By William Paul Lazarus
As the little, black Miata zipped along through the small hills south of Hamden, Connecticut, heading down the Wilbur Cross Expressway towards New Haven, Herschel Bernstein decided to raise the topic of conversion again with his fiancée.
Melinda Rainwater really did not like to talk about it. She had made that clear every time Bernstein broached the subject. But, the fresh greenery of a New England spring, the crisp air flowing across the top of the open convertible and even the light blue sky above all combined to prompt Bernstein to try again. He felt as though God were conspiring to create the perfect atmosphere and to enhance any words he might use to overcome her reluctance.
Not wanting to look at her, he glanced to the side, where rocks placed carefully to hold back the severed countryside also seemed to offer some strength to his wavering convictions. Everything was perfect, a cohesiveness, an order to life. He could only obey.
What should he say? he thought. He should tell her how he felt. In the past, he merely mentioned the idea. She had to see what being Jewish meant. Being embraced by the laws gave meaning to life. Without them, we would lead aimless lives. Here was a divine plan, one that anyone could follow, neatly spelled out, analyzed over the centuries, organized and delineated. He knew what was expected of him. He knew what was right or wrong.
Bernstein did not challenge any other religions. He assumed believers elsewhere did not understand the importance of a guideline so clearly explained at Mt. Sinai. Melinda would, once he explained it.
He cleared his throat.
“No,” she said without pause. Her voice, as always, was quiet and calm, but with a noticeable infusion of firmness.
“Honey,” Bernstein whined. “It’s easy.”
“I was born a Lutheran,” she replied. “That’s all there is to it. That’s my heritage. I don’t want to discard it. It matters to me. I don’t mind raising our children Jewish, if you insist. But, I don’t see any reason why I should become Jewish at the same time.”
She spoke calmly. Her hands on the steering wheel stayed steady. The car never moved an inch from the line she was following. Bernstein was enchanted how Melinda managed to remain placid even when discussing an emotional topic. Yet, there was a hint of red in her cheeks and almost a twinge around her jaw, as though any inner turmoil was being carefully and completely smothered. Lutherans are like that, he told himself. They bury their feelings. He yearned for her to demonstrate some of the passion that must lie beneath her pale, enticing surface. Her inability to match energy to her words was her weakness, his sorrow.
“I only mentioned it,” he tried again — they were nearing the exit and would soon be at his parents’ house. There wasn’t much time — “because Mom and Dad were raised in Orthodox homes. They always wanted me to marry a Jewish girl. It’s just, with Josh dead, I’m the only son left. I fell in love with a Lutheran. They have accepted that. They love you; you know that.”
“I love them, too,” Melinda said quietly. She turned off the expressway, steered easily around the tight curves of the exit, then gunned the engine onto the nearest street. In a moment, she was nearing the main campus of Southern Connecticut State University. The Bernstein house was only a few blocks away.
Bernstein didn’t say anything. What could he do? His parents expected Melinda to become Jewish. It was as simple as that. His father had pulled him aside into the library after first meeting Melinda. Bernstein didn’t have to explain anything. He knew what his father wanted to know. There was a natural sequence to each meeting to any date he introduced his father to. Melinda was no exception.
“No, Dad,” Bernstein said before the question was asked, staring down at the off-white carpet that filled the lower floor of the house. “She’s not.”
His father shrugged with his whole body, the shoulders rising, the hands coming up, the eyes closing and the head titled upward. “So?” he said in his raspy voice. “She’ll convert. Is that so hard? You go into a mikvah a Christian; you come out a Jew.”
Bernstein sighed at the recollection. It seemed so simple. God had worked out the process in an orderly, coherent manner.
“Did you ask him, Maury?” his mother had called a few minutes later.
“I asked him. I asked him,” his father replied testily, the way he usually talked to his wife. They’d been married 46 years. Bernstein couldn’t remember when his parents didn’t converse with an edge in their voices. There was a rhythm to their manner. He expected to hear them bicker, and they never disappointed. Indeed, if they had altered their tones, he would have been startled.
His father looked at Bernstein. “You heard your mother,” he said, in a low, conspiratory voice. That was his usual way of passing the blame to someone else. Bernstein managed a wry smile.
