An Unpleasant Interlude in Jersey City

NOTE: This is another story written by my mother, Feige Brody, who during this pandemic has been reflecting on her childhood.

Chicago bustled and New York never slept, but Jersey City had no such energy. When my family lost everything in New London, Connecticut, with the hurricane of 1938, we moved in above Uncle Irving’s wholesale bakery in Jersey City, in a railroad flat. The best thing I could say about it was that it had running water and heat.

But we were really on the wrong side of the tracks. The railroad was on one end of the street and the other four corners had rundown bars. The men that frequented those bars were not called homeless then, they were called drunks and slept in the gutter or wherever they fell. The smell was horrific, of feces, urine and garbage, all mingling. I had to be careful where I walked never knowing what was under foot.

Simma (my sister who was not school age yet) and I were the only children on the block so there were no friends to play with. I went to school by walking to the corner where I could join kids who were coming from the right side of the tracks. After school, walking home they would turn at that corner and I would be alone. I was always terrified, with my heart pounding and my palms sweaty. I was afraid some drunk would be sleeping on the steps and I would have to climb over him to get home. Never once was I actually bothered, but the fear persisted for the entire year and a half that we lived there.

Across the street from my uncle’s bakery was a fancy saloon. The owners were very kind, and they let Simma and I play there. The floor was a high-polished wood and we would run and slide – back and forth. Sometimes we made up elaborate games with our paper dolls on that floor. We were allowed to play the piano, softly, and jumped up and down the steps that led to apartments. It may have been a saloon, but it was our playhouse. Once in a while a man would be at the bar talking to the owner, making arrangements for a party or celebration. Then Simma and I would sweep up our play floor and help set the tables to prepare.

One day, leaving the saloon in a hurry, I ran past the owner’s dog, who was gnawing on a bone. As I bolted past, he took a bite out of me! Dad rushed me to the hospital where I was surrounded by medical personnel all dressed in white. I was put in a bed with bright white lights shining down on me and once again I was terrified. I was given an injection with a huge needle into my belly to prevent rabies. Fortunately, we soon learned the owners had papers that showed the dog was not rabid, so I didn’t need more shots. Dad took me home. I never did get over my fear of dogs.

We were still in Jersey City in 1939 when Mother got sick with rheumatic fever. Fortunately, the Sisters of St. Joseph came each day to wash, feed, bring water and provide whatever relief they could. I continued to go to school and each afternoon coming up the stairs at the end of my day, one of the sisters would be standing at the top of the stairs, gesturing to remind me to tip toe and be quiet, because every noise would bring Mother more pain. The good Sisters were intimidating in their long black habits, leaving only a bit of their face showing, and looking so unfamiliar to me. I was sure they meant to be kind, but I was terrified of them. (Ironically, many years later I was a reading teacher at St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn and became friends with several nuns.)

With my mother being ill, her brother, Jackie, who had been living with us, left to stay with other aunts and cousins. Uncle Jackie was nine years older than me and was more like an older brother. He was the one who rescued Simma and I when I accidentally set fire to the curtains with a candle that I lit hoping to show Santa Claus the way to our apartment. With Jackie leaving, I was desolate.

I don’t know if there were pills that could have alleviated Mother’s pain, or maybe we couldn’t afford them, I will never know. While my parents would talk about the hurricane, they did not talk about her illness.

Since I could not stay in the apartment to play after school, I was left to my own devices. Though I knew it was forbidden, I went to the railroad tracks where older boys were playing. I would walk along, imitating those boys, balancing on the tracks, until I heard a rumble and then I hopped off and raced next to the train. I watched the train streak by, the conductor blowing the horn. It was a bit of fun in an otherwise dreary time. Once I fell and cut my knee and it bled a lot. I ran home and clomped up the stairs. I heard Mother cry out in pain. The sisters yelled at me, but one of them cleaned my knee. The skin healed over a small pebble that remained as a reminder. After many years it dissolved.

Eventually Mother recovered and in 1940, Dad having saved some money, bought a partnership in a Brooklyn bakery. We moved to the apartment above that store and Uncle Jackie was able to join us again. My third life began there. For the first time in a long while I felt safe in a friendly neighborhood, with lots of other kids. I realized the fear I carried in Jersey City was useless, there was nothing more to fear.

My mother (Feige) on the right, my Nana, on the left, years after Jersey City – in happier times

A daughter’s comment: I am so glad my Mom has written these stories. I know it isn’t easy for her, on several levels, but it enriches our understanding of her life. I am struck by the trauma she endured – losing everything in that devastating hurricane, moving to a cheerless place, worrying about her mother’s health, getting bitten by a dog. It was quite an eventful and painful early life. Yet, she was resilient. She did keep a fear of dogs, understandably (that was also reinforced by later scary encounters), but she was (and is) an optimist. She turned her attention to the bright blue part of the sky, as her father instructed her to do. Fortunately the third part of her life brought far more pleasure and much less fear. As the country emerged from the Great Depression, her family’s fortune turned for the better, too.

The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

Full Circle

It’s funny how things come full circle. I find myself returning to the beginning with this blog. I named it “Stories I Tell Myself,” because I wanted to explore the narrative of my life. I began writing almost five years ago with the belief that we all tell a story about ourselves; we curate or shape our memories to fit that tale. We look for recurrent themes – incidents that reinforce our preconceived ideas that we are lucky (or unlucky), or lazy or hard-headed or mischievous. Those identities were likely assigned to us when we were very young. Much of it communicated by stories our parents told us about what kind of baby/child we were.

I wanted to look at the stories I’ve been telling myself, in part to see if I could break free of them. I wanted to change the narrative; I wanted to change the running commentary in my head. When I thought about my childhood, I felt sad. Not dramatically sad the way it is for some who have endured unspeakable trauma. Rather mine is tinged with melancholy: I was a little girl with her face pressed against the window imagining everyone she saw was happier, more carefree, more popular.

