From Generation to Generation: A story of intermarriage and Jewish continuity. by Jane Larkin

There's a growing number of books and resources addressing interfaith relationships and marriage, and I was glad to receive a copy of this new addition to the genre. With intermarriage rates for American Jews at 58% (and at 71% for non-Orthodox Jews), not talking about this phenomenon would amount to some serious denial.  Some of these books, while presenting information about options, challenges, and historical Jewish thought, are fairly neutral, such as those by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky in conjunction with the Jewish Outreach Institute. Others have a much more cautious tone. In political commentator Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent book, Til Faith Do Us Part, she writes “Fuzzy romantic ideas that obscure the very real tensions of interfaith marriage, she charges, are also at fault in the lack of realism that many couples bring to their relationships.”   Jane Larkin’s new book, From Generation to Generation: a story of intermarriage and Jewish continuity, celebrates her very positive experience with intermarriage. She understands and articulates the particular challenges of interfaith couples, yet celebrates the growth and transformation that they can bring. I think that most of her points are important considerations for all modern Jews, whether they are part of interfaith relationships or not.

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 Throughout the book, Larkin emphasizes that being part of an interfaith relationship (her husband is not Jewish, though the two agreed to keep a Jewish home and raise their son as solely Jewish) has strengthened her Judaism in ways she would not have predicted. When she and her husband were dating, the fact that they were different religions forced Jane to reconsider what Judaism did mean to her. She realized that “I was not confident in my opinions because I did not feel I had studied the Torah or other Jewish texts enough to make a strong counterargument…it was understandable that I did not feel like I came to this discussion from a position of strength.” Embarking on a course of Jewish learning as an adult can indeed be an empowering and enlightening experience for many, and a far cry from whatever unhappy Sunday or Hebrew school experiences some may vaguely remember from childhood. Larkin’s reading of chapter 32 of Genesis, in which Jacob literally wrestles with an angel, helped her feel comfortable with her own struggle to believe in and understand God. Her experience seems to underscore the point that many rabbis are making when they require both spouses – both the Jewish and the non-Jewish one – to attend “Intro to Judaism” courses when one spouse is considering conversion.

Larkin also highlights the importance of choosing one religion for her home (a point she also hears made by rabbis in her home temple, one of whom told her, ‘I’d rather you choose to raise your children as Christians than choose to do both or nothing.’). A reverend at an interfaith panel she attended made it clear that for young children “being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between red and green or blue and white [for a school holiday project], it is a choice between Mommy and Daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.’” Larkin repeatedly appreciates the loving acceptance of Judaism both by her husband and by her in-laws, something which added to the joy of her experience.

I mentioned that many parts of her book contain good advice and pointers for all Jews, not just those in interfaith relationships. Her husband, in agreeing to raise their child Jewish, understood that they would have to make extra effort to do this: “ ‘In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christan,’ he added…’ ‘For our children to be Jewish, they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.’”  Whether one likes it or not, and whether or not there is any of-the-moment outcry over school prayer or crèches, the fact is that we live in a country that is predominantly Christian. At the same time, we live in a time in which individual identity is of the utmost importance. So yes, I agree that all Jewish families today should and will have to make concerted effort to create a Jewish home.  Certainly all Jews should be cognizant of findings such as the one Larkin quotes from the 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, that “lack of involvement coupled with Jewish education that ends at the bar or bat mitzvah is leading to substantial disengagement from Jewish life by the time these young adults get to college.” And leading to, perhaps, to Larkin’s own situation of being unable to articulate to her non-Jewish fiancée exactly why Judaism might be important (though obviously, she figured it out).  

Her efforts to create a Jewish home, such as baking challah, having a festive Shabbat dinner, and setting up a Sukkah, however, confused her own Jewish mother. Larkin acknowledges that some of her mother’s discomfort with the outward displays of joyful Reform Judaism may come from living in a different time in which diversity and tolerance were not such catchphrases: “Sociologist Will Herberg pointed out in his late 1950s piece, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, that the ‘great mobility of American society encouraged’ assimilation….Foreign language and culture, outward signs of difference, were shed first…many children of immigrants, said Herberg, ‘developed an uneasy relation to the faith of their fathers…’” This phenomenon, in which “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember”, is probably common in many Jewish households in which the changing style of Reform Judaism, such as the inclusion of more and more ritual objects and Hebrew, can be startling to an older generation, and for understandable reasons.

I was glad to see Larkin write about her attempts to understand more about Christianity, too. Being part of interfaith relationships surely requires understanding on both sides, and knowing where your partner is “coming from” religiously is probably helpful in creating meaningful and helpful discussions. As one who has always enjoyed learning about other religions, and has had (mostly) positive experiences in interfaith programs, I loved that some of Larkin’s earliest introductions to interfaith relationships were at panels taught by both rabbis and priests or reverends. I hope that her continuing education in this realm is a positive one, and that it helps her – as it has helped me – further understand her own faith.

Whether or not books on interfaith relationships take a specific stance “for” or “against,” they bring very important conversations out into the public sphere. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues today have extensive programming designed to welcome and encourage interfaith couples to participate in Jewish life. Some synagogues and rabbis feel differently about the issue, and prefer to focus on other methods that encourage Jewish life. Whether one is in an interfaith relationship or not, and regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, these programs and books can stimulate all Jews to consider why they are Jewish. I'm so glad that Larkin generously gave me the opportunity to read her new book, as From generation to generation is a welcome contribution to the discussion. 

