A few weekends ago, we drove down to New Jersey to visit my new baby cousin. Actually, this is my cousin’s child (his first), so I’m pretty sure that makes baby A my first cousin, once removed. (I had to ask my wife to explain the different kinds of cousins again; she’s a real hit at cocktail parties.)

It’s a long drive to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, from Providence, Rhode Island. Now, I don’t really dislike driving all that much. If I have an entertaining driving companion, or there’s something good on the radio, or my iPod is charged, I’ll drive just about any distance happily. This is a good thing since my new job includes a commute of at least an hour each way. The problem is that it’s one of those drives where the theoretical commute time is low enough that I’m never satisfied with my actual drive time. Google Maps says it’s 45 minutes, and I’ve never made it in less than an hour.

Maybe it was this pent up frustration that led to the following exchange, somewhere between interchanges 8 and 7 on the New Jersey Turnpike. As we inched forward in the nearly unmoving traffic, my wife sighed but said bracingly, “Well, we should be there in about an hour.”

“Could be longer,” I snapped.

“Could be longer”? Why would I say that? Was I trying to challenge the accuracy of her statement? Did I interpret her reassuring comment as a scientific hypothesis, and was I offended that it was untested? Why did I find her resigned optimism so infuriating?

I think it was this: my personal satisfaction with a drive isn’t determined my how long the drive is, but rather it is inversely proportional to the amount of time I spend in first gear. If we’d been an hour late but with nothing but open highway before us, I would have responded, “An hour? Pshaw!” and floored it. I would much rather drive for an hour and half at highway speeds than for an hour in a traffic jam.

Isn’t that stupid? At least it explains why I got snippy on the turnpike: we’d just missed our best chance to get off the highway and find a slower but less busy route. If I have one complaint about the New Jersey Turnpike, it would be that the exits are so far apart that once you miss one, you are pretty thoroughly screwed. Nonetheless, we made it to Cherry Hill with our marriage intact, to (I presume) the dismay of my uncle.

My uncle P— does not approve of my relationship with R—. It’s not that he – I don’t know – thinks she’s not good enough for me, or doesn’t like her in some way. I’d guess that he doesn’t even have an opinion about her personally. No, his problem is that she’s not Jewish.

My uncle and my cousins are the considerably more observant branch of the family. My siblings and I have always enjoyed visiting my aunt (my mom’s sister) and my cousins. We used to visit them at least once a year, including an annual summer trip to the Jersey Shore. As kids, we knew that they were more observant than we were, and we knew not to mention things like “pepperoni pizza” around them, but we always had a good time. And I don’t think it’s exactly a secret to them anymore that my immediate family is somewhat more lax, Jewishly speaking, than they are. I can’t tell whether or not they think less of us, but if they do, they don’t let on.

As adults, my siblings and I still have a great time with my aunt and my cousins, even if sometimes they don’t seem to get our sense of humor, and even if we’re slightly on edge the whole time we’re there, terrified we might turn off a light we’re not supposed to on Saturday, or forget a major upcoming holiday, or just blurt out “pork!”

When my uncle found out that R— and I were engaged, he started a passive-aggressive guerilla campaign to talk me out of it. I say “passive-aggressive” and “guerilla” because he never said anything to my face (or hers) about it. In fact, the first time R— went with us to visit them, she made a great impression on him (and the rest of the family) by talking to him at great length about genealogy, a topic that’s of great interest to him and to almost no one else. No, his disapproval was expressed in the form of unsigned newspaper clippings or packages, sent to me about every four to six months over the course of our two-year engagement. One might be an article copied out of the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a headline like, “Jewish Community Speaks Out Against Intermarriage.” Or he might send me an old prayer book, with a post-it note saying “this was your grandfather’s” and a bookmark distributed by a Jewish organization that blared the warning: “Will your grandchildren be using this book?” I guess Uncle P— thought that if he could just bring enough third-party arguments to bear, I’d see the light and break off my engagement.

Needless to say, he skipped the wedding. I was offended, but not too broken up about it, because my aunt and my cousins came, and we had a great time. (My cousins, interestingly enough, sat out the wedding ceremony itself but joined us for the reception, which I presume was their compromise between their religious disapproval of our hybrid/interfaith wedding and their familial desire to support and celebrate with us. I’m not sure Emily Post would approve, but they were a big part of making the hora work, so we were cool with it.)

We hadn’t really spoken to Uncle P— since the wedding, and I wasn’t really looking forward to any sort of confrontation, so I wasn’t too disappointed when, after we arrived at my aunt’s house, he came home and made a beeline for their bedroom without stopping to say hello. It was Saturday afternoon, after Shabbat services, and we just figured maybe he needed a nap.

We spent all afternoon having a great time with my aunt and the three of my four cousins (including two of their spouses) who were in the country. We polished off lunch, we paged through family albums, we trotted out inside jokes, we put a serious dent in a pile of coconut cookies and blueberry cake, and we passed from lap to lap the most adorable baby I have ever seen. As the day wore on, though, we noticed something odd.

P— never left his bedroom.

