The German Son-in-Law

By Joan Millman


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.


About 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.