When being yourself is not all in the family

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Think it’s hard being a Jew? Try being a Jew with born-again Christian in-laws. I know. Because for a painfully long time, I was the odd-Jew-out, married into a family of medieval-minded Methodists from fly-over country.

Here in the Bay Area we revel in our hyper-tolerant enlightenment. It’s all good: the turbaned Sikh, the veiled Muslim, the black-hatted Chassid and the bra-clad jogger all jostle peacefully along Berkeley’s Ohlone Pathway, where I walk to and from BART every day.

Not long ago, I had a conversation about this with Rita Semel, executive vice chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and a longtime activist in inter-religious affairs. She believes strongly that Jews should work hard to forge the best possible relations with their non-Jewish neighbors.

“We’re commanded to do it because of our faith,” she told me. “One could say that [the Christian community] should be reaching out to us since they persecuted us for so long, but I don’t look at it that way. I ask, what needs to be done to make the world a better place?”

I admire Rita’s sentiment and wish it were universal. But out there in Red State America, it ain’t necessarily so.

My former in-laws lived in places like Indianapolis and Yuma. And in my former life, we would regularly make grim pilgrimages to visit them.

It was on those trips that I developed the fine art of masking my Brooklyn-influenced Jewishness. I learned how to say things like, “Oh my, that creamed corn is special!” and “That’s quite a lawn mower you got there,” and “The Colts sure are getting it done today!” And all with a put-on Hoosier accent.

On those visits I would go with them to church on Sundays, necktie choke-tight, eyes glued to the pudgy hymnal while I hummed along with the plain and pretty tunes.

As the lazy summer sun would drop below the flatlands, I’d sit in their backyards, poke at my over-grilled steak and watch the fireflies. We’d talk about the heat or how bad the traffic might be heading to the airport the next morning. Sometimes they’d talk about church or Jesus, and I’d clam up. But in all those years, no one ever said anything rude to me.

In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen imagined Annie’s WASPy family picturing him as a stereotyped Chassid. I imagine my in-laws saw me as some sort of freaky Jewish space alien. Their Midwestern bonhomie was mostly faked.

How can I be so sure?

One year, the in-laws held a 3-day family reunion in Colorado Springs. Clan members from across the country converged on a hotel in the Rockies, and of course my wife and I came, too. I actually had a good time, but I was told confidentially after I’d returned home of an overheard conversation between my father-in-law and one of his relatives.

“That Dan,” said the relative, “he’s pretty nice for a Jew.” Replied my father-in-law. “Well, you can’t have everything.”

I was stunned, hurt and mad at them. But I was even madder at myself for playing the bleached-out John Q. Public all those years. It didn’t matter how bland, boring and invisible I tried to make my Jewishness, the in-laws still saw me as a hell-bound Christ-killer.

One of the few benefits of my agonizing divorce was that I never had to mix with those folks again. And I certainly don’t miss them.

In fact sometimes looking back I feel old resentments simmering on a low boil. All the pretense and embarrassment, always feeling I had to hide who and what I was, still galls me.

But at other times I force myself to remember: As catastrophic as it was for him that his daughter married a Jew, converted to Judaism herself and raised her son as a Jew; as central to his existence as was his fundamentalist Christianity, I have to credit my ex-father-in-law on at least one point.

He may have been a gruff, dour, judgmental old coot. But when the day finally came that my son -— his only grandchild — ascended the bimah to become a bar mitzvah, there in the front row of the sanctuary sat the old man, eyes glued to the siddur, humming along with the strange tunes of the Amidah, the Aleynu and the Chatzi Kaddish.

Dan Pine</b can be reached at [email protected].

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.