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The German Son-in-Law

We all bundled on to the plane to Germany, an unheard of wedding destination. When Jenny had called from the airport a month ago, she began with, "Now don't get upset." As soon as she said those words, I was upset.

"I know we've only known each other a week, but I am sure this is the real thing." I wasn't upset that he was not Jewish (yes, there was a twinge) or that he was German (yes, my mom's entire family perished in the Holocaust.) I was upset that she was leaving school a semester before earning her degree. If this was the real thing, couldn't they wait one more semester?

Now we were piling onto Lufthansa, Josh, Julie, my ex-husband and I. We had briefly met Wolfgang a few weeks before in Boston and liked him very much: bright, talented, good looking, personable, with a British accent.  An architect who shares Jenny's artistic passions, he seems a good match. But he knows no other Jews; his town's synagogue is now a library.

The ceremony itself was at city hall. Private. I grieved not to be present, not to take her down the traditional aisle. But the celebration! What a celebration! In Wolfgang's studio-loft office, spilling over with cold cuts and dark breads, fiddle and accordion music. His parents, Helga and Fritz, devout Lutherans, already clearly adore Jenny. Members of Hitler's youth at one time, how was it for them to embrace a Jewish girl?

I told myself Wolfgang wasn't even alive during World War II, that his parents had been merely teens then. Everyone their age belonged to Hitler's Youth.

My sister was inconsolable. "What did his grandparents do in the war?"

"How should I know?" I hurled back.

In reverse order, their son Otto came before the marriage. Whether he had been baptized, I didn't ask and they didn't offer. That the baby was not circumcised shocked me. "We want him to look like his father," Jenny explained. Even Jewish parents, she said, were now calling this tradition "barbaric."

I recalled my own sons' brises, circumcisions. Both at home, as they were underweight in the hospital. Many years later, the same doctor, nicknamed the Yankee Clipper, circumcised our first grandson, Jonathan. The continuity had been a comfort.

A few months later my daughter's little family decided to return to America. They settled in the Hudson Valley where they had friends and colleagues. Jenny and Wolfgang became partners in their architectural firm. They didn't believe in "religion," they said. The holidays were merely pagan observances, not important.

Rather than specifically observing Hanukkah, Jenny and Wolfgang called it "honoring the greens," the winter solstice. I sent a menorah as they decked the windowsills with pine branches. Of course they exchanged presents, the universal custom.

Several years later, when Otto was five and his step-cousin Maddy four, I was hosting a seder. I passed out hagaddahs to my twelve guests and was about to tell the Passover story in a simple child-oriented way.

Before I could start, Otto, animated Otto, jumped out of his seat, raised his hand and called out, "Grandma, I know the story."

A great breath of relief passed through me.

"A killer fairy came down and killed the little boys."

"Nooo, Otto," Maddy corrected him. I see her in this role as an adult. In memorized singsong, she reported, "The-angel-of-death-came-down-and-slew the-little-boys."

That made this night different from all other nights. Every Passover now I wait for a child to say "a killer fairy."

Our first family Bas Mitzvah took place in Pennsylvania. This is my religious branch who sent their kids to yeshiva. Seven-year-old Otto was excited about all the food. "First we pray," my mother said, "and then we eat."

My German kids have a second son, carried in a sling across Jenny's full breast. Among the traditions she brought back from a high school year spent on an American Field Service program in Thailand was an emphasis on carrying the young. (Of course they didn't have carriages in Thailand).

Jenny sat with her family, sheltering the sleeping infant in his sling. Like her brothers, she has been Bas Mitzvahed and knows the prayers. Josh bent to invite her up for an aliyah (the honor of being called up to say a blessing before and after reading from the Torah). Swaying the sleeping little one, she carried him to the bimah (podium) played her role, and returned to her pew.

Tears rose to my eyes. Too young to know his role in this hallowed tradition, the babe has persevered in his mother's arms.

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Plural form of the Hebrew for "telling," it's the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. 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." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Joan Millman

Joan Millman is a longtime journalist, award-winning author of a Jewish-American story collection, and graduate of The Writing Program at Brown University. She has four children and eight grandchildren.

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