• Wed, Jun 16 2010

The Heart Monitor: When Jewish Brandy Met Atheist Tom

I didn’t tell my parents about “Tom” right away.

When we were in the whirlwind stages of early dating, whatever serious feelings I felt about the guy were too sexually and romantically charged to consider him a long-term relationship. We were just having fun—intense, passionate, let’s-spend-all-of-our-free-time-together fun. Fun wasn’t serious, and until it was, I could hold off on mentioning the tall, blue-eyed man to my family.

But it finally got serious, and I felt the Jewish guilt rise from my gut like indigestion. So I decided to call home.

“Where have you been?” my mother demanded. “I used to talk to you all the time! Now I’m lucky if you call once a week.”

“I’ve been busy,” I said. “And I started seeing someone.”

My mother perked up. “Who is he?”

“I met him through a friend of a friend and he’s great—he’s smart, funny, successful and sweet. You would love him. He’s wonderful.”

“And what is the lucky man’s name?”

“Tom Collins.”

My mother was silent.

“Hello?”

“So he’s not Jewish?”

“No, he’s not. And you know I don’t really care about that”

No response.

“Mom?”

“Well, your father and I would prefer a Jew.”

Had I grown up in a different household, her attitude would have been expected. But I wasn’t raised particularly Jewish. My parents belonged to a liberal Reform synagogue and sent me to its Sunday school with a smattering of other six-year-old Jews from our predominantly Catholic county.

Before I hit double-digits, I confessed to my mother that I did not believe in God, and therefore should be exempt from attending Sunday school. My mother sighed and explained how important it was to my grandfather that I stick with it—and that if I went until I was 13, she would throw me a huge party and I would be done with Sunday school for good.

I stuck with it, and sadly watched my beloved grandfather pass away a month before my bat mitzvah. But, as promised, I received the elaborate party, complete with videographer and photographer, whose recordings would serve as a humiliating reminder of my awkward pubescence.

My actual bat mitzvah, the traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony held in the synagogue, was only forty minutes long. For comparison, most of my peers’ took over three hours.

After the party, I stopped going to synagogue. A year later, my parents stopped going too. In the harsh fluorescent-lit glow of the neighbors’ Christmas trees, we celebrated Chanukkah in order to exchange presents, but we never remembered to light all the candles.

When our friends baked their hams on Easter Sunday, my family had a festive Passover dinner. We were Jewish by default, and embraced it as what set us apart, rather than what rendered us “chosen.”

But even our Passover seder felt secular. In recent years, we set a table in the dining room portion of my father’s bar. We nursed glasses of traditional Manischewitz wine, but we downed martinis and scotch (which is grain alcohol – and totally not allowed during the grain-less meal).  This year, I thought Passover at the bar would be the perfect occasion to drag Tom upstate to meet my parents. The booze would grease up my family, and Tom could feign the role of a nice Jewish boyfriend.

He was polite and inquisitive, avoiding uncomfortable silences with questions about the seder.

“Have another glass of Manischewitz!” I said happily, refilling my glass and topping his off.

At a certain point in the evening, I realized that the only person at the table who felt awkward was me. I drank my way around the situation, drowning whatever awkward tension I had picked up on with too much wine and neurosis. Tom was fine at the dinner table, and my parents seemed just as uneasy talking to him as they had been talking to previous boyfriends, Jewish or not.

Yes, Tom was fine—and I was wasted.

Actually, I was beyond wasted. Someone made a joke at my expense, and I burst into tears. Big, sloppy drunk sobs escaped from my stained lips and Tom put his arm around me, smiled graciously and said we were both tired, and it was time for us to take a train back to the city, thanking them for everything.

My parents exchanged a look that implied, “Well, we guess she’s his problem now.”

Passover was a bust—but it was also a success. Suddenly, Tom was the sane, rational hero to my crazy, over-the-top drama. He kept his cool, and my parents warmed up.

And now when my mother calls, she asks all about Tom.

“Oh, he’s doing fine,” I told her yesterday. “In fact, we were cleaning up the kitchen, and he asked about that cracked plastic menorah.”

“What about it?”

“He said we should get a real one and light the candles when Chanukkah comes around.”

She laughed. We never remember to light the candles, but I bet Tom will.

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