Family

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.”

Family

You know what I don’t understand?

I was just watching a DVD of the second season of Alias (which, by the way, is just as crappy as the first season). In it, a character mentioned the name of their webpage and I remembered it to look at later. The page didn’t really bring anything up except a silly search engine that didn’t give any results unless you searched for a website that had bought an advertisement on the site.

My question is this, why don’t companies ever buy these websites to point to their sites as part of their advertising budget? I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who looks for these sites, and I know that these fake website names are mentioned on TV or DVDs fairly regularly.

I did a quick Google search on domain names on TV shows and I
found this blurb about Will and Grace and the Simpson’s. Apparently, TV shows have started to buy the sites mentioned on their program, and this seems like a bright idea – it reinforces the alternate universe that the show inhabits. This marketing department/ writing team synergy must be fairly new, though, because it didn’t apply to Conspiracychick.com, and it didn’t apply to another domain mentioned on a syndicated episode of the Simpson’s, the name of which I unfortunately (and conveniently hee hee hee) can’t remember.

This link is especially worth clicking on:
http://www.springfieldisforgayloversofmarriage.com/wiggum.htm

You know what I don’t understand?

Baseball

Well, they did it. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series.

Even after the ALCS, I wasn’t sure this was the year. Well, a Red Sox fan is never confident, but I didn’t think our pitching could hold down the Cardinals offense. Boy, was I glad to be wrong. Looks like more evidence for the adage that the postseason is all about premier pitching. If you’d told me in advance, I never would have believed that Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds would have one hit between them.

The World Series was a little anti-climactic after the rush of The Greatest Comeback In Baseball History. Games 1 and 2 were exciting because we seemed to be trying to lose (8 errors?!), but couldn’t. Games 3 and 4 were simply the confident administration of a methodical drubbing. A good move was watching Game 4 down at the local tavern, where we got to drink, shout, and high-five total strangers. Watching a high-stakes sporting event at home on the couch doesn’t have the same impact. (“We won!’ “Huh. Good show.” “Bed, then?”)

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the sports press (and sour grape-ing in the New York Times) about what the “end of the Curse” means for Red Sox nation. The implication is that now that we’ve won, we won’t know what to do with ourselves. Even Rachel admitted that she was a little conflicted about winning the World Series. Once we’re not Red Sox Nation, bound together by our shared heartbreak, what are we? Just a bunch of people who all happen to root for the same consistently successful team. Like Yankees fans.

(Because let’s face it, for all of our scrappy underdog persona, we have the second-largest payroll in the Major Leagues, and we use it. Exhibit A: Curt “Bloody Sock” Schilling.)

The other day I had the chance to talk to a very nice guy, who happened to be a Yankees fan. I told him my theory that rooting for the Yankees (or any perennially successful team) must be rather unsatisfying. If they win, you’re happy, but not overwhelmed: winning is your due, it is expected. If they lose, you’re stunned and humiliated (see 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004). What was it really like, I asked, to root for a team like the Yankees?

“It’s really, really great,” he replied.

So I’m not worried about rooting for a successful Boston team. I rooted for a (mostly) successful Cardinals team in the 1980’s, and those were good times. No, what I’m worried about what our lost humility will do to us as fans. How are we going to be identified? We’re not the eternally hopeful, eternally heartbroken group we were until this October. I just hope we don’t end up being the most obnoxious fans in the game.

Don’t get me wrong! I am completely thrilled that we not only beat the Yankees after last year’s cataclysm, but that we beat them in historical fashion. My bigoted uncle (see my “Intermarriage” essay) is a huge Yankees fan, and the thought of showing up at his son’s wedding wearing a Red Sox yarmulke fills me with such joy that I’ve actually caught myself rubbing my hands together and cackling. Cackling!

I’m worried, though, because we’ve shown some bad manners even before we had a championship under our belt. When we’re playing the Devil Rays at Tropicana Field, and the Sox fans outnumber the Rays fans, why do I hear the crowd chanting “Yankees Suck?” Even when we’re playing the hated Boys from the Bronx at Fenway, is that really called for? Sure, the Yankees are overpaid and arrogant, and I’m all about rivalry (back in the StL we used to call the Mets “Pond Scum”) but whatever else you want to say about New York, they don’t suck. At least since the late 90’s, they’ve played themselves some baseball.

And the booing. Look, we were all a little bitter about not getting A-Rod at the beginning of the year. (Although, now? Last laugh.) And yeah, he’s a bit of a punk, and has oddly purple lips. But there’s no call to boo him. In the first game of the World Series, did I really hear the Fenway crowd boo Albert Pujols? Who in their right mind would boo Albert Pujols?! (Heh. Heh. “Poo-holes.”) Our lowest moment, though, as a fan base, was during the introductions before Game 1 when the crowd booed third base coach Dale Sveum. People, I know he’s made some bone-headed decisions directing traffic over there, but to boo a coach? In his home park? On national television? At the World Series? After the ovation everyone else got? Shameful.

So we need to cut that out.

Apart from that, though, I’m not worried about life as a fan of the un-cursed Red Sox. Everyone loves a loveable loser, but everyone also loves a winner, and this bunch is so personable that they’re easy to root for. The best sign, naturally, is that I ended this season with the same words that ended last season (although with a grin instead of a sigh):

“Four months ‘til pitchers and catchers!”

Baseball

Intermarriage

I’m Jewish. My fiancée is not. Already you’re thinking, “Oy.”

I could list, at length, my past involvement in Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer camps, Hillel and so on, but it would be boring, so let’s just pretend that I did and that you’re impressed. After college I taught music, Hebrew school, and Sunday school at a local Reform congregation, and, oh by the way, fell in love with a woman who was raised as a Unitarian Universalist.

