“Welcome to the tribe,” said the Jewish caterer, with sincerity and a big grin, as we met to discuss the food choices for my wedding reception. I had no idea the person in charge of catering would be Jewish, and I took it as a sign – a blessing of sorts.
I was raised in the Lutheran tradition in a small rural town, about an hour’s drive from St. Paul. My first experience with cultural and religious diversity occurred when I went to college. As a history major, I enrolled in a class entitled “Holocaust.” It was taught by Dr. Stephen Feinstein, a familiar name in the Twin Cities area, who was a well-respected scholar and professor. He invited a Holocaust survivor to share her story and, as I stared at the tattooed number on her forearm while she spoke, I experienced a profound impact. I don’t know how many high schools or colleges currently offer specific courses about the Holocaust, but Dr. Feinstein understood the need and sought to make a difference. As I pursued the study of the Holocaust, I had no idea that one day I would have a mother-in-law, Ruth, who survived the atrocities of that time.
My husband was born to Jewish parents in Manhattan, which is where Ruth resided after the war because she had relatives in NYC to sponsor her. Her mother was murdered at Auschwitz and her father died when she was a toddler. Ruth spoke of her mother’s store, which was destroyed on Kristallnacht. She spoke of being hidden by a French organization, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), after her mother gave the Children’s Aid Society permission to take Ruth. Her stories were filled with sorrow, yet she had accomplished much during her 87 years in spite of or because of what she endured and witnessed as a child.
I met my husband in our Midwest community. He moved to the area to attend graduate school and stayed. When we began dating, I was happy to share with my friends that I had met a great guy. When asked about him, I said he was a native New Yorker and his mother was a Holocaust survivor. I expected my friends to be interested in learning more about him and his mother’s story. “I couldn’t be with someone who wasn’t a Christian,” said a friend.
I didn’t know how to respond because I was shocked, so I mumbled something about his kindness. She ended our friendship, which wasn’t much of a friendship after all. Other friends or acquaintances rolled their eyes or looked at me with pity. I couldn’t believe the reactions. Several people invited me to attend church with them. That was almost humorous. A coworker informed me I was lucky because “Jews have money.” There were several comments about money. When someone told me that Jews are loud, I couldn’t help but wonder if this person compared Jewish people to Estelle and Frank Costanza on Seinfeld.
I was uncomfortable with the ease of opinions and comments. I didn’t handle the comments well. In fact, I didn’t handle the comments at all. I was stunned and confused. Didn’t they know about the Holocaust? Hadn’t they studied history? Were they antisemitic? I had questions but didn’t have the courage to pursue the answers. On occasion, I continue to receive comments or looks of disapproval, and I speak up with tact and fact.
We have a Jewish home. We light Shabbat candles every week, celebrate Jewish holidays and attend synagogue (virtually due to Covid). There is much to celebrate and from which to draw strength. In my mind, I can hear Ruth speaking in Yiddish and laughing to herself because she knew no one understood what she was saying, which could be a bit naughty. I won’t go into detail about her 1960s National Mah Jongg League cards or 1950s Pyrex bowls that are treasures to me. However, I will tell you that whenever I eat lasagna, I think of my wedding. Lasagna is what the caterer suggested we serve (meat and meatless), and she was there with a big smile on her face as my husband smashed the glass. I’m thankful that I have met very kind and welcoming Jewish people. I am grateful for the Jewish community.
I’m not the NPR correspondent but we share the same name, if that is what you are wondering.