Waking up with Claire on weekend mornings was a sweet pleasure. We would cuddle like spoons in her bed. I would caress her heavy, round breasts, and she would purr in a contented way, slowly opening her large, dark deep eyes. I knew I could run my hands along her milky white thighs and quickly get her excited. She would whisper something about not now. If it was Sunday, she might mumble about going to church. Forget about church, I would say. Let’s make love. She always forgot about church. But not today.
“It’s Easter,” she exclaimed, lurching up. “We have to go to church.”
“It’s too late,” I replied, gently tugging her back down.
She struggled back up. “I’m serious. It’s Easter. I have to go to church. What would my parents say? Come with me.”
“Are you serious? What’s a nice Jewish boy like me going to do at church on Easter? Forget it,” I laughed, trying to pull her back down. Claire had been my girlfriend for six or eight months, I wasn’t keeping count. It started in the fall after I’d moved into an apartment down the hall from her before I began graduate school in Boston. I don’t recall her ever going to church in all that time. She talked about going on Christmas, but we went skiing instead. Most Sundays we went off to do something fun or just lazed around. Now she was suddenly insistent on going to church and dragging me along.
I, a Jewish boy, medium height and build, dark curly brown hair and brown eyes, lumpy nose, had never set foot in a church. It was enough that I joined my parents in synagogue for the High Holidays twice a year. Other than that, I joined my older brothers with their young children for a token celebration of Chanukah and attended family Seders at Passover. In short, I was a typical modern American secular Jew. Claire, suddenly wracked by her French Canadian Catholic guilt, insisted we go to church. She didn’t even know where the nearest Catholic Church was. I suggested we go to a hockey game instead, but she didn’t find my little joke funny.
So, about an hour and a half later I found myself standing in the only suit I own on the steps of some crumbling Boston inner city Catholic Church near our apartment building. Claire is wearing a gorgeous pink dress that shows off her figure in the most delightful ways, not exactly what I would consider totally appropriate for a family holiday like I thought Easter was, but remember, it was short notice. I can’t help but pat her rear end as little Hispanic girls in frilly white dresses and little boys imprisoned in blue suits and ties race past us into the church. “Behave yourself,” she hissed, but she seemed to enjoy it. What do I know about proper behavior in church?
The actual service was a blur. Claire pulled me into a pew in the back. I sat there thumbing through what looked like a book of hymns. Every now and then Claire and everyone else in church would kneel on little pads attached to the pew in front of us. I tried to slouch down and make myself invisible.
After the service Claire wanted to make a grand Easter dinner, just like she remembered from home. Of course, she hadn’t thought about any of this in advance and so hadn’t prepared anything. Claire is impetuous, which is probably one of the things that endeared her to me. She will suddenly get some idea and assume that she will be able to pull it off. Often I was the willing accomplice, who would pull the required rabbit out of the hat. Maybe that is why she stuck with me.
Claire was some sort of hospital administrator. I’m still not exactly sure what she actually did, but she worked long hours carrying a clipboard around. At least she didn’t have to wear a beeper. Because of the long hours, she didn’t do a lot of cooking or food shopping. We ate a lot of takeout. As an MBA student, I spent a ridiculous number of hours pouring over computer spreadsheets and case studies. My idea of cooking at home is to pour some water into one of those instant cup-of-soup products and zap it in the microwave or throw some slices of leftover pizza in the toaster oven.
So now Claire insists on making a traditional Easter dinner–no takeout, no dashing off to a restaurant. “That’s not Easter,” she insisted.
I trudged down the hall to my apartment, but I wasn’t hopeful. I opened the refrigerator door and noticed a bunch of things wrapped in aluminum foil. How could I have forgotten? It had just been Passover and I went home for a Seder. I invited Claire to join me, but she begged off citing work commitments. Anyway, my mother sent me home with a ton of leftover turkey, matzo balls, roast potatoes, some brisket. Presto! An instant Easter banquet. I dashed back to Claire in ecumenical triumph.
An hour later the two of us were sitting across from each other at Claire’s candlelit dining table. She had pulled out her fancy tablecloth and best china. She opened a can or two of soup in which to float the matzo balls and heated up some rolls. She magically pulled out cranberry sauce and mixed up some instant gravy. We opened a bottle of wine. Claire was beaming; she had her Easter dinner, an Easter dinner even a rabbi could love. It looked more to me like Shabbat dinner, and I felt a sudden urge to say the motzi. Claire looked beautiful, her Easter triumph radiating in her eyes and smile. In a flash, we were naked in her bed. The dishes would wait. It was the nicest Easter I would ever have.
Claire and I met at a meeting of all the tenants in the building. I hadn’t lived there long before the tenants got notified that the owner intended to file plans to convert the building into a condominium. Flyers were stuffed under doors calling tenants to different meetings. Some tenants wanted to organize against the condo deal and keep the building as rental apartments. Others wanted to negotiate to get the best insider price for tenants.
