I could never fully ignore my mother’s reasoning when she said, “I want you to date a Jewish boy for the same reasons I want you to be straight. Your life would just be so much easier.”
I had dated a Jewish boy in college—the sweet, handsome, intelligent, Upper West Side kind of Jewish boy that any mother would have been thrilled to have over for Shabbos dinner—and he and I, in a very easy way, had understood each other. We had spoken the same language, a sort of cultural shorthand made possible by the fact that we came from such similar backgrounds. We had also both known that those Jewish stereotypes of harboring familial guilt and intense self-centered entitlement were, at least for us, inherently true. But, as it turned out, the things that were difficult about dating goyische boys—you can outgrow each other, you can resent each other, you can lie to each other—could be difficult when dating Upper West Side Jewish boys, too.
After the Jewish boy and I broke up, I dove into a relationship with James. James came from a large, close-knit, Irish-Catholic family, so I wasn’t too concerned that my large, close-knit Jewish family would prove overwhelming when I brought him to his first Passover Seder in the spring of 2007. We had been together for over a year and a half, and I knew James well enough at that point to notice when a certain look came over his face—a look I thought of as his hunted-faun look—it meant I should swoop in, steer him away from a drunk and rambling second cousin, divert the conversation away from politics with an uncle, suggest we take a walk when the question of inter-religious marriage was being tossed around, or, at the very least, be there to guide him through the Hebrew prayer book during the three hour Seder.
My sister had always agreed with my mother that marrying a Jew would be, in many ways, easier than spending a lifetime explaining why we fasted on Yom Kippur (because we’re supposed to be in Temple all day and forget to eat?) or why we had to separate meat from dairy and forgo bread during the week of Passover (because our ancestors were slaves, and, you know, slaves didn’t have bread?). Jenni wanted kids, and she wanted her kids to be raised Jewish. So when Aaron proposed—Aaron, who was smart, ambitious, made a good living, and was ready to start a nice Jewish family—her squeal of yes was unequivocal. My parents gave Jenni and Aaron an expensive wedding at a Hilton in Northern Virginia in May of 2005. Two hundred of our friends and family gathered to cry at the ceremony and dance the hora at the reception, while I, acting as Man of Honor, got incoherently plastered on vodka-Red Bull. I hadn’t felt at all prepared to have a sister who was old enough to get married, especially to a guy who was a supreme dickhead and douchebag, as Aaron most certainly was. But now, not quite two years after their wedding, while we were arriving at my uncle’s house in the suburbs of Boston for the Seder, Aaron was back in Virginia, moving his things out of the house he and Jenni shared because Jenni had caught him cheating with a floozy from his office about two weeks before.
We were about to begin the rounds of hugs with our ten cousins, six aunts and uncles, six second cousins, and however many second cousins’ children had flown in for the day, when Jenni dissolved into heavy, weepy tears. She hid her face in her hands, and slowly, with a poised dignity, climbed the stairs of our uncle’s house to escape the dozens of sympathetic stares waiting to greet her.
“Oh, no,” my brother Max muttered, looking at Jenni’s ascending figure with a helpless shake of his head.
I followed Jenni upstairs and into the hallway bathroom. Her face was crumpled, and she looked at me with an exasperated plea, spreading her hands, palms up, as if daring me to suggest a different reaction to meeting the family’s pity and disappointment. If we had been visiting my mother’s side of the family—which we never did—it would have been considered odd if Jenni hadn’t been divorced. But on my dad’s side, divorce just wasn’t an option. Stretching all the way back to the little shtetl in Ukraine from which they’d come to the U.S., Spitulniks had always gotten married and, for better and for worse, stayed married.
“I’m just so embarrassed,” Jenni said, blowing her nose into the toilet paper I handed her.
I didn’t think saying, Don’t worry, everyone thought Aaron was an asshole, anyway, was a particularly sensitive response. So instead, I told her that she and I were pioneers: I was the first gay Spitulnik (as far as we knew), and she would be the first divorcée. I told her to fix her makeup and come back downstairs. No one was even thinking about her divorce when there was a meal for thirty-five to prepare.
