Everybody marries a foreigner
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 20, 2004
The English and Americans are often described as two people divided by a common language. Though I have been in England many times over the years, a recent visit to England reminded me of this particular apercu.
America is called the New World -- new not only in the sense of having been inhabited much later, but in its worship of the new. Kitchens are remodeled every five years, not because the old one was inadequate, but just because its time.
The English, by contrast, are most comfortable surrounded by old things. Only recently, for instance, has it begun to dawn on them that it is possible to have hot and cold water running from the same tap. (Trying to mix hot and cold water by cupping ones hands first to receive the cold water, and then somehow turning on the other tap to receive the hot is great for developing digital dexterity.) In England, apparently, one does not change the plumbing until the old plumbing ceases to function entirely.
Most of the homes in stately Golders Green would have long ago been leveled by a wrecking ball if they were moved to Boro Park, where perfectly livable houses are bought only for the lot upon which to erect a new mansion. In English towns, one rarely sees a new building. There would seem to have been little need for architects in England since Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones. But home refurbishing must be a booming business.
The passion for the new versus affection for the old is only one of the many cultural differences to strike a traveler. An English friend related how he took a flight from Newcastle to London. Upon arrival the stewardess announced that the person who helps people off the last step of the stairs had not arrived, and so they could not disembark. And everyone sat there quietly for 25 minutes with nary a peep.
In Israel, everyone on the plane would have immediately demanded that a substitute be brought or screamed that they were perfectly capable of alighting themselves. Within minutes they would have stormed the exit.
The same friend informed me that honking one’s horn is tantamount to a declaration of war in England. Even if the fellow in front of you falls asleep during an entire green light, you do not honk unless you are prepared to cross swords. In Israel, the failure to honk as soon as the light turns yellow is viewed as a blemish on one’s manhood.
IN THE MIDST of these bemused observations, it struck me that the cultural differences between people of different nationalities are a good moshol for the situation in which each new chosson and kallah find themselves. Just as a shared language does not override the immense differences between Americans and Englishmen, so too the fact that both chosson and kallah come from Torah homes, will not protect themselves from frequently feeling as if they come from different planets – and not just Venus and Mars.
Each grew up in a family with a certain way of doing things and particular behavioral norms. And to each of them those norms are simply the way things are done. But as tourists quickly find out, assumptions about appropriate behavior differ radically.
Whether to stand or sit for Kiddush or Havdalah may not seem like such a big deal, but where newlyweds have different familial customs, Kiddush or Havdalah can instill each week a certain feeling of being foreigners.
And such differences in minhag are minor compared to the intricate web of behavior patterns in each family. The normal decibel level in one family might be indicative of lethal intent in another. And thus the wife’s adjurations to her husband to stop shouting will both astound and irritate him since he is unaware that he is shouting.
One family may have developed a pattern of good-natured banter that in another family would be constitute malicious teasing.
Just as peaceful concourse between nations requires the development of diplomacy, so too do newlyweds have to develop the experienced diplomat’s ability to understand the nuances of their spouses’ messages. And just as diplomats posted to a new country devote themselves to learning the language and customs of their host country, so too do newlyweds have to spend hours learning their spouses’ customs and language.
Halachah does not change with time or from country to country. That is not, however, the case with minhag. And most certainly it is not the case with respect to the many This-Is-How-We-Do-Things-And-That’s-That that we all carry with us from the homes in which we grew up.
The sooner that we learn and internalize this lesson the better it will be for us in every area of life, and in none more so than marriage.
If chosson and kallah need any reminders on this score, just let them take a trip abroad.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, World Jewry
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