Leap of faith

It took a trip to Israel to bridge the gap between a blond, blue-eyed WASP and her Jewish mother-in-law.

By Jennifer New

Published March 14, 1998 2:12PM (EST)

"Pull back the curtain. Go ahead." My mother-in-law reaches over me and lifts a thin synthetic curtain that looks as though it were sewn by a newlywed, circa 1952. Below, the men in the synagogue are supposedly praying and observing the beginning of Shabbat, though it looks to me as though they're catching up on the week's gossip. But what do I know, a shiksa from Iowa standing in the women's balcony of an Israeli synagogue. With my straight blond hair and jet-lagged blue eyes, I don't belong here. And yet I do. I am with my mother-in-law. We whisper in each other's ears, lock arms and, days later, dance together. We are here in Israel to learn each other, to move irrevocably beyond our past.

Behind us is a rocky place filled with misunderstandings. On her part, there was a blind desire for her son to marry a Jew, an inability to view me whole. My own movement to forgiveness and understanding has been slowed by an assumption that I know what I need to know about Judaism. Littered between these two stubborn positions lies the residual guilt of the Holocaust, coupled with a murky, groping understanding on both of our parts of what it means to be a good mother, a good daughter. I'm not sure whether the stark and horrifying tragedy of the Holocaust or the centuries-old wounds between mothers and daughters is the larger gap.

Before our engagement, Andrew's mother had been neutral to me, simply telling him to be careful "not to fall in love" when we announced our plans to move in together. But things grew progressively nastier after our engagement, after I was no longer a phase. The months prior to our wedding, three years before the trip to Israel, was the period of the Phone War. Many ugly, tearful words were volleyed across late night, cross-country phone connections -- "You fucking Jew!" being the most outlandish of all. This is the phrase with which Andrew's mother predicted I would one day degrade him. How or why these words would come to fall from my mouth she did not foretell.

So stunned were we by her prediction that we needed to make the words our own. "Oy, you fucking Jew," I say to my husband now with a Woody Allen-delivery. Imbued with the silly sweetness of our prenuptial bliss, with our retreat from maternal fury, the phrase makes him giggle. I have, with great practice and, finally, habit, achieved just the right breathiness to my oy, just the right exasperation, as though I've walked six miles to the butcher and Mrs. Kline bought the last chicken.

She said other things as well, all cruel and absurd, all spewing forth from a deep shock that her only son -- a son who led the entire service of his Bar Mitzvah in near-perfect Hebrew -- was marrying a WASP. With the grace of hindsight, I realize that none of this was about me. At the time, however, I was deeply hurt that she didn't like me, that she was uninterested in getting to know me. I wanted her to like me for the qualities it seemed we shared: interests in feminist health, travel and good books. This was all much more relevant than my ties -- illegitimate at that -- to the last kaiser of Germany. For me, the books piled next to one's bed, the articles cut from the paper, speak legions; where or if one worships says relatively little. But my world spins on a different axis than hers.

So I shifted my attention to a more superficial, yet still winning, list of traits for which I might gain her approval: a balanced checkbook, respectable culinary skills, post-collegiate degrees and child-bearing hips all ranked high. Besides, I argued, it wasn't as though Andrew had been dating a long line of nice Jewish girls and then I'd come along to sully matters. His mother seemed oblivious to the fact that many of her Deadhead, old-time-musician son's recent dalliances had been saturated in patchouli oil, ensconced in beads and toting a mountain dulcimer on their way to a square dance. They would have turned many heads at the local shul -- and not because they weren't God's chosen. But me? My hair was too blond, my forefathers too German (we didn't even tell her about the kaiser), and I didn't know gefilte fish from lutefisk.

I didn't want to be suckered into all the hype about in-laws and Jewish mothers. Mother-in-law. The word itself is such a stereotype, not at all nice.
It's legal, clinical. Like a prenuptial agreement, it bespeaks an arrangement of necessity, not love. Besides, I thought, who needed such terminology. This wedding was about Andrew and me, not our families. For some time, I had been imagining our lives unfurled and intertwined with all the good stuff there, like some peopled version of a Pottery Barn catalog. To be
fair, I'd throw in some late-night tax preparation or a colicky baby. But never did I envision a mother-in-law, certainly not one so formidable.

