Interfaith Marriage: How My Parents Fell For My Non-Jewish Husband

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Interfaith Marriage: How My Parents Fell For My Non-Jewish Husband
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Amy Sohn's parents took the long way to loving her hubby.

At 22, I got a job writing a weekly column for The New York Press about my dating life. For three years, I chronicled my dates with a string of actors, comedians, screenwriters, journalists, and novelists, who all had one thing in common: None of them had any interest in being engaged to me. My Jewish parents, who still lived in Brooklyn where I'd grown up and had no interest in me entering an interfaith marriage, read the column religiously and accepted their friends' jokes with as much humor as they could.

By the time my 29th birthday arrived, I was making a good living writing about sex — two novels, three columns, countless articles — but I didn't have a boyfriend and I was afraid when I died my books would be all I'd have left. So I threw myself a birthday party to convince myself that friends were all that really mattered.

A few days before the party, I decided I needed some art for my walls, and a mutual friend suggested I contact a painter he knew named Jack*, who painted Jewish boxers from the 1930s. I imagined him as old and Jewish but when he came to my door with his portfolio and some paintings to lend, I realized he wasn't, either. He looked to be in his late-30s and he was 6'5'', with red hair and tattoos of his own artwork up and down his arms. He was wearing a wide-brimmed tan felt hat that tied with a string to his shirt button, and something about that old-fashioned sensibility excited me.

I found out he wasn't Jewish but I decided that was OK; he wasn't husband material.

He'd be a hot fling. I invited him to the party but he declined, which was good because I wound up drinking strawberry margaritas all night and getting so drunk that I threw up after my last guest left. When he came to pick up the paintings we went on a long walk. Because I wasn't thinking of him as a potential mate, I was myself when I was around him, and not so nervous.

Soon it became clear that in addition to being hot, he was also an avid reader, a gentleman, and a rough-edged romantic. He cooked for me, well, in his tiny galley kitchen. He read me Bernard Malamud at night. He bought me used books by Kleist and emailed me photos of vintage pin-ups, saying the women's bodies reminded him of mine. We went to see Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, and during the closing credits I told him that I loved him.

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One night a couple months after we met, I invited my parents over for dinner. "I can't believe you're cooking," said my mother.

"I'm not. Jack is."

We all sat around my tiny table and Jack made a bouillabaisse with good salad and sourdough bread. My dad ate three portions. When he found out that Jack had gone to Harvard for graduate school, he seemed doubly impressed. So Jack wasn't Jewish but he was a mensch, a great storyteller, and he loved me.

The next day, my dad wrote to say how happy I seemed, and how beautiful I looked.

I got choked up reading it because most of the time when he sent emails, they were passive-aggressive and weird.

Over the next few months, my parents got to know Jack better, and given the fact that he was from a different background and a lot older than me, I thought they did a pretty good job of making him feel welcome. There was only one thing they didn't seem to like: They weren't exactly sure how he made a living. When they asked, I explained that he sold his paintings, but I rarely gave details about how often or how many. Then I'd change the subject. Soon they stopped asking, and we settled into a kind of uncomfortable silence on the issue.

That winter, I invited Jack to spend the holidays with my parents, my brother, and me at their country house in the Berkshires. For my brother's birthday our cousins always came over and my mom always made lasagna. This year, Jack offered to do it for her. "That's very generous of you," my mother said, but she didn't look happy.

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In the morning, Jack did his prep work, all except for the salad, and then we left to go see Gangs of New York. We got back at five o'clock and I saw an entire salad in the bowl sitting out on the counter. "You didn't have to do that," Jack said, blinking.

"I was just trying to be helpful," my mother said.

Jack looked at the heap of vegetables on top of the lettuce — carrots, tomatoes, celery, and cucumbers. It was a Jewish salad, the kind I'd grown up eating, with everything thrown in. It wasn't a gourmet salad, the kind they served at restaurants with just lettuce pre-dressed with vinaigrette.