I came to Boston for my MBA after spending a couple of years after college working as a programmer at an Internet company. It was an incredible time; I was making amazing amounts of money. But I didn’t want to remain a programmer forever and was lucky enough to cash out and head off to graduate school with a pretty fat bank account before things turned bad for that industry.
I didn’t much care about the apartment one way or another since I figured I wasn’t going to stay after my program ended. I planned to pack up my car and head off to wherever my next job took me. I would have skipped the meetings after the first one except Claire, with her hot body, deep dark eyes, and long straight black hair, became very involved in the process. I found her incredibly sexy. Until then, we had only exchanged casual greetings in the hallway. Now, she was eagerly coming up to me to talk about this or that relating to the building or finances and stuff like that.
I was happy to play the role of involved tenant if it allowed me to get close to Claire. I had broken up with my previous girlfriend over a year before and hadn’t had great success meeting women lately. There weren’t too many eligible women in my MBA program and the ones there were didn’t seem particularly interested in me for whatever reason. Now I gladly sat through boring tenant meetings just to see Claire jump up wearing a tight tank top that showed off her large, round breasts and insist, in her French Canadian accent, that something was stupid, which came out sounding like styuupeed. I could listen to her call the property owner or his lawyers styuupeed all night long.
After one meeting, I invited Claire to go out for a cup of coffee. We ended up at a neighborhood bar that sometimes featured local bands. As it turned out, we both liked garage bands and movies and a couple of the same obscure authors. Neither of us played tennis or golf or any of those social sports, but we liked walking and hiking, skiing, and canoeing (except neither of us had a canoe). We quickly discovered we had a lot of interests in common. I could feel the start of a fine romance. A few days later she invited me over to share a takeout dinner. I stayed the whole night.
Our romance blossomed that fall and grew through the winter. By spring we were almost living together. Easter seemed to seal the deal for Claire. She was mine and I was hers. In my mind, however, this remained a romance, not a relationship. I hadn’t yet started to think of Claire as a long-term, lifelong partner. But what a romance it was!
With Claire the summer exploded into the kind of summer of romance people make schmaltzy movies about. We would picnic at outdoor concerts, spend evenings tracking down garage bands or foreign films in Cambridge, or go hiking or canoeing in New Hampshire. I was happy to let myself drown in Claire’s deep dark eyes. We reveled in each other’s bodies. Everybody should have a summer romance like this at least once in his or her life, and the best thing about this one was that it continued after Labor Day.
Except for her occasional urges to attend church on Sunday, which she never followed through on, except for that Easter, religion never came up. Did she know I was Jewish? Undoubtedly, but it wasn’t something we ever discussed. I didn’t keep kosher. I didn’t run off to shul on Shabbat. We didn’t talk about Israel or the Palestinians or the Mideast although they were in the news all the time. Somewhere inside me I cared about Israel and cringed at each suicide bombing but other than making an occasional contribution to some Jewish or Israeli cause, I wasn’t actively involved. Of course she knew I was circumcised although that doesn’t prove anything these days.
My mother once gave me a set of wine glasses with the Hebrew blessing for wine written on them–borei pri hagafen. Her plan, I suspect, was if I ever invited a girl to my apartment and served wine, the girl would immediately know I was Jewish and steer clear if she wasn’t Jewish herself. Of course, I could just as happily drink wine out of a beer mug, which Claire and I sometimes did. My mother’s wine glasses never came out of the box. Besides, we usually ate in Claire’s apartment, and she had perfectly good wine glasses.
I guess I was sleeping with a Moabite or a Midianite or whatever they are called in the Torah. When I was forced to go to Hebrew School, my prudish, politically correct teacher kept referring to them as strangers. The Torah, he insisted, “prohibited us from associating with strangers.” He meant sleeping, cohabitating, fornicating, fucking but he wouldn’t actually say those words. I can’t for the life of me understand why he couldn’t just name these strangers; they’re named in the Torah. Did he think any Moabites today would come out to protest or hunt him down?
Anyway, he nearly choked when we got to Numbers (B’midbar), 25:1-9, “…the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women…” There it was in black and white, but this idiot wouldn’t say it out loud. The people, of course, are us, the motley crowd of stiff-necked Jews, and God tells Moses to take a bunch of those doing the most whoring with these non-Jewish women and impale them on spears. Jewish guys, it seems, have been sleeping with non-Jewish girls for a long time; I was just the latest in a long tradition.
Of course, I hadn’t started dating yet when we read that in school. I probably would have thought sleeping with strangers meant taking your teddy bear and going nighty-night. When I finally did start dating, I dated a lot of so-called strangers and would have slept with any of them if they would have me. Claire was simply the most recent in a long list of non-Jewish girls I dated and one of the few who actually allowed me into her bed. So, finally, I was sleeping with a stranger regularly, profaning myself by whoring with a Moabite woman, so to speak, and having a great time doing it. And you know what? God did not strike me with a plague or have me speared. At least not yet.