Over these five years, the exploration has led to some tangents. I spent time examining how Gary and I melded our distinct Jewish-American histories into our own family. After writing many blog posts on that topic, I worked on a book to weave that story together. I have mostly put that aside but will likely come back to it. I explored my experience with race relations, which is another thread of my life experience. I posted a number of essays around that theme. I continue to delve into this because I think there is something to share about race and ethnicity based on growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn) in that time (the late ‘60s-early ‘70s), but then I was diverted by the coronavirus (not literally, I have been fortunate to avoid falling ill). But I felt overwhelmed by the stress of the pandemic and needed to write about my experience of it and this political moment. In sum, in the last four and a half years I have been all over the place.

And now, I think I have returned to the beginning. After examining these different threads, I realize that some of the story I told myself is true, but some of it isn’t. I think that is a positive discovery on two levels: the process of examination has been healthy and rewarding; and understanding that my interpretation of events was just that – my interpretation – is liberating.

I didn’t have any earth-shaking revelations. I didn’t uncover some long-buried family lie, or some truth I hid from myself. I found small variations in how things happened, different perspectives on behaviors and that resulted in a shift. I come away with more compassion for myself.

An important aspect of the process has been sharing the stories and getting feedback. I’ve shared pieces I’ve written in different settings – on the blog, of course, but also in workshops and several writing groups. The feedback has shed new light on these stories.

One comment that I heard more than once when I shared pieces that recounted experiences with my Nana and Zada (my maternal grandparents) was how warm and loving my family was, how lucky I was to have that. I thought, when I wrote those stories, that the overriding theme was my loneliness and anxiety. That was there, too, but objective readers picked up on something else. Something that was there, but I had not given enough weight. Getting that feedback has shifted how those memories sit in my gut. I have not changed the past, but I have begun to change how I feel about it. I think that will be the story of my book.

A Seminal Event

Note: My mother has continued to write stories of her youth. This one was shared previously on my brother’s Facebook page. I wanted to share it, too, since it is such an important part of our family story.  In fact, I had written about it before here. After my Mom’s essay, there is a postscript with some facts and figures about the storm and then a portion of my previous post. My Mom’s description adds details to my understanding of how that momentous, traumatic experience, the New England Hurricane of 1938, felt to her and the lesson she took from it. 

Change by Feige Brody

There is always change, whether it is the change of seasons, change of jobs or change of homes. The first momentous change in my life, which I can recall, was in September 1938 when I was not yet 5 years old. We lived on the second floor of a two- story building in New London, CT. I was playing outside when a black cloud covered the sun and changed my day to night.

When the winds and rain began no one knew that it would be unlike any other storm, but would be the most powerful and destructive hurricane in New England’s recorded history. As my mother called me up the stairs, I recall her attempting to remove things from the clothesline when it snapped, and all the white sheets went flapping into the black sky.
Mother and I hurried inside where my two -year old baby sister, Simma, was crying in her crib. Mother closed all the windows and I played with Simma singing “Rain Rain go away.” Suddenly a burst of wind shattered our windows. Glass and rain poured into our apartment. Mother plopped us onto the center of my parents’ bed. She had to keep us off the floor while she attempted to clean the debris.
To our immense relief our soaking father soon arrived and the first thing he said was “Christopher Columbus saved my life.”
Dad then proceeded to tell us that he had been delivering breads and cakes when the storm intensified. His car was stuck in a flooded street and the car started to fill with water so he scrambled out. Holding onto the walls of the buildings he started making his way home. A gust of wind however sent him air borne and blew him into the statute of Christopher Columbus which was right in the middle of the road. Dad held on for dear life; eventually, he and Christopher Columbus parted, and Dad resumed his precarious journey back to us.
Our apartment was illuminated only by the outside flames of a burning New London. We could hear fire engines and sirens. The water in our apartment began to rise; Mother knew we were going to have to abandon our home and she started packing diapers and a few other items.
Fortunately, a coast guard boat soon arrived, in what used to be our back yard, and we climbed through the broken window in the kitchen and into the boat. I remember putting my hand in the swirling water and splashing. It was fun and exciting for an almost five- year old girl. But the fun subsided soon. When we were deposited on relatively dry land there was utter darkness. Electric wires were whipping in the wind and we were drenched and walking on wet ground. I had to jump to avoid the live wires which were sparkling and sizzling all around us. I was frightened for the first time. No one was able to hold my hand because Mom was carrying Simma and Dad was carrying our few belongings.
I learned that life could turn around in a second. We lost everything in that hurricane. Our life was changed in every way.
My father, a voracious reader, quoted Voltaire, and told me “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 80 plus years later, I do not believe “all is for the best,” but, I do believe that this is the best and only world we have, so we should make the best of it. And this has been my philosophy of life through changes in jobs, changes in homes, and changes in the seasons of our lives.

Post Script: Some facts pertaining to the hurricane on the 21st of September 1938:
1. There was no warning system- in 1938 forecasting in US lagged behind Europe
2. No insurance
3. This was prior to the naming of hurricanes
4. 682 people died
5. In 1938 dollars: 306 million in losses (which is 4.7 billion dollars in 2017)
6. It was a Category 5 Hurricane with wind 160 mph
7. 2 billion trees destroyed
8. 20,000 electrical poles toppled
9. 26,000 automobiles destroyed
10. Damaged or destroyed 570 homes including mine

Here is a link to footage from the National Weather Service that shows the fury and aftermath of that epic storm: link

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This is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote, which is a profile of mom’s Dad, who I called Zada. He was the essence of resilience.

An essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

newlondonct_nydailynews
A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

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Me paying homage in 2011

Side by Side on the LL

Since we are having a national dialogue about race, I thought I would share some other posts that I wrote on the subject over the last few years.