“Couldn’t you find a nice Jewish girl?” his mother interjected as she huffed into the room. She inevitably made some kind of entrance, drawing attention to herself. Bernstein figured her small size probably forced her to a more outspoken tack to life. Whatever the reason, she had the approach down pat.
“Mom,” Bernstein protested.
“Just asking,” she said with a frown, immediately retreating. All bluster, Bernstein had figured out a long time ago.
“Where is Melinda? We’re in here, and she’s all alone,” he said.
His mother held up a hand. “She’s looking at Dad’s collection of menorahs. Shikses like those sorts of things. She’s a nice girl. She can be alone for a few minutes,” she said.
She smiled at her son. “Are you happy?’ she asked.
“Yes, Mom,” Bernstein said. “I’ve never been happier.”
“As long as someone is,” his mother said softly as she walked away.
His father had offered a simpler shrug, one involving just the hands. He had an entire repertoire, each with a different meaning. This one said: “What can I do?”
The second and third meetings had gone a little better. Then, the emphasis had shifted from “Why didn’t you choose a Jewish girl?” to “We’re just the parents, grandparents of your children. It doesn’t matter what we think. When will Melinda start her conversion classes? We’re not rushing you, but the wedding isn’t that far off. God forbid anything gets delayed. But, what would the rabbi say?”
Always the concern about appearance, Bernstein sighed inwardly. The wedding was only a few months away. The meeting with the rabbi couldn’t be put off. There was a get to sign. Besides, the rabbi — no doubt — wanted to express thoughtful words about marriages. He typically did that sort of thing.
As Melinda turned onto Colony Drive, Bernstein became aware of the familiar surroundings. He had grown up in this old Tudor-style home. He knew the neighbors, which trees had disappeared under the hurricane in 1985, who had fixed up their home, who had not. Any anxiety he had felt before usually vanished once he entered the broad street with the stately homes.
This time, however, it clung to him. He knew his parents would want an answer. They always did. Breathing slowly to calm himself, Bernstein readied himself for the coming session with them. He felt his muscles tighten. His head started to ache. Quietly, he began to silently repeat the Buddhist mantra, “om, om.” The sound echoing inside his brain always relaxed him,
Melinda steered directly into the long, paved driveway next to the large, three-story home. The basketball hoop, a reminder of younger days in this home, still hung on the garage, although the net was completely tattered from the wind and rain.
Bernstein could see a small face peer through the curtain, then vanish. His mother was checking on them. Next, she’d look at the clock to see how close they had come to their predicted time of arrival.
“Will you think about it? Please,” Bernstein made one last plea as he exited the car.
“I already have,” Melinda replied. She took his hand. “Look happy,” she said. “Your mother will think something is wrong.”
“My mother always thinks there’s something wrong,” he answered. “Jews are fed pessimism along with their knishes.”
His mother would smell something was wrong before either of them actually reached the front stoop. She did. He could see the concern in her eyes as the door opened. She hugged him, but without much fervor. He kissed her proffered cheek with equal enthusiasm.
“Dad’s at the proctologist,” his mother announced gleefully after greeting Melinda. “That’s what happens when you eat trefe.”
“Nonkosher food,” Bernstein translated in an aside to Melinda as his mother led them into the living room.
“Sit, sit,” his mother urged, gesturing at the soft couch. She perched herself on the high-packed chair that was the least comfortable seat in the living room and one designed to encourage unwanted guests to depart as quickly as possible. “I have a little nosh for you on the table,” she said.
Bernstein knew what that meant — a four-course meal. They were only stopping by to say hello before heading to Branford to eat at Chez Bok, the Thai restaurant there. Then, they would come back to the Yale Rep for a Fugard play, A Lesson from Aloes.
Not to eat, however, would be an insult, almost as bad as not converting.
Bernstein suggested they move into the dining room. The table was overflowing with food all set out in little plastic containers. “I had some things left over in the refrigerator,” his mother reported. “There’s lox, gefilte fish, kugal, chopped liver with lots of shmaltz, some whitefish, borscht, herring and some hummus. Oh, I forgot the brisket. I think there’s some chicken in the kitchen.”
Bernstein glanced at Melinda. “Nibble,” he suggested, wondering how long her svelte figure would endure his mother’s onslaught.