By now it was September, and the High Holidays were approaching. As I said before, I was a twice-a-year Jew. I came out of the closet for the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I dutifully joined my parents at their synagogue in a town about 100 miles from Boston for the holiday meal and accompanied them to services. My brothers would come with their families as well. We all would put in a token appearance at synagogue, arriving late and leaving before the end. Even then, my brothers and I spent most of the time lounging around on the steps catching up with old friends who had also returned to join their parents for the holidays. I rather enjoyed it, at least the socializing part. It was more like a high school reunion. The Jewish spiritual content, however, was minimal.
The big question I faced was whether to invite Claire to join me. My two older brothers had married Jewish girls who, in a reasonable amount a time, delivered Jewish grandchildren. My parents were as non-observant Jews as I was, but they made it very clear they wanted their children to marry Jews.
Of course, their message, strong as it was, had an ambiguous twist. If I should show up one day with an orthodox girlfriend, one who kept strictly kosher and observed Shabbat and visited the mikvah and in every way followed the 613 commandments to the letter — not very likely, I confess — they would have been appalled. They were the ones who held my bar mitzvah reception at a non-kosher country club and served shrimp at the engagement party for one of my brothers. A truly observant girlfriend who became a daughter-in-law would really cramp their style. So their muddied message came through loud and clear: marry a Jewish girl but not too Jewish. Claire, however, was absolutely not Jewish, not even close.
My father really wanted grandchildren, particularly Jewish grandchildren. “If your grandchildren are Jewish then you have succeeded,” he would always proclaim as we were growing up in our assimilated lifestyle. Success under these circumstances seemed meaningless and, of course, he didn’t have any grandchildren at all at that point. On this issue, I considered him an outrageous hypocrite. He wanted Jewish grandchildren but he led an American, assimilated middle class life, not a Jewish life. He made his annual donations to Hadassah and the United Jewish Appeal, but he didn’t have a clue what was inside the Torah.
His own father was orthodox and observant to the very end of his life, but he certainly didn’t continue his father’s Jewish practices. He did one funny thing, however; he financially supported an ultra-Orthodox shul in our town although I doubt he ever set foot in the place. When I pressed him about it, he would simply shrug and say: “Someone has to keep the Jewish faith alive.”
Certainly I knew Jewish girls and had nothing against them. I had dated a few over the years and had known them when I attended Jewish summer camp, even kissed a few whenever one would let me. Maybe they weren’t attracted to me. Whatever the reason, since I went off to college, I ended up with a string of non-Jewish girlfriends. But I never thought of inviting any of them to my parents’ home for the High Holidays. I knew the relationships, however intimate at the moment, were temporary. My parents never realized this and believed I was one step away from a Catholic wedding and the confessional booth. Claire was different from the others and by now, after our glorious summer of love, I could actually envision myself possibly spending my life with her. I wasn’t quite ready to vow eternal love for her today but maybe someday in the future.
I broached the subject of going to my parents for the High Holidays with Claire one evening. She asked a few questions, mainly about my parents and family. I have to admit that I didn’t passionately press the invitation. I wanted her to feel included but not obligated. Maybe she sensed my lack of enthusiasm. Fortunately, the High Holidays fell during the midweek, which gave Claire a convenient excuse to stay in Boston. “I can’t miss work like that. So many of the Jewish staff will be out,” she said, her eyes sincere and her voice loving. We made love that night with extra passion. I felt more for her than ever before, but I also felt relieved. She probably did too.
The High Holidays turned out like nothing I expected. In the past, we hit the synagogue briefly the first day of Rosh Hashanah and spent the second day sitting around the house just eating and visiting. My brothers would be there with their wives and now the babies. It was nice. My brothers were at a different stage in their lives so we didn’t do much together anymore. They weren’t likely to leave their families behind and take off for a weekend of skiing or an overnight backpacking trip with me. So we all had begun to look forward to the second day of Rosh Hashanah as the only chance to hang out as brothers.
But not this year. My father had been asked and actually accepted the honor of opening the Ark containing the Torah at some point during the service on the second day. That meant he had to be there, and he strongly requested (actually insisted) that we all be there too, to witness it I guess. “Why didn’t you just turn it down like you usually do?” I asked in amazement. In the past he was always the first one ready to leave. He didn’t have high school friends there to chat with.
“The rabbi would be disappointed,” he said.
“Since when do you care what the rabbi thinks? Do you think he wasn’t disappointed when you held my bar mitzvah reception at a non-kosher country club? C’mon,” I protested.
Well, that was a different rabbi, and it turns out that my father had started taking an adult education course taught by the current rabbi. He started it last spring, after Passover –about the time I went to Easter services with Claire — and was continuing with the second session this fall, after the High Holidays. The course was on Jewish ethics. If my father was interested in it, the course must at least be about Jewish business ethics since my father didn’t have my interests outside of business and golf, and I was pretty sure the rabbi probably wasn’t teaching a course on golf ethics. Was there such a thing?
