waiter mistook him for an observant Jew and asked him to move. Later that same day, Dunlap snipped off his wife’s hair and promptly placed an order for a toupee.

In keeping with the requisite lifestyle of a baron of the Gilded Age, Dunlap—known for touting his credentials as a “Kentucky colonel” despite his lack of military service—spent his summers in the Adirondacks and his winters on Florida’s Gulf Coast—though it was in his beloved Manhattan where he died in the spring of 1935. One year later, another of my great-great-grandfathers, Jacob Adler, who wrote in Yiddish under the penname B. Kovner, published Laugh Jew Laugh, a collection of short stories about immigrant life in the Lower East Side that he had published over the preceding three decades in the Jewish Daily Forward. At that time, the Forward‘s readership hovered around 250,000 and Adler’s humor column was a favorite among the hordes of Yiddish-speaking newcomers who looked to the legendary paper for guidance on adjusting to life in this Promised Land. In Adler’s outlandish characters, they could see aspects of their irksome upstairs neighbor or—God forbid!—their own husbands and wives. So popular was one of Adler’s protagonists, Yente Telebende, who harangued her unfaithful husband and made everyone’s business her own, that a woman known to gossip has ever since been referred to as a yenta.

The only commonality between Jacob Adler and John Dunlap, I’d always assumed, was their progeny. I was wrong. Last fall, while scanning a copy of Laugh Jew Laugh in my Park Slope studio, I was struck by a small but significant detail: Adler’s introduction is signed off from St. Petersburg, Florida, the very same resort town where Dunlap spent his final months. As I discovered, St. Petersburg was not only the winter home of my Anglo-Saxon antecedent but also the year-round residence of my Yiddish forebear. I don’t imagine that they sipped martinis at the same social club or traded tales on the putting green, but they certainly could have strolled past one another on a white sand beach, two proud men wholly unaware of how human destiny would one day render their legacies intertwined.

Born in 1873 in Galicia, in what was then part of Austria-Hungary, Adler was not unlike the multitudes of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and lived out the American dream. Upon arriving in New York in 1895, he began working arduous hours for a tailor in a sweatshop, all the while nursing his dream of becoming a writer. Only two years later, in 1897, he published his first poems in the nascent Forward. He soon joined the ranks of Di Yunge, or “The Young Ones”—the circle of Lower East Side literati who rejected the hard-edged political slant of their predecessors and introduced florid romanticism to Yiddish poetry—before making his mark as a humorist. By 1907, he had already published his first book, Zikhroynes, a memoir of shtetl life composed in verse, which was hailed by critics in New York and Europe. Zalmen Reisen, editor of one of Eastern Europe’s largest Yiddish newspapers, The Vilna Day, described it as “full of quiet, sad longing and heartfelt love for his childhood and the idyllic life of the Jewish shtetl.”

Adler wrote prodigiously, and somewhat obsessively, until the age of 99; he died in 1975, the year before I was born, at the age of 102. In just under a century, he churned out some 18,000 poems, more than 30,000 columns, and published work under almost 20 different pen names. He even went on publishing after his death, having written hundreds of Forward columns in advance.

Needless to say, he set the bar high for writers in the family. While I don’t foresee ever approaching his prolific—or, perhaps more accurately, lunatic—output, I do have one important thing in common with Adler: I too am a writer at the Forward (albeit the English paper, not the Yiddish, which is still printed weekly in New York). Add to the mix my Israeli family history dating back more than ten generations, and being Jewish feels like an ineluctable fate. I did, however, have a choice. In an alternate universe, I could have taken my cues from Dunlap and turned out a Protestant preppy. So what made me a Jew? Considering that I practice neither religion, it’s got nothing to do with theology.

It may be as simple as this: WASP culture, as embodied by my perennially depressed grandparents, felt painfully austere and witheringly cold. Grandma and Grandpa Spence, living in an isolated farmhouse in Cranbury, New Jersey, were the proverbial descendants of characters in a Henry James novel; two cash-poor aristocrats forced to live out the tragic indignities of a ruling class in decline. My grandfather, Lewis, who grew up in Long Island with a coterie of servants and was shipped off to boarding school in the first grade, drank bourbon every night at 6 o’clock, cursed the creeping onslaught of low culture, and wrote books that were never published. His wife, an intellectually adroit woman who languished as a housewife and elementary school librarian, joined him in his misery.

Jewish life, as embodied in my great-grandmother—Adler’s daughter Bertha Klausner, a crackerjack literary agent and the family matriarch—stood in sharp contrast. A fiercely independent and forward-thinking woman, Bertha entertained the leading writers, producers and performers of her day from her capacious apartment on 38th Street and Park Avenue. She served up lunches of whitefish and brisket and inked book deals for her bevy of celebrated clients, among them Marcel Marceau and, once upon a time, Upton Sinclair.