Our cousins came over and Jack set out the lasagna, to oohs and aahs. I didn't see the salad and when I looked up at him he was at the kitchen counter, with the garbage drawer pulled out, gathering the carrots, tomatoes, celery, and cucumbers and tossing them into the trash.

I glanced over at my mom. She was squinting at Jack, her mouth in a tight, thin line.

Our last morning in the country, I woke up before Jack. When I walked into the kitchen, my dad was sitting at the counter, already on his third cup of coffee. "So Jack's pretty amazing, isn't he?" I said, filling a mug.

"I know this might not be what you want to hear," he started.

"Dad, please," I said. But he went on.

"It's just something Mom noticed. Did you know that when he thought no one was looking, he took her salad, removed all the vegetables and tossed them into the garbage?"

"It was his dinner!" I said. "He didn't even ask her to make the salad, but she did anyway!"

"That's not the point," my dad said. "Do you think it's a good idea to be involved with someone so narrow-minded? If you two get married, there will be a lot of decisions you'll have to make together, and it will be hard when he shows such a total lack of permeability!"

I stormed downstairs. A few minutes later, I heard the Weed-wacker. My dad always weeds when he's stressed. It helps him, but it doesn't help the garden, since he has no idea what he's doing.

In late June, about nine months after we met, Jack proposed. There was no engagement ring because he didn't have the money and at first this bothered me, but then I read about the evil history of diamonds and decided it was all right. A few days after our engagement, we went over to my parents' to tell them our news.

"They're going to be so happy for us," I said, in the elevator.

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"I'm not so sure," he said. "I'm not Jewish, and I'm an artist. I think we should decide now if we're asking them or telling them."

"We're telling them," I said. "I'm 29 years old. That's too old to ask permission."

"Good," he said.

When we got to the apartment, my mother opened the door. "Dad's not here," she said. It was just like my dad to cock-block my engagement.

"What?" I said.

"He's running errands, but he should be home soon."

"Oh," I said.

We sat on the living room couch. Jack held my hand. My mother asked what was new. I started to answer, and then my dad came in the door and disappeared into the bedroom.

"Come out here!" my mom shouted, and finally he did. He sat down opposite us and just as I was about to announce our engagement he said, "Did Mom tell you I saw Spellbound last night? Excellent documentary, about these kids in a spelling bee. There was this one scene where this girl couldn't spell viand. I swear to you I was on the edge of my seat."

"We've decided to get engaged," I said.

"Mazel tov!" my mother said, rising to embrace us. My dad didn't say anything. My mother turned to him and said, "Come over here and congratulate them."

Before we left Jack took a picture of the four of us, using his long arm to hold the camera. My mom, Jack, and me were all grinning ear to ear but my dad looked like he was constipated.

When we got home that night, my mom had written me an email to congratulate me. She said it was obvious that Jack and I brought out the best in each other, and would make each other very happy. There wasn't any note from my dad. I wrote back to my mom: "I'm so glad you're happy," I said. "I hope Dad is, too."

The next morning I checked my email as soon as I woke up. "Mom felt I should reply to the implied question. I really, truly, totally feel as she does. If I tell you that running through my mind was: 'But does she know how hard it is to live with someone for better or worse?' you have got to believe that that's how any eyes-open person would feel at a time like this."

My dad had always written like this, in a long, winding style that was hard to decipher — but lately he'd been getting better. Now, one of the most important events of my life was about to occur, and he was reverting to insane syntax.

I wished he had some ability to lie, to suck in his feelings when it was for the greater good. Didn't he know how important his support was to me, even if he wasn't totally comfortable with Jack? True, we hadn't known each other that long. But he'd only known my mom a year when they got married. Besides, they knew from reading my column that I'd dated around long enough to know what I wanted.

Over the next few weeks, as I began wedding preparations, my mother said she'd like a running tally. I took this to mean my parents were OK with paying for the bulk of the wedding, as long as the costs didn't balloon out of control. I liked this arrangement, because I didn't want to tap into my retirement savings to pay for my entire wedding. I was going to pay some of the expenses myself—my outfit, the photographer, and the liquor (Jack's mother bought him a suit)—so I thought it was fair to ask my parents for the rest, as long as I consulted with them.