The course turned out to be about Jewish medical ethics — when to pull the plug on life support and stuff like that. My father didn’t seem inclined to elaborate any further; we all trudged off to synagogue the second day and sat through an interminable service to watch him walk up onto the bimah and pull a little string dangling by the curtains, which draws them aside to reveal the Torahs. As he returned to our seats, people I didn’t recognize jumped up to pump his hand and congratulate him as if he had just christened a battleship. He was beaming.
Returning to Boston loaded up with leftovers from my mother’s meals, Claire and I feasted for days on brisket and roast chicken rather than relying on our usual takeout. We did more of our usual whoring, as the Torah calls it. Nobody impaled me on a spear or struck me down with plague. I returned the next week for Yom Kippur. Again, Claire gladly stayed to cover at the hospital.
I actually like Yom Kippur with my family. Usually we eat a late meal on erev Yom Kippur, the night the holiday begins. In our house, your fast would begin as soon as you left the table so everyone hangs around the table talking and nibbling until 10 pm or so. It is a very pleasant time, something I look forward to each year. To end the fast, my mother lays out a lavish spread of bagels and lox, her awesome kugel, and a variety of fish and cold cuts at around 6 pm. It isn’t sunset yet, but we don’t care; we’re hungry after what we considered fasting all day. Following the rules exactly, as you can see, isn’t my family’s style when it comes to Jewish observance.
But again, my father changed our usual Yom Kippur routine. My mother served her typical lavish meal, but we sat down promptly at 4:30 pm and rushed through the meal to get to the synagogue in time for Kol Nidre, the evening service. “But we’ve never gone to Kol Nidre,” my brothers and I protested.
“The rabbi is expecting me, and I want my family with me,”
So we raced through this incredible meal, trying to pack hours of eating into about 45 minutes. Then my father, mother, and all three of us boys marched off to the Kol Nidre service. My sisters-in-law graciously volunteered to stay home with the babies and clean up. I would have gladly changed places.
Needless to say, my father also insisted we attend the concluding Yom Kippur Neilah service, which ends with a loud, long shofar blast to signal the end of the fast. All in all, I figured our usual fast was extended by about six hours, maybe more. I was starving by the end of the service and couldn’t believe how many people were there until the very end. Weren’t they hungry? We raced home to eat.
“What’s gotten into Dad?” I asked my mother later that night. Everyone else had wandered to their rooms and was going to bed. “Why is he suddenly so interested in synagogue and the rabbi? It can’t be one stupid adult ed class,” I continued.
“It’s nothing. He’s just getting older,” said my mother.
“C’mon, I don’t buy that. It’s not like him at all,” I insisted.
Well, it seems my father had experienced some heart fibrillations and the doctor did some stress tests. “It’s nothing serious,” my mother assured me, but he has to take some medication and watch what he is eating and get more exercise, she explained.
“And now he thinks he’s close to death and is suddenly getting religion,” I added.
“You can see it like that if you want. Maybe he’s discovering that there are things more important in this world and in our lives than business. Frankly, I’m pleased,” she said. Seen in that light, I guess I was pleased too. I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of my own life or if it meant anything at all. The next morning my mother sent me back loaded, as usual, with enough incredible leftovers to feed Claire and me for a week.
In the weeks that followed our relationship continued to grow. I concentrated on school and she concentrated on work. We spent every weekend together and most weeknights, except when I was studying late in the library at school with my study group. Before we knew it, Thanksgiving had arrived.
Claire wanted to go home for Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving takes place early in October, but there was no way Claire could get home because of work. She could, however, get a chunk of time off for the American Thanksgiving so she made plans to go to her parent’s home in Quebec. She really wanted me to join her. “It would mean so much to me,” she added in a pleading voice. Then she batted her beautiful eyelashes a few times to underscore her point. God, I felt torn.
“Sounds good to me,” I lied, “but lemme first see what’s doing with my parents before we firm up anything for sure.” That part was the truth.
Usually I go to my parents for Thanksgiving. In recent years my brothers would join their in-laws for Thanksgiving, leaving me as the only child home with my parents for the holiday. If I went with Claire, then my parents would be alone. It’s not that we made much of Thanksgiving, except as another opportunity for my mother to prepare a huge meal and pack us all off with leftovers. We didn’t watch football games or go shopping or do any of the usual things. Still, I wasn’t fully prepared to abandon them on Thanksgiving and run off to Canada to meet Claire’s family.
Complicating matters, I had never explicitly told my parents about Claire or the depth of my involvement with her. They knew I was seeing a girl. Once she even answered the phone in my apartment early on a Saturday morning. She wouldn’t normally do that except we were expecting a friend to call us about plans for later that day. So Claire unexpectedly found herself talking to my mother. She quickly handed the phone to me.
“Who was that?” my mother asked.
“A friend,” I said.
