The people I was most concerned about hurting when I embarked on a serious, interfaith relationship were my grandparents. I knew my parents would be angry. But it was my grandparents--kind, loving, elderly people--I feared I would hurt the most. They have always loved their grandchildren wholeheartedly and taken such tremendous pride in us. I hated the idea of causing them any pain.
So when, after nearly two years of dating, I finally brought my boyfriend, Nathan, home for a visit, I saw our plan to have lunch at my grandparents' house as the capstone of the weekend's nerve-wracking gauntlet of family events. Driving to their house, with Nathan sitting in the passenger seat and the country station playing on the radio, I felt a growing sense of guilt. I desperately wanted my grandparents to know that dating Nathan had not made me any less Jewish and had, in many ways, strengthened my personal commitment to a faith that was easy to take for granted in a Jewish home, a Jewish grade school and a largely Jewish community. Dating Nathan had forced me to look closely at my relationship with Judaism and to determine what the nature of my devotion would be as an adult who could no longer let her religious identity be determined solely by her family.
Because my family is not particularly religious, their near-obsession with marrying "within the faith" is often confusing to my non-Jewish friends (and even some of my Jewish ones). But to understand my family's commitment to maintaining some Jewish insularity, you have to understand where they come from. Both of my parents are first-generation Americans born to Eastern European immigrants. My father's father and mother each came to the United States from Poland before World War II. They met and married in this country, raising their two sons here. Both of their families, however, remained in Poland, where they perished during the Holocaust.
My mother's parents met and married in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, after the war ended. They, too, had been born and raised in Poland, but prior to Hitler's invasion of the country, my grandmother's family was forcibly removed from their home by Russian soldiers and exiled to Siberia. Dumped off a train in the middle of the night with no clothing, food, or shelter, they thought their lives had ended. They did not know that only months later Nazi soldiers would sweep through their village in Poland, liquidating every remaining Jewish citizen. Miraculously, the bitter cold and unforgiving expanse of Siberia turned out to be their refuge.
My paternal grandfather's family was not so lucky. Grandpa's mother and father were killed by the Nazis, as were many of his nine siblings. He spent several years in a Nazi work camp before escaping and hiding with other Jews in underground bunkers. A brave and no-nonsense man, he saved many lives after his escape, even as he ran from his own hunters.
Two generations removed from my grandparents' experiences in Eastern Europe, the legacy of the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on my consciousness. I have been brought up to treat others as I would like to be treated myself, but to remain wary of "others" who may be out to harm me because of my faith. Nowhere has my family's fear and suspicion been more evident than in their view of interfaith relationships.
So, I was not entirely surprised when my family did not welcome Nathan with open arms. Nonetheless, I thought that as they got to know him, they would grow to accept us as a couple. Unfortunately, this process of acceptance was taking a lot longer than I had anticipated, which is why I finally decided to force the issue by bringing Nathan home for a visit.
During lunch, my grandparents were very kind to Nathan. My grandmother fed us well and my grandfather told us stories in his heavily-accented English. When the Holocaust came up in conversation, as it inevitably does at my grandparents' house, my grandmother and grandfather were guarded in their comments because of Nathan's presence. But I encouraged them to talk freely so they could see that Nathan was interested in their backgrounds, eager to learn about what they had been through and knowledgeable about the plight of Jews throughout history.
After a few hours, it was time to leave. Although I am usually sad to say good-bye to my grandparents at the end of a visit, on that particular day I breathed a quiet sigh of relief as Nathan and I stood up from the table. As usual, I gave many kisses and big hugs to both Grandma and Grandpa. As usual, I promised them that I would visit again soon. As usual, my grandmother gave me some of her delicious sugar cookies to take home with me.
Then something entirely unusual happened.
As Nathan offered his hand to my grandfather for a handshake, Grandpa took it and reached out his other thin, 90-year old arm toward the back of Nathan's head. For a split second, I feared that my grandfather had come unhinged. "He's going to smack Nathan!" I thought. Nathan, too, looked alarmed. But then Grandpa said, in his signature accent, "I want to give you a kiss on the cheek," and he pulled my goyishe boyfriend toward him, giving him the same good-bye kiss he usually reserves for his grandchildren.
There are few moments in my life that have been as meaningful as that kiss on the cheek. My courageous grandfather chose to show affection to a boy who likely represents some of his greatest fears, rather than make his granddaughter feel bad about who she loves. There, in my grandparents' kitchen, I found myself holding back tears of joy.
Of course, this is not the end of our story. Nathan and I still have a long way to go and many hurdles to overcome in our life together. My family is still resistant and there are moments when my heart strains under the difficulty of loving them and Nathan at the same time. But my grandfather's good-bye kiss gives me some hope. If a man who has survived the most brutal hatred can rise above his own prejudices to offer such kindness, I am tempted to believe the Beatles may have gotten it right: "all you need is love."