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Divorce, Interfaith Style

June 8, 2009

Perhaps I should have noticed the yearning in his voice when he spoke of family Christmases past, or been more cognizant of the envious look on his face as our neighbors spoke about the beauty of Easter sunrise services.

Maybe I could have compromised more or been less fearful of Judaism taking a back seat in our marriage, thus weakening the Jewish foundation on which we had agreed to build our lives together. Or perhaps I shouldn't have thought of us as a "Jewish island" that disconnected him from his Protestant upbringing.

"Woulda; coulda; shoulda." I think that's what some of us do when we find ourselves, as Jews, in the midst of divorce from a non-Jewish partner, especially when that's the person who wants the divorce. In cases like ours, when the exiting partner doesn't know or communicate well the reason he "wants out," it's especially frustrating to figure out what went wrong. There had been no infidelity. No abuse. We had a beautiful year-old daughter. We had satisfying careers.

As I tried to second-guess everything else that might have gone wrong, the issue of religious differences sank to the bottom of my list of concerns. After all, we had pretty much nailed that down during our engagement, hadn't we?

"Religion means more to you than it does to me," he had said as we discussed how we would worship as a couple. He had been active in a Christian fellowship group as an undergraduate, but had never officially joined a church. He had pointed out that Judaism was not just a religion, but a heritage. A Jew can join a church or choose not to worship at all, but can't close the door on his heritage.

I had felt relieved and grateful after our chat. We had gotten that issue out of the way. No Christmas tree? No problem. No Easter ham? Big deal. What an oversimplification that was! We hadn't given the topic the attention it deserved. We hadn't resolved anything. We had swept it under the rug. So for 13 years, Christian holidays were practically obliterated from our lives. My husband observed some of them alone and it wasn't until a pre-divorce counseling session that he admitted that doing so had made him feel saddened and isolated.

Nevertheless, I was surprised when the issue of interfaith differences surfaced during that session over my alleged inability to be more religiously flexible. It wasn't the sole component of our marital demise; in fact, it held no more importance than other issues, but it was still "the elephant on the sofa."

I was irked. We had proceeded with religious observances the way we had agreed to do. We had been married by a rabbi at my hometown temple. He had worn a yarmulke, presided over Passover seders, gone to temple with me, agreed to a Reform Jewish naming ceremony for our daughter and supported my decision to send her to Jewish preschool and later, to Jewish day school. He had lit Hanukkah and Shabbat candles and all the rest and had seemed perfectly content. He had even learned a traditional prayer in Hebrew to recite at our wedding and, as I recall, no one had held a gun to his head. So when did he start to feel "cheated?" Was our divorce more about religion than I'd realized?

Ironically, while he was studying on a fellowship in Israel during his last year of medical school, he had fallen in love with the country and its people, and had suggested that we move there. Now I was the one balking. I was an only child and close to my parents, had never been out of the country other than to Mexico, and while I was willing to live as a Reform Jew, I wasn't sure I wanted to be an Israeli. Apparently, my insistence that he return home after the fellowship had stuck in his craw all those years.

Despite the counseling, the divorce went through. Within a year, my former husband moved out-of-state and remarried. His new wife was Protestant. I hoped that the terms of our decree as hammered out by our lawyers, the part involving our daughter's religious upbringing, would be carried out. She was to be taken to temple on Shabbat during visits to their home and a reasonable attempt was to be made to observe Jewish holidays if she happened to be visiting when they occurred.

It didn't always happen. When I asked why she hadn't attended Shabbat services there, my former husband said that he had offered to take her, but that she had preferred to stay home and play with her stepsister. I felt that his casual attitude, coupled with photos I received of her posing with the father's family around a Christmas tree, peeled another layer off her Jewish identity.

In time, I came to realize two things: Since I had custody of our daughter, she basically identified with my religion; and, she deserved to know her father's family, their Christian background and practices and to explore how or if she fit into them.

I realize now that our divorce wasn't caused by anything I could control, nor did it steal my daughter away from me. She is grown now and the mother of three sons. My son-in-law is a practicing Catholic and they take the boys to church. It's one of the more liberal churches, with more emphasis on humanism than on Christ. She acknowledges and teaches my grandsons about her Jewish heritage, but also jokingly reminds me that she's a religious "mutt" because of her dual upbringing.

Right now, she and my son-in-law are comfortable with the way they worship, and if, heaven forbid, they should ever divorce, I don't think religion will be the cause.

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." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. 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.
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 "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Margery Rose-Clapp

Margery Rose-Clapp is a freelance journalist based in Scottsdale, Ariz. She writes lifestyle and humor pieces as well as articles on medicine, consumerism and other topics.

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