Say Hello To The Chirichellas: When Jew and Italian Marry: Part 2

Dear Michael and Caroline,

At one point we took your grandmother Nettie to visit my grandparents the Shefts in their Upper East Side apartment, maybe on Thanksgiving. If I recall right, Nettie was reluctant to go, feeling uncomfortable about it, even nervous, maybe worried about feeling out of place. Somehow we must have convinced her the visit would turn out fine.

And on the whole it did. She looked around my grandparents’ handsomely appointed apartment, with the thick carpeting and heavy drapes and gleaming old-wood furniture, and I imagined her thinking she had entered another universe. She spoke very little, quite uncharacteristic of her, and only when someone, my grandmother Gertrude or my Uncle Leonard, said something to her. And when she did speak, she spoke a little differently from the usual, her diction just a touch crisper.

Everyone got along well, but the room definitely was fraught with anxiety, both guest and hosts uneasy with each other, unsure what to say or ask.

Yes, deep down we’re all people, all presumably the same. But was my grandfather going to ask Nettie about her stock portfolio? Was Nettie going to ask him where he bought his mozzarella? I doubt it. A gulf loomed between our families, all but impossible to breach (though your mother and I managed to do it all right).

We were rich and she was poor.

We were educated and she was uneducated.

We were Jewish and she was Italian.

So this divide spanned class, money, culture and religion.

And so it went at our wedding.

Over here you had my Aunt Zelda from West Orange, elegant and beautiful, and over there Mom’s Aunt Carmela, earthy and volcanic and loud.

Over here you had my Uncle Mark, inheritor of an insurance company, and over there Elvira’s Uncle Nick, who once tried out for the New York Giants (the baseball team that once played at the Polo Grounds in the Bronx, before it moved to San Francisco) and fixed elevators for a living.

I could go on about this clash of cultures, about how seriously I took it at the time and how funny it seems in hindsight, but for now I’ll finish with your grandmother’s first visit with my family that night. I remember feeling protective of her, alive to any potential insult.

But most of all, I remember being proud of her, proud of how she carried herself, proud of how she represented her family, proud of how she demonstrated, to anyone willing to notice, that she was just as good as they – and maybe, just maybe, a whole lot better.

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