Mixed Background Times Three

By Marc Tyler Nobelman


Which difference would be our greatest obstacle–the Jewish-Protestant, Jewish-German, or German-American one?

When I asked Daniela to marry me, she knew saying yes meant more than just agreeing to become my wife. It also meant agreeing to raise a Jewish family and to live indefinitely in the United States. To a German Protestant who originally intended to stay in America for only a year, these decisions were as weighty as the other life-changing question at hand.

We met in 1996 while working for the same book publisher. Me being compulsive and Daniela being German, we had the two tidiest desks in the company. Plus, we found each other’s candor refreshing. We were instant friends; within six months, we were dating. Initially, the only stress in our office romance came from our constant efforts to hide it from our colleagues. Then Daniela began to worry that we were from worlds so different that a future together would be unlikely at best.

Our dichotomous religious backgrounds might have loomed as the most pressing issue, except we both had had a relatively secular upbringing. We had made usual stops on the life cycles of our respective faiths (Bar Mitzvah and Jewish youth group for me, Christian boarding school and confirmation for her), but when we emerged as adults, I characterized myself as a cultural rather than spiritual Jew and Daniela didn’t feel that her churchly influence had seeped in too deep.

My commitment to liberal Judaism, while unpronounced at times, was nonetheless one of my driving forces. Daniela came with me to High Holy Day services and eagerly helped prepare Passover seder. When I emphasized that I wanted Jewish children, her response, pure and buoyant as always, but also impulsive, was “I’ll convert!” I hadn’t contemplated asking her to consider that, and neither of us knew what exactly that would entail anyway. We took an Introduction to Judaism class and discovered that in 1983, the Reform movement had updated the familiar lineage refrain that the child is Jewish only if the mother is (or by conversion); now the child is considered Jewish even if only the father is, the other requirement being that the child must have a Jewish education. While that is affirming, Daniela and I knew that if we had kids, the fully present way we would bring them up would be more meaningful than any ruling.

Besides, in our case religion was not only about belief. It was also inescapably about history. Postwar Germany will likely forever be saddled with guilt and abhorrence for the monstrous crimes of their collective ancestors. To confront the horrors of the recent past, many Germans today tell their children about the Holocaust early and often. We suspect that Daniela may have been taught about it with greater intensity than I was. And the Holocaust might have seemed more palpable to her than to me growing up, since she walked the haunted ground where it happened.

Yet from the start when the subject came up neither of us was uncomfortable or passive. Sensitively, we investigated each other’s family trees. I had lost no known relatives in the Holocaust, and her family–immediate and extended–did not perpetrate any atrocities. As a doctor, Daniela’s grandfather Avus paid clandestine house calls to infirm Jews who would not have been admitted to a hospital, even after a colleague tried to scare him into stopping. When I met Avus, he eloquently condemned Hitler. Daniela provided the needed translation, but the remorse in his voice transcended language. And there may be some family secrets we’ll never know, now that Avus is deceased. His surname was Blumenthal–which, to every American Jew I’ve polled, is unambiguously Jewish. In his final years, he alluded to Jewish kin in prior generations, but could not summon the emotional stamina to give details. 

However, it was neither religion nor history that would end up being the thorniest challenge for Daniela and me. She noticed the cultural divide while I was still oblivious. But soon, our divergent attitudes on tradition and often-superficial topics such as etiquette and style began to spur a steady stream of tension. She recoiled if I wore running shoes when not exercising; I was annoyed when she insisted that we set the table for every meal as if, in my estimation, royalty were coming over.

These squabbles momentarily overwhelmed Daniela and she suggested we take a break. In protest, I spewed an impassioned flow of rhetoric, hoping to prove that I–I who’d been out of the country only once, I who spoke only English–was a “citizen of the world.” The selfish truth was that the only place I wanted to live was the U.S. Via Daniela’s outsider perspective, I’d developed the healthy ability to be less naïve about and more critical of my home country, but I still loved it here. In time she became amenable to staying here, too, as long as we visited her family as often as possible. We ironed out some disagreements immediately and tabled the rest. In a multi-year period of imminent-engagement, we lasted through U.S. coast changes, job changes, and philosophy changes, which leads back to my proposal.

Ever adaptable, Daniela said yes–yes to Judaism (but no to converting), yes to America (but no to anywhere but the New York region), yes to me (but a nonnegotiable no to my wearing sneakers with jeans). Our home would be Jewish, with no mixed messages on any level, but also no deception. Our children would know why two of their grandparents would not have a chanukiah (menorah) out when we visit in December, and more importantly, that their mother didn’t either when she was young. Upon sizing up her conditions against mine, it was clear that she would be making the majority of the sacrifices at the onset.

