The following is a conversation between myself and my parents about a German Jewish wedding tradition called a Polterabend. My dad, Arthur, is of German Jewish descent and grew up in a secular household in Cincinnati, while my mother, Margaret, is from a secular Episcopalian background. They are referred to by their first initials in this conversation; “L” is my first initial.
M: This is actually uh, Dad’s but I was gonna say that in Cincinnati they have um–among reform Jews in Cincinnati–they have a custom called the Polterabend. which is a-
A: It’s a German custom.
M: It’s a german custom, but isn’t- I think it was celebrated by the German Jews?
M: Um and we had one of them before our wedding and the idea was um, the night before, you have like a- a kind of a wild party of some kind to celebrate. But “polter” is y’know from “poltergeist” so it’s like, y’know, goblins or-
A: And you’re supposed to break something.
L: You always do it before your wedding or…?
M: Yeah, the evening before your wedding um, y’know you uh, you break stuff, you make a lot of noise to sort of celebrate the marrying couple and chase away the bad spirits.
L: And like, did your parents do that, Dad?
L: And like, all the reform Jews in Cincinnati?
M: And when they had a party for us, the evening before our wedding here [in San Francisco]-
A: They called it a Polterabend.
M: They called it a Polterabend, although it was just a party.
My dad’s family, like most German Jewish families in Cincinnati, were not at all religiously observant; in fact, they had a Christmas tree most years growing up. Still, most reform Jews in Cincinnati, my dad’s family included, participated in cultural practices like the Polterabend in order to connect to their culture. Although neither of my parents are especially religious, traditions like this one connect our family to our cultural-religious background. My parents were married by a Rabbi in a Jewish ceremony, and had a “Polterabend” before their wedding; though my mom is not Jewish, their wedding celebrated Jewish culture’s place in their newly formed family.