So when I found a klezmer band that would cost $2,500, I decided to run it by my mother. My father answered. "Is Mom there?" I said.

"She's out folk dancing," he said.

"Oh," I said. "I just interviewed this band we want to hire."

"You can talk to me about it."

This was the point where I should have said no and hung up.

She was out folk dancing, which meant he was watching crime shows and messing around on the computer. Nights like this he didn't eat dinner and got hypoglycemic. This was no time to talk money. Even though I knew this I got nervous, and because I was nervous, I kept talking.

"Well, we listened to a few of their tapes and they're really incredible," I said. "They cost $2,500, and I was thinking we'd pay for half." He was quiet.

"I'm so glad you brought this up," he said. "I think you've gotten the impression Mom and I want to pay for the whole wedding when that's not the case. I don't believe in the tradition of the bride's family paying. I think it's outdated and unfair."

"Who paid for your wedding?" My mother's parents had paid for the entire thing, a swank affair for 200 people back in 1969.

"That was a different era!" he shouted. "I've thought this over and we're willing to pay up to a certain amount or a certain percentage, whichever is lower."

"Whichever is lower?"

"I envision this as a shared expense, some combination of you, us, and Jack's family."

"But they're already doing the rehearsal dinner, which is like five grand! And Jack and I are paying for the photos and the liquor!"

"I understand that," my dad said. "But there's no reason the burden should fall on Mom and me just for the sake of tradition. Let me think this over and email you some breakdowns."

What was my father's problem? Did he think Jack's father and stepmother were richer than they really were?

Did my father know I made more money than Jack? Was he worried I was going to support Jack for the rest of my life and afraid to be complicit in that, even symbolically, by paying for most of the wedding? Would any of this be happening if I'd married someone Jewish?

I checked my inbox. There was an email that looked like an algebraic equation, outlining three different ways of dividing the total budget between them, Jack's family, and us. It contained phrases like "where Y=60 percent of total."

When Jack came home I was totally distraught. "It's OK," he said. "Let's do it all ourselves. I can't pay you anything now, but I will pay you back, I promise. We'll do it at City Hall and go out to dinner, immediate family only. I'd prefer a small wedding anyway."

"I'm an exhibitionist!" I said. "I'm not going to do my wedding vows for an audience of 15. That's fewer people than I had at my Barnes & Noble reading!"

The phone rang. It was my mother. "You know that conversation you had with Dad?" she said.

"Yeah?"

"Forget it. We'll do the whole thing."

"I don't understand. What happened?"

My father was on the line. "Mom came home and brought me to my senses. I said to her, 'How did you manage to diffuse such a tense situation so easily?' She said, 'The same way I've been doing it for 33 years. It's called husband management.'" He got all choked up when she said, "husband management," like he'd realized how lucky he was to be married to someone who knew what to do with him.

The day of the wedding, my father put on a suit and a carnation and with his slicked-back hair and gray beard, looked like a real father of the bride.

We even danced together, even though he doesn't like to dance, and we made quiet small talk while everyone watched us, although most of it was about whether the band was going to go into overtime.

Two days after the wedding, after Jack and I were back in Brooklyn, I got an email from my father. I was nervous to open it, because the subject heading was "Misc."

It opened with a long and somewhat corny poem about the joys of marriage, with metaphors like "mountains and valleys." I wasn't sure if he'd written it or found it on the Internet. Underneath it, he wrote, "I'd have to say that one of the greatest 'values' of your wedding day was how much I learned about Jack … to his enormous credit! Maybe I wasn't observant enough, or other things got in the way of my realizing sooner what a truly wonderful match you are for each other. Anyhow, you certainly 'have our blessing,' by which I mean that we think that your making a life together is a wonderful thing, and we're glad we can learn from both of you over the coming years. Now, about this 'baby thing'…" After that, he put the sign for a wink. It's the only time an emoticon ever made me cry.

*Name has been changed.

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Adapted from an essay by Amy Sohn that appears in Altared, published by Vintage Books.

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