He was a peasant, really—uneducated, overbearing, explosive, crude—utterly unlike the urbane, ironic, self-deprecating American Jews I’d always known. After 50 years in this country, he never lost his guttural rural German accent, and in spite of his high intelligence, he never quite learned to speak English. My husband’s mother, who grew up in Cologne, achieved near-perfect fluency, but his father struggled to articulate even simple sentences. When he was unable to retrieve a noun, he substituted “dinks.” No doubt he meant “ding,” the German word for “thing,” though for some reason he changed the g to a k and added an s. “Where is the dinks?” he would demand, meaning the car keys, the newspaper, the saltshaker, who knew? His three sons made a game of collecting his malapropisms: “She eats the cake,” he said of a foolish neighbor. “Ha,” he once remarked, gesturing at a woman in a revealing bathing suit, “the fleshtops of Babylon.” At the breakfast table one morning he loudly accused my mother-in-law of being a warmonger. Nobody could have been less of one. He’d meant to say “worrywart.”
He was a tall, broad-shouldered, physically im-posing man with heavy-lidded blue eyes and a full head of white hair that grew in tightly scalloped waves. My own mother described him as a “lion of Judah.” Alternately stiff and clumsily jocular, he had a way of putting people off, particularly other men. He was full of élan vital, but his world view was too hierarchical to allow friendship and his work ethic too stringent to permit him much indulgence in the usual recreations, though he watched his share of TV. His diet was plain: overcooked brisket, baked potatoes, canned vegetables. (He did love good bread and drove miles out of his way to patronize a European bakery.) Even in his later, wealthy days, his ways were sober and industrious and routine-bound. For him, everything was subordinated to work and family.
In the years I knew him, he was rich, and while he never ceased to honor the principles of thrift and deferral of gratification that had made him that way, he allowed himself to indulge his taste for well-made clothes. He wore them dashingly. I remember a leather jacket, regularly rubbed with oil, and a gray Persian lamb astrakhan hat. Once, emboldened by the requisite four glasses of wine at a seder dinner, I told him he dressed like Telly Savalas in Kojak. How he glowed at that.
He and my mother-in-law had emigrated to this country in the 1930s, having fled the Nazis. When they’d gotten settled in uptown Manhattan, he arranged for his parents and brother to follow (his sister died in the camps, as did my mother-in-law’s parents). My husband was born in Newark, the eldest and liveliest of three boys, the inheritor of his father’s buoyant energy and his mother’s near-crippling anxiety. His father later designated him “the intellectual one.” The other two, “the spiritual one” and “the practical one,” came along in due course. My parents-in-law cherished all three of their infant sons, but only my husband got the full treatment. They wore surgical masks whenever they held him, and by dint of ferrying him to the bathroom and back a hundred times a day, they managed to toilet train him before his first birthday.
My father-in-law’s professional life was a true Horatio Alger story, all the more impressive given his social awkwardness and his troubles with the English language. He started as a janitor in a Newark plastics factory and quickly rose to foreman. Within 10 years he and his engineer brother had established their own plastics business, FLEX Products, in the northern New Jersey suburbs. Among other things, they manufactured those translucent rectangular boxes in which people once stored marijuana, though I doubt they had any idea that their product was used this way. What made my father-in-law rich was his canny decision, which put him at painful odds with his brother, to sell the factory at the very beginning of the 1970s oil crisis.
During their early, struggling years in this country, he and my mother-in-law did their best to assimilate. The gave their sons New Testament names (George, Peter, Steven) and occasionally patronized Chinese restaurants, though the food, served in undifferentiated heaps, made them squeamish. They even attended a regular New Years’ Eve party, though they found it too bibulous for their comfort. But in the midst of their adjustment to the new world, they maintained an umbilical connection to the old through my father-in-law’s parents, whose Washington Heights neighborhood might have been mistaken for a Jewish quarter in almost any European city. My husband’s grandfather served as a shammas in a synagogue there, and his grandmother shopped at the open-air markets on Dyckman Street, where she bought plums for her plum cake and live carp for gefilte fish. She cooked and baked for days in anticipation of visits from her New Jersey grandsons, but when they arrived, they waved away her offerings. They wanted pizza, and they got it.
