Divorced, Remarried, and Discovered Judaism

By Paula Lee Hellman

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Before our marriage, my first husband and I had similar ideas about child rearing. We wanted to raise a family in the country. We thought that it would be good for the family if I stayed home with the children when they were little. We thought knowing God was important, but that religion was not. It didn’t seem to matter that he had been raised as a Methodist and I as a Reform Jew.

He had once been married and had flouted his church by refusing to baptize the son of that first union. He easily agreed to be married in a synagogue. And we were.

For many years, we ignored the differences in our religious upbringing. We taught our children to be good people. We celebrated Thanksgiving as our major holiday. We told ourselves that our family had the best of both worlds as we lit both a Christmas tree and a Chanukiah (special Hanukkah menorah), colored Easter eggs and held an annual Passover seder (ritual meal) with other interfaith families. Sometimes I went alone to High Holy Day services. Sometimes we all went to a candlelight service before Christmas. Mostly we were absent from organized religion.

I don’t know what our children thought of this arrangement. I never asked them. It was only later, after the divorce, that I asked what should have been an obvious question: “What religion do you belong to?”

As time went on, my first husband and I disagreed about nearly everything, especially child rearing. He urged punishment, which was how he was reared in his household. I admonished intellectually, which was the way of discipline in my Jewish home. I gradually learned that he was an alcoholic.

At last we divorced. And it was a bitter, acrimonious divorce. Each of us wanted to be the “better parent,” each of us questioned the children about activities in the other parent’s home. It was a hard time, a time of family division. The children acted out angrily.

They visited their father on alternate weekends. On those weekends I started attending Shabbat (Sabbath) services at a local synagogue. I found joy in studying texts, solace in the sameness of the weekly prayer service, and comfort in seeing the same faces at temple over and over again. I tentatively began to make friends with Jews who attended services.

In what I considered to be fairness, I did not ask the children to accompany me on my Jewish excursions. I continued to decorate a Christmas tree, but I took the children to family seders and began to talk about being Jewish.

It was then that I asked the question: “What religion are you?” The children told me they were “half and half.” I realized that I hadn’t given them any reason to say they were Jewish. So I told them that because I, their mother, was Jewish, they were Jews by definition. And they replied that they were “half and half.”

Their father, meanwhile, explored and then rejected joining a church. He started attending AA meetings and took the children with him. He developed cancer. He died. An Episcopal minister eulogized him. And I saw that my children were conflicted about religion, especially after their father’s death and my subsequent remarriage to a Jew. Perhaps they felt that by saying they were Jewish they would dishonor their father’s memory. At the same time, they wanted to be part of a new family that was clearly going to be Jewish.

For a brief time after their father died, and after I remarried, the children said they were Jewish. When my son met his future wife, he was thrilled that she was Jewish. And her Conservative family was thrilled that the Jewish half of their future son-in-law was the maternal half, underscoring my statement that the religion of the child is the religion of the mother. My daughter, who agreed to gain a Hebrew name as her gift to me at my adult Bat Mitzvah, has, however, since left Judaism for a Christian identity. And my now-divorced son claims no religion as his own.

All this has happened as I have become more attached to Jewish traditions and practices, as my husband and I create opportunities for Jewish ritual in our lives and in our home.

If I sound a little sad, it’s true. When I entered into my first marriage, I thought religion didn’t matter. But now I think it does. I feel comfortable among people who have been raised in or who have learned the traditions of my tradition. I wonder now where my children’s comfort friends will come from. Will they connect most happily to others reared in interfaith families? And what will that mean for Judaism?

My divorce helped me find my way back to the traditions of my ancestors. My now-adult children are on their own journeys. I wish for them, I wish for me, that they will find their way to Judaism.





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About Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.