“Oh, she must be some friend to be in your apartment at this hour of the morning. Does she have a name?” my mother continued.
“Claire,” I replied, not wanting to get into a long discussion.
“Hmm, Claire, Claire what?” she pressed. I knew what she was getting at.
“Devereaux. Claire Devereaux,” I conceded, able to predict what was coming next.
“Deveraeaux, hmmm, Devereaux. That’s not a Jewish name,” my mother concluded.
“No, it’s not. Mom, what did you call for? What’s up?” I asked.
She called because my father had another bout of heart fibrillations, worse than before, and was going into the hospital for some more tests. No, they didn’t want me to come in. He wouldn’t be kept overnight. It was nothing, just enough to send me on a guilt trip. “Thanks for letting me know,” I said, and ended the call before we could get back to the subject of Claire.
“You never told them about me?” Claire asked in amazement. There was some outrage in her voice too.
“I would have if you came home with me for any of the High Holidays but you didn’t,” I stammered. “But I’m going to tell them now since I’m joining you for Thanksgiving,” I added, quickly realizing that I had just made a serious commitment as far as Claire and our relationship was concerned.
She was obviously pleased. I had agreed to go with her. Then a thoughtful, troubled look briefly flashed in those big, dark eyes I so loved. “They won’t like me because I’m not Jewish,” she announced.
“Will your parents like it when you bring a Jewish boy home? Do they even know?” I asked.
“Yes they know about you. Canadians are very open-minded. Anyway, that’s not the point,” she countered.
Of course, it was exactly the point, but I didn’t want to argue with her over this. “My parents won’t be happy at first that you aren’t Jewish, but when they get to know you they will love you,” I said, sort of believing it myself.
We embraced and kissed and made plans to go to Quebec for Thanksgiving. We’d take my car. (Claire actually didn’t have a car; we lived within walking distance of her hospital.) And I did tell my parents about Claire, at least the basic demographics. “Look, I’m not marrying her. She invited me there for Thanksgiving. It’s not a big deal,” I insisted. I also persuaded my oldest brother to invite our parents to join him at his in-laws, who lived nearby, for Thanksgiving. Everyone seemed to like that: my brother and his wife, her parents, and my parents. My mother could even cook up a few dishes to add to the feast. I was off the hook.
We didn’t leave for Quebec until the day before Thanksgiving. It was raining here when we left. Long before we crossed the border into Canada it had changed to snow. The driving was slow. We didn’t finally pull into the driveway at Claire’s parents’ home in some small rural town east of Montreal until late in the evening.
The first thing you need to know about Quebec is that Quebec isn’t exactly Canada and the more rural you get in Quebec, the less like Canada it seems. Also, although I took French in high school and college and even spent part of my junior year in France, I don’t speak French particularly well. I can read it fluently and even write it pretty well, but I can’t understand it when people speak French to me in their normal rapid-fire fashion. Also, people in Quebec speak French with a considerably different accent, which makes it even harder for people like me. I had never heard Claire speak French. Even when she talked in her sleep, which she sometimes did, mumbling a few words, she mumbled in English.
Another thing you need to know is that Claire and I never talked about national or international events and politics. Our political interests revolved exclusively around the organizing in our building in the face of the condo conversion. We never talked about the situation in the Mideast, Israel, Palestinians, terrorism, the UN, or things like that.
I’m neither a Zionist nor a pacifist; as a Jew I believe Israel must do what it takes to survive as a Jewish state among hostile neighbors vowing to annihilate it. Terrorism and particularly suicide bombings are utterly abhorrent to me, and I can’t believe they are not completely denounced as totally unacceptable under any circumstances throughout the civilized world. But they are not denounced. In countries like Canada, people regularly voice support for Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombings and actually denounce Israeli when it defends itself. Claire and I never talked about this. It never came up in the course of our relationship. Neither had Canadian anti-Americanism.
Claire’s family lived in a low, gangly ranch house at the end of a long dirt driveway. She is the oldest child of six, four younger brothers and finally a little sister. Her father, Claude, is a short, wiry guy, a mechanic. Her mother, Marie, is a buxom lady with deep dark eyes and straight black hair. That’s certainly where Claire got her looks. She introduced me to the kids but other than the oldest boy, who also was named Claude, I couldn’t keep any of the names straight.
They all congregated around us when we entered the house. The living room was stuffed with furniture. A big-screen TV stood against the center of one wall. Two couches and a couple of chairs were arrayed in a semicircle around it. I immediately noticed a couple of ornate crosses attached to various walls and a statue that I took to be the Virgin Mary.
Her father immediately offered me a beer and, speaking in English, mentioned that he understood there were a lot of Jews in my fancy MBA program. Whoa! I expected something like this but not so abruptly. Shouldn’t we talk about the weather or the drive first? Anyway, I managed to respond saying that there didn’t seem to be any more than would be expected. I added that I had known more Jews in my job as a computer programmer.
