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A Match Made in Heaven – and America

Eli Libenson and Suzy Kaplan on their wedding day

Every marriage is by definition an intermarriage, even if both partners are Jewish. This is the story of our intermarriage.

I called my mother from college and told her that I had a serious girlfriend.

"What's her name?" she wanted to know.

"Suzy Kaplan," I answered.

"I love her already," was her reply.

My parents, European-born, had moved to America from Palestine in 1947. They had come, originally, for a year or two to better their financial circumstances, but due to health problems were unable to return. My family lived in America, but didn't feel American. My mother was a Jewish educator. My father lived and breathed Jewish peoplehood, especially of the Revisionist variety. Our Jewish identity was at the heart of our existence. All my parents' friends were of similar backgrounds. So, when I indicated that my girlfriend was Jewish, there was great joy and relief. That was the sine qua non; on that foundation we would make her one of us. 

Suzy and Eli (holding their son Danny) with his parents, the Libensons

But a coin has two sides. My girlfriend's parents were Jewish, but they were also third-generation American. They lived in a beautiful home, dressed elegantly, and strove to create a calm and peaceful home life. What did they make of me? Of course, they were happy that I was Jewish, but I was also scruffy, argumentative, very liberal in my politics, did not pay much attention to the way I dressed, and had just returned from a summer in Mississippi helping Negroes (that was the term then) register to vote. How would they ever make me one of them, they must have wondered. 

Eli and Suzy with her parents, Alyce and Lawrence Kaplan

I had never really experienced a peaceful home life such as theirs. My family was always running; when we did sit around the table together on Friday nights, we expressed ourselves and our opinions openly and passionately. My girlfriend liked to describe the atmosphere on these occasions as that of a debating society. In contrast, her family sat around the table every night of the week for the evening meal. Friday nights were especially wonderful. Everyone came to the table dressed in their Sabbath clothes. The table was elegantly set. An English version of the Kiddush was sung, with the memorable and fitting lines: "At this hour, God's messenger of peace comes and turns the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents…." Raised voices and unkind words were frowned upon. My girlfriend's family belonged to a Reform temple. Friday nights after the meal were also Temple nights. In America there was a saying, "The family that prays together stays together." That was their guiding principle too. 

Hugs ... Eli and Suzy

In time, my girlfriend became my wife. Her parents became Mom and Dad to me, as my parents became Ima and Aba to her. Many, many years passed … my parents-in-law aged and moved to a seniors' residence, but not before a photographer was hired to take a panoramic photo of their home from within. They took that photo with them to their new home. A copy of that picture hangs on our wall. And it means very much to me. It conjures up so many good memories – the brightly lit and colorful kitchen, the beautiful living room, the elegant dining room where we had our Sabbath meals, the den, where we'd all gather round to watch TV. It was so different from my family where the home's furnishings were an afterthought, unimportant to the things we considered really important.

My family succeeded in making my wife one of us. She became more religiously observant; she became president of her local branch of Hadassah and eventually we decided to move to Israel.

But I think that her family also succeeded in making me one of them. As I matured, the things that were important to them became important to me too: the way I spoke, the way I conducted myself, the way I took care of myself.

I recently celebrated my 70th birthday. My wife asked me what I wanted as a birthday gift. I thought … I thought … and then it came to me: a panoramic photograph of our apartment in which we have been living for thirty years – from within.

Postscript: Suzy Kaplan Libenson passed away on December 20, 2015. May her memory be a blessing to all who knew her and loved her. 



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Wednesday, 28 February 2024

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