February 19, 2008
Richard Nixon affected my life profoundly.
In fact, I owe my marriage to the guy.
|The famous matchmaker.
It was the summer of 1974. The Watergate scandal was entering its final act, and I was pondering my next career move, having done time in the family restaurant business. Politics was on my mind, but so were other things--I was young then--and the news that Nixon was going to resign seemed like a godly gift, an awesome excuse to throw a "resignation party" at my apartment in Somerville, Mass.
And so I did. Or tried to, anyway. There was just one problem: none of my potential guests were available. I thought something might be happening in nearby Harvard Square, though, and I was right. There was a joyous demonstration, with a conga line wending its way around the square, with chanting that went something like:
NAH NAH NAH NAH, NAH NAH NAH NAH, HEY HEY HEY, GOODBYE!!
In the commotion I found myself next an attractive woman wearing the waitress uniform of the Brigham's restaurant behind us. After a bit of conversation, I suggested that we repair to a local bar for a beer, and it fleetingly seemed like Nixon's promise to bring the country together had succeeded.
And that's how I met Lisa.
Lisa was a recent transplant from Nashville, Tenn. The more we talked, the more my initial impression of her proved wrong. I had assumed that she was just another sweet person that I had nothing in common with. Well, in a way, I was right: I soon discovered that we came from very different religious traditions: Lisa's family was Southern Baptist and mine was Jewish.
But as it also happened, we had both been presidents of our debate teams in high school, and we shared a keen interest in politics and film. Lisa had left the Southern Baptist Church before she moved north, and had occasionally gone to Unitarian services. I later learned that she'd secretly harbored an interested in Judaism since she was a young teenager.
Now fast-forward a few months. It's clear to Lisa and I that this is going to be a long-term commitment, and it seemed time to meet the parents. My Dad would be no problem, but my Mom? I wasn't so sure. This was a Mom who talked about "breaking your mother's heart" if I married out, something that was rarely done in my extended family. So it wasn't surprising that Lisa faced the first encounter with my Mom with considerable anxiety.
It soon became apparent, however, that in the years since I graduated high school, my Mom's attitude towards interfaith marriage and interfaith relationships had changed considerably. And not just her attitude, but others' as well. There had been so many interfaith relationships among her friends' kids that for my mom and people like her, Lisa and I hardly seemed unusual. Times had changed. My Mom had changed. With Lisa, she never played out her role as aggrieved Jewish parent.
But behind one obstacle stood another: Lisa's parents. I reassured my parents that they had nothing to worry about. Southerners were hospitable. Yet the fact remained that until then, my parents' only contact with southerners had been related to my uncle's experiences in World War II, when he'd allegedly been harassed by a Southern officer.
As for Lisa's parents, whose greatest misgivings were that they wouldn't be able to understand this Yankee from Boston because of my imagined Northern "brogue," they plied me with food in a manner that would put a Jewish mother to shame. Lisa's parents were the kind of Southerners for whom the Civil War still was current history. They were immensely pleased that my family had not come to Boston until several decades after Grant and Lee shook hands at Appomattox.
And as for Lisa and I, we were eventually married by one of the few rabbis who would officiate at interfaith ceremonies. I didn't want Lisa to convert for the wedding, but during the early years of our married life, I was missing something very important. Lisa didn't want to be just a Judeophile, but a fully Jewish person, and I wasn't giving her the encouragement she needed. Her feeling of being on the fringe was exacerbated after the birth of our second child. I knew we had to change the situation.
Luckily Lisa found a warm and sympathetic rabbi to begin the conversion process. I realized that Lisa's conversion had given her the spiritual home she'd been seeking for most of her life. Lisa became increasingly active in the temple we joined and eventually became the first woman president in its hundred-year history. My in-laws joined us for our bar and bat mitzvahs, and commented on how comfortable they felt, even though they had never been in a temple.
After looking proudly up at his daughter and granddaughter on the bima, Lisa's father remarked, "life sometimes takes strange turns." Indeed it does.