Stories I Tell Myself

Reading was an essential part of my growing up. My parents were both teachers and voracious readers. During the summer we went as a family to the library at least once a week. Wherever we were, Brooklyn, Champaign-Urbana, Worcester, we frequented the library. I remember particularly loving biographies. I believe there was a series specifically for children and I read them all. I was inspired by the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, drawn to stories of heroes who overcame fear and danger to find freedom. Though my life bore no similarity to them, I wanted to be heroic. I wanted to be part of the fight for freedom and justice.

As I think about it now, there were a number of strands that came together to fuel this passion. I was aware that my paternal grandfather had lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust. My grandfather, Leo…

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The Big Day…Finally

July 30th 1983 dawned warm, cloudy and humid. Not an unusual beginning for a summer day in Brooklyn. But this was no ordinary day. Finally, after all the planning and fretting over details (from dress shopping to choosing a napkin color to the seating arrangements), it was time to say ‘I do’ and have a party!

Fortunately, there was a steady breeze so it wasn’t as stifling as it could have been. I wasn’t unhappy about the humidity because my hair looked its best in those conditions. Less frizz, more curl. What could be better for my wedding day?!? The downside was that it didn’t take much to get me sweating. I hoped that the Seaview Jewish Center would be well air-conditioned.

I woke up that morning in my childhood bed happy and excited, but also a little lost. What was I going to do with myself until it was time to get my make-up done? Since our invitation was for 9:30 pm, even with time for getting ready and taking pictures, a long day stretched ahead of me. I was never one to sleep late, and that day was no exception, especially with the anticipation of the big event.

There were some distractions. My 17-month old nephew, Joshua, was in the house, along with his mom and dad (my brother). I was enamored with Josh, an adorable, charming red head. He was the first grandchild in the Brody family, and was doted on accordingly. But there were limits to the time I could spend with him – he needed to eat and nap, and for some reason his grandparents claimed his attention too. Inexplicably, he sometimes stated his preference for his mom or dad.

Happily, my maid-of-honor, Merle, was also available. Since we graduated from college, we didn’t get to see each other that frequently. She was living in Buffalo getting her PhD in counseling psychology, while I was living in Pittsburgh. Though those two cities aren’t that far apart mileage-wise, the travel could be treacherous with lake effect snow and other weird weather phenomena (tornado warnings on one drive!). I wrote about one of our memorable trips where we got stuck in a blizzard in Erie, PA here. Merle and I got together in the early afternoon to take a walk. I was grateful for the one-on-one time before the craziness of the wedding.

Though evening took its sweet time, eventually it arrived. My bridesmaid, Deborah, arranged for my make-up to be done at my house. It was an incredibly thoughtful gift since my mother and I didn’t know much about that stuff. Maria, armed with a small suitcase of cosmetics, sat me down in our kitchen and got to work. She knew I wanted to look natural, but with enough touching up to look special and photograph well.

As I was sitting in the chair, it was still long before we needed to leave to take pictures, the doorbell rang. Who could that be? Everyone was accounted for and busily getting showered and dressed. My father answered the door and ushered our guest in. It was Gary!

“Gary! What are you doing here?”

I was shocked – we were supposed to meet at the photographer’s studio in another hour.

“No one in my house was close to ready. There’s construction on the Belt, and I wasn’t taking any chances. I wasn’t going to be late for my own wedding.”

“Ooookaaaay.”

I thought about whether I cared if he saw me as I got ready. There’s supposed to be this big reveal when the groom sees his bride for the first time (though they had not come up with the ‘first look’ photo session yet). I quickly decided that it was silly to worry about that – it was sweet that he was so concerned and responsible that he arrived ridiculously early.

“All right, well it’s fine if you want to hang out. You can head to the photographer when we go.”

His family, his brother in particular, had a reputation for being late and Gary didn’t want to get caught up in that drama at his house. He didn’t want to be the one to nudge them along, worrying all the while about the potential traffic. Gary and I had already experienced the impact of the construction on the Belt Parkway.

The Belt was the highway that connected our respective neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. In between was JFK, the airport. Traffic was always heavy. Introduce a lane closure for construction or an accident and an epic back up ensued. Gary and I had been home for a few days to prepare for the wedding and made the trip between our two houses several times, finding ourselves at a standstill in that traffic. I understood why he had been so anxious about it. He warned his family. They might be late, but he wasn’t going to be.

I went into my bedroom to put on my dress. Some women, when stressed, eat less and may lose weight in the week before their wedding. Not this woman. Though I thought I was being careful, my gown was tighter than when I last put it on – but it zipped up without too much difficulty. I looked in the mirror and commented to my mom that I was showing more cleavage than I remembered. I guess that’s where the extra pound or two had gone. Mom reassured me that it was fine.

Since Sabbath ended so late, we couldn’t take pictures at the Seaview Jewish Center. We didn’t want to delay things even more, so we arranged to go to the photographer’s studio beforehand. It was conveniently located in the shopping center near my house. We were working with Jay Phillips, the same photographer who did my parents’ wedding 29 years earlier! Much to Gary’s relief, his family did indeed make it in time. By the time the session was done my cheeks hurt from smiling so broadly.

As we were leaving the studio, it started to rain. David, my father-in-law-to-be, commented that in Judaism rain is a good omen – it was a blessing on our marriage. Over the many years that I would know him, David could be counted on to turn to Jewish tradition to find the bright side to a seemingly negative or innocuous thing. (Did you know that in our tradition Tuesday is the best/luckiest day to move? David told me that after learning that his grandson, my son, Daniel and his wife Beth had moved into their new house on a Tuesday.)

In those days it was common to have the cocktail hour before the ceremony. The bride was supposed to stay in a private room so the ‘reveal’ wouldn’t be spoiled. The groom was free to mingle. I stayed in the room for a bit, but decided it was another silly ritual, so I joined the festivities. After a brief spin around the room, it was time to take care of the pre-ceremony paperwork – the signing of the ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract).

