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Nearly two decades ago, when I was newly wed, my husband's cousin took me to a Hadassah meeting. The guest lecturer opened her talk on creating a Jewish home with these words: "You know, ladies, you're all in mixed marriages. Either you're on a path towards greater religious commitment or your husband is." It hit me some time ago that the woman's words had come home to roost under our eaves. I just wish I could remember some of her advice for dealing with the predicament.
Like the lyrics of the old song, "He says potayto, she says potahto; he says tomayto, she says tomahto. Potayto, potahto, tomayto, tomahto...let's call the whole thing off..." In our house, I say kosher; he says, spare ribs. I say shul; he says temple. With nineteen years under our belts, not to mention two kids, pets, one hundred and fifty-nine photo albums and our deep love for each other, calling it off is not an option. Yet sometimes I stop and wonder how I got into this pickle--on a trajectory toward deeper and deeper Jewish observance despite the fact that my husband is quite comfortable with the status quo. Over the years, I've just kept changing the status quo. Sometimes this does not make my husband happy.
To look at us from the outside, you'd see a family leading a pretty involved Jewish life--kids in day school, Friday night dinners. The sukkah (wooden hut) goes up each fall; chametz (not kosher for Passover) dishes go down to the basement each spring. Judaism clearly plays a major role in our lives. But it hasn't happened without a lot of tears, heavy discussions, and compromise on both our parts. The thing about Jewish practice is, the more I do, the more I want to do. Why stop at candles, kiddush (blessing over wine) and motzi (blessing over bread)? Let's bless the kids. And if we're doing that, what about the eshet chayil (prayer for a woman a valor, traditionally said on Friday night by the husband or kids for the wife/mother) for me and a blessing for my husband?
I sometimes wonder what our kids will make of all this. Will they remember Mom's and Dad's heated discussions over which synagogue to join, our tussles over how far I can move towards kashering (making kosher) the kitchen? Or will they remember our hands on their heads as we bless them each Friday night and the sound of our voices praying and singing beside them at Shabbat services? Will they opt out of Jewish life altogether because they witnessed disharmony that had Jewish life at its root, or will they be guided to compromise with their future spouses because they saw their parents work it out as lovingly as possible in one way or another over the years?
I don't know why I've wanted to lead such a Jewish life except for the fact that it feeds something inside of me. And if it feeds my soul, how can I not try and feed the souls in my family? I haven't always done it gracefully or with the the greatest patience. Occasionally our Friday nights are like a page out of the Bickersons. I've been known to say tersely to my kids before placing my hands on their heads, "How can we bless you when you are at each other's throats? Stop arguing!" Most weeks, however, those sixty seconds are a close, calm, and meaningful coda to our busy week.
Some days I spend too much energy feeling irritated that my husband isn't always interested in this Jewish journey of mine and too little time recognizing how far we've traveled. I'm learning to let go of the things I cannot change. I got day school for the kids, but I may never have a truly kosher kitchen. I've joined a Conservative shul (temple), but as a single woman. Our family membership stays at the Reform temple. I try not to lose sight of the concept of shalom bayit--peace in the home.
Looking at the big picture, I know I made the right decision. Someone has to take the lead when it comes to a family's spiritual and religious context, and so I did. When I look at our kids, now fifteen and twelve, I know I was right to push and cajole and even fight for my vision of a family life permeated by Jewish values and observance. My daughter says a shehechiyanu (prayer expressing gratitude to have reached that day) before eating the first Good Humor truck ice cream of the summer. She donated part of her afikomen (special Passover middle matzah) prize money to the refugees in Kosovo. Last month, my son made a donation to an AIDS coalition. When my sister-in-law said, "Oh, Elliot, how sweet of you!" his instant reply was, "No, not how sweet of me, how right of me." They get it.
For my birthday, my husband gave me A Bintel Brief. The book is a collection of immigrants' letters written from the turn of the century through the Sixties to the Jewish Daily Forward. The first letter I turned to was from a young man who wondered if the difference between his secular free-thinking philosophy would clash with his sweetheart's commitment to Judaism. This, in 1906. There is nothing new under the sun. Every marriage is a mixed marriage--a mix of compassion and impatience; of connection and autonomy; of learning from and leaning on. I didn't completely understand it nineteen years ago. I do now.
Here are some tips on negotiating religious differences:
1. Stay open to your partner's needs, act with as much understanding and patience as you can, and compromise, compromise, compromise. Have my husband and I always done this? No. But when we do, life is so much the smoother.
2. Take any increase in religious observance slowly. If you have taken classes that your spouse hasn't attended, share what you've learned. Articulate what it all means to you. It can be really scary and unsettling for one half of a couple when the other partner takes a leap into another realm. Try to be aware of this.
3. Realize you can't change your partner. There will be some issues that you both have to give on. My husband gave up shrimp with lobster take out, but will still have it in a restaurant. Even in front of the kids. I'm not super happy, but now that they are twelve and fifteen, I see they are making their own decisions. Keeping kosher has given us a marvelous format for discussion of other things that may cross their paths that they will not be able to have. I praise them for delaying gratifying a momentary want while opting for a spiritual connection with their heritage and Jewish identity. And if they ever eat a cheeseburger or BLT, the world won't come to an end.
4. My husband has occasionally accused me of sounding and acting know-it-all-ish. It can be frustrating to be fired up by newfound learning while your partner is less enthralled. Learn, too, to share what you know in the spirit of camraderie.
5. Be patient. Not only with those around you, but with yourself. Divest yourself of any image of being the "right kind of Jew" you might have in your mind's eye. Judaism is less a destination than a journey. Happy trails to you.
Debra B. Darvick, a writer from Birmingham, Michigan, has received Simon Rockower Awards for her work. Her essays and feature stories have appeared in Reform Judaism Magazine, the Forward, Jewish Parent Connection and numerous major-city dailies. She is currently at work on a non-fiction anthology: It is a Tree of Life, Extraordinary Moments in the Lives of Ordinary Jews.