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Bringing Home the Melting Pot

My husband Sean and I share the same core values, yet we each traveled vastly different routes to arrive at this point. Sean is the eldest of two children. His father emigrated from Ireland in his teens, joined the Marine Corps and served in Korea and Vietnam. Sean's mother grew up in a small town in Louisiana, and joined the Marines, too. The family moved frequently across the United States, from military base to apartment complex, until they settled in the Portland, Oregon, suburbs when Sean was in the sixth grade. Sean and his younger sister were raised as Catholics, but both drifted away from the church in their teens.

I am the youngest of three children. My parents were both born Jewish and raised in New York City; both attended NYU. They met at a college dance. My father served in World War II, then became a public relations executive on Madison Avenue. Our family lived in the same Manhattan apartment until I graduated from high school. My two older brothers and I attended Sunday school at the local Reform synagogue where we read from the Torah to commemorate our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, followed by tasteful receptions. I later became involved in the Reform youth movement and have pursued a variety of approaches to Jewish community and home life over the decades since then.

Sean himself worked to pay his own college tuition, and when the money was gone he dropped out. My parents paid full tuition at private colleges for all three of us kids, and helped with my expenses in graduate school.

Sean rode a bike across the United States; I rode one through Western Europe. He traveled to the Far East on business; I lived in Israel for seven years, earning a living as an advertising copywriter.

Along the way, Sean developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge, an excellent memory for detail, and the ability to piece together disparate pieces of information into a congruent whole. He's a "big picture" thinker. This has led him to ardent patriotism and a thoughtful conservatism, both politically and socially.

I, on the other hand, am the quintessential New York liberal. I can count on one hand the number of times I have voted for a Republican--including Jacob Javits [former Jewish senator from New York]! I care about details, but don't retain them. In the end, I lead with my heart.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and throughout Israel's prolonged intifada, Sean's outlook has seemed less alien to me. I welcomed the ten-foot flagpole Sean erected in front of our house, where such displays would once have reminded me of divisive, Vietnam-era protests. I listen intently to Sean's political explications, and I find myself agreeing, if somewhat warily.

Our disparate backgrounds and sensibilities inform and enrich our relationship. Sean had his own room growing up, and so did I. But he craves a degree of privacy that was largely unavailable in my boisterous family and our cramped city apartment. I have learned to back off and let him unwind in his own way. We find each other in quiet moments, over dinner or when our daughter Sarah is sleeping, and we talk incessantly.

We make all major decisions together, but we try not to sweat the small stuff. If Sean wears a tie-dyed tee-shirt to the synagogue picnic, and I wear khakis and a sweater, it's not even a matter for discussion. We don't argue over whose turn it is to do the dishes. On the other hand, we have made a conscientious effort to coordinate our childrearing philosophy and style. As Sarah grows, we often revert to the principles we shaped when our parenting team was in its infancy: We trust each other's judgment. We are always on the same side.

Family discussions, and almost everything else of consequence, often take place at the dinner table. I read recently that kids who eat with their families regularly reap multiple social and academic benefits. I had already experienced that in my own childhood. My mother made dinner, Dad came home from work and changed into "schlumpy" pants, and we sat down at the table as a family. This was not "Ozzie and Harriet." We interrupted each other, argued, grabbed and spilled. But we ate together every night.

I didn't appreciate that until I tried to replicate it in my own family. Sitting down to dinner together is an everyday miracle that we take for granted.

On Shabbat (the Sabbath), we make it special. Over the years of our marriage, Sean and I have made Shabbat into the high point of our week, somehow setting it apart from--and above--our daily dinner experience. The "props" help: a white table cloth, candles and kiddush (blessing over wine) cups, the best dishes, two loaves of home-baked challah under one of the colorful covers Sarah made in preschool. We sing. We bless the Sabbath, the food, and each other, and reflect on the week.

Then there is the food itself. We both love to cook, and to eat. But I prefer my corned beef on rye, and Sean eats his with boiled cabbage and potatoes. Somehow we merge our culinary diversity into a pleasing whole, and create our own traditions: our corned beef dinner is followed by a dessert of hamentaschen, as surely as Purim follows St. Paddy's Day. The leftover meat--if any--is served on rye bread with mustard and a sour pickle.

As we work together to create a family and a life, Sean and I are reminded of our cultural differences as well as our shared values. We draw strength from both, forging something new and wonderful from our combined traditions.

Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Peggy Dorf

Peggy Dorf is a writer, marketing consultant, promotional merchandise distributor, wife, mother and indefatigable volunteer in Portland, Ore.

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