Soon after the death of his father, my father-in-law swerved toward Orthodoxy. My mother-in-law, ever loyal, swerved with him. They kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, and joined the shul in their suburban New Jersey town, where my father-in-law’s conspicuous zeal put him on a fast track to become president of the congregation. They enrolled the eldest son in Hebrew school, which he hated. They sent their sensitive, dutiful middle son away to a yeshiva in the Bronx.
My husband never forgave his father for this banishment, which ended his brother’s promising career as a high-school baseball player. He—my husband—was the feistiest of the three brothers, the one who stood up to his father’s autocratic displays of temper. More than that; he actively baited and taunted his father, not just by pointing out holes in his reasoning but by smirking in a way calculated to arouse his fury. When his parents took their sudden religious turn, my future husband resented it as only a bright, callow, super-rational teenager could—so much so that he secretly sabotaged their kosher arrangements, contaminating the milk and meat plates by scrambling them together in the sink, then returning them to their proper places on the shelves. His parents never knew that their son had rendered traif all the food they subsequently ate from those two sets of crockery.
My father-in-law often expressed a particular worry: that his sons would marry shiksas and that his grandchildren would, as he put it, laugh at him. And two of them did marry gentiles. The shy Catholic bride of the youngest brother was actually barred from their house for some months. The eldest married me, a half-Jew of the wrong kind. My mother was a Gentile, and so, according to the law of matrilineal descent, am I. Or was, before I converted, though the efficacy of that conversion was thrown into doubt in a curious way.
My father-in-law never treated me in the contemptuous way he treated the Catholic girl. Even so, I felt his ambivalence from the start. Not only was I half-Gentile; I was a disorganized chain smoker with a long psychiatric history, not the kind of daughter-in-law he would have wished for. But I was also, in his word, “classy,” by which he meant that I came from an intellectually accomplished family. This worked in my favor, but also against me.
I grew up in a New England college town. My father was an economist, one of the first Jews to teach at Williams College. Later, he was among the academics called to Washington by the Kennedy administration. He served on the Council of Economic Advisers, and later, under LBJ, as director of the budget. During the Nixon administration, he was the president of the Brookings Institution. He and my mother were witty, ambitious people, enthusiastic drinkers, wisecracking agnostics. My father never pretended not to be Jewish, but his attitude toward his Judaism was casually dismissive: He viewed it as a source of food, jokes, and stories, but otherwise irrelevant. My mother, like my father, had no belief, but her attitude toward her religious background was different: She passed on to her children a sampling of some of the elements of her Presbyterian upbringing. She took from it what she found beautiful—the psalms, the hymns, the festive rituals of Christmas and Easter—and removed it from the shell of belief, just as she might have prised the meat from a walnut. My siblings and I grew up enjoying the traditions of holiday Christianity without having been baptized, confirmed, or instructed in any dogma. About the other side of our heritage, we were taught even less. I picked up a feeling for American Jewish culture from my father’s extended family in New York but learned very little about Judaism. Until I studied the subject in a high-school comparative religion class, I knew almost nothing about it.
I grew up a religious tabula rasa, and have remained blank all my life, unable to imagine what it would be to believe, or even to observe. Toward Judaism, I’d describe my attitude as a strong rooting interest, but I retain a primitive longing for the customs of my childhood Christmases—the carols and the Bûche de Noël and the sweet-smelling tree.
As it turned out, I was the only one of my siblings to marry a Jew. Our wedding was an entirely secular ceremony held on the grounds of my parents’ summer house in Williamstown. My husband’s parents attended, though it obviously cost them an effort. My husband had just been awarded his Ph.D. in philosophy and had already published a number of articles in academic journals. I had no degree, not even a B.A., and had been working at various dead-end jobs in New York. My parents could hardly contain their amazed delight that I’d found such a solid and promising husband. My in-laws, on the other hand, sat stiffly in lawn chairs, eating nothing and drinking only water.
