What My Polish Mother-in-Law Taught Me about Ethnicity

I have a Polish mother-in-law.  This is not the beginning of a politically-incorrect ethnic joke. It reflects belated recognition that Stanisława’s -- now Stella’s -- ethnicity has been a source of pride and identity to her, and has provided impetus for tolerance and good works throughout her entire life.

As a teen-aged victim of the Nazis during WWII, Stella sacrificed her adolescence to protect her father. She spent years in slave labor in exchange for her father’s release from an SS jail, where he had been held for refusing to aid the Nazis.  When she married, she sacrificed her attachment to Catholicism to proffer respect to her husband’s Eastern Orthodox rituals, reasoning that both communities worship the same unique God, and that family integrity mattered more than church-specific forms of liturgy.  She seems well satisfied with her life and continues to give endlessly of herself to help friends, neighbors, family, and her community.  Even now, at 89 years old (and she doesn’t cringe to hear her age spoken of, another ego-less attribute I admire in our youth-worshipping culture) she still gardens, takes in stray cats, delights in her grandchildren, hosts family and friends at gatherings, cooks up a storm of unpronounceable delicacies, participates in neighborhood functions, knits and crochets beautiful gifts for lots of people, and generally lives a life which is as exemplary as it is rare.

Stella blessed my wife's choice of becoming Jewish, in a whimsical, heavily-accented, brief but powerful speech just before our wedding.   "Olgitsa (the diminutive nickname, used often when addressing my wife, who is, after all, still Stella’s little girl), don't forget that Richard is now going to be your husband.  You must always do what he wants."   I immediately, enthusiastically agreed.  Unfortunately, my wife-to-be understood the unarticulated central subtlety contained in her mother's coarse message.  Olga translated it for me in its totality. "My mother means that just as she adopted my father's religion, she is delighted that I have chosen to follow yours, now ours."   I tried to broaden the meaning of this wonderful piece of pre-marital advice to include all of my whims, but my bride calmly smiled and assured me that this was all that my mother-in-law had intended.  Nonetheless this was not a trivial message, even in its limited interpretation.  It was the message of Ruth to Naomi: "Wither thou goest, there will I go... Thy people will be my people, and thy G-d my G-d"  (Ruth 1-16.)  There are lots of commentaries on this verse.  It has great meaning to many, but is particularly personal to us given that it was my Mother-In-Law's pre-nuptial blessing. 

Through the years, our visits to Stella have elicited frequent references about people who are Jewish.  She might comment to me about a neighbor, "She’s Jewish", or about a shop, "It’s run by an old Jewish man", or reminisce about the neighboring village from her home in Poland, "They were all Jewish farmers and shop-keepers", and ponder aloud about the similarities and differences between the observances and practices of her church and our synagogue.  All these years I was made uncomfortable by Stella'’s emphasis on ethnic and cultural identity, having been thoroughly indoctrinated by politically-correct American ideals which insist that difference is divisive, evil, repugnant, and to be eradicated.  While I loved and still love Stella, and euphorically remember her advice to us before our wedding, I perceived this one quirk as bigoted and isolating, circumscribing me as "Jewish" and herself as "Polish-Catholic/Serbian Orthodox".   I had dutifully assimilated the notion that we must pretend not to notice differences among our population.  Congress and even Supreme Court actions have made distinguishing people on the basis of "race, color, creed, national origin, or ancestry" a crime only slightly less anti-social than espionage.  The disquiet that I felt has been more than compensated for by Stella’s warmth, generosity, good-humor, affection for people, and generally awe-inspiring attitude concerning life.  I just kept learning new Polish expressions with which to surprise and please her, and tried my best to ignore what I perceived as this one peccadillo.  I long ago convinced myself to try to dismiss her determined ethic labeling as having originated in her painful childhood influences.  (I apparently read way too much psychology at an easily-influenced age.)

On a Thanksgiving a few years ago, I had an epiphany: Stella is not bigoted.  Her references aren't subtle denigratory allusions to underlying differences which separate one group from another.  Stella so enjoys her heritage that she cannot help but assume that all of us must be infused with that same love of our heritage as she is with her own.  She doesn’t reject difference.  Far from it.  She delights in difference.  Stella sees the potential for the same joy of self, the same life affirmation for others in their tribal allegiances as her own identity provides her.  When she tells me about her Jewish neighbor, she is doing so to allow me to participate in whatever connections I might desire so as to maintain the spiritual and ceremonial ties to my own personal and religious background.  That doesn’t mean that such group identification makes me any less a participant in our national "melting pot" (or as my friend Barbara puts it, "it's not a melting pot, it's a salad"), despite the angst I’ve always felt.  As Stella apparently sees it, and as I have belatedly recognized, to love one’s own traditions, to delight in one’'s origins, does not intrinsically detract from loving others.  To passionately recognize our own roots can also enable us to accept and respect the roots of others as having emotional origins, depths, and meanings similar to what we ourselves experience.  The introduction of such group identification into our life joins us to others rather than isolating us from others, if only we allow it to do so.

Diversity is a highly regarded value in Judaism. The Talmud articulates that all good people have a share in the world to come.  The Rabbis taught that there are only seven requirements (the seven Noachite Laws) for non-Jews to receive God’s highest blessing, and that it is unnecessary to be Jewish to be so blessed.  Jews, on the other hand, because of our contract with God, are obligated to adhere to the higher standard of 613 mitzvot.  While some of these commandments are arcane, technical, and relate to ritual that is no longer possible to perform, many are moral strictures and still have great relevance to leading a good life.  Many non-Jews, like Stella, have found their way beyond the seven Noachite laws to this higher morality without having ever even stumbled across Talmud.

So here I am, finally getting it.  Stella has taught me much over the years about the joys of family.  Now I’m learning that my delight in being Jewish shouldn't in any way isolate me from other social groups in which humans thrive, any more than loving my family would somehow detract from participating in my neighborhood and community.  As the Pennsylvania Dutch say, "We grow too soon old, and too late smart.”  Dziekuje, Stella, for teaching me such an important lesson.

Richard Collier is a founder of Chavurah Piscataqua. He can be reached at kallir@myfairpoint.net