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The December Dilemma

What a mother learn about herself when her son struggle with an intermarriage

One day, Richard, my oldest son, and I were eating in a Jewish delicatessen in Cambridge. “Look, Ma,” he said, gesturing to the framed photo on the deli wall. What I saw was an old bearded man in yarmulke and tallis, a Torah resting on his shoulder, his eyes seeming to be full of joy and yearning.

“If I marry her, that’s what I give up,” my son said.

The “her” he was referring to was Rebecca, his girlfriend of a year and a half. When I first heard her name I thought, “Maybe.” But it turned out she was Episcopalian, a woman whose family traced its roots back to America’s earliest settlers. Her ancestors were achievers—powerful lawyers and doctors, owners of big companies and California vineyards. The family summered in a house that Rebecca’s grandfather had built on a point of land in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

I imagined porches and steps leading down to a wide lawn, games of croquet, ocean waves breaking against a sea wall. Inside, I pictured ancestral portraits and samplers. Rebecca spent her Christmases in another house in another family compound on a bay in Florida. Tomorrow, Richard would be leaving to join them.

I liked Rebecca. Who wouldn’t? Vivacious, dark-haired, athletic, smart, outspoken.

It was the power of her family I feared. They offered Richard success in life (if success means a well-paying job), patrician gatherings, skiing in Taos in the spring. They handed out plane tickets to current boyfriends and girlfriends as if they were lollipops. I felt angry. This was a family who could “steal” my son. I looked at the photo on the deli wall and thought of my maternal grandfather with whom I grew up, a man who davened wearing tefillin every weekday of his life.

“Why will you have to give this up?” I said, gesturing towards the portrait, suddenly conscious that neither one of us had felt comfortable enough to say the actual word: Judaism.

“She wants a commitment,” he answered finally.

Growing up, I’d been taught by my father that being Jew was no different from being a Christian. “It’s a religion, that’s all,” he used to say. He was a German Jew, Reform, and, although he’d fallen on harder times, he regaled me with stories of his rich and prominent New York family. His mother, my grandmother, had married “up,” but my grandfather died young, cheating my father of both family connections and inheritance. My father carved out his own success, though, combining the arrogance of the self-made man with the pride of the German Jew. Together the mix was devastating.

My mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of Orthodox immigrants (my “davening” side) who kept kosher and observed the Sabbath and holidays. My father did none of those things, yet we all lived together in the same house. Needless to say, I grew up with contradictions.

Outside the house there were contradictions, too. There I found that “otherness” which my father claimed didn’t exist: signs in windows restricting Jews; invisible signs at the entrances of long drives leading to country clubs with wide lawns; once a close friend’s surprised face: “I don’t believe it, stop kidding. You’re not Jewish, you couldn’t be!”

I grew up in small towns where Jews were a minority. Mostly we stuck together. If a new girl moved into our neighborhood we asked, “M.O.T. (member of the tribe)?” I wondered if our sticking together was a response to growing up during post-War years. I remember thinking constantly about concentration camps, ovens, lampshades made of Jewish skin. When I read Anne Frank’s diary, I cried and cried. I felt absolutely that that could have been me.

After my marriage, I realized that I didn’t know what I really wanted in terms of being Jewish. My husband was Jewish in name only. Like my father’s family, his stock was German-Jewish. Peddlers, they rose quickly in the business world, sent their sons to Harvard, and saw that their daughters married well. Though his prominent Boston family was descended from the founder of the city’s largest temple, they no longer were members there—or anywhere. Like my paternal grandmother, I’d married “up,” and later would pay the price in shame and self-hatred.

”After I was married I myself put up a Christinas tree, fulfilling a childhood dream. Yet it also felt strange. Was this house with the Christmas tree mine?”

The first Christmas after my marriage, I bought a tree. My husband wasn’t surprised; he’d grown up with one. And me? I told myself I was fulfilling childhood dreams. Looking back, though, I think I did it to be like everybody else. If all the windows in my neighborhood had lighted trees, casting shadows on the snow, mine would too. Yet when I turned the corner and pulled into my own driveway, I felt strange. Was this house with the Christmas tree mine?

Some years I added Chanukah to our Christmas celebrations; other years I didn’t. As for other Jewish holidays, the only ones that concerned me were Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Passover. Sometimes I celebrated them; sometimes I didn’t. My sons were circumcised without prayers, and they weren’t bar mitzvahed.

I looked at Richard across the deli table; tall, dark, heavily bearded. My husband is fair-skinned, a redhead before turning gray. His eyes are pale green. And me, my complexion is light, my eyes hazel, my hair, once light brown, now gray. Where did Richard get these swarthy looks? “Maybe you should be a rabbi,” I said, apropos of nothing.

