The Elephant in Our Relationship

By Rhonda Moskowitz


For three years I lived with David, a smart, funny, tall, dark and handsome Catholic attorney transplanted to Boston from Michigan. I fantasized that some day we would marry, although the “M” word never passed our lips. I dared not consciously think of what religion we would raise our children, but occasionally experienced almost imperceptible flashes of hope that they’d be raised Jewish.

At that time in my life, I was what some people call a “secular Jew.” I felt ethnically and culturally Jewish, but didn’t observe traditional religious rituals. I didn’t light the Sabbath candles or keep kosher, or regularly attend synagogue. I wasn’t even a typical “twice a year Jew” who attended synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Jewish Day of Atonement, respectively. My synagogue attendance was at lifecycle occasions such as weddings, funerals, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. However, I danced the hora at friends’ weddings, said Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning) at my grandmother’s funeral, and ate my share of lox, bagels and gefilte fish.

David was what some people label a “lapsed Catholic.” He wasn’t a churchgoer, and when I first met him, he didn’t even attend Christmas Mass or put up a Christmas tree. During our three years together, we helped his friends decorate their Christmas trees, exchanged Christmas presents, and were guests at other peoples’ Passover seders. (David gave me a nice present every Christmas and I felt I needed to reciprocate.) So why were our two different religions the big elephant in our relationship?

I suppose I could blame it on our parents. David’s parents, who attended church every Sunday and observed Catholic holidays, were always polite and cordial towards me, but distant. I used to overhear his mother’s phone conversations, “Yes, he’s still dating… ‘that Jew.'” Perhaps I should have been grateful his parents let me in their house. When my dear friend Jason’s girlfriend brought Jason home to meet her parents, they closed the door in his face and left him standing on their stoop during a thunder and lightening storm. Deep down, I felt that David’s parents viewed me as a Christ killer.

Was that my own Jewish guilt/neurosis speaking to me or was it really true? David scoffed at that idea, so I never actually found out. My parents–whose Jewish observance spanned a contradictory range: from moderately strict practice of rituals, going to synagogue every week and keeping a kosher home, to flagrant disobedience of Jewish law, secretly eating shellfish during family vacations at faraway restaurants–treated David politely but patronizingly. They were painstakingly patient in their explanations of Jewish rituals and holidays, which resulted in David feeling like an idiot in their presence. However, it would not be entirely accurate to blame our parents for our relationship’s religious elephant. So, if it was not our parents, what was it?

It would be a bit too easy to blame the big elephant on Jesus Christ himself, although merely uttering his name provokes feelings of fear and anxiety among many Jews. Jesus was born and died Jewish, and thousands of years of accusations and persecution against Jews for killing him have taken their toll. However, Jesus is not what caused Judaism and Catholicism to permeate our relationship’s atmosphere like a light fog.

If I had to lay blame on one thing, I would say it was the comfort factor… a sense of each of us feeling a little uneasy when we observed one another’s religious rituals and holidays, even though these observances were both enjoyable and few and far between. While I loved to go over David’s friends homes to help decorate their beautiful Christmas trees, I always felt an undercurrent of uneasiness and a twinge of guilt, similar to how I feel when I eat too many chocolates. Each year, I loved the camaraderie, festiveness and warmth of the Christmas decorating ritual. I loved the way the tree magically transformed a room when the ornaments were hung and the lights strung. But this was truly a guilty pleasure. I also felt a slight discomfort when I accepted David’s lovely Christmas gift each year, and gave him a nice gift in return. Long after we broke up, I found out through a mutual friend that David always looked forward to my friends’ Passover seders and their fantastic feasts, but never felt entirely at ease because “Let My People Go” did not refer to “his people.” He enjoyed dancing the hora at my cousin’s wedding, but felt just slightly out of place in the dance’s circle, like he didn’t quite belong.

In the end, the comfort factor, how David and I really felt deep down inside when we celebrated and observed each other’s religious practices, was also not the cause of our relationship’s demise. The break-up was ultimately caused by spending too many late nights at our respective offices due to our heavy work schedules. We were too young and inexperienced to realize that being apart night after night and then being too tired to connect when we were together would eventually cause us to drift apart.

It’s so hard nowadays to find a soulmate, that when you do, I still believe that religion shouldn’t be a factor. Nevertheless, lack of comfort, while perhaps not the deciding factor, can take its toll.


About Rhonda Moskowitz

Rhonda Moskowitz is a documentary filmmaker who eventually married a man who was raised in a "confused" Jewish home. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter and dog, all of whom are practicing Jews. Her documentary film-in-progress about modern-day Jewish prisoners called American Prison: The Forgotten Jews is currently in production.