“I would,” she whispered back, “if I knew what most of this is.” She sat down and probed some of the dishes with her fork. “Does the marriage license come with a dictionary and a cookbook?’ she asked mischievously under her breath.
Bernstein felt some of the tension ease away. She was still teasing; maybe that mean she wasn’t totally rejecting the conversion suggestion. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer for God’s assistance. When he opened them, he noticed immediately that Melinda was imitating him.
The rabbi could not see them at their scheduled time. They sat outside his small office at the synagogue as a secretary bustled around them. Melinda held a small folder with the two birth certificates in it. She seemed perfectly relaxed, in her usual serene pose as though sitting outside a rabbi’s office was the normal thing to do.
Bernstein had brought her to Friday night services, where he showed her some of the intricacies of Hebrew. She followed his finger across the page for a moment and then smiled. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.
Later, she reported, that the German her grandmother taught her was helping her communicate with some of the older people introduced to her during the oneg shabbat. She was very happy to discover that connection.
Bernstein was delighted to find yet another asset his fiancée possessed. He knew no German and very little Yiddish. He had met Melinda’s grandmother, but she was senile, babbling on and on about the seven states of New England and reciting them. Melinda had arranged for Grandma Rainwater to be placed in a nursing home. The old woman stared at the television all day and continually listed the appropriate states to any and all visitors. There weren’t many.
Bernstein had been depressed by the lone visit, but Melinda, whose own parents had died when she was young, went weekly to comb her grandmother’s white hair and to check on her condition.
“My grandparents raised me,” she explained. “It’s the least I can do.”
Bernstein loved her for the compassion. His parents had been impressed, too.
“You’d probably never visit me,” his mother claimed.
“Sure, I would,” Bernstein protested. “I visit you now.”
“Just to show off your girlfriend. You think if we see her enough, we’ll like her.”
“You do like her.”
“And don’t you ever tell her,” his mother cautioned. “Wives need to have a little sense of fear. She’ll twist you around her little finger, but not your father and I.”
Bernstein laughed to himself. Melinda had them under control, too. She just seemed to understand what to say and do. The day before this visit to the rabbi, Melinda had dropped by on her own with some homemade cake. The day before that, she had called to remind them about their planned doctor visits. Instead of being offended — as they would have done if their son had been so bold — they simply fawned in childish delight.
The door to the study opened. “Please come in,” said Rabbi Gershom Keller, a thin man with a trim white beard and a tiny yarmulke clipped to the small hairs on the back of his balding head. He looked like every rabbi in pictures, resembling even the ink painting that hung on his wall. That rabbi was dovening, head covered with a shawl, but with the beard and face poking through the folds.
Rabbi Keller gestured at two small, wooden chairs by his desk, which was crowded with papers. An impressive looking certificate lay on the blotter. Books, magazines and papers had been moved aside to clear room for the certificate. The room itself was shadowy with large bookcases towering over the visitors. Bernstein glanced around. The place hadn’t changed much since he and his parents first joined this shul. Then, of course, the rabbi had less gray. That was all that seemed different. Bernstein was willing to bet that if he checked carefully enough there’d be his first-grade evaluation under one of the piles, not to mention some stale tam-tams.
Rabbi Keller smiled at them and asked for the birth certificates. Melinda handed over the folder. He opened it gravely and pulled out one certificate, then the other. He then looked at Melinda.
“Your mother was Lutheran?”
“Yes. Missouri Synod,” she replied.
“And your grandmother?”
“She was a member of a tiny liberal Christian sect my late grandfather started,” Melinda explained without a hint of concern.
“Where was she from?”
The rabbi considered that. “Do you know how she met her … your grandfather?”
Melinda nodded. “Grandma and her family left Poland just after World War II started. They made it to England, where my grandfather was working. Then, after the war, they came to this country. My father was born in New York and moved to Connecticut after he married my mother.”
“Kracow?” the rabbi mused.
“Oh,” Melinda said, “she wasn’t Polish. She was German. She always told us that. She lived in the German part of Kracow.”
The rabbi arched his eyebrows and contemplated that bit of information. Then, he looked at Bernstein. “Have you ever looked at your birth certificate?” he asked.
“Not really,” Bernstein admitted.
The rabbi pursed his lips, then silently passed the certificate over. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “you should.”