She tells me that I once told her that I could never marry a non-Jewish woman, so clearly my thinking on that front has evolved. But R— and I talked openly about our plans for our families (before and after our engagement) and she knew that it was important to me for my children to be raised as Jews. Once we were engaged, she was still on board, but insisted (and justifiably so) that her family’s traditions be represented as well.

Our co-habitation so far has proved pretty successful. When the winter holidays come around I help her decorate the Christmas tree, and she joins me in lighting the Chanukah candles. It’s all very ecumenical and heartwarming.

R— even suggested that we take an “introduction to Judaism” class at the local Reform congregation so she could get more educated (and so that I could relive the experience of being the smartest kid in the class). We did. The rabbis who taught the class loved us. We started attending Friday night services not every week, but once or twice a month. We celebrated Shabbat at home most weeks. We hosted a Passover seder. I think we were kicking ass, Jewishly speaking.

Clearly, this “intermarriage” was going to work out.

And… then it was time to find someone to perform our wedding. I decided I wanted to have as Jewish a wedding as we both were comfortable with, and that meant having a rabbi preside. R— was agreeable, so long as we were equally involved in defining the ceremony, and so the search was on.

Let me just say that I understood, intellectually, that especially in the Northeast it would be difficult to find a rabbi to perform a wedding in which one of the participants wasn’t Jewish. I was not, however, prepared for what the experience would be like emotionally.

One of the rabbis from my home congregation in St. Louis was moving out east to Massachusetts, and seemed a good first try. He knew our family well (and was particularly acquainted with my younger siblings). Our family had been active in the congregation. He officiated at my mother’s funeral. He seemed a good bet.

Well, Rabbi Jay said “no.” It wasn’t that he wouldn’t marry us, he insisted, it was that he couldn’t. I’m sure there was some kind of justification in there, but all I heard was “blah blah blah no.” Can you tell I was stunned? Can you tell I was pissed? I walked out of my temple – the place I grew up, the place that taught me the love of Judaism that made me want to find a rabbi to marry us in the first place – in a bewildered fog. He said no.

So, ok, I was angry. But at this point I was angry at Jay, nothing larger, and we resolved to mark him down as a bad egg and keep looking. Clearly a more open-minded rabbi would understand our desire to have a (mostly) Jewish ceremony and a (mostly) Jewish family and would want us to be a part of his or her congregation.

The young rabbi who taught half of our class at the synagogue took us out for a beer and made it clear that we shouldn’t ask him, because he’d say no.

The kindly older rabbi met with us for over an hour, and opened with, “Well, I think what you should do is find a nice judge to marry you.” When we insisted that we were looking for a rabbi, he spent the rest of the time putting the hard sell on R— to convert to Judaism. (Ew.) He told us that he could never perform an interfaith wedding – that he wouldn’t even for his own children. (Wow.)

With a little persistence, we finally found a rabbi who is willing to marry us. She’s been great about the process, making sure that all three of us are comfortable with the ceremony we’ve created, and we’re really grateful to her.

I’ve tried, really, to understand the rabbis’ point of view. I grew up in Reform Judaism. I’ve heard the doomsayers wail about “assimilation.” I read The Vanishing American Jew. I believe that these are good men and women who want to preserve the American Jewish community.

What makes it so infuriating is that they’re hurting their own cause. R— summed it up when she said, half-jokingly, “With an interfaith couple, you get a Jewish family and only ‘use up’ one pre-existing Jew.” It’s two for the price of one, baby! We came to them, asking for their help in starting a Jewish family, and they turned us away. I’m not sure what they hope to accomplish with the hard-line stance. Do they think I’m going to dump R— and find a nice Jewish girl? Or do they think we’ll try to find a more welcoming community? Which do you think is more likely?

Certainly, a rabbi would be completely justified in turning away an interfaith couple with no interest in being part of a Jewish community. I think a rabbi would be justified in turning away a Jewish couple that had no interest in being part of a Jewish community. I think Jewish couples like that are married by rabbis all the time, and that says something kind of ugly.

I came away from the Great Rabbi Search feeling ashamed of my religion. If we’d lied and said that R—’s mother’s last name was Moskowitz instead of McCoy we wouldn’t have had to ask four different rabbis. Because of an accident of her birth, we were told that our marriage was second-rate. (Could this be what it feels like to be in a mixed-race relationship? A same-sex relationship?) For a people whose identity is based, in some part at least, on a shared experience as “the other” we show remarkably little charity towards the others among us.

My family, with the exception of one bigoted uncle whose opinion doesn’t matter to me, has been incredibly supportive. I know we’re lucky in that. My rabbis, on the other hand, blew us off. Is it any wonder that, since that fateful meeting with Rabbi Gutterman, we haven’t been to Shabbat services once? That we’ve given up on lighting candles at home?

Maybe I’m giving up too easily. A friend reminds me that I can be a good Jew and still be mad at Judaism. (We are, after all, Yisrael, those who wrestle with God.) Probably I’m more angry at some Jews than at Judaism. And I’ll get over it. It would be ridiculous to give up my observances to spite the rabbis.

So we’ll be married by a rabbi. We’ll probably join a congregation when we have kids so that they can become bar/bat mitzvah. But for right now, I’ve lost my faith, I guess you can say. I’ve never been a particularly religious person; I was always attracted to the Jewish community. I always considered it to be safe, welcoming, and familiar.

Now? Not so much.

Shver ist a yid tsu sein. (“It’s hard to be a Jew.”) Apparently, it’s hard to marry one, too.

Intermarriage