Meeting in the middle

Inevitable as evergreen boughs and candlelight, this holiday season arrived with a selection of blockbuster films. On star power alone, none is as likely to be talked about as the new sequel to “Meet the Parents” with Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand.

The film’s called “Meet the Fockers,” and it’s sure to be as crude, tactless and funny as the original. Fortunately, it won’t mirror reality.

Real life seldom provides such broad, if affectionate, stereotypes, nor such outrageous tales of insult and embarrassment. Real life couples who successfully blend two diverse cultural backgrounds navigate the experience not with insults and gags, but with respect, grace and humor.

Gabrielle Glaser, author of “Strangers to the Tribe: Portraits of Interfaith Marriage” (Houghton, Mifflin, $24), recalls the meeting of her Boston Jewish in-laws and her Oregon grass-farmer parents. “That was awkward,” she says. “There was a cultural gap. I think we got through it with a lot of wine.”

Glaser grew up attending Christian churches, but decided to convert to Judaism as an adult. She also discovered that her paternal grandfather had been Jewish. The family owned a menorah, but nobody knew what it was.

The path to becoming a member of the tribe, for Glaser, was not without its rocky patches.

When she and her husband were expecting their first child, his parents weighed in. They campaigned to name the baby “Jacob,” after a grandfather who had died of injuries inflicted during the Holocaust. When Glaser gave birth to a girl, she and her husband chose the name Ilana, a Hebrew word that means “tree.”

“I thought it was lovely because it evoked both my husband’s family and my family of the Northwest,” she said. “My dad’s family had a walnut orchard.”

Her in-laws weren’t entirely convinced. But once their Israeli relatives received the birth announcement and adored the name, the whole family concluded the choice was just right.

Her early memories of serving a Passover Seder, eager to make a good impression on her in-laws, now make her laugh.

The traditional feast features several symbolic dishes, including bowls of salt water representing tears. But just before she served the dinner, she flew into a panic, uncertain whether the custom called for a single bowl of salt water, or one at every plate.

“I remember that ‘Oh-my-God’ moment,” she says. “I was trying so hard.”

In the end, the dinner turned out beautifully. There weren’t quite enough bowls of salt water to go around, but no one even noticed.

After 14 years of marriage, she says, “I’m incredibly fond of my in-laws now. We’ve really grown into one another.”

While conversion worked well for Glaser, it wasn’t typical of the interfaith couples she interviewed for her book. Most tried to continue both traditions.

That’s true for Missy and Russell Tsuchida, a Spokane couple who attends the Spokane Buddhist Temple but also celebrate Christian holidays.

Missy’s German-American parents raised her Catholic; Russell’s Japanese-American parents raised him Buddhist.

After they’d been dating for three years, Missy showed off her promise ring to her family. “It’s just puppy love,” her grandmother sniffed.

Their marriage in 1987 set off a rift in her family that lasted several years. It ended only after Missy wound up in the hospital with a medical crisis.

Now the Tsuchidas make sure their son celebrates both Christian and Buddhist holidays. He’s learned to bow his head in prayer before Christmas and Easter dinners with his mom’s side of the family, and to bathe the Buddha in special sweet tea during the Buddhist spring festival of Hana Matsuri. One day, when he’s old enough, he’ll have the chance to choose.

“He knows about Jesus Christ, and he knows about Buddha at the same time,” Missy Tsuchida says.

She believes both traditions hold the key to bridging the cultural gaps. “The Catholics teach you to obey elders. The Buddhist church teaches you to listen to the elders and learn. That’s the main thing: Carry on the traditions of the elders for the elders so the tradition is not lost,” she says.

During the years she lived with her husband’s family, they developed several shared jokes. On a rainy day, her Japanese-American mother-in-law would look out the window and say, “Your god did this.” Missy’s rejoinder: “Na-uh. It’s your god.”

Her advice for other couples: “Laugh. Don’t take things so hard. Life is much more than just religion. And compromise: Give and take. Don’t just give; don’t just take.”

Considering the multi-cultural makeup of the United States, this experience rings true for many Americans. A nation of immigrants, we’re bound to meet, fall in love and marry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 7.4 percent of American marriages in 2000 were between partners of different races or origins. Many other marriages, not represented in the census bureau data, combine partners of different faiths or cultural backgrounds.

Besides, few couples these days find themselves perfectly matched. Even a marriage between an Irish Catholic and an Italian Catholic, for example, requires a few cultural compromises.

After writing her book, Glaser, also a feature writer for The Oregonian in Portland, has a few words of advice:

—Go through a year together in the calendar before you get married. Find out which cultural events have the most significance in each family and make sure the partner comes along to help celebrate.

—Talk to other people who have successfully blended diverse cultural backgrounds. “You’ve got to figure out what’s right for you,” she says.

—Whenever you have a choice, choose to add, not subtract, traditions. “Err on the side of inclusion,” she says. “Do more, not less.”

Recently Glaser attended the western wedding of a Korean-American bride and a Chinese-American groom that was a perfect example of inclusion. The day included a Chinese tea ceremony in which the groom’s mother bestowed five necklaces on the bride, signifying their family’s valuing her as much as the world values jade, gold and pearls. And in a Korean bowing ceremony, the bride’s mother put red dots on the bride’s cheeks to scare away evil spirits.

Glaser watched that wedding with tenderness and tears. It reminded her of her own, back in 1990. “I could look with the knowledge of an old married person and say, “This is American. This is what happens; this is what makes us who we are. … This is what good looks like now.”

The tensions around interfaith and cross-cultural marriages haven’t ended, but Americans have become more open-minded than ever. Many families find that the more inclusive they are, the richer their lives become.

Virginia and Harry Levitch found each other in their 50s, after earlier marriages had ended. Virginia, a Lutheran of Norwegian, Danish, Irish and English descent, met Harry, whose Jewish parents were Russian and Lithuanian. Virginia was an office manager for a law firm at the time and Harry a furniture-store owner and attorney.

“It’s always been easy,” Virginia says. “I was so taken with him.”

They’ve been married nearly 20 years now. They accompany each other to Jewish and Lutheran services, and they financially support both Temple Beth Shalom and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. “We try to be very fair and generous with them both,” she says.

It might not have gone so smoothly had they tried to raise children together, she admits. Virginia believes that when children are involved, one partner or the other’s going to have to give. “And it’s not going to be me,” she says.

But their later-in-life marriage has worked.

“I just so respect him so much,” Virginia Levitch says. “He’s one of the kindest, most gentle persons in the world.”

They’ve even made funeral plans which reflect their blended cultures. Virginia’s chosen a Lutheran funeral, the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and a Jewish casket. Harry will have a Jewish service and burial, not in the Jewish section of the cemetery, but in a plot where Virginia will be allowed to lie as well.

After living together with grace, respect and love on this earth, they plan to rest in peace right next to each other for all eternity.

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