My father Chaim (or as he was to be known in America, Herman), was the only son of an Orthodox Jewish immigrant family. He “came over on the boat” in third class steerage, payyes (side curls) and all, passing through Ellis Island in November of 1912 along with his mother Shifra and sister Raizel, to join his father Yitzchak who had come over almost four years earlier. Like other Jews, the Dauermann family knew they were judged marginal long before they left Austria-Hungary to pass under the shadow of Miss Liberty’s torch. Even after arriving in “The Goldeneh Medina” ( “The Golden Land,” the United States) the sense of being marginal, “at a lower or outer limit, as of social acceptability” remained a Jewish fact of life. As my father entered the job market in 1920, some want ads specified “Jews need not apply.” To his dying day, this brilliant and perfectionistic accountant would say that he would have gotten further in the corporate culture in which he worked but for the fact that he was a Jew. And as in most matters, he was more likely right than not. Despite a life-long hunger for acceptance, he lived a life on the margins.
It was in the workplace that Herman met Mary, an olive-skinned beauty, one of six children of a Sicilian immigrant family. Mary converted through Orthodox auspices, becoming “Miriam, daughter of Abraham and Sarah.” They married five years before the birth of a daughter, Judith, and twelve years before I came along. We were Conservative Jews, an American modification of the hard right Orthodoxy of my father’s upbringing. His family remained Orthodox, and after the death of his father, every year Chaim had the honor of leading the family Seder in Borough Park, where I spent every Shabbat in my youth, except for summers in the Catskills, when my family, and his Orthodox sister and her husband and Yeshiva boy sons, and my grandmother lived in the same house.
Nearly fifty years after they met and married, I sat in the hearse with my Mom on the day we buried Dad. It was then that she told me what she had never dared say while he was alive: “I never felt accepted by his family.” A few years ago I asked my oldest cousin David, son of my father’s sister and favorite grandchild to his mother, “Is it true? Did they not accept my mother?” “Oh sure,” he said, “We called her Herman’s na’arishkeit (foolishness or triviality).” Like Dad, Mom read the social landscape rightly. And like him, she lived a life of marginality, “considered to be at a lower or outer limit, as of social acceptability.”
Let none stand in harsh judgment over my father’s family. In Europe, they had for many centuries learned their lessons well: Jews were the most marginalized of people, and for nearly two thousand years, have returned the compliment, regarding Gentiles, even converts like my mother, to be “at a lower or outer limit, as of social acceptability.” One can hardly blame immigrant Orthodox Jews for regarding as “other” those who locked them out of the work-place, and their relatives in railway cars. And my father, the only Jew to marry into my mother’s family, was treated as an honored guest, as Mary’s husband Herman, but still, an import.
And perhaps this is why and how God has called me to stand at the boundary of the Christian and Jewish worlds, making peace between two communities that have long defined themselves in contradistinction to one another. I call everyone to come with me and explore the One whom I term “The More Jewish Jesus” of whom Paul said, “He himself is our peace.” With seventy-one percent of Jewish marriages now being intermarriages, the message is more than needed.
I’ll tell you more about new initiatives in this area in my next blog post. But for now, remember this: were it not for the mercy of God, we would all of us be marginal to his Kingdom. So let’s be kind to one another.
Have a wonderful Pesach.