We went back down to the kitchen where the women were beginning the knish-making assembly line: rolling mashed potatoes in matzah meal, filling the potatoes with brisket, then setting them neatly in pans of oil. I asked where James had gone to, and my mother indicated with her head toward the living room without breaking the flow of laughing conversation with my aunts and female cousins.
In the next room, I found my five male cousins—all taller than me now, though I’m the second oldest boy in our generation—standing at the edges of the living room, watching James vacuum the blue shag carpet. James looked up at me as I stood in the doorway, his hunted-faun look glaring out of his wide green eyes, accusing me of failing to barricade him from my family as I had promised. I was relieved to see James vacuuming: he was one of those people who found cleaning to be a deeply satisfying and soothing experience. But later that night, James told me he felt he had been given the vacuum as if it were a test, that there was something fundamental about the proper way to vacuum in that house that he hadn’t understood, that he had felt criticized and even silently ridiculed by my cousins, and that, ultimately, he had failed the test miserably. I was sure my cousins couldn’t have cared less about the proper way to vacuum a rug, but James took cleaning very seriously, and I didn’t want to add to his sense of injustice by saying so.
When we broke up a year later, James would cite this moment—the moment I had looked on and allowed my family to force him to vacuum—as proof of my intrinsic selfishness. And, because the vacuuming incident was presented alongside the lewd text messages he had found between me and guys who were not him in my cell phone, I accepted his accusation and the associated evidence as fact.
My aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and second cousins’ children were swarming around the carefully laid Seder table, setting out place cards with our names, filling water glasses, yelling over the din that someone needed to taste-test the charoset. Because the Seder was being held at my Uncle Jay’s house, he would be leading the half-Hebrew, half-English service that bookended the elaborate five-course meal. Uncle Jay sat in a metal folding chair, smoothing his thick mustache with downward strokes of his index finger and flipping through the Haggadah to remind himself of the words and melodies he’d learned as a child from my great-grandfather.
“Pesach already,” my dad said, standing behind my mother across the table from Max, Jenni, and me. He gently tilted my mom’s head back to plant a kiss on her forehead. She raised her shoulders and squinted her eyes in a contented sigh. At nine years old, I still had no objection to the affection my parents so blindly and consistently displayed.
“It doesn’t seem like that long ago, my first Seder,” my mother said.
“The first Seder I brought your mother to,” my dad told my siblings and me. “Bubbie taught her the opening line of Echad Mi Yadea. She’d never read Hebrew in her life. I nearly fell over when she started singing.”
“He nearly fell over,” my mom chortled, resting her head on his chest.
Bubbie, my dad’s mother, was sitting at the opposite end of the table near her oldest son. She nodded her head, remembering. Bubbie was a sturdy woman with the regal carriage of a world-class musician, and her dense, curly grey hair was still flecked with traces of jet black. When my father first introduced my mother to his family in 1973, he had asked Bubbie what she thought of his new fiancée. Bubbie had smiled and said, “She’s beautiful, Chuckie. Beautiful. Very young. This one’s got a lot of growing up to do.”
Though my mother had been born into a prominent, wealthy Jewish family in Duluth, she hadn’t been Bat Mitzvahed and, truthfully, had rarely seen the inside of a Synagogue before she married my father. She was an assimilated Midwestern Jew, which meant her family had belonged to the right country club, decorated for Christmas, and dyed eggs on Easter. My father and his brothers, in contrast, had grown up leading Shabbat services at the congregation in their small upstate New York town. In the early years of my parents marriage, Bubbie had taken it upon herself to teach her new daughter in-law what it meant to be part of a family—the obligations, the importance of traditions, the willingness to make sacrifices, the value of knowing when to forgive—and she had taught her how to be a wife. Bubbie talked my mother through recipes for matzah balls and sponge cakes, taught her lines of Hebrew so she could participate in the Seder, and told her that a marriage needed three things in order to survive: respect, trust, and love. “But,” she had said, leaning in close to my mother. “Two out of three isn’t so bad every now and then, as long as, eventually, you get yourself back to all three.”
