Jennifer Pacquette s freelance articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Jewish Week, Catholic Insight, and The Writer, and will be featured soon in Today's Parent and on CBC Radio. She is also a published fiction author. Read more from her in The Guide to Interfaith Jewish Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights), available at the InterfaithFamily.com Store.
Divorced, Traditional Mother of Two with a Non-Jewish Boyfriend
Call it luck. I have unearthed that rare beast, a single guy who loves my kids. In many ways, we're the perfect team. He's too slow in the kitchen to cook for starving children; I do high-speed gourmet. I can't draw; he's a professional artist. But I'm also an observant Jew, while Ted grew up Catholic.
Even so, my kids adore him right back. He tosses them in the air, plays all the "wild" games I refuse to. What impresses them most? As my son, Yerachmiel Meir (YM), told Ted admiringly, "You can eat squirrel if you want to!"--something YM can't do, due to kosher dietary laws.
Okay, so my children (Elisheva, 4 and YM, 5) lead insular lives. They go to Jewish schools. We share Shabbat (Sabbath) and holidays with family and friends. They say brachot (prayers), with a fluency that I--not raised religiously--secretly envy. Ted, a co-worker I've been dating for a year and a half, has been their first glimpse into an exotic world that contains non-Jews. YM announces to strangers, "Ted's Christian," like he's bragging.
As accepting as they are, the kids are puzzled; they wonder what he's doing here. I overheard YM saying to Elisheva, "You can't marry Ted; he's not Jewish!"
Once, I thought perhaps we could be a "mixed" family. Ted rarely attended church, so we'd only have to deal with seasonal "Christmas/Hanukkah" and "Passover/Easter" issues. And as puzzling as Judaism was to him, he admitted that it seemed good for my kids, and that it made sense to raise any future children in the same way. But as the months passed, I felt less and less satisfied. The relationship was blossoming, but I found myself wishing for more of a shared Jewish and spiritual connection.
Finally, I confronted the truth: I wanted a Jewish family. Or, rather, I needed Ted to join the Jewish family we already had. He'd been holding back, observing our rituals from a distance, like an anthropologist. Finally, I broke down and admitted to him that although his companionship meant so much to me, the picture of our future together could not be complete without one final piece: his neshama (soul).
Although Jewish tradition frowns upon encouraging an individual to convert, I said we could only marry if he became a Jew. Finally, after months of painful soul-searching, he asked me to marry him.
A Few New Rituals
YM told Ted once: "You can come live with us; all you have to do is become a Jew!" To them, Judaism comes naturally. It's just a matter of learning a few new rituals. To Ted, though, this religion is a baffling world, with its own multi-sensory vocabulary: new words, smells, tastes, and images coming at him from all sides. Only recently has he begun to relax and start participating when he's with us for Shabbat or holidays.
Every Friday night, after kiddush (blessing the wine), we troop into the kitchen for the traditional hand washing before eating the braided Shabbat challah (a bread made with eggs that is traditionally eaten on the Sabbath). Lately, Ted's been joining the knee-high crowd around the sink, where I lead him through the blessing afterwards. One time, though, I was busy, and YM noticed that Ted hadn't "made his blessing yet."
Since they were babies, my kids have known the words that begin most blessings: "Baruch atah Adonoi...(Blessed art Thou o God.)" I usually just have to prompt them with the single syllable, "Ba" to get them going.
YM began coaching Ted. He opened his mouth and said "Ba"--and waited for Ted to continue. Finally, I broke the silence: "say all the words." Patiently, YM spoke the syllables for Ted to repeat. Ted finished confidently, and YM chimed "Amen!" Together, they headed back to the supper table.
A Strong Footing
It can be frustrating for Ted, feeling like he's miles from "catching up"--even to the children's level. Elisheva has had almost 250 Shabboses (Sabbaths)--Ted has experienced barely a fifth that number. They cannot imagine the difficulties involved.
Encountering Judaism as an adult, Ted was initially swayed by unfavorable stereotypes of the wrathful "Old Testament" God. Now, he says his religious background provides a strong religious footing from which to explore the truths Judaism offers. That open-mindedness is hard-won: lengthy prayers and foreign concepts still daunt him. But now, with the kids' help, he's finding ways Judaism can add to his spirituality.
Even with his acceptance of our family's practice of Judaism and respect for our traditions, I worry about the influence Ted's "differentness" will have on our family. He drives on Shabbat; eats non-kosher food--my kids are bound to be envious.
Every Shabbat, I bless my kids in the traditional way. But first, I whisper to each one my hopes for their Jewish lives--that they raise families, become good people. Sometimes, I ask, "What will you be when you grow up?" and give them a chance to imagine their own future. But one particular Friday evening a few weeks ago, YM was cranky. When I asked him, he raised his blue eyes and laughed wickedly. "I want to be a goy (non-Jew) like Ted!"
He was joking, but his statement showed insight: Judaism is a difficult path. Ted's life makes us all aware that we choose to live Jewishly. Observing every mitzvah (commandment), is optional, in a sense, and YM knows I'd be devastated if he chose any other way to live his life.
Bringing it Home
To be totally honest, my kids aren't the only ones feeling jealous. If Ted goes to a movie on Shabbat or eats a bacon double cheeseburger, he's careful when he tells me about it, knowing that on some level I'm both cringing and--though I've been observant for almost a decade--drooling at the thought of that burger. Sometimes, with him, I feel like an alcoholic at a party where everybody's drinking.
Still: one foot in front of another, one day at a time, and every day I make these Jewish choices I feel stronger and more confident. Hesitantly, Ted has begun incorporating Judaism into his own life: he fasted on Tisha b'Av (a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temple), signed up for a class, is buying tickets for the High Holidays. This year, he's doing more than last year, though neither of us can say yet what he'll be capable of next year or the year after. Like me, he's putting one foot in front of the other, embarking on a path he never anticipated his life would take.
For my kids, keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat, these are natural--the pulse of their days and years. I can dream of the day when Ted's heart leaps expectantly when Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner, or when his soul hungers if he forgets to put on tefillin (black leather straps for the arm and head each with a small box containing a scroll upon which is written the Sh'ma prayer, which are traditionally worn during weekday morning prayer). But I cannot say when or even if this will ever happen. All I know for sure is this: each step he takes validates the Jewishness of our family, even while blending it with the rich Christian spiritual heritage he will never completely leave behind.
YM's envy--and my own--of Ted's dietary freedom underscore the importance of bringing Ted into our family's religious life. He's not ready to convert yet. That's another long, hard road, one that we anticipate will eventually lead to marriage.
Judaism is a lifelong journey to an unknown destination, but my hope is that my children will see Ted striving to walk alongside them and learn that Judaism is worth the effort. They will watch him struggle with words like kreplach (meat patties cooked in soup), choke down gefilte fish, fast for 25 hours. Through him, they will feel pride in Judaism, and realize that even though we may have been born into this religion, it's up to all of us to embark on the journey for ourselves.