A bit perplexed since the rabbi hadn’t really looked at it, Bernstein took the proffered slip of paper. His mother had dug it out from a file drawer, which contained information about his late brother as well as the records of his sister, who had moved away about five years ago to marry a goy in the Navy and hadn’t been heard of since. Mother was always so organized; she knew exactly where to locate anything.
Bernstein saw his formal name: Herschel Bernard; his date of birth: July 4, 1976; the location, Yale-New Haven Hospital; his father’s name, Maurice Jacob Bernstein; his religion, Jewish; his mother’s name, Rachel Fawn Barrow; and her religion, Christian Scientist.
He stopped reading.
“This can’t be right,” he said. “Mom is Jewish.”
“I am sure the hospital made a mistake,” Rabbi Keller said without a hint of concern. “You should have her correct it.” He waved his hands across the certificate. “As you can see, there is no point signing the get if you are not Jewish. In fact, you might consult a justice of the peace for the ceremony.”
He then glanced at Melinda and said something to her in a foreign language. Melinda laughed lightly and replied in kind.
“What is going on?” Bernstein hissed after they left the synagogue.
“He said this was quite a mix-up,” Melinda said. “I agreed with him.”
“He was talking in Yiddish,” Bernstein whispered urgently.
Bernstein slumped into the car. His head hurt again. His stomach was churning as fast as his thoughts. His heart was thumping madly.
The hospital must have written down the wrong religion. His mother was Jewish. She had to be. Every Friday night, like clockwork, she lit the shabbat candles and covered her face in prayer. She went to service faithfully, kept kosher for his father, fasted on Yom Kippur, oversaw the seder and every other ritual in an exacting manner. She made sure the correct prayers were said for Hanukkah, that the menorah was lit in the proper direction, that the kiddush cup was full, that the yartzheit of his brother was carefully observed. She visited the cemetery regularly and left the requisite pebble on the small monument.
Her vocabulary, her manner, her kvetching, her commentary on life. It was all Jewish. She had to be Jewish. Her sense of humor was Jewish, the same faculty that had tripped up “The Man in the Glass Booth.”
Thus decided, Bernstein felt better. What a story this would be to tell his children. Daddy and Mommy almost couldn’t get married in a synagogue. Dumb hospital.
His mother poked her head through the living room curtain as they drove into the driveway. This time, however, she didn’t meet them at the door. Puzzled, Bernstein unlocked the door.
“I’m in the kitchen,” his mother called. “Just a minute.” She appeared a few minutes later with a large cake in her hand. “Hungry?” she asked.
“That’s looks lovely,” Melinda started.
“Later, Mom,” Bernstein interrupted. He wanted to be calm, to stay confident and self-assured like Melinda. Instead, he felt his voice quaver. “We saw the rabbi, Mom,” he continued, gulping in great breaths of air.
“One piece or two?” his mother asked.
“One,” Melinda replied. “A small one. I want to fit into the wedding dress.”
“A little thing like you? I’ll cut you a big piece,” his mother said. “Herschela, you want a big one, too?”
“Mom,” he tried.
She hurried back into the kitchen.
Bernstein looked helplessly at Melinda.
She smiled sweetly. “Honey,” she said, “relax. We’ll get it all taken care of in a minute.”
He threw up his hands.
Plates, forks and napkins appeared on the table. “Coffee?” his mother called.
“Tea,” Melinda said, “if it’s not any bother.”
“Bother? What’s a bother?’ Mrs. Bernstein replied as she rushed back into the kitchen.
“Mom,” Bernstein said as forcefully as he could.
“I know. Black,” his mother called. “You’re my son, my baby. I know you.”
“I’m not talking about coffee,” Bernstein almost shouted.
Quietly, timidly, his mother peered out the doorway. Her face, so exuberant moments ago, was now pale. Her shoulders were bent, and she seemed to have shriveled. Bernstein felt a catch in his throat and would have walked towards her, but his legs were amazingly weak.
“Herschel,” his mother said. With great effort, she put a coffee cup on the table. The steam rose around her, outline the deep ridges in her face. She had aged years within seconds. Melinda rushed over and took her arm. Mrs. Bernstein smiled gratefully and let herself be led to the table. She sat like a lump that was slowly melting away.