We, my parents, the rabbi, Gary and his parents, gathered in the rabbi’s study. The rabbi asked for our marriage license – we gave it to him. Then he asked for the ketubah. We all looked at each other. Panic ensued. After a few minutes of searching, my dad prepared to go back to our house (fortunately only a five- minute ride) to get it. Just as Dad was leaving the room, Gary looked over at the rabbi, who was sitting at the desk busily writing.

“Rabbi, what are you doing?”

The rabbi looked up perplexed, apparently oblivious to the chaos in the room.

“I’m preparing the ketubah.”

“Then you have it?!?”

The rabbi, it turned out, had asked the question rhetorically – he was asking himself and he quietly found it in his folder. He neglected to mention it, though, and the rest of us were in high gear searching and trying to come up with a plan B if we couldn’t locate it. We couldn’t believe that the rabbi hadn’t noticed the turmoil in the room.

My father, who had carried his gin and tonic from the cocktail hour into the study, gulped it down in one swallow, in relief. He was stressed at the prospect of trying to find the document in the disarray of our house. Luckily, he didn’t have to. We all took a deep breath.

The rest of the night went on without incident. The ceremony was enhanced by two flautists playing Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses) – the romantic and lovely melody was the perfect accompaniment. I didn’t want to walk down the aisle to the traditional ‘Here Comes the Bride.’

My father’s friend, Jack Merlis, was a cantor and opera singer. He agreed to perform during the ceremony. His powerful voice practically blew us off the bema. I felt the vibration of his vocals down to my toes.

It was after midnight when the ceremony concluded, and we got down to the dinner and dancing. Gary’s brother, our best man, toasted our individuality and our union. We had a great time. After three hours of revelry, we prepared to leave around 3:30 a.m. Gary arranged to borrow his mom’s car for our honeymoon in upstate New York. We would spend the week at my parents’ house in Livingston Manor (without my parents :)).

We went out to find the car decorated with a ‘Just Married’ sign and streamers. Gary’s siblings had done the honors. Not only that, they gave us a cooler stocked with champagne and snacks so we could continue our celebration. We learned that the reason that Steven was delayed and distracted earlier in the day, when Gary was worrying that no one was getting ready in a timely way, was that he and Rochelle were running around getting the cooler, glasses, champagne and other goodies. It was a thoughtful and appreciated gesture.

The stresses and strains of the planning were behind us. Gary and I set off on our future together, supported by the love, humor, care and generosity of our family and friends. Though there would be other bumps in the road, the journey continued and continues. We still rely on that foundation.

 

More Dress Shopping…More Drama

Thinking back on my wedding has brought back a flood of memories. Once again it makes me wonder about memory. Why are some things vividly etched in my mind, while other periods of time are indistinct? Whatever the reasons, there are more stories to tell about planning the wedding.

Choosing bridesmaids and groomsmen was a bit complicated. We were balancing new friends and old, family and friends, and people who had already asked me to be part of theirs. Gary and I went big (see the photo below of the full group). We had eight women and eight men, and a flower girl. I had four friends and four sisters-in-law; Gary had his brother, my two brothers, two friends and three cousins.

Deciding on a flower girl was simple. Rachel, my cousin who was five years old, was the perfect choice. She was friendly, smart and adorable, with red braids and a big smile. I knew she could carry out the serious responsibility of dropping petals as she walked down the aisle with great aplomb. And I was right!

Choosing a dress for the bridesmaids was difficult. There were many different body types to consider. My four sisters-in-laws couldn’t have been more unalike. My brothers’ wives, Pam and Cindy were quite tall. Gary’s sisters, on the other hand, were quite short. It didn’t occur to me to let everyone pick their own. It was expected that they would wear the same outfit. My dress was very simple, I didn’t want their dresses to be too fancy. I was also living in Pittsburgh by this time and the bridal party was spread out, too. Coordinating shopping was tricky. Fortunately, people were agreeable to wearing pretty much whatever I picked, but my mother-in-law-to-be, Paula, had her own ideas.

I didn’t know Paula well yet, though Gary and I had been together for three years at that point. I had spent many an hour sitting at her kitchen table talking, but she was a private person. She was perfectly nice to me (offering tea with a shot of brandy when I had a sore throat), but there was a coolness. I sensed she didn’t fully trust me. I believed she didn’t think I was Jewish enough (I probably wasn’t given my ignorance of ritual, and the fact that I didn’t read Hebrew). I felt her keeping me at a distance.

I knew Paula was a Holocaust survivor and that she was a child when the Germans invaded her town, but I didn’t know her story in any detail. I knew she was an overprotective mother from stories Gary shared with me. I knew she was fearful – she would wait up all hours until her children came through the front door, even when they were adults, home for a visit. She also would not drive on the highway, so she made her way around Queens and Long Island using the streets. She navigated those streets with a great sense of direction, she also directed her husband, David, when he drove. I knew she kept a spotless home, cooked all the family’s meals, was an expert shopper (she knew the prices of items at various supermarkets) and could squeeze every bit of value out of things (she would re-use a tea bag over and over again, the same with a Brillo pad which she would tear in half before using it, she also altered and mended clothing). I was impressed with her skills and competence. Her strengths as a mother and homemaker didn’t overlap very much with my own mother. Paula was very precise; good with numbers and loved math. My mother was probably dyslexic when it came to numbers and precise wouldn’t be a word that would be used to describe her. My mom wasn’t a worrier. She worked full-time outside the home as a reading teacher, she was an excellent cook, she took pleasure in making sure family and friends were well-fed; and, we had someone come in to clean the house every other week. It was hard for Paula to trust someone in her house. My Mom didn’t like to shop and was far more interested in books, movies and theater than homemaking. Paula’s style of parenting was foreign to me.

I also didn’t realize that Paula’s perfectionistic streak would impact shopping for the bridesmaids’ dresses.