My wife and my sister and I were bunking in the basement overnight, and we stayed up pretty late into the night whispering about it. “Is – is P— hiding from us?” “I think he’s boycotting!” “Is he sick?” Surely if P— hadn’t been feeling well, it would have been explained to us, or at least one of his kids would have said, “Where’s dad?” The fact that no one, over the entire course of our visit, even mentioned his absence clearly indicated to us that it was pre-arranged. As far as we could guess, Uncle P— must have wanted to disown me for marrying a non-Jew, but couldn’t get the rest of the family to go along with it, so decided to just do it himself. It was a one-man protest.

The most surreal moment came late Saturday night while we were all sitting around the dining room table eating various extravagant sundaes brought back from Friendly’s. My aunt’s cell phone rang, and she picked it up. “Hello? No. Yeah. No. No. Ok.” My cousin asked who it was. “Dad,” she answered.

He called her cell phone. From the bedroom. To ask someone to bring him his ice cream rather than come out and get it himself – and thereby risk having to see or talk to us.

I say “us,” but I have to believe his beef is actually with me. R— may be a non-Jew, but I’m the one who married her. What makes his sad, silent protest all the more weird is that my family has tried this experiment before. I’m not the first one to marry a non-Jew: my uncle Joel was briefly disowned when he married his wife 20-something years ago, but after a while the extended family seemed to relent and let him back into the fold. I thought that we, as a family, had learned a lesson there; I guess P— didn’t.

R— and I debriefed from the weekend in a McDonald’s at a rest stop on I-95, on the way home the next day. (We were eating those new sesame ginger salads, which we almost avoided on principle because the commercials are so annoying, but which turned out to be surprisingly good. Maybe our standards were lower in a rest stop than they’d be elsewhere – and there’s a weird sort of cognitive dissonance that results from eating edamame at a McDonald’s off the highway – but we’d recommend the salad.) Did P— really believe that by sequestering himself in his bedroom for the duration of our visit that he was somehow punishing us? Given his attitude towards the two of us, did he think we’d be disappointed not to be able to see him?

What made it unbelievable was that, to spite us, or to lodge a lonely protest against what he thought was an unforgivable betrayal of the Jewish people, or something, he sacrificed 24 hours with his new four-month-old grandson. Who was visiting for a week. From Israel. I… I don’t get it.

At this rate, Uncle P— is going to excise himself from the lives of each my siblings one by one. My brother has dated a string on non-Jewish women, and I’m not sure that religion is top-most on his list of criteria when evaluating a potential mate. And then there are my sisters. (Lesbians.)

I’m sorry that he feels the way he does, even if I think he’s being a jackass. R— summed up our ambivalence about the whole thing very neatly: “I’m… offended? But… kind of relieved? And, you know, if he’s going to sequester himself in his bedroom every time we’re there, half of me wants to never visit ever again – and half of me wants to go visit every weekend.”


0 thoughts on “Family

  1. Mark says:

    Okay – so that makes me think of being in Jamaica for my dad’s funeral and seeing some family I have not seen for a while and meeting new ones from my dad’s second wife’s side. Someone I ended up showing them pictures I carry around with me in my dayrunner, and one was of my ex-gf, white and blond with blue eyes, whereas I am not (not sure if you knew that).

    Someone’s comment: “So you won’t make that mistake again.”

    Internal response: “Oh no I won’t. I will be sure to never show you that picture again.”

    External response: “So this is my mom and Dwight at an acappella concert…”

    Friggin people man! The last thing I ever want to think about with regards to finding a soulmate/lifepartner in this nonsensical world is the reaction of any family member, regardless of how far removed they are, to who I love.

    BTW – I was laughing at the parenthetical “Lesbians” cause I so had an image of you shrugging and saying it and the audience responding “Oh!”


  2. You know when Rachel told me about your weekend my first question was how did your uncle feel about your sisters? Is marrying a non-Jew worse than being a lesbian? What if one of your sisters dated a lesbian Jew? Or, (worse yet?) a non-Jew? Would it just be ignored since they can’t get married? And if they had children?

    I have to admit that the way some people use their religion to feel justified in their bigotry is amazing to me. My brother has essentially banned me from his home after I moved in with my partner. Since then we were allowed once, but only because my father invited us (not knowing about my brother’s ban) and had made a special point of inviting my partner. And, like you, half of me is thrilled not to have to go anymore and the other half just wants to keep pushing it. But I have finally realized that I won’t be able to change his mind, only he can do that and I won’t waste anymore time holding my breath, waiting for it to happen.


  3. jolivo says:

    Not sure whether any of my mother’s family similarly shunned the newlyweds in my parents’ mixed (lapsed-Catholic/Protestant) marriage, but wouldn’t be at all surprised to find they had. I was taught that money was the root of all evil. For a long time I believed that it was testosterone (and that’s still a contender). But my true belief these days is that it’s religion. Uncle Paul’s gonna miss a lot of joy letting his dogmatic views of the world and how it should be rule his life. I live in the hope that love will win over all those ills, but it’s hard to keep that kind of faith day to day.


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