A few weeks later, when my husband and I visited them at their summer cabin on Lake Hopatcong, my father-in-law suddenly exploded in a fit of anger. He often lost his temper, but this was uncontrolled rage. The occasion for his outburst was a tangled fishing line, but soon it became clear that it was motivated by his resentment of my father, whose easy worldliness and insouciant attitude toward his own Jewishness had been on display at the wedding. My father embodied every ambition that my father-in-law had cherished for his sons—and my father-in-law hated him for it. Out of nowhere and apropos of nothing, he turned on my husband, bellowing: “You kiss his ass!”
It took me years to sort through my reactions to this episode. It shocked and frightened me, of course, and I must confess it gave me an illicit thrill. I had my own reasons to resent my father, and to resent my husband for being in some ways so much like him. But it was also the beginning of understanding. For one thing, it made me realize that my father and my husband, though widely separated in age, were really of the same generation. Each of them had grown up struggling to meet the expectations of an angry and exacting patriarch, a creditor whose debt neither could ever repay no matter how much the world rewarded him. It was more than that: My father-in-law’s explosion opened up a crack in the world through which I could see something of the tragic chronicle of my husband’s family. I’ve replayed that scene over and over in my mind until the crack grew wider still, giving me a glimpse into the chasm of Jewish history.
I had been semi-estranged from both my parents all through my adolescence. After I married, I transferred what remained of my filial loyalty to my in-laws, particularly to my husband’s lovely, modest, sunny, anxious mother, a woman as naturally refined as her husband was crude. How I longed for her approval! She did her best to accept me, but I knew she would have preferred a more feminine, more domesticated daughter-in-law. (Our relationship never quite survived an early incident at the lake house, when she discovered my diaphragm soaking in the guestroom sink.) Nevertheless, she was always kind to me, and I was grateful. I got on better than I expected with my father-in-law, who acknowledged my membership in the family by talking to me in the distractedly gemutlich nonsense language he used with his sons. “Emilia, Emilia, Encyclo-pee-lia!” was his greeting. I was grateful for that too, though it embarrassed me. Wary as I always was of him, I was also grateful that soon after my own father died at age 60, he took my husband aside and reminded him of his responsibility to me. “She is alone in the world,” he said. “You are all she has.”
And I had the odd sense, more and more so as he grew old, that he and I shared a certain rapport. My attention was important to him: When he sat at the breakfast table telling stories about the family and the past, he addressed them to me. There was something in my habitually detached perspective and my half-in, half-out position in the family that inclined him to consider me a confidante. Perhaps he hoped I might explain him to his son.
My husband and I moved from the New York area to Vermont, where he taught at the university in Burlington. Every few months his parents drove up to visit us from New Jersey, their car packed with the pots and pans and paper plates and rolls of aluminum foil they’d need to maintain their kosher arrangements in my kitchen. As we drove around town doing errands, my father-in-law began to work on me to convert to Judaism.
It was an oddly muted campaign conducted from the driver’s seat of his Lincoln. He kept up a steady mumble just beneath the threshold of audibility, forcing me to lean in close to hear him, but even then I caught only phrases, delivered in the offhand, insinuating tones of a dedicated pitchman—“You will find perhaps you are more secure?…” or “The marriage will possibly grow stronger…?” My father-in-law was nothing if not shrewd: He saw how shaky things were between my husband and me in those early years.
Then I got pregnant, and conversion became urgent. I was more susceptible now to my father-in-law’s persuasion: The hormones had softened my imagination. For moments at a time I was able to picture myself as the “dodd-in-law” my husband’s parents would have wished for, standing in the glow of the Sabbath candles, wearing a kerchief (a kerchief?), the baby perched on my hip. Wasn’t this a secure embedment in family—the life I longed for? But the fantasy never lasted long. I knew very well that in real life my husband would be rolling his eyes. His father would round on him, the lion roaring at an impudent cub.