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Andrew's mother's complete rejection of me and our plans to marry was horrible and painful. It put a stress on my relationship with Andrew at a time when I just wanted to be agog with happiness. It made me hate someone in an all-consuming and exhausting way that surprised and saddened me. Her decision, seemingly overnight, to publicly embrace me and pretend the whole thing never happened was just as baffling. Although it was a pattern Andrew had long predicted, there was nothing in my Annie Hall-like past to prepare me for this biblical sway of emotions.

I still can't say for certain what happened, but after nearly six months of phone wars or stony silence, she contained her fury. Perhaps she just tired of the fight or began to fear doing further damage to her relationship with her son. Of course I didn't trust her; none of her seemingly kind and apologetic toasts during the wedding, none of her hugs, felt right to me. What else did she have up her sleeve? My friends and family didn't trust her either. None of them could place this pleasant, youthful woman with the atrocities they'd been hearing.

Supportive and loyal, many of them still view her as the enemy, inquiring about "the mother-in-law" in tones reserved for particularly horrible landlords and employers. They are shocked, disbelieving even, when I tell them that things are wonderful between the two of us. Since the wedding we have forged a happy relationship. I truly love Jan now and enjoy our frequent phone conversations. Slowly, gently, we have tiptoed toward each other, plying a bond. Last winter she came to visit us in Iowa -- my hometown, my birth state, the closest thing to a chosen land that I know, but a place no one in Andrew's family seemed able to locate on a map when we'd first told them we were moving here. She was open-minded enough to enjoy herself, to like the place and sing its praises. This scored points with me.

Despite this firmer ground, Jan's proposal of two weeks in Israel sounded interminable, a bit too much togetherness. The occasion was a cousin's wedding, but really it was the final and ultimate olive branch, a time for Andrew and me to spend with her, uninterrupted by the hassles of holidays. Still, it was Israel, the seat of Judaism, loaded with everything that had originally come between us. "Why couldn't your family live in Provence or northern Italy?" I moaned. Because, Andrew explained, you can't suffer enough in those places.

Jan's sister's household, about a half hour outside Tel Aviv, was in chaos when we arrived. People were stumbling in from all parts of the U.S. A plane carrying the groom's twin brother had been delayed by a monsoon in India. Most stressful of all was the anticipated arrival of the bride's family, expected from the city prior to the beginning of Shabbat at sunset. Dogs and toddlers were underfoot. Boxes of produce, bags of bread and crates of wine formed a maze in the small kitchen. Every bedroom, den and sofa in the modest house was spoken for, and there was a perpetual line for the two bathrooms.

Although I was nervous to be the outsider in this hubbub -- the non-Jew, the one who married in, the only person who had never before been to Israel -- I soon realized that no one would have time to notice my differences amid the commotion, and I decided to make the most of it. Agreeing to go to the synagogue with Jan for evening services, I changed out of my T-shirt and into the obligatory skirt and hat. We walked down the dusty, cactus-lined roads of the small farming community, accompanied by neighbors who greeted each other in the heat of the week's end. Our destination was not the stained-glass, beautiful building I'd expected -- a relic of a vanished Europe -- but a squat, utilitarian structure adorned with an overflowing dumpster. Once inside and situated upstairs with the other women, Jan explained everything to me. At first I stiffened, expecting the voice of a converting zealot or maternal guilt. Instead, she spoke as a fellow traveler who'd been here before. Her words were marked by practicality and good humor, dotted with commentary about the beauty of a particular song or the hypocrisy of the women-upstairs arrangement.

By the time we walked home, the night was fully settled. It was after 9 and the air had cooled. The Shabbat meal awaited us. Seated across from the bride's family, I tensed at their disapproving looks. Although I'd been through several such meals in the States, I worried that I wasn't keeping pace. Letting down my self-reproach, I realized it was they who didn't know the schtick. They were secular Jews, and the prayers and order of the evening were a mystery to them. For the first time, they were seeing the family, the religious practice, the depths of belief into which their daughter was marrying. Their discomfort was palpable, especially to me.

