I believe in the necessity of reconciliation and the power of acceptance.
My father-in-law lived well into his nineties. He loved his family, his religion, and his community. His community passion often centered on the Canadian Jewish community.
He adored the two children his marriage produced. His first child later became my wife. When the time came for her to attend college, he wanted her to attend is own alma mater, McGill University, the Canadian “Jewish” university. My wife insisted on coming to Brandeis University. The fact that Brandeis had a strong Jewish character and a large Jewish student population helped mollify that decision.
As my father-in-law entered his nineties, and his physical and intellectual health started to mirror his age, he frequently and repeatedly took me aside to tell me, in his halting but emotion-filled voice, that, “you know I am a convert and I only wish I had converted earlier”.
I met my wife doing the tumultuous spring of 1970. She was just finishing her freshman year, I was about to graduate. As a German immigrant, I was noticeably different from the usual male suspects at Brandeis. She was full of energy and insistent beauty. I was exhausted from years of economic struggle. I was looking forward to graduating, working, and having a few bucks in my pocket.
A few months later I meet her parents and their reaction to our relationship was not surprising. They were visibly appalled that she was in the clutches of an “older” man, and worst of all, someone who had an obvious German accent and was not Jewish. My father-in-law did not hesitate to tell me to leave their house, stay away from his daughter, and never to show up again. He was not ambiguous about the consequence. As a judge in Montreal he had resources he would not hesitate to bring to bear on the problem.
My wife and I did not heed his advice and maintained our relationship secretly for the next three years. Following her graduation, I went off to Switzerland to graduate school and she soon joined me for an extended period of time. It was now time for me to come out off the closet.
With the hard-won process of acceptance that every parent has to master in their relationship with their children’s choice and way of life, I became close friends with her parents and we learned to love each other.
Our oldest son later would describe his family background with a sentence that I will never forget. He wrote in his college application “while one of my grandfathers was racing across Canada raising money to help European Jews escape the impending Holocaust, the other grandfather was goose-stepping across the steps of Russian on his way to Stalingrad with the German Wehrmacht.”
My father-in-law died a few years ago, lucky enough to see his oldest grandson’s Bar Mitzvah and joyful in the knowledge that he had two wonderful grandsons. What he did not live to see, but which I know brings a smile to his face now, is that his oldest grandson was recently identified as a future leader of the American Jewish community with a prestigious fellowship, and his other grandson will go off in the fall to attend McGill University.
Reconciliation is just another expression of love.
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