The women of the family gathered around the mantle where the candles were to be lit before the Seder. After the blessing had been sung and we’d all kissed cheeks and wished each other gut yontif, my uncle Jay cleared his throat and said, “We start with the Kiddush. Line five, everyone.”
We all lifted our polished silver cups full of Manischewitz wine and launched into the Seder, the melodies and their linked Hebrew words flowing easily from our memories.
“When Daddy dies,” Jenni whispered to me. “You’ll have to lead the Seder.”
“So will you,” I said, narrowing my eyes at the curves and slashes of the Hebrew alphabet.
After we’d sung the blessing over the second cup of wine and I had noted the pleasant fuzziness that resulted from draining my silver goblet of Manischewitz down my throat, a horseradish root twice the size of my fist was passed from person to person, down the length of the table. “Take a nice big chunk,” my mother instructed, always believing that more is better. “It’ll put hair on your chest.”
I dug a pointed teaspoon into the tough flesh of the horseradish and extracted a thick, splintering shard that was longer and wider than the teaspoon. I was unsure if hair on my chest was something to yearn for, but knowing that my mother deemed it a worthwhile goal was incentive enough. As soon as we had recited the blessing over the bitter herbs, I popped the whole piece of horseradish into my mouth.
As I chewed the root, I felt a prickling heat creep from my neck to my cheeks, stinging the inside of my nose and engulfing the tips of my ears. I grabbed my glass of water and gulped it down.
“Eat some matzah, eat some matzah,” my mom said, trying not to laugh. The rest of the table turned to see what the commotion was about.
“He can’t have matzah,” my Uncle Jay shouted, now laughing too. “We haven’t said the bracha yet.”
My vision blurred behind mounting tears and, because my glass was now empty, I reached for the one that sat in the center of the table. I drained its contents into my mouth before realizing it was the saltwater representing the tears of enslaved Jews in Egypt. I spit it back into the cup as laughter around the table surged.
A choke began to replace the horseradish burn in my throat. I ran out of the living room, pounded up the stairs, locked myself in the bathroom, and splashed cold water onto my cheeks.
There was a knock on the door. It was my sister, coming to make sure I was all right. I said I was fine but that I wasn’t coming back to the Seder. She said that wasn’t really an option. “And, honestly, Brian,” she said. “What did you think would happen? It’s not like you’ve never eaten horseradish before.”
“Mommy told me to,” I said, feeling that I was betraying our mother just by admitting I’d felt tricked by her.
Jenni rolled her eyes. “She didn’t mean it,” she said, as she leaned toward the bathroom mirror to check her braces for wayward bits of celery and carrots. “Come on. There’s apple cake, and I helped make it.” I nodded and walked back down to the dining room behind her.
A solid three hours after we’d begun, the last song had been sung and shots of Slivovitz and Vishnic have been consumed. My cousins and I then began pleading with our fathers to perform for us. With grins that belied both embarrassment and a not-unpleasant sense of obligation, my dad and his two brothers picked up couch cushions to use as props and began their choreographed “Sisters” routine.
“Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters,” they sang in unison, step-touching their feet and swinging their hips with exaggerated camp, displaying the same swishing zeal with which Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby perform the number in White Christmas.
My mother came to sit in the chair next to me and kissed my cheek. I rested my head on her shoulder to let her know I was no longer mad about the horseradish incident. When the uncles had finished sashaying through “Sisters,” they were coerced into leading eight verses of “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain.” Then there was a slight pause before my Uncle Jay leapt to his feet, signaling the start of a new song.