Over the course of the visit to Israel, Judaism began to appear to me on a continuum. The bride's secular parents, like many Israelis, existed on one end of the spectrum. The ultra-Orthodox neighbors with their covered heads and starched white shirts were at the other pole. In between were all sorts of metamorphosing points, people in flux with their spirituality. Even Andrew's Israeli cousins were spread wide across this map. Aliza had just returned from India, where she'd lived on an ashram and studied a form of Buddhism; still, she insisted in the clear, sure tones of a 23-year-old that she could never marry a non-Jew. And Avi, the handsome twin brother, had studied in the States and now lived in Moscow, a seeming sea of cultures and beliefs.

And then there was Jan. During one tearful phone call prior to our wedding, Jan asked Andrew whether I would convert. This seemed ludicrous to me not only because I didn't believe in a Judeo-Christian God but because converting inferred that I had something from which to move. As a former boyfriend's father -- a crusty Irish Catholic judge who obviously thought little of me -- had derisively put it, I was a secular humanist. Jan cared little for the fate of my soul at that time; her concern was for her unborn grandchildren. If one plays by the rules, children aren't Jewish unless their mother is. She hadn't come this far in life to see her line broken by a faithless daughter-in-law.

What's the big deal, I'd wondered. Nonsensical rules and regulations just so someone can wear the mantle of Jew. From my American vantage point, so not entangled by thousands of years of history, this seemed ridiculous. But Israel made me think differently. Of course there is its antiquity, oldness on a scale I couldn't grasp. What really helped me to comprehend Judaism and its pull for my mother-in-law, however, was not a visit to the Wailing Wall or any temple but shopping in a Tel Aviv supermarket near midnight on a Saturday.

The place was packed. I'd only seen American markets approach this level of turmoil on the day before Thanksgiving. "What is going on?" I asked the bride-to-be, who seemed oblivious to the throngs. "Shabbat is over," she answered. "People go out now." Even from her non-practicing perspective, this made total sense. As I tried to avoid the oncoming, food-laden carts, it dawned on me: Here's an entire country of people held together not so much by a religion but by a shared history. Pulled apart and beaten down, they've managed to stay intact, even if that means grocery shopping together in the middle of the night. I know it sounds absurdly simplistic now, but removing the Old Testament from the picture and focusing instead on these nocturnal shoppers helped me make sense of the etymology of Jan's desire for a Jewish daughter-in-law. There even seemed to be some rightness in her stance.

But she had moved far beyond her original disapproval of my religious roots or lack thereof. At her nephew's wedding, she included me in every photo and regaled me with family tales. It didn't bother her, or even occur to her, that I was the only non-Jew among the 500 guests. I gladly let her guide me through the ceremony, comfortable and happy to be alone with her as Andrew danced with his cousins. Together we watched the signing of the ketubah, the unveiling of the bride, the breaking of the glass.

During the ceremony, the couple stood under a chuppa -- a prayer shawl that had been Jan's father's -- held aloft by male friends and family. Many times over the course of the night I heard from different people how everyone in the family had been married under this same shawl. Everyone wasn't really everyone since Andrew and I had wed under a canopy of trees with a fiddle band playing behind us and a Buddhist friend leading the vows. Whether this was a polite omission or an honest mistake I didn't know, but the message seemed to be that with our mixed marriage and different ways, we weren't quite family.

I was hurt because I wanted to be part of everyone. I too had moved a great distance over the course of 10 days. My outsider's introversion had been transformed into a magical feeling that I was living in some Gabriel García Márquez novel. The characters were so fully drawn, the setting so rich, one couldn't help but desire to step into the narrative. While not at all regretting my own wedding, I could finally grasp, without anger, Jan's disappointment in that ceremony and in me. I told her such as we stood under a flowering tree, watching her sister's family and their new in-laws tentatively embrace. "You had the most beautiful wedding ever," she said, taking my face in her hands. "And you are the most wonderful daughter I could ever have gained." She kissed me. We held hands and did not readily let go.

I wish that every failed relationship in my life could be mended as easily as this. I've never experienced forgiveness on this level and it's hard to describe it without sounding like, well, a zealot. I suspect that with our newfound comfort Jan and I will experience other snags of familiarity. And the grandchildren threshold, full of possibilities for fresh misunderstandings, is yet to be crossed. For now, though, I am more than content to have made this journey around the world with her.

Jennifer New

Jennifer New writes and swims in Iowa City, Iowa. Her last piece for Salon was "Iowa Heartland."

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