A generation ago, in my last year of college, I was terrified about leaving the shelter of school and making my way in the world. With a lack of self-awareness that I now find staggering, I did two things to avoid the inevitable: I applied, blindly, to graduate schools, and I found myself a boyfriend who was interested in taking over my life. He was also smart and good looking and exotic and fun. The exotic part weighed in heavily. He was from South America. His name was Cristian.
I was not the only one of my Jewish friends who was going for foreign. Ellen's wonderful boyfriend was working-class African American, and a decade older to boot. Lani was desperately in love with a Persian. For us, part of the college experience obviously involved broadening our acquaintance with the world.
Cristian certainly counted as different. He was very involved with how I looked and what I wore, preferring only black or white. (This was well before the all-black craze.) I took his micro-managing as proof that he cared.
I learned that, where he came from, women's looks were of paramount importance. Women didn't work--not even at volunteer or artistic or socially useful pursuits. I worried about this, but made an effort to learn Spanish and tried to imagine a future together.
In the meantime, I went home for Jewish holidays. I don't remember discussing religion much with Cristian, except to learn that his mother (beautiful, of course, and faintly tragic) was a devout Catholic. I came to see how Cristian's thinking was more black and white than mine; and not just about clothes. But didn't all couples have differences?
One weekend in spring, I brought my boyfriend home to my family in the Bronx. On Sunday morning my father took me aside and said, "You can't do this; you're killing your grandmother." That struck me as a bit weird, because he was referring to his mother-in-law (his mother was long dead), and the two of them weren't particularly close.
That afternoon, my grandmother took me aside and, using the very same words and intonation, said, "You can't do this; you're killing your father."
Although the echo effect was funny, I was impressed that they had both made sure to corner me and speak their minds that weekend, right away. And I could tell that it was the depth of their feeling that had propelled them to come up with the same circuitous strategy.
My mother liked Cristian (he was, after all, sophisticated and interesting and good looking), but she told me this: "It's one thing to date, but marriage is something else altogether. Marriage is hard enough. Why add the burden of not having things in common?"
I wanted to file this piece of advice with her occasional goofy pronouncements like, "it's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man." But I was affected by the fact that she was speaking to me straight, woman to woman.
A couple of months later, I broke up with Cristian. I couldn't stand having him tell me what to do (which is exactly what I had liked about him in the first place) and I couldn't picture myself living in South America. Even in the U.S., his attitude toward women no longer seemed charmingly exotic. And there was also that unsettling business about my family.
Now, a whole generation has passed. I have been married to the same Jewish man for thirty years. I have not exactly turned into my mother, but I often hear her words coming out of my mouth. I don't say to my kids, it's as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man, but I do say, "Although dating exotic guys when you're young is fun, marriage is hard enough. Any common ground you can fall back on can only help." I also add, although I think they know this, what a privilege it is to be Jewish, and why would you want to take the chance of squandering that?
So I would change my mother's old proverb slightly: it's as easy to fall in love with someone who is Jewish as with someone who isn't.