Opinion | A ‘Mixed’ Marriage, a Lifelong Journey

What my husband and I taught each other about Judaism.
By | Jul 10, 2024
Opinion, Summer 2024

Bert and I met on June 9, 1963, fell madly in love, talked incessantly, got engaged in October and married two months later, astonished by our commonalities and delighted by our differences. After meeting dozens of each other’s fiercely opinionated, short-statured, mostly immigrant Ashkenazi relatives, we agreed that our families were, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable. By our wedding day, I knew my husband’s worldview and background as thoroughly and intimately as he knew mine. I knew where our tastes in books, magazines and music overlapped and where they were at least compatible. I knew he loved skiing, jogging, basketball and tennis; he knew I had no athletic ability whatsoever. The only thing that gave me pause was that he had never had a bar mitzvah. To me, this was inconceivable.

Bert dubbed ours a mixed marriage: I was a believer, he wasn’t. I lit Shabbat candles and trusted prayer and kinehoras to ward off the evil eye and pull me through the narrow places. Bert was a logical pragmatist, a Harvard Law School graduate, a problem solver with scant trust in miracles. Raised as a “red diaper baby” by atheist Communists, he grew up in a New Deal town with utopian aspirations and a tiny shul that he never set foot in. I grew up in a kosher home in Jamaica, Queens, with fervently Zionist parents who “made Shabbat,” hosted seders and regularly attended services. And I was one of the first girls in Conservative Judaism to become a bat mitzvah.

Bert was sent to Workmen’s Circle camp to be tutored in political solidarity and Yiddish/socialist culture. My upwardly mobile parents forbade me to learn the mamaloshen, the language of “the old country.” Both Bert and I attended public schools; however, I spent three afternoons a week in Hebrew school, while he couldn’t tell the Kiddush from the Kaddish.

On our Caribbean honeymoon, which coincided with Hanukkah, he was nonplussed when, clad in a filmy negligee, I reached into my suitcase and brought out a tiny traveling menorah and a box of birthday candles. “I’ve married a religious fanatic,” he chuckled, but he stood at my side when I said the blessings and sang Ma’oz Tzur.

A few months later, Bert had a serious cancer scare, which, thankfully, proved benign. Later, he confessed that he had pledged to the God he didn’t believe in that if he survived, he would attend shul at least once a year. I’d been estranged from synagogue life ever since my mother died in 1955 and I, at 15, was not permitted to “count” in the shiva minyan because I was a girl. Still, I always went to shul on the High Holy Days. Because of his promise, he accompanied me to Kol Nidre services for the rest of his life.

Just as he accommodated my feelings and needs with his characteristic warmth and generosity, he lived his Jewish values through his rock-solid commitment to peace, justice and social action.

But since I practiced a recognizable form of Judaism, when it came to religion in the family we agreed that I would be the “decider.” Determined to shield our three kids from patriarchal Judaism and the sexism in our tradition, I decided not to send them to Hebrew school or have them bat or bar mitzvahed. My home-based Judaism would be education enough. Like my mother, I made beautiful Shabbat meals, and like my father, I recited the brachot and explained the meaning of each holiday. We celebrated eight nights of Hanukkah and attended two family seders every Passover. Everyone loved Bert’s Paul Robeson-inspired rendition of “Let My People Go.”

Though occasionally bemused by my habits—I drape a schmatta over my head like an old bubbe when I kindle Sabbath candles—Bert went along for the ride. He enjoyed the candlelight, the challah or matzah, the family songfests, even the vintage Manischewitz. He didn’t put on a kippah, but at some point, he began to recite the blessings with me.

During our first trip to Israel nearly 50 years ago, we went to the Western Wall. I peeled off to the women’s section to place my folded prayer in a crack, thinking Bert would just hang out at the back of the plaza. When we met up, he told me a couple of Haredim had asked in Yiddish whether he was Jewish. When he nodded, they grabbed his arms and muscled him toward the Wall. Up close to the ancient stones, he’d been overwhelmed by the power of the place and felt he had to say something in Hebrew. So he said the Kiddush. I laughed. He added, “I bet they went home and told their wives, ‘You’ll never believe it. There was a wino at the Wall.’”

When we studied together, Bert became fascinated by the wisdom of the ancient sages and the parallels between American law and halacha. He loved burrowing into a text. Around 1990, we cofounded a once-a-month Torah study group for our friends, which has morphed many times but is still going strong. In recent years, Bert would prepare for the Day of Atonement by dipping into books, including, sometimes, our daughter Abigail’s My Jewish Year. But his journey into Judaism was never about faith; it was about morality, legacy, history and human behavior.

He died on March 25, his bed encircled by Abigail, her twin sister Robin, our son David and our six grandchildren playing and singing the union songs he loved. During his last weeks, among other mind-blowing statements, he told me how much he loved being Jewish.

“I know you don’t accept the idea of an afterlife,” I ventured, half in jest. “But in case you find yourself up there looking down, how will you let me know you’re watching us?” He closed his eyes and smiled. Then this nonbeliever, who had allowed me to surround him with my kind of Judaism and all the religious symbols that came with it, said, “Whenever you see a Magen David, it’s me.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of 12 books, most recently Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.

Opening picture: Left: Bert and Letty in 1963. Right: Bert and Letty in 2000. (Photo credit: Couples: A Celebration of Commitment, 2000 by Morton I. Hamburg) 

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10 thoughts on “Opinion | A ‘Mixed’ Marriage, a Lifelong Journey

  1. sybil sage says:

    I smiled the entire time I read this, embracing the love, warmth, honesty and humor of two people who found the right partner. It was inspiring to know Letty had what it takes to write this.

  2. Blu Greenberg says:

    Letty, I love all of your writing but I think this is the most tender and touching piece—with some Bert stories that I never heard before. Bert was a love and a mentsch, and despite your differences in religious background and theological beliefs, it was those shared qualities that bound you together and that made your marriage a model for all the world. We miss him.

  3. Love this glimpse of him.Perhaps love even more, that you were willing to share it.

  4. bev simons morse says:

    letty – my love to you, and my sadness for yours – I guess you and bert met (?) in 1963, when you and i worked together, and judy met jay, and i left in ‘64 to marry steve and move up to bu – my heart to you, darling. I am so sorry. bev

  5. Nadine says:

    I love this Letty. Thank you.

  6. Nadine says:

    I love this Letty. Thank you for writing it for us, for all of us.

  7. Letty, thank you for sharing a bit of your dear husband with me and your legion of fans.

    There is such grace in your writing. Your warmth and love for Beet just shines through your worda.

    With love and admiration.

  8. A beautiful story. And the last line made me cry.

  9. David Margolick says:

    What a wonderfully humane piece — a great tribute to a man and to a marriage.

  10. Letty, I’m so sorry for your loss. What a mensch your husband was, and what a tender tribute this is to him and your long and loving marriage.

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