It already was pretty late, and I was beat from the long drive. Claire rushed over and suggested we all go to bed and catch up in the morning at breakfast. I was led off to her brother Claude’s room where I would be sleeping. Clearly Claire and I weren’t going to be doing anything intimate in this house, not that I was expecting to.
Thursday, Thanksgiving, was a normal workday in Canada. Claire’s siblings and father had to leave for school or work. When I stumbled into the kitchen dressed in the same clothes I wore the day before, not even having showered yet, everyone was already there. They were digging into mountains of eggs and bacon and ham and toast. Claire greeted me cheerily with a cup of coffee, some juice, and toast.
“Is that all he eats?” asked her mother in French, that much I understood. Claire rattled off some answer about that’s what we do in Boston.
“Do you speak any French?” her father asked me in French.
“Un peu,” a little, I replied in French.
“We always speak English,” Claire added in French. It might have been the first time I heard her speak French.
So the conversation ricocheted around the room, mainly in Quebec-accented French but occasionally in English. I could follow the gist of the French and most of the English but it required considerable concentration. I lagged behind the rapid flow of unfamiliar French and felt out of synch with what was going on.
Suddenly her father pushed a French language newspaper in front of me and asked, in French, what I thought of this. Prominently on the page was an opinion piece, an editorial, about an Israeli helicopter attack on several Palestinian cars. The attack killed a leading Palestinian terrorist as well as a few of his family members. Like I said, I can read French well and this story was so biased against Israel and blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-American all at the same time that I might have laughed if her father hadn’t seemed so serious about it.
“Do we have to talk about this now?” Claire asked in French.
“It’s OK,” I said to her and turned to her father speaking in my slow French. “If I read this correctly, the person killed was responsible for a number of suicide attacks on Israelis civilians. If that is true, then he got what he deserved. Israel has a right to defend itself, just like Canada or any other country. I’m sorry the others died with him.”
“He was a freedom fighter. He was fighting for his country,” said one of Claire’s brothers.
“So are the Israelis,” I pointed out.
Claire let loose a stream of rapid fire French that I couldn’t quite follow but it certainly sounded angry. Her father pulled the newspaper back and everyone quickly drifted out of the kitchen to get on with their day, leaving only me, Claire, and her mother. “I’ll help you clean up, Mama,” Claire said.
After Claire and I showered and changed (separately) into fresh clothes, Claire took me out to show me her village. We saw her school and the library and the local hospital and her church, the most imposing building for miles around. At one point, we parked the car and started walking up a hill, one of the few hills in a generally flat countryside populated mainly by farms. A few inches of fresh snow lay on the ground. We hadn’t yet talked much about the kitchen conversation, but I was about to change that.
“What do they dislike most, that I’m a Jew or an American?” I asked.
“Look around. You can see the whole district from here,” she said.
“It’s beautiful, flat but beautiful. That doesn’t answer my question.”
“They usually aren’t like that. I don’t know what to say. But you have to admit, the Israelis can be brutal and America supports them. It is terrible what is happening over there.”
“Yes, you’re right. What’s happening there is terrible,” I agreed. “Suicide bombers killing dozens of innocent people, bombs planted in college cafeterias killing and maiming dozens more, bombs packed with nails to cause even more pain and suffering. Terrorist hiding in ambulances. Palestinians dancing in the streets to celebrate each suicide attack, especially the attack on the World Trade Towers. You are right. It is an awful situation.”
“Don’t be like that. Suddenly you sound like one of those pro-Israel demonstrators. You aren’t like that in Boston,” she said.
“And you aren’t like this in Boston,” I said angrily. “Do you want me to just agree with everything your parents and brothers say about Israel and Jews and America? If that will make them happy and make you happy, I will. It won’t be true, but I will.” Suddenly, a thought popped into my head, something from Hebrew School or Jewish summer camp or someplace like that, shalom bayit, peace in the house. The idea is that you let go of your anger for the sake of peace in the home. There probably is more to it than that, but that was all I could remember. “Shalom bayit,” I said out loud, even surprising myself.
“What? Shalom byte? Is that some kind of computer thing?” asked Claire, surprised and confused.
“Shalom bayit. Peace in the home. It means trying not to do anything that will disrupt the peacefulness of the home. Let’s just focus on shalom bayit this weekend and try not start an America, Israel, Canada war.”
“Yes, the whole thing is so styuupeed,” Claire agreed.
We were standing at the top of the hill by now. I pulled her toward me, her deep dark eyes sad but beautiful. I loved hearing her say styuupeed. We kissed passionately, as passionately as you can when you are bundled up in layers of parkas, sweaters, and scarves. At the end of the kiss, she pecked me on the cheek, “When did I fall so in love with an American Jew?” Then she turned back down the hill.