“Maybe.”

“You know,” I said, feeling a sudden flood of regret, “I never taught you enough about being Jewish.”

“Are you kidding?” he answered. “All those stories about your Jewish family, about your grandmother. All those stories…

My grandmother’s house (where we all lived together) was yellow stucco, and it sat on a corner lot where peonies bloomed in the side yard, and grapes ripened on an arbor in the back. A family used to gather there: the matriarch Sarah; Abraham (her husband and first cousin); having (oldest son); Adele (Irving’s wife); Gabe (sec- ond oldest son); Cereld (Gabe’s wife); Harry (youngest son just home from the War); Helene (Harry’s wife); Lillian (only daughter); Leon (Lillian’s husband); and me, Sandell, daughter of Lillian, only child in this family.

I remember the table would be extended its full length and covered with a white cloth, set with dishes and crystal we used just once a year. I remember the shank bone, roasted egg, and horseradish root that my grandfather used to grate, tears streaming down his cheeks.

My grandmother would light the candles; my grandfather filled Elijah’s cup. All year long I would smell grapes, turning to wine in wooden barrels in the basement.

My grandfather chanted the entire service in Hebrew, and even though I couldn’t understand a word, the music seeped into my bones.

“Slow down, Abe,” my grandmother would say.

“Where are you, Dad?” Uncle Gabe would ask.

I would open the door for Elijah, and as I stood facing the night, I felt the brush of an angel’s wing.

Passover was the one celebration I carried out of childhood and set down, more or less, in my marriage. I didn’t change dishes as my grandmother did; I didn’t chop raw fish, but I did make chicken soup, and I did tell my children about Grandma Sarah’s soup with yellow eggs and chicken feet floating to the top. I told them about Grandma Sarah’s father, their great-great grandfather, a matzoh baker who left Russia and came to America specifically to bake the Passover matzohs for his landsleit in New York City. Every year he asked Gitl, his wife, to come to America. But the story goes that Gitl liked the farm in Russia.

It wasn’t just the story of Moses leading the Jews to freedom that my family read each Passover. It was family history, too, I realized suddenly, sitting across the deli table from my son Richard. The story of our own Exodus. When I lit the candles and they burned in Grandma Sarah’s candlesticks, I love my own family’s story into the ritual threads.

Outside the deli, the streets had frozen over with hardened snow. Richard walked beside me, stepping down off the curb.

“Matthew’s coming to Florida, but he’s not sure about Sally.” Matthew was Rebecca’s brother; Sally, Matthew’s fiancée.

I thought about those plane tickets as plentiful as lollipops. I thought about Rebecca. If they married, would she change her name?

I thought about Richard’s paternal great-great grandfather who took care of our name long ago when Maas became Morse. A change during immigration? At the suggestion of a wealthy benefactor? Both stories were family legend. What of Richard’s middle name, Friedman, belonging to his paternal great-grandmother? A lovely woman who died a week after giving birth. Would Richard change that to Fred?

Back home, late that night, I awakened my husband. “Do you think they’ll get married?” I asked him.

“How should I know?,” he said.

“I want him to be Jewish.” And, finally, I knew. I had said it. Not only did I want my son to be Jewish, I wanted to be Jewish too.

Richard was moving to Philadelphia to begin graduate school, and I wouldn’t see him again until, spring. I wondered, how much of what I was feeling was displaced, a mother’s loss? How much was really connected to Judaism? I thought of my mother-in-law. “What does it matter?” she had said. “Rebecca is some catch.”

I thought about interfaith couples I knew, about children who are part black, part white, part Asian, part Catholic, part Jewish. I thought about tolerance, about loving people for who they are. It’s what I had preached at home—equality, justice. I thought about the Passover injunction to welcome the stranger at our table. Wasn’t Rebecca that stranger?

A few months later Richard called. “We broke up,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”

I held my tongue. “I’m sorry,” I said finally, “and I’m glad.”

“I know.”

We talked, and then I sat in my living room, looking out at my snow-filled garden, thinking about being young, and about the sadness of losing love. I thought too, suddenly, about another family story. When my Uncle Irving—once, long ago—started dating a minister’s daughter, my Grandma Sarah, without a moment’s waste, picked up the entire family and moved them to a new town—one with a synagogue and a large Jewish community.

Richard was in Philadelphia. Wasn’t there a nice Jewish girl, somewhere in that city, waiting for my son?

Sandell Morse has published short stories in many literary magazines, including Iris, Green Mountains, Review, Calliope, and Ploughshares. She lives in York, Maine.