I envisioned a majestic mongrel wedding, set in motion with dual invitations, German and English, and ultimately playing out on three stages simultaneously. The setting would be German, Daniela’s hometown of Hamburg. The ceremony would be Jewish, from chuppah (wedding canopy) to hora (Jewish circle dance). The exuberance would be American, or at least initiated by Americans, as Germans tend to start out reserved.

To represent each of our essences, we wanted a rabbi who was both Reform and German. Within hours of e-mailing synagogues in Hamburg and the surrounding areas, we heard back in a torrent that the rabbis were unable to officiate unless both bride and groom are Jewish. (Meanwhile, we had thought our unorthodoxy, so to speak, would be our strongest selling point.) Though it meant abandoning the Teutonic element, we hopped to the U.K. only to hear an echo. Scrambling, we contacted the U.S. military, figuring a Jewish chaplain stationed overseas was a clever solution. We were promptly informed, “No one on active duty would perform an interfaith marriage.” Cross off one continent.

The progressive movement in Judaism is more progressive in the States. It seemed the only option left was to find a rabbi in America and fly him over. In an attempt to revive our German-rabbi wish, we e-mailed synagogues in the German section of New York; the first to respond wrote that there were no Reform German rabbis left. A week and many more e-mails and calls later, we got in touch with a rabbi whom a friend remembered from an eclectic wedding he attended. After a brief mutual interview, she was so positive that she vaporized all our previous disappointments. Adding an almost implausible layer of pathos to the proceedings, she was a Hungarian-born woman who had survived Auschwitz and emigrated to the U.S. By chance rather than choice, she had not been to Germany since the war. To our bittersweet surprise, she was happy to go there and marry us.

Then my real nervousness kicked in. Would Daniela’s side be uncomfortable with Judaism? Would my side be uncomfortable with Germany? Would the Germans be predisposed to the anti-Americanism that sometimes grips Europeans? Would the Americans grumble at Europe’s rampant indoor smoking and the customary dinner table seating that would separate husbands and wives? Or would they just dismiss the trip as too expensive to make? Daniela and I tiptoed forward as if the answer to all these questions would be “No.”

On the big day, at the hotel where our ceremony and reception took place, the blender revved into turbo mode. Throughout the planning, Daniela’s family and friends had been inquisitive about and unwaveringly supportive of the Jewish rituals. Her mother designed our chuppah. Our ushers were instructed to inform entering guests that they could put on a kippah (yarmulke, head covering) if they wanted, but shouldn’t feel obligated; being Jewish was not a prerequisite, though it was also no sign of disrespect to choose not to wear one. Under this anything-goes provision, a handful of German Protestants (along with my American Catholic friend Christian) did, while my dad didn’t. With the rabbi’s encouragement, we’d integrated nonsectarian German hymns into the ceremony, and the seven blessings were read in Hebrew, English, and German. Everyone was roused by the chair-lifting, though our Polterabend (the German pre-wedding party) the night before had set a tone jubilant enough to carry over.

Jews were excited to have someone to explain the goings-on to. Americans appreciated the focus with which the Germans made them feel welcome. Germans quickly warmed to the Americans’ free spiritedness, and reciprocated. The rabbi found the experience cathartic, as did many Germans with whom she talked at the reception. One after tentative one, they approached her to build back a little of what others long ago had destroyed, to grasp at a little more peace, to silently bless the blesser.

The reaction from our guests was profound. Those who shared their impression with us spoke in superlatives. Many stoic people, women and men both, wept. Most Germans there had never seen a Jewish wedding; most Americans had never been to a wedding in Europe. It may be a better description for a movie than a wedding, but there truly was something new for everyone.

In the end, the most daunting hurdles between us and a smooth day of matrimony had nothing to do with faith, history, or culture. We married in August 2003–culminating the week of both the oppressive, record-setting heat wave in Europe and the massive blackout in the States. Despite a few close calls, all our guests made it safely and in high spirits.

Our mixed backgrounds will probably continue to cause minor frictions, but in at least one significant way they’ll prevent them: Daniela and I will never argue about holiday destinations. Thanksgiving will always be with my family and Christmas with hers. No discussion needed, in any language.


About Marc Tyler Nobelman

Marc Tyler Nobelman is a writer and cartoonist (www.mtncartoons.com) who has authored over 50 books for young people and licensed cartoons to over 100 publications including Wall Street Journal and Good Housekeeping.