My father’s family is very large.
My mother’s family, like too many post-pogrom and WWII Jewish immigrant families, is very very VERY small. My recently deceased grandfather was the last of his surname.
So most of my relatives are of the non-Jewish persuasion. My mother insisted that my brother and I engage with the family to the best of our ability, so that we would “have family.” So we did. My mother put up with constant bullying, and my brother and I tried to sort through the lies (straight up lies) that our paternal grandmother spread about our mother.
Say what now? Bullying?
When my Jewish-by-birth mother first met my father’s (not-at-all Jewish) extended family, one of his cousins asked how many lawyers she had in her family (irony alert: my dad has a ton of lawyers in his family). Another cousin said:
“I had a boyfriend who used to beat up Jews”
I suppose you could chalk that up to genuine ignorance. Maybe. But then there’s the time a relative asked my (still Catholic at the time) father if he was sad that he was going to heaven and his wife and kids were going to hell.
And all of the years my father’s own brother refused to invite us to the Christmas party he and his wife had for the rest of the family, even though Christmas was a holiday my father celebrated, who even went to midnight mass at his old church in Harlem. And then there was the 30 years of bullying from my paternal grandmother that my mother endured. And the horrific, offensive, bordering on blatant anti-semitic speech said paternal grandmother gave…
After every visit to one of my father’s maternal relatives, the entire drive home would be this loud argument where my mother complained that my father never stood up for her to his family, and my father saying that it wasn’t that bad and that my mother shouldn’t take it so personally. It got to the point where I didn’t want to visit anyone (even the many non-asshole relatives that exist) because of all the dumb arguments my parents had (there were many) this was the only one that couldn’t be tuned out easily.
Everyone has a limit.
When I was 17 (I think, maybe a couple of years in either direction), I reached my limit.
We were up in Albany to attend the Episcopalian baptism ritual of one of my recently born cousins. As the service progressed the priest/reverend/pastor/whatever-you-call-the-dude-with-the-collar turned in the direction of where my family was sitting, held his arms out, and said, “We have some of our Jewish brethren worshiping here with us today. Welcome.”
And then not 30 seconds later he read from the Gospel:
“Lock your doors for fear of the Jews.”
And that moment, that pivotal, enlightening, really awkward moment when all of Christendom was giving the side-eye to my mother, brother, and I, I had a sort of revelation.
I looked up to the Jewish dude hanging from the 2-by-4 on the altar before me, the sun shining through the stained glass past his jutting ribcage and illuminating the face of my goyishe infant cousin… and… and…
I was all like, “Fuck this.”
I don’t remember much about the party afterwards. There was cake and wine, and the usual crop of people totally pretending we didn’t exist. The only thing the child’s mother said to me was, “Do you mind changing this diaper?”
I suppose you could chalk that up to genuine ignorance. Maybe.
But read this article from the beginning again.
After I reached my “limit,” it took me a few years to realize what to do with it. Do I confront my father for never sticking up for us? His mother and brothers for being jerks? My mother for never sticking up for herself? Do I just ignore it? Do I cut everyone off?
I ignored it for a while. I faded away for a bit. Then my mother reached her limit. So then my brother and I took turns going with my dad to family stuff so he wouldn’t have to be alone (it was starting to wear on him, too).
Then my father converted to Judaism (irony alert: one of the lies that was spread about my mother was that she forced my father to convert when they got married 20 years prior).
Then I met my (Jewish, for those keeping score) husband, and we eloped. And my limit reared it’s ugly head.
A year after we eloped we planned a Jewish ceremony. I decided not to invite anyone from my father’s side (except for one cousin who’s kind of like my non-Jesus-believing brother-in-arms). I wanted this lifecycle event, this important Jewish milestone to be happy, without drama, and free of any offensive speeches save for the drunk college stories dispensed by my maid of honor.
The event planning was kept a secret–until my brother’s high school graduation party. A family friend asked my brother when he was leaving for college. He said when, and the friend replied, “Oh good, so you’ll still be here for the wedding,” all within earshot of the Bat Mitzvah speech grandmother. I could have said right there (and maybe should have) that she wasn’t invited, but I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable scene she would have caused, and ruined my brother’s graduation. So she was there at the ceremony… alone. I stuck to my gut and kept everyone else out.
When I had my daughter, I had to make the decision all over again. And I made the same one. I told my parents I didn’t want Adi exposed to my father’s maternal side of the family (I would like to note that my father’s paternal side of the family are warm and tolerant, and his half sister who lives near me is AMAZING). My father told me he understood and didn’t protest AT ALL. He had purposely kept his family away from his conversion, bar mitzvah, and job promotion celebrations.
My mother on the other hand (irony alert) called me up a few days after my announcement and said that letting my father’s mother see the baby was, “the right thing to do.” So the next time she was in town, I left my husband with the baby (and explicit detailed rules) at my father’s house and went shopping with my mother. Adi got to be seen by her great grandmother and I didn’t have to deal with all of the complex rage emotions. And I got some new shoes.
Adi is 15 months old now, and aside from that one meeting with my father’s mother, hasn’t met anyone else. If in the future she wants to meet them, I’ll let my father handle it. But I can’t (read: won’t) subject her to what my mother and I went through. I’m not sure if there has been any fallout over my sudden disappearance from that side of the family (or if anyone has even noticed)–my parents haven’t said anything and I haven’t asked. I know that the people who I surround my daughter with (blood related or otherwise) love her and want her to be happy. Despite everything, I’m making sure that my daughter has family, and not just relatives.