As a child, I instinctively gravitated toward this beatific woman with her huge bosoms and crown of silver hair. She fed me Entenmann’s chocolate cake, smothered me in mama-bear hugs and was known for her constant refrain at family gatherings: “All my great-grandchildren are geniuses.” Lewis, on the other hand, made no secret of the fact that he didn’t much care for children. I can hazily remember fishing for rainbow perch with him off the dock on Upper Saranac Lake—on the very patch of Adirondack land inherited from Dunlap—but I can more vividly recall how, when I was a distressed seven-year-old, standing on his weathered gray deck in a puddle of tears, he exploded in anger and refused me entry into the house.

“My home is no place for children to cry,” he bellowed down at me.

I was scared; the memory stuck. More importantly, I don’t think I stopped crying. Several years later, when he took me for Sunday services at Saranac’s rustic lakeside church, where patrician men in pastel blazers worshipped beside their trim, smiling wives, I winced with every ministerial reference to Christ, wanting to scream “But I’m Jewish!”

When my mother and father met in Boston in the early 1970s, the bigotry and cultural divisions that would have kept their ancestors from crossing paths in St. Petersburg only a few decades earlier had dissolved into the collective memory of America’s ugly past. In Cambridge, the ethnically mixed corner of the Northeast my parents inhabited, activists and academics freely commingled in the progressive political circles at the crest of the anti-war years. Vietnam protests in Harvard Square were just petering out and echoes of Joan Baez playing at Club 47 could still be heard in the vibrant folk scene that continued at its successor, Club Passim.

My parents—two tenacious and idealistic bureaucrats—first met while working for Massachusetts governor Frank Sargent (one of many liberal Republicans to lead the bluest state in the Union). My father agreed to raise his children Jewish, though we celebrated Christmas and Easter, and nobody flinched. The mountains of conflict that eventually overtook my parents’ marriage had little to do with religion or ethnicity, although family life might have been far more peaceful if that was all that divided them.

This isn’t to say that their interfaith union produced no fallout. We have been subject to the rips and fissures that intermarriage inevitably seems to create. My mother’s father, a sociology of religion professor who has become increasingly observant in the years since my parents were wed in the Berkshires in 1973, has done his part to carry on the tradition of shunning the young who choose partners outside of the fold. To date, he has boycotted three family weddings, all of them his own children’s and grandchildren’s. Still, he relents and resumes relations if the kids are raised Jewish.

Standing in an Episcopal church on the Upper West Side last June, watching my brother’s two sons being baptized, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have been different if my grandfather had taken a less punitive approach. It certainly wasn’t his committed observance or disdain for mixed marriages that molded my identity. And while I take issue with his tactics—in part because of the hurt they inflict, and in part because they only serve to further distance people from Jewish life—I do understand the sentiment. It was not easy to attend that baptism. I flinched at every reference to “our lord Jesus” just like I did at age nine, sitting in the pine pews at Upper Saranac’s Church of the Ascension. Only this time it was my own sibling’s ritual, not that of some ruddy-faced stranger in Nantucket red pants, that foisted the sense of otherness upon me.

Yet in spite of our obvious cultural differences—my brother and I seem to have split our parents’ ancestral traditions straight down the middle—we nevertheless share what our parents had in common: a commitment to social responsibility and an engagement with the politics and culture of our time. During the fifteen years that my parents were married, their respective relatives grew to love coming together at family gatherings, where they could discuss what most bourgeois intellectuals from the Northeast tend to discuss: wine, presidential races, and their undying aspirations for the Democratic party. Lewis, in particular, enjoyed parsing politics and theology with my mother’s father, an exceedingly scholarly Jew, and talking theatre and books with Bertha. In some sense, they all may have had more in common than not.

Lewis’s fortunes also turned: He finally published a book, though he didn’t live to hear about it. Two weeks after his death (I was twenty-one and just about to graduate from Barnard) we got the news that a small upstate publisher specializing in Adirondack literature had accepted his manuscript. It was a memoir of the four childhood summers he spent on Upper Saranac Lake with his grandfather, John Robertson Dunlap. In reading A Mountain View, I saw where the stern, imperious grandfather that I knew in my childhood had come from: By Lewis’s own account, Dunlap, with his eye patch and cane, was the scariest grandfather of them all.

I also grasped the depth of my great-great-grandfather’s anti-Semitism—and just how far my own grandfather had strayed from that past. The fact that not one, but two of his children married Jews gives some indication. On a recent visit to my aunt’s home in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn, where she lives with her Jewish husband of twenty-five years, I noticed another, slightly more subtle indication: Hanging on the wall was a lithograph inscribed “For the Spences,” signed by an artist friend of my grandparents who had lived not far away from them in Roosevelt, New Jersey. The artist? The Jewish Social Realist painter and photographer, Ben Shahn. Perhaps the occasion of my bat mitzvah wasn’t the first time that Dunlap had rolled over in his grave.

Rebecca Spence is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Rebecca Spence is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on her first novel.