The Rye Bread Marriage – a book about an enduring bond thanks to rye bread

Among the many challenges in making marriages work is understanding and appreciating the differences between those in the marriage, particularly cultural and ethnic differences. What might seem normal to one culture may seem incomprehensible to another. Much like any other culture, Latvians have their own quirks and peculiarities, and for the many Latvians that experienced war and being displaced persons, there is also a good deal of trauma.

However, unexpected connections can be found to strengthen a marriage. One particular marriage’s bond has endured thanks to, of all things, rye bread. That is the story of Michaele Weissman’s memoir The Rye Bread Marriage, published by Algonquin Books in 2023. Subtitled “How I Found Happiness with a Partner I’ll Never Understand”, it is the story of her marriage to Latvian American John (Jānis) Melngailis, and how this particular kind of bread helped develop a particularly strong bond between them.

Melngailis is the founder of Black Rooster Food (Black Rooster being the literal translation of Melngailis) and has found success in selling the Latvian style rye bread (or rupjmaize) in the United States, but the path to this achievement was an arduous and difficult one.

Besides being a story of a rye bread entrepreneur, it is also the story of a marriage, an often unflinching, raw portrait, with both euphoric highs and discouraging lows. Weissman married Melngailis in 1982, a time when the expectation was still that Latvians in the United States would marry other Latvians, so the marriage of Melgailis to Weissman (who is Jewish) was not looked upon favorably by some in the community.

There are numerous struggles in the marriage, and Weissman writes openly about John’s mental health struggles, and her own difficulties. However, John, like many Latvians, is enamored with, even perhaps obsessed with, rye bread. Turns out two of Weissman’s grandfathers were Litvak Jews from Eastern Europe who also ate a lot of rye bread. This unlikely link brings the two closer together.

The book, in its brief 266 pages, is many things – a memoir, a biography of Melngailis, a history of rye bread, as well as an analysis of the trauma many Latvian refugees experienced after the war, where rye bread was a potent reminder of home, a home that many were convinced they would never see again. Weissman has a direct, sometimes even abrupt style (the book has 126 chapters, many of which are only a few sentences in length). Weissman weaves all these many threads together in an engrossing and absorbing read. The book is full of poignant moments (John’s return to the town of his birth – Lielvārde – to meet with his friend, the baker and oven maker Aivars Grīnbergs),  but still does have the occasional humorous story (the disappointment of going to the Open Air Ethnographic Museum to celebrate a traditional Jāņi, only to encounter a reggae band singing the decidely untraditional refrain ‘Jāņi, Jāņi, āfrikāņi’).

As the story of a marriage to a rye bread-obsessed Latvian, Michaele Weissman’s The Rye Bread Marriage is at times moving, other times humorous, and, is often an unflinching and, occasionally, uncomfortable read, due to its very intimate nature. Besides the trauma of the Latvian refugees, Weissman also touches on the pain and horror of the Holocaust in Latvia. The Rye Bread Marriage is a fascinating story of how two people of very different cultural and ethnic backgrounds overcame adversity to create an enduring and successful marriage.

For further information, please visit  Michaele Weissman’s website.

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

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