That evening Claire’s mother served an enormous meal, in honor of our coming for the American Thanksgiving. The table was piled with high with bread and potatoes, overcooked canned vegetables, and huge chunks of baked ham and pork roast. Little diced pieces of pork were laced through everything — the vegetables, potatoes, even the salad. I didn’t grow up keeping kosher, but this was new to me. I don’t think I had ever eaten ham or pork except in a Chinese restaurant. And I admit a special fondness for spare ribs in black bean sauce. I dutifully took small portions and piled on the bread, which contained no little pieces of pork that I could tell. Shalom bayit, I reminded myself, and delivered frequent compliments with sufficient enthusiasm. In French, no less.
Claire must have said something to her parents and siblings because the conversation never turned to world events or politics. We talked about the weather and hockey and computers and Florida. I guess everybody in Quebec must spend time in Florida at some point during the winter. My parents had taken me to Disney World and the other big tourist attractions there as a kid, so I could participate in the conversation. Of course, I could talk about computers. Claire’s brothers were having problems with their computer. I promised to look at it the next day. Claire talked about the difference between Canadian and US health care systems, and her parents were more than happy to complain about Canada’s health care system.
Early the next morning, I sat down with Claire’s brothers before they left for school and straightened out their computer problems. They had screwed up some Windows DLLs and didn’t know how to fix them. It was easy for me, and they seemed sincerely grateful. Claire and I hung around throughout the morning revising our plans for the rest of the trip, her idea not mine, but I was delighted. After lunch, Claire announced that we were leaving that evening for Montreal for the weekend and then heading home. Her mother seemed disappointed but didn’t try too hard to convince us to stay. When her father returned from work, he shook my hand and advised me to drive carefully.
We spent a wonderful weekend in Montreal. We caught some movies, hit some clubs, and played around in the hotel room. Claire was warm and loving and enthusiastic. We didn’t talk about her family or Jews or Israel. It was like we were home or maybe it was just more shalom bayit, except that shalom bayit is supposed to be more than just superficially papering over disagreements. That was the least part of it. Shalom bayit, I remembered, was really about making the effort to listen to others and understand their concerns. It wasn’t about giving up or giving in or deceiving yourself or anyone else. It was about a willingness to grow and change, about communicating and coming to an honest understanding that all could accept even if it wasn’t exactly what you originally wanted. In the end you put the arguments aside because they didn’t mean anything anymore. On the long drive home Claire became very quiet and pensive. I didn’t mind; I had a lot to think about too. Although we were both thinking, I wasn’t sure we were communicating, and I wasn’t sure either of us was willing to make the changes that would truly bring us shalom bayit.
Back in Boston, we fell into our familiar ways. Still I felt an undercurrent of tension. Claire and I celebrated Chanukah in my apartment, giving each other silly presents and lighting the Menorah. I went home alone to my parent’s house for one night. Before Claire flew home for Christmas, I gave her a serious present, a sweater she had been long admiring. Then I drove her to the airport and picked her up a few days later. Her only complaint: the Canadian health care system was so overloaded that her father was having trouble scheduling some medical tests. We celebrated New Year’s Eve at a friend’s party.
This undercurrent of tension continued to surface now every time Israel was in the news, which at times was almost every other day. Other times it came out when we were ordering food. Suddenly she seemed very sensitive to what was kosher or not. Would I eat spare ribs in a Chinese restaurant? Would I eat shrimp at a seafood restaurant? “What’s with you suddenly?” I asked. “I eat all that stuff. You know that,” I finally said, venting my frustration. She also started going to church occasionally. She would invite me, but I would decline, joking that I only go on Easter. She never pressed the issue.
One day my father called. His father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death, was coming up. It fell on a Saturday, Shabbat, this year. Would I join him at services and say Kaddish, a special prayer said in memory of a dead loved one, with him? I never remember him saying Kaddish for his father. He barely sat shiva, the weeklong period of mourning following his father’s death. I must have been in high school at the time. “Is this another thing the rabbi expects?” I asked somewhat insultingly.
“It has nothing to do with the rabbi. It is something I want to do. Will you come with me?”
Claire was surprised when I told her that I was joining my father at the synagogue the next Saturday. We didn’t have any plans. I would drive down early that morning and be back that evening. Yet, she was upset. “Look, I don’t complain when you run off to church, leaving me in bed,” I pointed out.
“That’s different,” she insisted.
I didn’t think it was different. We agreed to disagree, but we both knew things had changed between us. Why should that be? We were both the same people we had always been. Only now there was this thing between us, my Jewishness or maybe it was her Catholicness. I wasn’t any more Jewish than I had ever been before. I wasn’t a sudden advocate for Israel. And Claire was still Claire. I loved her for who she was, for the way she railed at people who were styuupeed. We were great together in bed and out of bed. We had loved each other. So why not now, dammit? Why had it changed? It shouldn’t have changed, but clearly something had. And I started to fear that I couldn’t change it back to the way it was without becoming someone I wasn’t. I could pretend or Claire could pretend, but neither of us could keep it going that way.
