When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?Go To Parenting
When Dan and I met seven years ago, one of the first things I told him about myself was that it is important to me to be Jewish. I explained to this lovely, but very “goyisha” (non-Jewish) man, that I had pretty much spent my life around Jews and had known very few people who were not Jewish. More to the point, I had never dated a non-Jewish man. It seemed important that Dan know this since it was clear to both of us that we were going to do all we could to spend the rest of our lives together.
For a long time, our religious differences felt like a “non-issue.” Looking back, this was primarily because Dan went along with what I wanted. From the start, he joined me lighting Shabbat candles, attended some Friday night services, and actively sought out Jewish museums or historical sites when we were traveling. In addition, he went enthusiastically to Jewish film festivals and other cultural events. I was delighted by all of this and saw it as confirmation that although he had no intention to convert, Dan was informally “adopting” my religion. Sure I was uncomfortable when he wanted--and had--a Christmas tree, but that discomfort quickly dissipated when he explained to me that the tree had no religious significance to him.
Now, nearly three years into our marriage, I am coming to appreciate that things are more complicated than I believed or was willing to acknowledge. Dan and I have a wonderful marriage, but we live with a spiritual divide. Although he accompanies me in some Jewish observance and seems to have a genuine interest in Jewish history, Dan does not have an emotional attachment to the melodies and prayers that make up Jewish worship. For him, the spiritual comfort and sustenance I receive from my faith is entirely unfamiliar.
Dan, raised as a Catholic, found, at an early age, that he had serious questions about the history and teachings of the Catholic church. In addition, as the child of an interfaith marriage, Dan was deeply troubled that his mother, a Lutheran, had to promise the Catholic Church that her children would be raised Catholics. After much struggle, especially during his college years, Dan worked up the courage to tell his father, whom he loved dearly, that he was leaving the Church. Once he exited, he never looked back, never wondered if he might have found something of value in his former faith. Oddly, however, Dan does remember a time when he contemplated becoming a Protestant minister, but save for this blip in time, he seems to have made peace, long ago, with living a life without religion.
I was raised in a 1950s Reform Jewish home, which meant we went to synagogue two days a year and shared Passover and Hanukkah with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Looking back, I was hardly offered a heaping dose of Judaism, but what I got drew me in and offered something I found sustaining. Specifically, I took with me from the New Jersey suburban temple of my youth certain prayers and melodies that are etched in my heart. Probably the one that I draw upon most often is the Union Prayer book translation of the Vehahafta:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, with all the soul, and with all thy might and these words which I command thee this day shall be upon thy heart. Thou shall teach them diligently unto thy children and think of them when thou sittest in thy home, when thou walkest by the way, when thou lyest down and when thou risest up . . . They shall be for frontlets between thy eyes and thou shalt write them on the doorposts of thy house and on thy gates--that ye may remember and do all my commandments and be holy unto your God.
What does it mean for one member of a couple to have a spiritual anchor when the other does not? In almost all respects, this difference between us is invisible and seems of no consequence. However, on some Friday evenings it steps forward and suddenly feels big. After a busy week, Dan and I have different ideas of how to transition from week to weekend--Dan wants to “unwind” at home and I seek spiritual comfort at services.
It is with a touch of longing and maybe a bit of irrational resentment that I set off, alone, for temple. What am I thinking as I drive off, or more specifically, as I sit in the sanctuary, enveloped by music and prayer? I can't say that I wish Dan and I had the same faith, since the disquiet I feel is about spirituality, not faith.
However, I do wonder how he would feel if he had been raised as a Jew. Chances are he would be like so many of my Jewish friends and family members who identify as “cultural Jews,” but have no religious connection.
But maybe, just maybe, we would sit in a sanctuary and I would look over and see him filled with emotion, as I am, during the candle blessing or the Amidah. Maybe, just maybe, he would join in, with sheer joy, for Ein Keloheinu.