We settled on a date when enough of us would be available to shop for the dresses. I flew in from Pittsburgh one weekend. Dad drove Mom and I to Rosedale and dropped us off. My mom, Paula, Gary’s two sisters and I set out with Paula driving. In preparation for our excursion, I had found a dress in a magazine that I liked and located the store that carried it. I thought we would go there, have Rochelle and Doreen try it on, and, assuming it was good, we would order it. Not so fast! I came to learn that Paula would never purchase something that quickly, but I didn’t know that yet. She needed to be satisfied that there wasn’t a better dress or better price somewhere else. This was one of those experiences that illustrated the differences between our two families.

We spent the day going from store to store and eventually made it to the shop that had the dress I picked out. It was a gown in two pieces: a blouse with a ruffle down the front and a long skirt. The blouse was white with a short sleeve. We could pick the color of the skirt. I wanted mauve – pink, with a hint of purple. There was a thin ribbon at the neck that matched the color of the skirt. Doreen and Rochelle tried it on – I thought they looked great and they seemed fine with it. I was sure it wasn’t something they would have picked for themselves, but they didn’t show strong negative feelings. I thought it would work with my gown, would be flattering for all the bridesmaids and it had the overall feeling I wanted.

Paula didn’t seem all that happy with the choice. She wasn’t convinced. Despite that, we left the shop with what I thought was an agreement that they would go back another day and order it. I would share the information with the others who weren’t with us and we would move forward.

We got back into the car and went to the Bakst home in Rosedale. Everyone was tired, but we were in good spirits. My Dad would come from Canarsie to pick Mom and I up. I was exhausted but relieved to have gotten through it. We got to their house and went in the front door. David, my father-in-law-to-be, greeted us.

“How did it go?” he asked cheerfully.

“Fine,” I replied.

“Yes, we looked at the dress Linda picked, but I think we should look some more,” said Paula. “There are some stores we didn’t get to. There may be better choices, dresses that would be more flattering.”

I immediately burst into tears. All the stress, all the doubts I had about all my choices, poured out. My mother put her arm around me. The Baksts looked at me quizzically. David was flustered.

“Come, sit down. Don’t cry. Let me get you a drink,” he said as he ushered me to the couch. He busied himself pouring me a small glass of Cherry Heering.

I took a sip of the sweet liquor and tried to compose myself while everyone looked on uncomfortably. I managed to say, “I thought we agreed on the dress. I have to go back to Pittsburgh tomorrow. There won’t be time to shop again.”

“Don’t worry, Linda,” said David.

“It couldn’t hurt to look a little more,” said Paula. “Maybe we’ll find something that you’ll like better.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You know my dress isn’t fancy,” I reminded her.

Mom was patting me, murmuring words of comfort. I took a deep breath.

“Okay, I guess, you can look. But, if you don’t find something soon, we need to order the dresses. Right?”

Paula nodded in agreement.

“See,” said David triumphantly, “we can work things out.”

I was embarrassed by my reaction. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t in Paula’s nature to make a decision that quickly. We did end up ordering the dress I picked. The experience illustrated the learning process involved in melding our two families. It took time for me to feel fully embraced as a family member by Paula. But, once I was, her loyalty and support were ever-present.

Paula spoke an accented English, and her formal education ended much too early because of the war (I wrote about Paula’s Holocaust survival in a series of blog posts between August and October of 2018). She was self-conscious about her accent and thought her command of the language wasn’t strong. I told her many times that she spoke as well as any native-born American, she was quite articulate in sharing her insights or telling a story. Plus, she could speak at least four or five languages fluently, while I only knew one. It was always clear to me that she was highly intelligent, but I don’t know if she knew that. I was American-born, both of my parents were too, they had master’s degrees and were teachers. She respected that, but it may have intimidated her, too. It took time for us to understand each other. Providing her with grandchildren definitely helped.

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Postscript:

I shared this story with Gary and his sisters before posting it. I wanted to get their take on the events described, especially since it involved them. All three acknowledged that they respected my perspective, that it was my memory and prerogative to post it (I appreciate that they expressed that sentiment). Each had a slightly different view of it, though, and I want to relate what I heard. I think it is important to recognize the difficulty in reconstructing an experience from 38 years ago and to understand that we may assign different meaning to the same event.

Gary thought my portrayal of Paula, his mother, wasn’t very generous. In response to that I added more about Paula to give context. The version you read above includes that addition. But the truth is I didn’t feel very generous at the time. That’s part of the point. I didn’t understand where she was coming from.

Doreen didn’t recall going to different shops. Her memory was that we went to the one that had the dress, that they tried it on, and she was under the impression that the choice had been made. She didn’t recall being present for my breaking down in tears. She also had a feeling that my father was somehow involved and that it was distressing to her mom (Paula).

Rochelle didn’t remember the particulars but also recalled that my father was involved and that it had been upsetting to her mom.

Hearing what they remembered was really interesting. It is entirely possible that we only went to the one shop. I may have been exhausted and stressed out from travel and decision-making and imagined that we must have shopped for whole the day. It is also quite possible that Rochelle and Doreen were not in the living room when I started crying. They may have left to do other things – I don’t recall them reacting one way or another at the time so it may be that they were not present.

The memory of my father being involved is the piece that is most perplexing. I am thinking that when he came to pick us up, if indeed that is what he did, and he saw that I had been upset, his protective paternal instincts may have kicked in. I now believe, knowing my Dad, that after I left to go back to Pittsburgh, he called Paula and asked her to accept my choice. I knew nothing about that (or more accurately, I remember nothing about that) – I am surmising based on what I know of my father and that the issue just went away (as far as I knew) – all the bridesmaids ordered the dress I picked out.

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Paula or my father. I did ask my mother. She remembered the day, and my tears. She could not confirm whether Dad had called Paula after the fact, but she thought it was plausible. She also commented that if that was the worst of the disagreements we had during the planning of the wedding, we did pretty well.

There you have it. Is this an example of the ‘stories I tell myself’? Is it worth sharing these stories so I can process the memories and reality test it, or does it just make things messy? I am still pondering those questions. My motivation in sharing them is that it provides family history to my children and in examining my experiences, and sharing it with the public, it might resonate with others. It might spark insight or a sense of being less alone. That is my intention.