“Ach, ban da music box!” Uncle Jay sang out in an exaggerated German bark. The rest of us leapt to our feet to respond, “Das ist Vaterlander!” We then joined in the stand-up, sit-down routine of “The German Music Box.” For the wild dosey-doe that accompanied the chorus, I linked elbows with Bubbie, who threw her head back, releasing her deep, husky laugh. As we danced, I felt my throat tighten slightly. It was the same feeling I often got when it was just the five of us—my parents, my siblings, and me—sitting around the Shabbat dinner table in Maryland, singing and laughing during those few minutes when the meal had come to an end, the birkat hamazon had been sung, but we hadn’t yet thought about getting up to clean the dishes, do our homework, go to bed, and get ready for whatever the next day might bring. It was in those moments that I often felt that things were somehow too good. Everything was so bright and glowing and safe that, even then, I knew it couldn’t last. There would be a time when we wouldn’t all be together at every Seder. Bubbie would be gone someday—just seven years later, as it turned out—and my cousins and I would one day be leading the Seder, hearing only the echoes of our parents’ voices in our heads. I knew we’d all become more subdued, more cautious, and the weightlessness we felt then would slowly gather density and eventually coalesce and solidify into a heaviness our parents would call growing up.
After the Seder was through and the uncles’ had performed their slightly drowsy rendition of “Sisters,” we all set about stripping the tables and cleaning the dishes. My sister’s fiancé, Josh, who was soon to become her second husband—her last husband, she liked to remind us—was helping me move the couch back to the center of the living room where the long folding tables had been. Josh looked exhausted and overwhelmed in his quiet, introverted way, and we all knew him well enough by then to understand that engaging in verbal interaction for that many consecutive hours was not something he did easily. But it seemed proof of how much he adored my sister that he was happily and willingly continuing to participate in the holiday rituals, even after an entire day of being with a family that was not yet his own, observing a religious practice that was not his own. Although Josh wasn’t Jewish, he and Jenni were working toward finding a common language, and because they seemed to be laughing a lot along the way, the search for cohesion looked to me like a sturdy foundation on which to build their relationship.
Max was at the kitchen sink, his coarse, shoulder length hair hidden beneath a ski cap as he stood drying dishes with his girlfriend, Amanda. The two of them were laughing and entertaining our aunts with tales of passing out flyers at TKTS in Times Square, the day-job at which they’d met only a few months before.
When Aunt Nancy deemed the kitchen sufficiently cleaned, we all collapsed onto the sofas and chairs in the living room. Max and Amanda became lost in a fit of giggles over a video they were watching on someone’s laptop. Jenni was resting her head on Josh’s shoulder and, in her rapid, excited patter, was explaining how gender identity was an overlooked component of the American movie musical while Josh silently nodded, grinning and amused.
I watched the four of them, and felt a pang of yearning for the boyfriend I had left back in New York, the boyfriend who had taken my failure to invite him to the Seder as a sign that I wasn’t in love with him. The reality was, I hadn’t invited him because I couldn’t face proclaiming to my family that, once again, I expected them to whole-heartedly embrace whoever I brought home, only to have them be disappointed and worried for me if the relationship, once again, didn’t work out. But I wanted this boyfriend to be different: I was living with him, he turned heads with his leading-man looks wherever he went, and my mother swore he had that elusive quality people call presence. This boyfriend was from the mountains, he could fix things, he had built me a closet when we moved in together, and though he wasn’t Jewish, he said we would of course Bar Mitzvah our kids when we had them someday. He owned real estate in the city, he wanted to be part of my family; he was in a Broadway show, I was in a Broadway show; we were living a life I had always, from the outside, considered to be perfect. And yet, I wasn’t sure—had never been sure—if the life he and I were living was the life I wanted.
This boyfriend had let me know in no uncertain terms that he was hurt I hadn’t invited him to Passover, so I sent him a message that said I wish you were here with me. But really, what I meant was I wish I wanted you here with me. What I wanted and what I thought I should want didn’t line up at all, and in the minutes I sat waiting for that boyfriend to respond, I snuck back into the kitchen to cut myself one last piece of apple cake, hoping that by morning I’d feel differently and finally, just this once, want the thing I already had.