The Rye Bread Mar­riage: How I Found Hap­pi­ness with a Part­ner I’ll Nev­er Understand

  • Review
By – December 11, 2023

In this com­pelling mem­oir, Michaele Weiss­man reflects on her mar­riage to John Mel­ngailis, a non-Jew­ish Lat­vian refugee. Weiss­man is Jew­ish and Amer­i­can; and in addi­tion to their reli­gious and nation­al dif­fer­ences, there is also a large age gap between them. Their lifestyles are some­what at odds, too. John, who grew up in pover­ty, lives fru­gal­ly — he is care­ful not to waste food and saves every­thing for pos­si­ble fix­ing and repur­pos­ing. Weiss­man, on the oth­er hand, enjoyed a more secure child­hood and thus strug­gles to under­stand his ten­den­cies. Yet she man­ages to main­tain a strong sense of humor.

When the pair first met, John had already earned a PhD in physics, while Weiss­man was a col­lege stu­dent of his­to­ry and a writer. The ques­tion Do oppo­sites attract?” remains cen­tral as Weiss­man describes dat­ing and even­tu­al­ly mar­ry­ing her beloved part­ner of now forty years. John had been divorced but remained a lov­ing father to his daugh­ters. Through many vis­its, Weiss­man cared for and became close with the girls. Over time, the author dis­cov­ered that John was bipo­lar; and although he was able to func­tion well most of the time, he had episodes of the ill­ness that deeply affect­ed him. 

John took his Lat­vian iden­ti­ty quite seri­ous­ly, shar­ing with oth­ers his people’s his­to­ry and his love of a kind of rye bread — called rupj­maize—that is par­tic­u­lar to Latvia. He was obsessed with the tex­ture, fla­vor, mak­ing, and mean­ing of the bread. A rel­a­tive says that it’s the food we crave when we have been away from home for too long.” When Weiss­man trav­eled with John to Latvia, she began to ques­tion her own geo­graph­i­cal ties to the area. She inves­ti­gat­ed her Jew­ish roots in the land and the dif­fer­ences between Lit­vaks and Gal­izian­ers, two types of East­ern Euro­pean Jews. 

Weiss­man was accept­ed by John’s moth­er, but she nev­er­the­less felt like an out­sider at Lat­vian gath­er­ings. She was dis­turbed by the community’s overt neg­a­tiv­i­ty about her mar­riage to one of their own. Grap­pling with the dif­fi­cult parts of her rela­tion­ship with John, the author reminds her­self again and again about their com­pat­i­bil­i­ty and his many pos­i­tive qual­i­ties. Along the way, she also shares some gems of advice about marriage.

The mem­oir is divid­ed into 126 sec­tions. Some are only a cou­ple of lines, while oth­ers span a few pages. This makes for an acces­si­ble read­ing expe­ri­ence that, among oth­er things, relates the unique delights of mak­ing — and eat­ing — bread.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

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