A few weekends ago, we drove down to New Jersey to visit my new baby cousin. Actually, this is my cousinâ€™s child (his first), so Iâ€™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; sheâ€™s a real hit at cocktail parties.)
Itâ€™s a long drive to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, from Providence, Rhode Island. Now, I donâ€™t really dislike driving all that much. If I have an entertaining driving companion, or thereâ€™s something good on the radio, or my iPod is charged, Iâ€™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 itâ€™s one of those drives where the theoretical commute time is low enough that Iâ€™m never satisfied with my actual drive time. Google Maps says itâ€™s 45 minutes, and Iâ€™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, â€œWell, we should be there in about an hour.â€
â€œCould be longer,â€ I snapped.
â€œCould be longerâ€? 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 isnâ€™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 weâ€™d been an hour late but with nothing but open highway before us, I would have responded, â€œAn hour? Pshaw!â€ and floored it. I would much rather drive for an hour and half at highway speeds than for an hour in a traffic jam.
Isnâ€™t that stupid? At least it explains why I got snippy on the turnpike: weâ€™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 Pâ€” does not approve of my relationship with Râ€”. Itâ€™s not that he â€“ I donâ€™t know â€“ thinks sheâ€™s not good enough for me, or doesnâ€™t like her in some way. Iâ€™d guess that he doesnâ€™t even have an opinion about her personally. No, his problem is that sheâ€™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 momâ€™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 â€œpepperoni pizzaâ€ around them, but we always had a good time. And I donâ€™t think itâ€™s exactly a secret to them anymore that my immediate family is somewhat more lax, Jewishly speaking, than they are. I canâ€™t tell whether or not they think less of us, but if they do, they donâ€™t let on.
As adults, my siblings and I still have a great time with my aunt and my cousins, even if sometimes they donâ€™t seem to get our sense of humor, and even if weâ€™re slightly on edge the whole time weâ€™re there, terrified we might turn off a light weâ€™re not supposed to on Saturday, or forget a major upcoming holiday, or just blurt out â€œpork!â€
When my uncle found out that Râ€” and I were engaged, he started a passive-aggressive guerilla campaign to talk me out of it. I say â€œpassive-aggressiveâ€ and â€œguerillaâ€ because he never said anything to my face (or hers) about it. In fact, the first time Râ€” 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 thatâ€™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, â€œJewish Community Speaks Out Against Intermarriage.â€ Or he might send me an old prayer book, with a post-it note saying â€œthis was your grandfatherâ€™sâ€ and a bookmark distributed by a Jewish organization that blared the warning: â€œWill your grandchildren be using this book?â€ I guess Uncle Pâ€” thought that if he could just bring enough third-party arguments to bear, Iâ€™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. Iâ€™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 hadnâ€™t really spoken to Uncle Pâ€” since the wedding, and I wasnâ€™t really looking forward to any sort of confrontation, so I wasnâ€™t too disappointed when, after we arrived at my auntâ€™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.
Pâ€” 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. â€œIs â€“ is Pâ€” hiding from us?â€ â€œI think heâ€™s boycotting!â€ â€œIs he sick?â€ Surely if Pâ€” hadnâ€™t been feeling well, it would have been explained to us, or at least one of his kids would have said, â€œWhereâ€™s dad?â€ 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 Pâ€” must have wanted to disown me for marrying a non-Jew, but couldnâ€™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 Friendlyâ€™s. My auntâ€™s cell phone rang, and she picked it up. â€œHello? No. Yeah. No. No. Ok.â€ My cousin asked who it was. â€œDad,â€ 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 â€“ and thereby risk having to see or talk to us.
I say â€œus,â€ but I have to believe his beef is actually with me. Râ€” may be a non-Jew, but Iâ€™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. Iâ€™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 Pâ€” didnâ€™t.
Râ€” and I debriefed from the weekend in a McDonaldâ€™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 theyâ€™d be elsewhere â€“ and thereâ€™s a weird sort of cognitive dissonance that results from eating edamame at a McDonaldâ€™s off the highway â€“ but weâ€™d recommend the salad.) Did Pâ€” 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 weâ€™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. Iâ€¦ I donâ€™t get it.
At this rate, Uncle Pâ€” 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 Iâ€™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.)
Iâ€™m sorry that he feels the way he does, even if I think heâ€™s being a jackass. Râ€” summed up our ambivalence about the whole thing very neatly: â€œIâ€™mâ€¦ offended? Butâ€¦ kind of relieved? And, you know, if heâ€™s going to sequester himself in his bedroom every time weâ€™re there, half of me wants to never visit ever again â€“ and half of me wants to go visit every weekend.â€