I admit my notions of romantic life were…idealistic. Although I had been born and raised Jewish, it had been in a small Southern town among a majority of Christians. They proselytized constantly and felt the need to save me whenever possible. But in reality the only boys available to date were not Jews, and although an undercurrent of anti-Semitism was evident, only a few of these nice Christian boys were actually restricted from dating me, a Jewess. My mother might have cautioned me against dating outside my faith, but I think she hoped for me to feel as “normal” as possible in our odd situation. She wanted me to belong. Either I dated non-Jews or I would not date at all. And although I went to temple and celebrated the Jewish holidays, I was Jewish primarily in a cultural way, as so many modern American Southern Jews were in the 1960s and 1970s. God wasn’t an issue; faith wasn’t a word I used. I was Jewish as American blacks were black: it just was.
In college, I discovered Jewish men. I dated them. I slept with them. But I didn’t separate them out as the only suitable men. After college I fell hard in love with one Jewish man in particular. But I was just 24, and in the midst of my career as a magazine editor. Ultimately I chose the career over him; I moved for a new job, and left the relationship. I had no idea then how pivotal that decision would be.
I used to tell people that I married my husband because he was the only man I had ever found who was smarter than I. That was untrue, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was smart, but my husband was a man of conviction: the conviction that he was the smartest person in the room. What I also did not know was that his conviction was a veneer, one easily chipped away and peeled off had I only been more aware. I grew to understand that a good part of the reason I married him was simply that, quite suddenly, I wanted children: the feeling came over me in a rush as I pushed into my late twenties. Thirty years ago women were not having children as late as they are now; there were no single woman role models. I was fairly traditional despite my feminism, and having children meant having a husband. He fulfilled the basic checklist: he was intelligent; he was on the verge of a good career as a French professor; he would do well. We could live an intellectual life. He wanted marriage and children too. It all seemed to make sense in a sort of dispassionate sense. I loved him, but I suspect I am not alone in having liked the idea of him as a husband more than the actual man. The fact that he was not Jewish seemed…peripheral. He was not a Christian; he did not believe in Jesus as the Son of God, there seemed nothing in his value system that was anathema to mine. He wasn’t so much an enthusiastic atheist as a committed one. I didn’t see that as a big problem.
My husband and I decided on a relatively simple wedding. We chose a judge who happened to be a friend of my mother’s and Jewish, but the ceremony we wrote ourselves. It was not religious, and the only “concession” to my faith was the superstition of breaking the glass for good luck.
Our arguments about my increasing awareness of my ethnicity and my religion began almost by accident. We found ourselves in another small Southern town, a university town, yes, but one which had not progressed much from that of my youth. I was surrounded by people who asked me what church I went to. Most of the professors and their families attended one or the other of the large Presbyterian or Episcopal churches in town, which were also indicators of one’s place in the social hierarchy of both the town and the university. When I became pregnant with our son I found myself fiercely advocating for circumcision, and my husband just as fiercely advocating against it––even though he himself was circumcised, as were so many men of his generation in America. But the times were changing, and it was suddenly fashionable to leave little boys uncut: the barbarity of the act was compared to female circumcision, an argument I found specious then and still do.
But what surprised me was the vehemence with which my faith played a part in my decision. If my boy was to be Jewish––and he was, with a Jewish mother––then he needed to show physically a sign of his legacy. Finally my husband gave in with a compromise that the procedure be done routinely in the hospital rather than eight days after birth in a more elaborate and religious bris. I was fine with that: in those days my faith was still forming, and I was still convinced that my husband’s atheism could, if imperfectly, mesh with my cultural and at the time agnostic Judaism.
But when I started to feel a longing to attend synagogue, things began to unravel. I needed to find my people. I needed to raise my Jewish boy with other Jews. More and more frequently I began attending that closest synagogue, 40 minutes up the road. It had a small and welcoming congregation and an intelligent woman rabbi. It was full of mixed-marriage couples, families of mixed race, and the unaffiliated, most of whom also traveled from miles away to attend. I felt like I belonged to this delightfully motley crew of Jews who were all learning as we went along.
Despite that feeling of belonging once there, it was a lonely journey—both physically and emotionally—to get to where I needed to be. My husband had no interest in accompanying me, so I drove alone. Those 40 miles each way gave me a lot of time to think.
When my son was six and my daughter six months old, we moved the family to the U.K. for a year while my husband was on sabbatical. This was among the best parts of my marriage. I loved living in Oxford and my son thrived in first grade in an English school. But while attending High Holiday services in the building which served as a synagogue for several different branches of Judaism in Oxford’s small Jewish community, I was confronted by the part of my ethnicity I had long ignored: the fact that it could be dangerous to me and my children. As I walked in the front door of the building, holding my son’s hand and my daughter in my arms, I passed an armed guard, complete with an automatic rifle and bullet bandoliers. For a long second I lost my breath. And I finally refound the elements of my faith that has still been missing. I was a Jewish woman. I had Jewish children. It was my responsibility to teach them their history, their past and the possibilities for their future. If it is possible, God appeared to me in the guise of that guard with a gun. I suddenly saw myself as part of something so large I could no longer sit on the sidelines and pick and choose what parts to subscribe to.