My father-in-law drove me to my first meeting with the rabbi. We parked in the circular driveway of the synagogue. Just as I was climbing out of the Lincoln, he beckoned me back in. “Close the door,” he said. (I invite the reader to imagine his accent.)
Then, whispering hoarsely: Don’t tell the rabbi you’re a mamzer.
Me (thinking): A mamzer?
FIL: A bastard. A Jew can’t marry a bastard.
Me (gesturing in the direction of the synagogue): But I’m converting.
FIL: A mamzer can never convert.
This odd last-minute admonition seemed to reverse his expressed wishes, but I knew that my father-in-law didn’t always observe the law against self-contradiction. By now I was too caught up in the conversion project to ask questions anyway. I got out of the Lincoln and trudged into the newly renovated synagogue, where the receptionist greeted me and led me into the wood-paneled office of the rabbi. On the wall behind his desk were framed photographs of himself posing with local notables—the mayor, the governor, various members of the Christian clergy, the influential owner of a furniture warehouse. “So,” he said as I seated myself, “you want to be a Jew. Life isn’t hard enough already?”
Because time was short—I was four months along—the rabbi omitted the ritual of discouraging the convert three times in order to test the sincerity of her intentions. He required only that I do some reading and meet with him periodically, that the baby undergo a bris, or in the case of a girl, a naming ceremony, and that soon after the birth I immerse myself in the ritual bath called the mikvah. I never brought up the subject of my half-and-half status, not so much because I felt bound by my father-in-law’s injunction but because the conversion seemed to be rolling along on rails. The rabbi was interested in getting it done, not in soliciting information about my background. And besides, I didn’t want to think about anything difficult. For me, pregnancy was like walking across a stretch of rocky terrain, all the while balancing a bowl of water on my head. Because I cultivated equilibrium, I relegated the mamzer business to the back of my mind, where it seemed to blink on and off like a faulty light bulb in an adjacent room. It wasn’t that I didn’t see what was manifestly irrational about it, only that I didn’t allow myself to register it.
The baby was born. I had finished my course of instruction with the rabbi, and except for the upcoming naming ceremony (and the postnatal immersion in the mikvah, which I never actually got around to), the conversion process was complete. Even so, I couldn’t resist bringing her in to show her off to the rabbi. He leaned over her, making the clucking noises people make at babies, then looked up at me, cocking his chin, and squinting quizzically. “Don’t you hate war?” he said. The beneficent hormones that had kept me feeling rosy during my pregnancy had apparently drained away. The rabbi’s remark irritated me, not only because it was sanctimonious but because it was so obviously his go-to reaction to babies, a formula that allowed him to sidestep rivalries between the congregation’s new mothers. Then and there I acknowledged to myself that he was a hack, a Chamber of Commerce rabbi. But really: What could I expect of the spiritual leader of the Conservative synagogue in Burlington, Vermont?
At the same moment I allowed myself for the first time to work out the implications of my father-in-law’s “mamzer” admonition. If I’d been entirely Gentile, I’d have had no problem converting, but as a half-Jew of the wrong kind, I could never be Jewish, any conversion undertaken in bad faith notwithstanding, and neither could my daughter or her children or grandchildren. My whole line (and my husband’s too, at least if I were the mother of all his children) would be barred from membership in the tribe (unless, I suppose, a son was born to me or one of my descendants, and he married a Jewish woman).
It was hard to comprehend the idea that what kept me from becoming Jewish was not the Gentile in me, but the Jew. It was harder still to understand what was in it for my father-in-law.
He’d driven me and the baby to see the rabbi that morning and was waiting for us in the Lincoln. I imagined him napping at the wheel, the brim of his hat drawn low over his eyes. Suddenly I saw him in a gangsterish light, a Mafioso parked outside an abortionist’s office with the motor running, taking care of a bit of business for his son.