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

This is a book about Jewish immigrants and ice cream. In other words, it is a perfect book for me. I obviously love Jewish history, and my husband and I love ice cream so much that we had an ice cream sundae bar at our wedding*. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street didn’t disappoint. I found myself trying to read the book slowly in order to make it last longer, as it was so good – not unlike taking dainty licks to make the ice cream cone last longer. Gilman is wonderful storyteller, and her main character, Lillian, is an engaging and spirited narrator.

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The Ice Cream Queen alternates between Lillian’s present-day life, as she navigates a pending scandal as the head of her enormous ice cream company, and flashbacks that tell the story of her rise to fame and fortune. Gilman keeps readers in suspense by waiting until close to the end of the novel to reveal the scandal. Lillian Dunkle was born Malka Bialystoker, and her earliest memories are of how she and her family were able to escape their Russian shtetl and get on a ship to America. Lillian remembers the disillusionment and disappointment her family experienced on arrival to the Lower East Side, which was a poverty-stricken, disease-addled mess. Furthermore, not only were the challenges of learning an entirely new way of life too much for some, but many were just schmucks to begin with.** After Lillian’s father disappears, she muses: “Every month posters in Yiddish, Italian, and English papered the neighborhood with names and short descriptions of all the men who had deserted the families or gone missing: lost. Seeking. Last seen. It was epidemic. In all those ridiculous fairy tales about immigrant life, poor-but-happy families pull together to launch a rag business – that turns into a tailor’s shop – that turns into Ralph Lauren. Please…I have no use for that sort of nonsense. On the Lower East Side, families shattered like glass bottles. Men up and left all the time.”

But Lillian does have a rags-to-riches story. On a fateful afternoon, Lillian is hit by an ice cream cart. With her father gone and her mother in a sanitarium, Lillian is taken in by the guilt-ridden ice cream man and his large Italian family, the Dinello’s. Lillian watches and helps as the Dinello’s family business grows from a few horse-drawn carts to a storefront ice cream parlor. Gillman provides a good amount of ice cream science, which I particularly enjoyed. In the horse-drawn cart days, the Dinello’s would prepare their Italian ice mixture in the kitchen by using rock salt and a crank. Having a permanent ice cream parlor meant that the Dinello’s could get a continuous-batch freezer: “In the decade before my family and I arrived in America, a man named Burr Walker, oddly enough – Burr, darlings, could you make this up? – invented a ‘circulating brine freezer.’ Instead of employing ice and rock salt, this curious contraption froze ingredients inside a cylinder encased in brine, cooled with an ammonia compressor…you could pour the ingredients in the top, start the motor, and have it all come out as ice cream at the bottom…”

Lillian and some of the Dinello boys, like many on the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s, find their way to some “community organizing” – that is, socialist/Communist types of meetings. But Lillian, her no-nonsense streak strong from the beginning, admits: “What little I knew about Communism I did not care for at all…and the idea that the Dinellos could build their little ice cream factory into a great success only to have it taken over by ‘the proletariat’? This was repellant to me. I dreamed of being rich myself one day…Certainly nobody I knew had immigrated here to share. Nobody I knew was hoping to hand over the fruits of their labors to every goddamn nudnik in the tenement. Besides, Communism had been invented by Russians. Those drunken, murderous Russians who had beaten my grandfather to death in his own kitchen.”

The one good thing to come of the meetings, though, is that Lillian is introduced to her future husband, a man named Bert who looks like Errol Flynn, though he’s not quite as sharp is Lillian. Her growing relationship with Bert, who is Jewish, highlights how Lillian is never completely accepted by the Dinello children, who can’t quite stop seeing her as an "amazza Christo." Eventually, she is left out of an important family business decision. This leaves her livid and determined to get revenge, somehow. And she does. She and her new husband, Bert, start “Dunkle’s Ice Cream” and have a stroke of luck when they apparently ‘discover’ how to make soft-serve ice cream. As is known from the beginning of the book, Dunkle’s becomes so big that Lillian is known as the “Ice Cream Queen of America,” with a Sunday Morning “Sundae Fun-house” TV show. Gillman seems to have had fun imagining the sorts of promotions that an ice cream company could do over the years: partnering with polio vaccinations so that every child who had a shot got a free cone, creating special flavors for WWII (“armistachio”), and capitalizing on her Yiddish-Italian background to be the “ultimate” caring, pushy mother in her commercials: “ Soon, ‘So sue me: I worry’ became a hugely popular catchphrase. Customers, they gleefully parroted it in our stores, mimicking my accent….I pinched their cheeks. I told them to ‘eat a little. Have a little something for the mouth.’ ”  

I enjoyed the way Gillman’s characters and plotlines loosely mimicked and recalled actual history. Lillian’s rivalry with the Dinello’s made me think of the tense relationship between the old Jewish and Italian gangs of New York (thinking of Meyer Lansky). The popularity of Lillian’s ‘homey’ commercials made me wonder if Gillman didn’t have the old sitcom “Mrs. Goldberg” in mind:

And, as I mentioned, Lillian’s schmuck father, who disappears when she is a girl but reappears later in her life only to try to get his hustle his share of her fortune, brings to mind this recent book**, which recounts numerous similar stories.  

My only real quibble is for Gillman’s editor. The cover of the edition I got pictures a woman’s feet, in fashionable high heeled shoes, next to a dropped ice cream cone. But Lillian’s disability from the childhood accident, and her subsequent dependence on a cane and special shoes, is crucial to the story. So…why the stylish heels? Oh well.

That’s it, though – everything else was smooth, creamy perfection for me.

* It was specifically Blue Bell brand, as I’m from Texas, and Blue Bell is definitely the best ice cream of all time.

** For more on this, check out the relatively new compilation, A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, by Isaac Metzker and Harry Golden. The Bintel Brief was a real advice column which handled questions of new Jewish immigrants, and also included countless pleas for help in finding lost or missing relatives.