I came home from our year abroad and enrolled my son in the Sunday school program our temple shared with another farther away. Each Sunday, I got in the car and drove an hour so that my child could have a religious education; with the drive and the school, most of the day was shot. And I did the same for my daughter a few years later. Eventually I found a couple of other mothers who were interested in the Sunday school and we formed a carpool, so I got an occasional Sunday off. I had travelled an hour to Sunday school as a child, too. It was a bittersweet memory and the irony was not wasted on me: At the time, I had resented the time commitment and lost what little faith I might have had. Oddly, my journey had in some ways mirrored my mother’s; she too had found herself trying to raise Jewish children in a town without a synagogue, and traveled hours to show us what was possible. I felt sadness along with my happiness at my new commitment. But I knew, even as I studied Torah with my kids, even as I helped them prepare for their b’nai mitzvah, even as we travelled up and down the road together, just the three of us, I was giving them a gift, a legacy so that someday if they moved away from Judaism as I had they would have a way back.
But I also knew I had to do it differently than the way my mother had, that growing up as an outsider and different wouldn’t be enough for my children, as it hadn’t been enough for me. Unlike my parents, I wanted to give them the joy of Judaism as well as its duty. We had Shabbat dinners with my homemade challah, we lit the Hanukkiah and sang songs, we went to High Holiday services, we played games and made and ate hamentaschen on Purim; we participated in huge community Seders. I gave them the best that I could: not only our history of our suffering and pain but, I hoped, a fierce interest in learning about their roots, their heritage, their faith. The absolute knowledge that they had so many years of strength and goodness behind them, pushing them on, keeping them strong. When each of them—five years apart—stood at the bimah and said the Hebrew prayers that joined them to the community of Jews throughout history and around the world, I wept happy tears.
When I tried to explain to my husband how I felt, I met with much resistance. As a white male, raised a Christian, he and I had long had difficulties when discussing feminism and privilege. But my newfound belief in God and commitment to Judaism seemed to make him both angry and resentful. He called me anti-intellectual. He pronounced that one could not be an intellectual and a person of faith, a position I came to see as both intractable and untrue.
One day at dinner, my 6-year-old daughter looked around the supper table and asked: “Why does everyone here believe in God except Daddy?” My husband flinched. My answer took a few moments to form.
“Your father,” I said, “believes what he believes and has a right to do so, as do you. I believe in God and I am glad you do, too, but it makes us no better or worse. It just is. Just as we are Jewish and Daddy is not, the world is made up of all kinds of people and we are who we are.” It was a complicated answer for an unanswerable question.
After 20 years, my husband and I finally divorced. Ours had been a troubled marriage almost from the beginning, but we had tried to stay together for the children. I did not leave my husband because I am a Jew and he is not. I did not leave him because I found my faith and it separated us further than we already had been. But in finding my faith what I also found was that my husband did not respect my journey and therefore did not respect me.
What my husband failed to see in his dismissal of my faith was how large a part my mind played in it. My spirituality was and is deeply intellectual. The philosophers I read, the Talmud I parsed, the sermons I drank in like water, they all stimulated my mind and made me turn my faith around like a Rubik’s Cube until all the pieces lined up. I had had no comeback to his dismissal back then. Now I would tell him: Judaism is intellectual because we ask more questions than we have answers for. And even when we have the answers, we still keep asking the questions.
But my most astonishing discovery on my journey back to my faith was that, unbeknownst to me, I had been living a Jewish life all along. Each and every decision I made: how to love, how to forgive, how to grieve, how to be benevolent, how to live every hour of every day, had always and would always be informed by the blood that ran through my veins, by the bubbes and zaydes who had gone before me– even those I would never ever know, those whose very existence had been wiped off the face of the earth.
I understood, finally, that my responsibility as a person, as a woman, as a mother, as a daughter, was to be a blessing as best I could. To make my entire life a blessing, in everything I did. Every meal I cooked, every hug I gave, every moment I contemplated existence, those were moments of grace, those were my Jewish moments, the moments in which I was closest to God. That was the message I passed on and continue to pass on – with challah and hamentaschen, with candles and services, with prayers and love – to my children, every day of my life. I understood that life itself was a gift to me, a gift that I had to return in some way, every moment I was alive.
Years later both my children would express their doubts to me about God. I listened solemnly and told them both the same thing. “You may not believe in God, but he believes in you, as do I. And I love you. You will, in time, come to your own personal way of living and thinking. All I wanted to do was to give you a grounding, a basis from which to grow.”
And despite their goyish last names and their fractured religious upbringing my children identify as Jewish. I have told them, honestly, that their life and the raising of their children will be easier if they marry within the faith – something my mother never told me but should have – but that I will respect whatever choices they make and love and embrace those choices with all my heart.
Practicing Judaism, as my favorite rabbi pointed out to me many years ago, does not compute. We do not practice. We are Jews. We live Jewish lives. No matter where we sit, synagogue or living room, no matter if or how we pray, no matter who wishes us harm or embraces us and no matter the danger that may result in our just being Jews sometimes, we are commanded to be grateful and to be Jews, nonetheless.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.