Can a Non-Jewish Spouse “Step Away” From Jewish Fears?
She repeats what I’ve just said about her Daddy and, seemingly satisfied with this, or bored of the conversation, wanders off into the playroom in search of better entertainment.
It’ll probably come up again at some point, but religion is a tricky thing to explain to a four-year old – I tried once and got stuck on explaining who God is. So I tried to explain it without God, but that doesn’t really work, so I left it and will return at some point, knowing that by then she will probably have stored up enough questions to last a whole afternoon. Daddy’s Jewish and Mummy’s not – but what does that make her? And does it matter?
When R and I first got together, religion wasn’t really relevant – and yet with a last name like his (think of something Biblical, grand, and lyrical) it was obvious from the start that he was Jewish. But that, to me, would have been something no more defining than saying he had dark hair. I grew up in North London – an area so thoroughly (and wonderfully) multicultural that I had friends of all races – and actually lots and lots of Jewish ones.
I knew loads about Judaism. Friends would celebrate Chanukah, and we’d learn about it in school. At Passover there would be a large contingent of girls who brought in a packed lunch instead of having school lunches in the canteen. And at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lessons would be mysteriously quiet, and half my friends would be missing for the day. At my friend Brooke’s house we had to have a different plate for something milky or something meaty, and I always knew exactly why – the dietary laws of a kosher family were not at all alien or noteworthy to me. And my mum knew not to serve pork if some friends were joining us for dinner. So, really, Judaism has always been kind of familiar to me, and comforting too.
When R and I had been dating for a few months his grandfather passed away.
“I want you to come to the shiva,” he told me over the phone the day after he died. “Wear whatever you want. Just be there.”
It was my first true initiation into Jewish customs, and it made sense to me. No waiting around for days to bury a loved one, no stress about how to do the funeral and wake – nothing to get in the way of grief because everyone mourning knew exactly what to do. It was comforting.
Four years later, when we were living together in a trendy part of West London, devastation hit R’s family. His older sister passed away unexpectedly and we were all wrapped up in the rituals of death and burial provided by his family’s religion. They were heartbreakingly dark times, but the family knew what to do, and what was expected. A funeral was arranged, a shiva to follow – everything done correctly – despite the overwhelming injustice of the situation and the disbelief that they had to do any of this at all. Judaism enveloped them for a few days, and made them act even when they didn’t want to. Its rituals kept them going, and I felt so grateful they had them.
I’ve been to more shivas than I have Christian funerals in the time I’ve known R. The flip side of this is that I’ve also been to more Jewish weddings than non-Jewish ones – including my own, which was a hybrid of the standard civil ceremony and a Jewish rite. R was adamant that he would stamp on a glass at the end of our service.
Our son is circumcised. We had a proper bris with a mohel, and I cried upstairs with my mother in law while the men stayed downstairs with my tiny baby boy.
“I was exactly like you!” She said when she saw my tears. “I had my head hanging out of the window so I couldn’t hear him cry!” And I knew that although it was torture for me, at least I was behaving the way that was expected.
Last winter we had our first family Chanukah. I was excited to buy 16 little gifts for our two pre-schoolers, and I have some lovely photos of Daddy and P lighting the candles, with Daddy wearing his special “Jewish hat.” The Chanukiah sits proudly on our shelf, kindly donated by my grandmother-in-law, who said it had belonged to her mother. It’s wonderful to have such an heirloom, and it’s a statement of the family religion which is immediately visible when visitors come into our dining room. And I like it there.
So my life has been more Jewish than anything else so far. I feel protected by it, comforted, happy to be almost a part of something, and happy to know its rituals will always be there to guide us. But I also know that I’m lucky that I can step away from it if I wanted to. It’s no secret that Jews are still subject to racial prejudices and abuse, something that will never be directed at me— only at the people I love. I can step away any time I want. Right now I choose to step in, but will my children always feel that way? They will go to the local school and, contrary to the trend among Jewish families in our area, the school is not a religious one. I’m almost certain that my daughter will be the only Jewish child in her class when she starts school in September, and I worry about how that might affect her…a parent might say something to their child which gets passed on –something incorrect and based on their own preconceptions and false ideas about Jews in general. R and I are very much together in our wish for our children to be a part of a multicultural society – it is perhaps an unfortunate fact that they must be in this society as part of a minority. They will always be prone to being misunderstood.
Moreover, there will always be people who tell us our children aren’t Jewish – and for most Jews they are not. Someone is Jewish if their mother is Jewish: I get that, it says it in the Scriptures, and who am I to argue? But there are some who will accept them as Jewish if they want to be, and, from an outsider’s perspective, Judaism is a religion as much about culturally created rituals as what’s written in the Torah.
I am not Jewish, and I never will be. It will always remain my honorary religion, but I won’t ever call myself a Jew.
“Out of interest,” my husband says to me one evening, “what would you have done if I’d said I wanted you to convert?”
Without hesitation I reply: “I wouldn’t have married you.” And I mean it.