I picked up my father at the house, and we drove together to synagogue arriving in time for the Torah service. Unlike the High Holidays when the place was packed, today maybe seventy or eighty people sat scattered around the sanctuary. My father greeted many people as we came in and introduced me. I could sense how proud he was to have me with him. I started toward some seats in the back, way at the side. “Let’s go where I usually sit,” he said and directed me toward an area in the middle toward the front.
“You have a usual seat? How often do you come?” I asked, flabbergasted.
It turns out that he came almost every week. Usually my mother would come with him. “She’s home making a very nice lunch for us. Don’t eat too much at kiddush. And you’ll have plenty of leftovers to bring home,” he explained.
“But why?” I stammered. “What about golf? What about all the Saturdays you go into the office?”
“There is incredible richness in the Jewish tradition, in Jewish learning and values. Your grandfather understood that, but I was too smart or too busy to bother with it. Now I want to taste that richness, to experience it firsthand,” he replied. “For one day a week, business can wait. Anyway, so I tee off later in the afternoon, what’s the big deal?”
I looked around the congregation. None of my old high school friends were there although there were a bunch of people about my age plus a bunch more a bit older, young families with little kids. I tried to picture myself here with Claire, maybe with a child too. It was a nice thought but I just couldn’t make the picture work. For one thing, Claire would have to convert if our kids were to be considered Jewish in a congregation like this, and I couldn’t see her doing that. Her family would go ballistic. So I reversed the picture and tried to see myself at church with her and our children. Again, I’d probably have to be baptized or take communion or confession or something. I’m not sure I would do that; it would kill my parents and maybe me too. Anyway, it would all be pretending and, as I had already realized, that wouldn’t work for long.
Meanwhile, I was going through all the motions of the service on autopilot, standing up and sitting down, touching the Torah when it passed. My mind was busy trying to visualize these scenes with Claire. My father suddenly tapped my shoulder. “Mourner’s Kaddish,” he said. We rose and recited what I thought were ancient Hebrew words praising God. (It turns out they are Aramaic words.) It’s odd that the prayer we say for the dead never mentions the dead. Instead we praise God and ask for peace. Phrases that I had heard long before popped into my head and out of my mouth. I was surprised that I remembered so much of it. When we finished, we sat down. “Thank you,” my father said.
At kiddush afterward, we nibbled at the snacks, careful to leave room for the lunch my mother was preparing. My father got into conversation with some other men his age. I drifted over toward some men and women about my age. They were friendly. One woman introduced herself as Sharon. She was slim and attractive, with short, curly brown hair, brown eyes, and a wide smile. She didn’t look anything like Claire, but I found her physically attractive too. And she seemed very nice. Funny how you can be attracted to lots of different people. For the first time, I began to think about life after Claire.
My relationship with Claire limped along after I returned to Boston that evening, but we both knew it was ending. We just didn’t know how to end it. We were sad and afraid of hurting each other. She insisted my being Jewish wasn’t a problem unless I made it one. I said she was welcome to be as Catholic as she liked. Although each of us thought we weren’t committed to the religion of our birth — religions neither of us practiced much and barely mentioned — each religion already had become an integral part of who we were long before we met the other. It was part of our culture and our families and part of our selves. Maybe some people can step away from that part of themselves, or at least say they can, but I couldn’t and neither could Claire. We couldn’t do it and still be honest with ourselves or with each other.
In the end, our breakup was easy but unfortunate. Claire received a late night call from her mother. Her father had a heart attack and was being rushed to the hospital. I was sleeping in my own apartment that night, as I had been doing more often. Claire dashed down the hall and banged on my door. I pulled her in and comforted her, calmed her, and made arrangements for her to fly out on the first flight that morning. I stayed up with her all night, rocking her in my arms. Before the sun came up, I drove her to the airport.
She called a few days later to say her father had stabilized and would recover. A few days later she called to say she decided to move back home. She could get a job at the local hospital, the one she had pointed out during our visit. Later that month she arrived with her oldest brother and a rental truck. I helped them move her stuff out of her apartment. Before she got into the truck to leave, we embraced and kissed on the sidewalk. That was the last I saw of Claire.
I guess you go through something like a period of mourning when a serious relationship ends. In time I started socializing again, dating other women. I don’t think I made a conscious decision to see only Jewish women, but those were the only women I dated. I started visiting my father and joining him at his synagogue. And then I found a synagogue with a large group of young, single adults in Boston (actually, it was across the river in Cambridge).
In the process I gradually became a more aware Jew as I too, like my father, dug more deeply into the richness of my Jewish heritage and liked what I found. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but whatever it is, one thing I do know: my Jewishness will be a big part of it because it is an undeniable part of me. That means I probably won’t be sleeping with strangers anymore. Of course, if a beautiful shiksa wants to throw her body at me…well, who knows? But even if that should happen she’ll know immediately that she is throwing her body at a Jewish boy who intends to remain Jewish until the day comes that his child says Kaddish for him.
To read more original stories by Alan Radding, visit www.jewishfamilystories.com