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Thank God My Husband Is a Former Presbyterian/Quaker Agnostic

October 2004

Thank God my husband is a former Presbyterian/Quaker agnostic who loves me just the way I am. It allows me to practice my Judaism as I see fit, which, for the most part, means just being myself.

Like my immediate and extended family, which came from the Old Country to New York, I talk big, I eat big and I laugh big. I am not a religious person, so it is not religion that seeps out of me. It is not my fulfillment of the rituals or the traditions that is spotty. As a Reform Jew who did not attend religious school and did not get bat mitzvahed, for me Judaism is not as much a religion as a cultural, historical and familial identity.

Bagel and LoxHowever, Judaism is in my salivary glands. For New York Jewish families like ours, food is the medium by which we socialize and share our lives. A weekend visit with my family consists of lunch with my grandmother, dinner with my dad and stepmother and brunch with my mother the next day. "And here, take a little something for dinner on the ride home." Food is love.

With this philosophy, my husband and I have made a habit of eating dinner together every night. If we don't connect in the morning or even in the evening, at least we talk to each other about our day, our thoughts, our needs, over dinner.

For holidays and celebrations, not only do we eat together, we eat a lot. From my childhood, I must have learned subconsciously that there's not enough food unless there's twice or three times as much as we need. When we make Thanksgiving dinner or host a dinner party in our home, we make enough for an army. I am compelled to.

This, my husband can live with. Though it's a great change from his family where the kids never got enough to eat--not because they couldn't afford it, but because his mother didn't like to cook, or to eat. Meshuggener (nutty)!

Judaism is also in my genes. I learned from my parents and grandparents that nothing is more important than family. We Jews overflow with love for our family and cherish them above all else. My father talked with his father on the phone every day of their lives, 365 days a year, until my grandfather passed away, and then every day to his mother, until she, too, passed on.

At my grandmother's funeral, while we grieved for the loss of her life, my husband was overcome with emotion for his own loss. Observing all of us at the gravesite reading words of love, reciting poems and relating memories, he realized he had never seen such an outpouring of love, such a connection to past generations and all they have blessed us with, such devotion to the family. I like to think that the love my family showers on me and my husband can make up for what my husband never got in his own home.

Judaism is also in my blood, my temperament. I talk with my hands, I raise my voice, I am animated, I speak colorfully and I say what I think. These traits are carried in the blood of my relatives--and oy, what laughter and commotion when we're all together at a family gathering! Life's too short not to cherish living; we embrace it. (And that doesn't exclude a good amount of kvetching--complaining).

My husband grew up in a family that didn't show their emotions, didn't yell and were not supposed to cry or make noise. In addition to the saying that opposites attract, I think my zest for life, for both good things and bad, along with my fiery personality, spices up his life, too.

And finally, my Judaism is in my brain. It is rooted in my personal, cultural and linguistic history, which I appreciate and embrace. It is in the way I begged my grandmother to teach me some of her colorful Yiddish expressions--Gazagen zuch (Go saw yourself in half), Folg mich a gang un gai in drerd (Do me a favor and drop dead), Zol dir vaksen tzibbeles fun pupik (Onions should grow from your navel)--which my husband can be heard repeating at card games and parties. It is in the way I beg my great aunts and cousins to tell me stories about the old days: How it was for their parents to come over to America and start a new life; to live in Coney Island during the Depression; to get together at big family seders; to find their husbands and wives. My husband--someone who never met a Jewish person or ate a bagel until his adult life--is just as interested as I am in these stories--and the lessons.

When my husband married me, under a†huppah that he made by hand out of young trees and branches, he married my laughter, my happiness for life, my temperament, my interests, my culinary habits, my family, my history and my Judaism, which is one of the many threads woven into my life. When he said, "I do," he embraced all of it.

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles.
Sue Eisenfeld

Sue Eisenfeld's essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Gettysburg Review, Potomac Review, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Virginia Living, Blue Ridge Country, and other publications. Her essays have been listed among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays in 2009, 2010, 2013. She is a two-time Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the recipient of the 2010 Goldfarb Family Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, where she currently is on the teaching faculty. Her first book will be published by University of Nebraska Press in 2014. www.sueeisenfeld.com.

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