 

 

Adventures in Wedding Planning

My daughter is getting married. This is a joyous time for our family, but as anyone who has planned a wedding knows, it is also stressful. So many decisions to make, so many people to please, so many opinions and so many preconceived ideas – how could it not be fraught? And, it brings back memories of my own wedding.

It was 1982 – an eventful year I have chronicled on this blog (here). Before Gary left for medical school in Pittsburgh, we wanted to get a few of the wedding essentials nailed down. We started by thinking about a venue. I had visions of a ceremony outside on a lush hillside, the sun shining down on us, a gentle breeze carrying the scent of my bouquet. We’d be dressed in relatively informal attire. Maybe I wouldn’t even wear a gown. That was my fantasy; I was introduced to reality quickly.

If we were going to be married by a rabbi and have a wedding in the sunshine, we would have to do it on a Sunday. A rabbi would need to wait for Sabbath (Saturday) to end before performing the ceremony. We both had large families with many coming from out of town, Sunday would be inconvenient.

We both wanted the ceremony to be officiated by a rabbi – I doubt Gary would have considered another option. In my ignorance, I did not realize that we would need to wait until after sunset to walk down the aisle on Saturday. Maybe we could have found a Reform rabbi who could conduct the ceremony earlier in the evening, but that was not going to fly with Gary’s family. It seemed to be the consensus of our families that the wedding should be on a Saturday night.

With Gary starting medical school that fall, we began planning for the following summer, the summer of 1983. Sunset was quite late. I learned that we couldn’t gather our guests until 9:30 pm!! Not only would it not be an afternoon wedding, it would be after midnight before Gary and I finally said our vows!

My education in wedding matters continued as we visited venues. We liked Terrace on the Park, which was located on the grounds of the old World’s Fair in Queens. The ballroom was at the top of a tower, high above Flushing Meadows Park. It had great views. It didn’t serve kosher food. This was the next lesson in my learning process. My family would be fine with that, but the Bakst family needed it to be certified kosher. I had never heard of a mashgiach before, but I learned that we needed to hire one to oversee all the food preparation to ensure that the rules of kashruth were observed.

Our venue options were getting narrower – we looked at a couple of synagogues that had large social halls. Each one offered a unique feature. It seemed that showcasing the bride in some way was part of their shpiel. For example, one salesperson enthusiastically described how they had a pedestal on which the bride could stand while it rotated – the audience could appreciate her beauty from every angle. I shook my head in disbelief – I had no desire to pose like a cake topper.

Eventually we visited the Seaview Jewish Center, where the salesperson made his pitch for my dramatic entrance. They had a curtain behind which the bride would wait before walking down the aisle, her body lit in silhouette so guests could anticipate with bated breath the reveal. I told him that I was not interested. Once we got past that, the venue offered a number of advantages. It was kosher, conveniently located in Canarsie, not far from my house, the ceremony and reception would be in the same building, and they presented a reasonably priced package deal. It even included a band. Sign us up! My parents put down a deposit and we had a date – June 11, 1983

The next wrinkle came when Gary got to medical school and found out his semester didn’t end until June 30th. Uh-oh! After a brief spasm of panic, I called the Seaview Jewish Center, and, to our great relief, July 30th was still available. We made the switch.

Our planning continued. Now I needed to look for a dress. At that stage of my life, I was as fit  as I had ever been. I could sometimes get into a size ten, though 12s were more reliable. Mom and I went into the city to the famous bridal building. This was a place in the garment district in Manhattan where designers had their showrooms. For a limited time on the weekend, they would open their doors to shoppers. You could try on samples and order a dress at greatly reduced prices. Everyone talked about what a great deal it was for a high-quality gown.

I was nervous about trying on dresses, of course. I had trouble imagining myself as a bride. I perused the magazines, looking at the styles, the hair-dos, and none of it looked like me. The dresses I saw were flouncy and tiered, with a lot of lace – more fitting for a Southern belle than a Brooklyn tomboy. But, Mom and I had heard so much about the bridal building, and we didn’t know of many alternatives, so off we went.

We arrived at 1385 Broadway, to what looked like a standard-issue office building. We checked the directory in the lobby and picked a few places to visit. We went to three or four showrooms on different floors – each with the same result. The largest sample size they offered was a six. I couldn’t even get my arms into it, much less the rest of my body! One of the salesgirls suggested that I hold it up in front of me to see if I liked it. One place had a dress in a size 20 that I could actually put on. It looked like a giant white tablecloth. I wanted to cry.

Needless to say, our outing was a disaster. We gave up. I don’t know who felt worse, Mom or me. Mom said we would find a dress somewhere else. We got on the subway and went back to Canarsie, my worst ideas about my body confirmed. Even though I was in the best shape of my life, I still couldn’t try on a dress.

Mom asked around and learned that Laura Ashley, a designer who made dresses more my style, had a line of wedding gowns. The following weekend Dad drove us to the shop in Manhattan. I had never gone into a clothing store on Madison Avenue. I was doubtful as I climbed the stairs. Alas, we hit pay dirt! There, in the lovely store that smelled like lavender, on the sales rack (!) was a dress, just my style and just my size. It was a simple white cotton Swiss polka dot gown with a v-neck, short sleeves, fitted to the waist. It had minimal frills, no train, just touches of ruffle on the bodice and sleeve. It was as if it was made just for me and it was only a little over $100 (about $260 today). What a relief!

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There were other hiccups in the rest of the planning process, but I had some nice surprises, too. I loved our invitations. We picked a heavyweight white paper with cranberry colored ink. The envelope was cranberry with white lining. Mom and I took an adult ed calligraphy class at South Shore High School specifically so I could address the envelopes. I took to calligraphy. I was able to reproduce the pen strokes that the teacher demonstrated. It was a great project for me.