Over the years, I’ve told the mamzer story to a number of people who are knowledgeable about Judaism. I’ve asked them: Is it true that half-Jews whose mothers are Gentiles cannot be converted? Not one ever said it was. A colleague of my husband who came from a long line of rabbis summed up the consensus: “That’s nonsense. He made it up.”
My father-in-law was a man with a frenetically active inner life, all the more so because his inability to speak fluent English kept him isolated, safe from the corrective influence of other minds. Subject to the pressures that built up in his head, odd ideas formed and hardened. One of these was his conviction that a woman’s urine is stronger than a man’s, strong enough to kill grass. Another was the mamzer notion, which burst out of his volcanic imagination with such force that he took it to be canonical.
But why did he spend months persuading me to convert, only to reverse himself so suddenly? I can’t know the topography of the totem-and-taboo land that was my father-in-law’s mind, but here is my guess. His effort to persuade me had originally been an effort to persuade himself that he had some control over the eventuality he’d long feared, the arrival of the grandchild who would, notoriously, laugh at him. A child who grew up identified with Judaism would not laugh at her Jewish grandfather: This was consistent with the assimilationist views he held during the years when his parents were alive. But as he grew older, materially secure but cut adrift from his origins, a stronger, darker view emerged in him. What he feared now was more powerful and primitive than ridicule: It was contamination.
Hygiene had always been one of his preoccupations, and as he grew richer and older, it became an obsession. He divided the world into two categories: clean and unclean. Hotel rooms were almost always unclean. My mother-in-law’s uterus, inspected by a gynecologist after an early miscarriage, was clean. I remember how emphatically he insisted on this, as if anyone needed to be convinced: “She vas as clean on the inside as she vas on the outside!” His own mouth, for that matter, was clean. He kept it that way by directing his dentist to extract all of his teeth rather than salvage the sound ones to use as foundations for fixed bridges, which belonged in the unclean category because parts of them were inaccessible to a toothbrush. (I remember thinking that this made a kind of sense, then realizing that the same could be said of natural teeth.) Instead, he opted for a full set of dentures, completely cleanable and therefore clean.
Was this cleanliness fetish a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a syndrome with a strong genetic component? Certainly I recognize similar tendencies in my husband and other relatives. Or was it a consequence of the psychological trauma my father-in-law underwent as refugee? I think he did indeed suffer from OCD, or something like it. His experience of Nazism, however, was explanation enough.
But it isn’t really this nature/nurture distinction that interests me; it’s what happened during that moment of reversal in the car when my father-in-law delivered me to the rabbi. I envision two psychological fronts colliding within him. The weaker force was what remained of his optimistic, forward-looking assimilationist impulse, which had sustained him through the years when he worked hard to establish his family in this country. The stronger force, which in that moment swamped the weaker one, was his realization that assimilation, carried to its conclusion, would mean that the Jews would forget what it was to be Jews, that they would disappear. What was craziest in him gave motive force to an insight that was both despairing and entirely sane.
To my father-in-law, I must have personified the process he dreaded. I imagine he saw me as a nightmarish chimera, doubly unclean, both the product and the agent of contamination. In that moment outside the synagogue, he understood that to encourage me to convert might have been a terrible mistake. Not only was he allowing his family’s blood lines to be adulterated; he was bringing upon himself a charge of responsibility for that defilement. Trapped by this realization, he cast about for some way out. He could not stop the process he’d set in motion, but he could at least disassociate himself from it. In his desperation, he invented the Mamzer.
It was my father-in-law’s fate to live in the crux of a great historical irony. He and my mother-in-law fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Within 20 years of his emigration to America, he began to realize that they hadn’t escaped the threat of elimination after all, that it was finding him and his family here just as it had nearly done there, more slowly but also more surely. No murderous intent was necessary, just the steady, trampling march of secularizing progress.
