At birth I was blessed with not one, not two, but four Jewish names. Tamar Avital is the name my parents gave me, and then they also bequeathed upon me a Hebrew name because apparently Tamar Avital isn’t Hebrew enough. To honor my great-great aunts I was also named P’nina Yafa. And with the last name Caspi I didn’t have a fighting chance to be anything but Jewish. People would know I was a Jew before they would meet me and for most of my life that was fine as I always identified as Jewish, an identity which was only further ingrained via the Jewish Community Center for preschool, private Jewish elementary school, Jewish sleepaway camp, temple youth group, Hillel in college and so on. My first kiss took place during my birthday party when I turned twelve, during a game of spin the bottle with the nice Jewish boy from the neighborhood who previously was my “husband” in Kindergarten at the San Diego Jewish Academy. My first real make-out session happened beneath the redwood trees of Saratoga, California at Camp Swig—with a nice Jewish boy from Northern California.
I never thought twice about having a Jewish family until midway through high school when I subconsciously and unintentionally decided that I didn’t need a Jewish husband to make that happen. None of my high school boyfriends were Jewish, nor were my college boyfriends or any of the guys I dated through my early twenties. I was planning an interfaith family in my head. I knew there were rabbis who would agree to officiate at an interfaith marriage, and I even once had a discussion with my college boyfriend about allowing future children to celebrate Christmas at his parent’s house just not in our house. Eventually, as I matured and gathered more life experience, I came to the realization that I did indeed need and want and desire a Jewish husband. As my Jewish girlfriends were getting married and starting families, I realized that having a Jewish husband who was raised similarly made these milestones all the more meaningful and that awareness changed my mindset completely. Suddenly all I saw were Yids. In fact, I would ask if a guy was Jewish before even wondering if he was single. Non-Jews were persona non-grata and I had zero attraction to those who were not members of the tribe. Not only did I want a Jewish home with a Jewish family, but I wanted a Jewish husband too—bonus points for having multiple Jewish names.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.
‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’
At the time I was twenty-seven.
‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’
And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.
A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.
Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.
‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’
This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.
‘Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.’
It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.
The hardest thing about breaking up with the Jewish guy I dated six years ago was breaking up with his parents. I loved his parents. His parents loved me. I knew that the guy and I would never be happy together, but I also knew that I would never find another set of parents who I connected with as much as his.
That fact hit me even harder the first time I met my future in-laws. Self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool Catholics,” they told me that they had never met a single Jew until their son(my now husband) went to college in the Northeast. They’re from Nebraska. A tiny little town called Broken Bow. It’s smack in the middle of the country, about three hours from the closest synagogue.
When I first realized that Ben was the man I was going to marry, I found myself mourning the loss of the in-laws I had always wanted. His parents didn’t effortlessly understand me. They didn’t appreciate that I could speak Hebrew and a few words of Yiddish. That I had gone to a yeshiva for elementary school and to Israel on my semester abroad. They had always fantasized about a Midwestern Catholic daughter-in-law. And I got it. I wanted my in-laws to be kvetching Upper West Siders.
But now, on the other side of the wedding, I find myself on the phone with Ben’s mom, lying on the quilt she handmade for us, happy to hear her laugh. Sometimes we make small talk (what we did that week, the joke she forwarded me, the weather), but just as often we’ll confide in each other about our bad days or trade family gossip. Like my connection to Ben, what we have in common goes beyond background.
It’s funny how people influence you in ways you don’t even realize. When we go shopping, Ben’s mom looks at the label of any item of clothing she likes to make sure it’s made out of natural fiber. This means no polyester, rayon or acrylic. I do this now, compulsively. Ben’s dad often starts sentences with the word “yes.” Like, “Yes, I told him I’d be happy to help him out.” And yes, it seems I picked that one up too.
I’d like to think I’ve also rubbed off on them. Ben’s mom often ends emails with “xo,” which Ben says she picked up from me, and during meals they order “for the table,” which is something my family always does but never thought was funny until Ben’s parents laughed at the expression and started using it themselves.
Falling in love is the easiest way to make the world smaller. Nebraska used to be a meaningless square on the map, as foreign to me as a village in Africa. But I’ve been there a number of times now and think of myself as someone with Nebraskan roots. I’ve also learned about the quilting process, how to make an alcoholic beverage called Gilligan’s Island, and how to be trusting without being naive. These weren’t the in-laws I had visualized, but I can’t imagine a more wonderful pair of machatanim.