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Connecting with Judaism Because of My Secular Spouse

I’d noticed my fiancé didn’t attend temple, but I’d assumed it was because he’d grown away from Judaism in much the same way I’d grown away from Catholicism. It surprised me when he said our future children needed to be raised as Jews, but since the specific religion was not as important to me as it was that they be firmly grounded in one faith, I agreed. I’d never heard of a “secular Jew,” so it didn’t occur to me that having Jewish children was important to him for reasons of identity--reasons having nothing to do with faith, spirituality, or even most life-cycle events. And so we began our married life with the comfort of a mutual understanding of how our children would be raised, completely missing the fact that we’d actually agreed to two entirely different things.

Although I am a “lapsed Catholic,” I’d grown up in an observant household with Sunday Mass, meatless Fridays, long Lents, and a deep faith as integral parts of my life. When I began to have doubts about that faith, it was a major problem for me and for my family. I’d spent years struggling with these issues before my future husband appeared on the scene. As a “secular Jew,” my husband had grown up in a largely Jewish community, observing the High Holy Days, Hanukkah, and Passover. He’d become a Bar Mitzvah at his Reform temple, but for him and his family, Judaism began and ended at a cultural level. Because the possibility of a secular approach to religion was as alien to me as the process of lapsing was to him, we’d failed to understand that the real interfaith issue in our marriage lurked just beneath the surface.

I had my first inkling we’d missed something significant when our first child was born and we began to discuss the specifics of his Jewish future. For my husband, a bris (ritual circumcision) was a must, but a Bar Mitzvah wasn’t. To my mind, a bris was just the starting point for an entire Jewish life. If the extent of our involvement in the Jewish community and faith was going to be a ceremony they wouldn’t even remember, why raise our children as Jews? My husband’s only answer to this was that his children needed to be Jewish. Even when I pressed, he didn’t have an answer for what it meant to him to be a Jew.

Since it was clear that any Jewish rituals or observances were going to have to be initiated by me, I began the search for a temple. My mother, seeing the efforts I was making, warned that religion was never going to mean as much to my husband as it did to me and that I was certain to regret raising my children in his faith. Since she always predicted negative outcomes, I pushed what she’d said aside. But when I was the one who suggested we light candles on Shabbat (the Sabbath), add Tashlich to our High Holy Day observances, and then wound up doing Hebrew homework with our son, I began to worry that she might be right. The Shabbat and Tashlich observances resulted from my personal reading and thinking about what would be meaningful observances for our children. And in order to help our son with his Hebrew homework, I searched until I found a software package to teach me, then followed up with phone calls to the head of the religious school when I had questions the software didn’t answer. It was daunting at times!

The hardest part was that I didn’t understand why I was doing all of this. I was furious to somehow be in the role of keeper of a faith that wasn’t even my own. Yet I really liked the way each of these rituals added meaning to our lives. When a woman at a Family Education workshop commented that interfaith families were really just completing Hitler’s work, it was all I could do to be silent. I certainly was not the loose cog in the Jewish wheel in my house! But then it dawned on me that from my husband’s perspective, the things I was doing had nothing to do with being Jewish. After all, he’d been Jewish his entire life and he’d never done most of them.

It became clear to me that from the beginning, we’d had vastly different definitions of what it meant to be a Jew. That insight allowed me to step out of the whirlwind of conflicting emotions I felt about my relationship with Judaism and understand that the reason I wanted so many things about Judaism for my children was because I also wanted them for myself. I began conversion classes and had the incredible experience of the mikvah (ritual bath that is the culmination of the conversion process).

Now officially Jewish, I felt entitled to say that our temple was not meeting my needs. I knew many people who were very happy there though, and I worried I might be looking for a Christianized version of Judaism. But what I wanted was decidedly Jewish--services with more Hebrew, many families celebrating Shabbat in some way, children’s services Saturday morning, lots of interfaith families, a tie between services and religious school, family services with meaning, and the majority of kids continuing on in religious school after Bar Mitzvah. I finally found such a congregation, but as the newest Jew in the house, hesitated to make the switch.

My husband was happy where we were but agreed we should try the new temple and see how it felt. If it didn’t make any difference to anyone but me, we would stay where we were and I would go to services there alone. But when they tried it out with me, my husband and the kids loved it, pointing to many things that were different and that they liked. We started attending services regularly. When I saw how happy the kids were, I knew we’d made the right choice.

It’s likely my husband will continue to view Judaism as something that’s just always been a part of his life. I know from personal experience that no parent can pick a faith for a child, and from time to time I wonder how my children will someday view being Jewish. Right now, I’m happy to have played an integral role in fostering a spiritual connection that ties them to a community and a worldview. And I’m pleased with the way our true interfaith differences have been reconciled.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "send off" or "cast away." On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah it is customary to go to a body of moving water for a ceremony in which we cast off our sins by emptying crumbs from our pockets into the water. (See Micah 7:19.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Gina Hagler

Gina Hagler is a freelance writer living in the Maryland suburbs with her husband and their three children. You can see more of her work at www.ginahagler.com.

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