For Jews like my own father and my husband, the slow dissolution of the Jewish people was not a crisis. If anything, it was a liberation. Toward the end of his life, my father’s confidence in his own agnosticism wavered a little. He saw the film Hester Street and was surprised to find himself feeling an intense nostalgia for the Jewish world of his childhood. I don’t think this meant much, really. Nostalgia is not so much a feeling as a symptom of the death of feeling—a kind of emotional neuropathy. For his part, my husband was less yielding: He’d never known a Judaism that wasn’t shot through with his father’s authoritarian tendency, and for him that spoiled it, particularly its ceremonial aspects, forever. He never forgave his father for his religiosity. But now that he is a wise old man, not a callow young one, I think he has forgiven his father. He’s come to understand the terror and loss he endured, to appreciate his rescue of his parents and brother and all the children that the future would bring, the devoted and exhausting work of establishing and developing a business, and his clear-eyed decision to sell it when the time was right. At long last, he’s grateful for his patrimony.
After my daughter’s naming ceremony, my parents-in-law never mentioned the conversion again. It was as if it had never happened. I rarely thought of it myself. Apart from lighting the menorah at Hanukkah for my daughter’s sake—they did it at her school, so how could I omit it?—I never observed any of the Jewish holidays. For one thing, my husband would have objected: He found it hard enough to suffer through the hours of the annual seder in New Jersey.
In deference to his parents’ feelings, I never observed Christmas either. Actually, one year I did, in a very small and sneaky way. Why, I asked myself, should my family not enjoy the holiday I loved as a child? Why should the festive day go dark? And so I propped up a pine bough in a glass vase, hung it with a few red and green globes, and handed out token presents to my husband and daughter. I thought I’d destroyed all the evidence, but during his next visit from New Jersey, my father-in-law spotted a pine needle lodged in the carpet. “Vot is dis?” he demanded, and I never did it again.
But it hardly mattered. Something in him had softened, given way a little. Perhaps he had accepted the futility of resisting the slide into oblivion that assimilation was bringing about, or perhaps he was just growing old. He was calmer now, more reflective, and when he and my mother-in-law and I took the baby for walks in the state-of-the-art stroller he’d bought for her, we had some long, relaxed talks. My father-in-law confided that his one of his lifelong wishes, odd though he knew it sounded, was to be the mother of a young child.
The mother? I asked. Yes, he said, the mother.
He was enchanted by his granddaughter. She was no mamzer to him. Each time he and my mother-in-law drove up from New Jersey to visit, they brought one carefully chosen gift—a floppy lamb made of white fleece; a Fisher-Price child’s tape recorder on which her two-year-old voice can still be heard, 35 years later, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”; a Cabbage Patch doll, then so popular they were nearly unobtainable, packaged with its own “birth certificate” document. My parents-in-law fell on their knees when they saw our daughter, threw their arms wide, never tired of doting. She is lucky indeed to have had such grandparents.
So she took her turn as number-one grandchild, and I took mine as the favored dodd-in-law. Later, when she was six years old, they moved to California to be near the middle brother and his family. My husband and daughter and I flew across the country two or three times a year to visit them in their orange-roofed condominium in one of those verdant developments that spring from the desert outside San Diego. They hadn’t lived there long before the prostate cancer my father-in-law’s doctors had long been treating with hormones (how much this had to do with his feminized fantasy life I have no idea) turned aggressive. He spent a year dying, with exemplary stoicism.
My mother-in-law survived him for nine years, suffering for eight of them from Alzheimer’s. Here was another terrible irony: This exquisitely careful, conscientious woman, so orderly in her habits that she once confounded the airline that lost her luggage by producing receipts for every item she’d packed, was reduced to a state in which she could not speak, comprehend, recognize her sons, or swallow. It was the kind of cruel fate that prompts an agnostic like me to demand: How could any god permit it?
The situation doesn’t offer much in the way in the way of mitigation. The best I can do is to observe that while the disease destroyed her mind, it also erased the anxieties that had plagued her since her German childhood. But that’s cold comfort. Instead, I suppose, I can remind myself that in her case, the loss of memory was only accelerated—that eventually, we all forget.
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