I was raised a white-boy Mormon in Salt Lake City in the 1960s. It was a good place to grow up, except that everybody looked like me, and almost everybody practiced the same religion. The only “exotic” person I knew was my best friend in junior high, Barney Josephson. He was Jewish, but he stood out only because he was six feet tall at age 13.
When I graduated from high school, I joined the Air Force. It turned out to be a good idea because, (a) I met about every example of humankind available, and (b) I was dispatched to Madrid for a two-year tour.
During my second summer there, I met a nice Jewish girl from Philadelphia named Diane who’d come to study Spanish literature at the University of Madrid. She was petite, smart and pretty. We soon began dating on a regular basis.
It seemed like kismet, because for more than a year I’d immersed myself in Judaica. It started with Exodus and progressed to everything from Andre Schwarz-Bart to Rabbi Zadok of Lublin. I was thinking about a Reform conversion because it embraced only one dogma, “… the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” I could question and argue just about anything, and nobody was going to condemn me to hell.
We fell in love and made an “understanding” that was to become official when we got back to the United States. We spent a wonderful, romantic 10 months together before she returned to Philly. I was discharged at a base in South Jersey where she met me. Diane looked gorgeous and I thought*, life is good.* We drove to her parents’ home in suburban Philadelphia, where I was to spend two weeks getting to know her family and they me. *Kumbaya.
The house was a large colonial. Diane’s mother, an attractive middle-aged woman, met us at the door. She spoke the perfunctory we’ve-heard-so-much-about-you hooey before proceeding to the family room, where Diane’s father sat watching the moon landing on television. He shook my hand without rising while giving me the glare a cobra would give an intruding mongoose. It went downhill from there.
As I met other kinfolk and neighbors, I began to feel like lobster bisque at a Seder. It struck me as anti-goyism and it hurt. Their reaction to me made some sense, given that Christians had not acted in a very Christian way toward Jews over the centuries. Even so, I didn’t like being in the despised minority, and it taught me some empathy for those who are scorned because of their race or ethnicity.
Diane assured me that, with time, her parents would accept me and I believed her until the day before I went home. My prospective mother-in-law asked Diane and me to have a sit-down. The get-together ended with her mom begging us, through tears and sobs, not to marry, because nothing good could come of it. I was nice, but I wasn’t a Jew, and the cultural gap was impassable.
I was shaken. Discomfort with our difference in faiths was one thing, but her parents were having a nervous breakdown because their daughter wanted to marry me. I went from bemusement to humiliation to anger.
Then, when I got home, I suffered whiplash. My parents were unhappy that I was marrying outside the faith, even though they knew I’d left it years before. They warned me, “Those Jews are all about money” and other blather. It was rank antisemitism, and I was appalled.
Things got better with my intended in-laws when I announced I had begun the conversion process in a Conservative synagogue. Then Diane came to Salt Lake City at Christmas. Ma and Pa amazed me by being perfect hosts. And then there was Grandpa. He was a scholar/theologian who loved a good argument and my intended gave him several. He fell in love with her and that was that. My grandsire’s word was law in my family.
We married and settled in Philadelphia, but perhaps my in-laws were psychic, because after 12 years, our marriage ended. The reasons had nothing to do with religion. I left my wife and daughter for an old flame — a shiksa, which makes me a shmuck.
I remain a Jew — I’m not religious, but it’s who I am. I married another Yidishe Meydl and settled in New York City.
My daughter married a Jew. I’m happy for her, but even if she’d brought home a Baptist, a Catholic or even a Mormon, I wouldn’t have cared. Religion didn’t matter, her happiness did.
Diane remarried, too, this time to a Scotch-Irish Protestant fellow and settled in Charlotte, N.C., not exactly a hotbed of Judaica. Who nu?
John Purchase is a freelance writer living in New York City’s Greenwich Village.