In a way planning a wedding is a test of the relationship. Can you disagree in a constructive way and come to a resolution? Can both parties compromise? Do you share the same values? The answer for us was yes. I communicated this thought to Leah as she and Ben began their journey. They are off to a great start!

One final observation: Based on my experience shopping for a mother-of-the-groom dress several years ago, and going with Leah for her dress more recently, I believe stores offer a wider range of sample sizes. Hopefully no one has to repeat my experience at the bridal building!

Contradictions

Note: Some of the material in this blog appeared in a previous post, but I have added content, edited it and, hopefully those who have been reading all along will find it compelling. For newer readers, I hope you enjoy. This is part of a series of pieces I have written about searching for my identity as an adolescent.

Of course, being Jewish was only one part of me. Being a girl presented its own challenges. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just beginning and was quite controversial. On television women were burning their bras outside the Miss America Pageant, at the same time I watched Barbara Eden as Jeannie, in her skimpy harem costume, flirting with Tony the astronaut. She actually called him ‘Master!” Something I didn’t even notice at the time. I wanted to be Barbara Eden. It was confusing.

I wanted to behave like a boy: playing and talking sports. I watched football, basketball, and baseball games with my brothers and uncles. On occasion they let me play touch football with them. I kept the scorecard at their softball games. Title IX was enacted as I was arriving in high school – a bit too late for me.

I wanted to be petite, with long straight hair.  Instead I was built like a peasant; stocky and sturdy, with wiry curly hair. Girls were supposed to be demure and defer to males. I had strong opinions about things. My opinions flew out of my mouth before I could edit them. I wanted to please people which didn’t mesh too well with my headstrong ideas. My impulses were pulling me in opposite directions. It felt like a war inside.

I was full of contradictions. I wasn’t interested in clothes or make-up, but I wanted to look stylish and attractive. I had neither the patience nor the desire to read fashion magazines or talk to other girls about that stuff. I struggled with two competing thoughts: it is important to be attractive (and the only way to get a guy); it is shallow to want to be attractive. In my heart I didn’t believe I could be pretty, and it was easier to dismiss it as uninteresting than to try and fail or be laughed at for the unsuccessful effort.

I knew that girls were supposed to have Barbie-like figures. Even when I was old enough to realize that the Barbie standard was ridiculous, I wasn’t able to make peace with my body.

It didn’t help that I had several experiences being mistaken for a boy. One time was particularly awkward. I was 11 or 12, but well into puberty, and I was in Star Value City, the five and dime in the shopping center near my house. I had been sent by my mom to buy sanitary napkins. I hated being sent on that particular errand. In those days, boxes of sanitary napkins were the size of a large microwave oven. There was no way to disguise the package – they didn’t make a bag big enough to cover it. It was so embarrassing – I thought everyone would see the monster box of Kotex and think they were for me. I don’t know why that possibility was so humiliating, but it was.

I wandered the aisles, gathering the courage to go the feminine products section, when a girl who looked a little older than me approached and smiled. She said, “You’re cute,” in a flirty way. I was attired in my usual uniform: jeans, sneakers and an oversize sweatshirt. I was totally taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know, I’m a girl.” Or anything else for that matter. I was speechless. I just tried to move on. She was persistent and followed me, commenting on my curls and freckles. I was dying. Eventually she got the idea that I wasn’t going to speak, and she left me alone. And, then I had to go buy the sanitary napkins and walk home with them!

I imagine that other girls got mistaken for boys and vice versa, but I couldn’t handle it. For me it played into my worst feelings about myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it either, it was just too embarrassing.

This was the source of another deep ambivalence. On the one hand I understood that the substance of a person is far more important than their looks. I knew friendships were based on laughter, shared interests and kindness, not appearances. Yet, I weighed my looks heavily when I took stock of myself.

I would assess myself – I got these qualities from my mom (my smile and large rib cage) and other qualities from my dad (short legs and strong opinions) – both physical characteristics and personality traits. My Mom and Dad were so different from each other but they were each part of me. My Dad was a manly man – decisive, logical, authoritative, short-tempered, athletic, and strong. I thought I was a lot like him. My mom wasn’t exactly a girly-girl, but she certainly put on make-up every day when she was getting ready for work. She appeared to defer to my father on most subjects. Mom was intuitive; she didn’t think in logical steps (at least not a logic I recognized). She was also preoccupied with physical appearances and commented on that all the time– my eyebrows were a regular source of concern.

The mix of personalities worked for them in their marriage, they complemented each other, but those characteristics didn’t coexist easily in me. I wanted to be decisive and passive at the same time! I simultaneously cared deeply about how I looked and thought it was a shallow conceit. Trying to integrate the competing aspects of myself made for a very confusing journey to womanhood.

My journey did include one successful rebellion against stereotypes. As I became more conscious of the Women’s Liberation movement, I brought it home. After years of feeling that there was an uneven distribution of chores in our house, I exercised my decisiveness when I was in sixth grade – I complained….loudly. My brothers didn’t have to do the dishes after dinner, I did them. It seemed to me their only chores were to take out the garbage, sweep the driveway and mow the lawn. Given that our lawn was the size of a postage stamp, it didn’t require much effort. And there were two of them, and only one of me! Their tasks weren’t required on a daily basis. I made my case to Mom and Dad. Lo and behold, much to my brothers’ dismay, I was successful. Mark made a huge deal about putting his hands in the dirty dishwater, but his argument held no sway. Poor boy! I was only sorry I hadn’t thought to make my case sooner!

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Me – at the age I staged my rebellion. Notice the huge lawn that needed attention!

 

A Meditation on Christmas

Note: The following post is written by Leah Bakst, my daughter. Thank you, Leah, for your thoughtful, interesting contribution.

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I’m no expert on schizophrenia, but as I understand it there are two important categories of symptoms. Positive symptoms are things that are extra or added to the average experience. This could be something like hallucinations or delusions. Then there are negative symptoms – things that most people experience that can be absent in someone with schizophrenia. Like experiencing pleasure. Thankfully, most people have rich experiences of pleasure, but these feelings can be missing in people with schizophrenia.

In the same way that there are positive and negative symptoms associated with particular disorders, I think we also understand our identities through both things we Do and things we Don’t Do compared to the average experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of being Jewish at Christmastime.

In my experience of Judaism, there are definitely things we do:

  • Eat bagels (with cream cheese and lox!)
  • Fast on Yom Kippur
  • Hold Seders on Passover
  • Light candles on Chanukah
  • Ask lots of questions
  • Gesticulate

And many things we don’t do:

  • Eat milk and meat together
  • Eat shellfish or pig products
  • Eat leavened foods on Passover
  • Work on the Sabbath
  • Believe in Hell

There’s a lot of food-related stuff.

In my immediate family, there was one critical addition to the “Don’t Do” list: celebrate Christmas.

We did not have a tree. We did not have lights. We didn’t sing Christmas carols. Obviously, we didn’t go to church. We didn’t watch Christmas movies (with the critical exception of Die Hard, which, yes, is a Christmas movie, fight me). We didn’t have stockings or ornaments. No eggnog, or Christmas cookies. (I did taste eggnog for the first time last year, and I finally get it. It’s delicious. And mixes oh-so-well with bourbon.)

There were absolutely things we did do on Christmas. As the stereotype goes, we went to the movies where we saw many people we knew from our local synagogue. We also ate Chinese food. These were our own Christmas traditions and absolutely left me feeling like a part of my own special community.

There were challenges though. In high school, I sang in a select choir that went caroling. It was by no means mandatory, but most of my friends would bundle up and go to the local shopping plaza to sing and make merry in the few days prior to Christmas. I couldn’t imagine purposefully missing an opportunity to make music and have fun with my friends, so I went. But there was a discomfort that tugged at me. This was something that We Didn’t Do. And if I define myself by not doing that thing – not being part of the community that carols – then what does it mean if I go right ahead and sing along?

That wasn’t the first time I was presented with a challenging choice around Christmas music. In my public elementary school, we sang songs about Jesus in music class around the holidays. As a born participator, I decided that I would sing the songs only up until the lines that seemed religious. During those moments I stood silently, feeling out of place while my classmates sang with gusto around me, not knowing if the line I was walking was the right one.

Later on, the studio where I took dance classes took part in a Christmas parade. As before, I couldn’t imagine missing out and I happily danced the parade route to Mariah belting “All I Want for Christmas is You.” That one didn’t bother me so much. And I appreciate my parents letting me find my way – they certainly didn’t tell me I couldn’t dance in a Christmas parade. I guess this wasn’t something We Didn’t Do, but it wasn’t exactly something We Did Do either.

Now I’m older, and engaged to a non-Jew. My blond-haired, hazel-eyed sweetheart of Swedish descent, who formerly self-identified as a “Jesus freak.” Though he’s no longer particularly religious, he grew up very connected to the Protestant Christian faith and his family has many lovely Christmas traditions that they continue to keep.

As we work to weave together our two lives and traditions, he has lovingly embraced my areligious Judaism. He lights Chanukah candles with me, has fasted on Yom Kippur, and enthusiastically supports my quest to host Passover Seders in our small apartment. He loves the questioning nature of the Jewish faith, and the outward emotionality and warmth of many Jewish people. He has managed to embrace a set of traditions, an ethnicity, an identity that isn’t his without feeling like he has lost or diluted himself. It is a shining example of being a partner.

For some reason, it feels harder on my end. This is the second Christmas I have celebrated with his family. They are such wonderful people and have welcomed me so warmly. I feel unendingly lucky to be marrying into this loving, generous, and kind family.

But.

(There’s always a but, isn’t there.)

Christmas feels uncomfortable.

We gather in a house with a beautiful wreath on the door and single candles alight in each window. Late on Christmas Eve, we pile the presents under the tree, and set up the nativity scene on the mantle. Christmas morning we grab a cup of coffee and unwrap fabulous gifts. And only after the whole room seems fully blanketed in an array of colorful paper and ribbons, do we clean ourselves up for Christmas dinner with family friends.

None of this is particularly religious. I’d even go so far as to say it’s quite fun! But a small voice within me continues incessantly: this Isn’t Something We Do.

What do I do with that voice? That itchy feeling?

And why is it so easy for my fiancé to bring new traditions into his ken, and so much harder for me.

I know there’s an easy and obvious answer, but it isn’t really an answer at all. When he celebrates Chanukah or Yom Kippur or Passover with me, he is not at risk of being unwittingly assimilated into a dominant Jewish culture. There is literally no chance that if he’s not careful, there won’t be anyone who continues to celebrate Christmas or carry on the Christian tradition. After all, the American tradition is, by and large, a Christian one.

It’s not the same for me. My family made it through the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. In my particular branch of the family, there are four grandchildren. That’s it. Two boys, and two girls. If things go traditionally, that means only the boys are carrying on the family name, and it is all on their shoulders to keep that alive. What a terrible and strange burden. We survived all of that only to… just kind of get swallowed up by American life?

And if part of how we define ourselves as Jews is by the things We Don’t Do, then will my children really be Jewish if they do those things? Is that the first step on a gradual slide into losing our Jewish identity?

And whether or not that’s true, do these questions fundamentally insult the many people out there (family members of mine and otherwise) who consider themselves meaningfully half-Jewish? As if their connection to the religion and tradition does not pass some purity test because they also observe some Christian traditions?

I’m really not sure where this leaves me. At the moment, I’ve been treating it all like a mosquito bite: the best remedy is not to scratch it and let it be, and trust that my body will eventually take care of itself. If I just let myself participate in these traditions, then maybe over time I’ll learn that I have not lost any of myself at all. In fact, I’ve gained a beautiful connection to my new family’s traditions. That would be a holiday movie-worthy ending.

But for right now, I don’t have that certainty. I’m just doing my best not to scratch and trusting in the knowledge that my fiancé and I can figure it all out together.