My Sons Are Observant Jews. I’m Not.

On the Jewish holiday Shavuot, my husband took our sons, aged 7 and 10, to shul. While he asked them to put on their synagogue clothes and explained what the Yizkor memorial service was, I laid out my yoga mat. I was not being disrespectful; in our house, my husband and children are observant Jews, but I’m not.  

I grew up with a very different religious background than my husband. He attended Jewish day school, followed the kosher dietary laws, and observed the Sabbath every weekend. In my Reform household, pork was a staple. I was only one of a handful of Jewish people at my elementary school in a suburb of St. Louis, and in the fourth grade, when it would have been time to start Hebrew school, my parents gave me a choice: Did I want a Bat Mitzvah? I easily answered no. I was proud to be Jewish, but even at a young age, I knew my Jewish identity was not tied to ritual.  

My middle and high school had a much higher Jewish population and I surrounded myself with Jewish friends. In college, I joined a Jewish sorority and spent a summer studying abroad in Israel. I continued to develop a strong Jewish identity and it was important for me to marry someone Jewish, too.  

In my late twenties I met my future husband, Yaacov. I was aware Yaacov was more observant than me. We’d go to his cousin’s house every Friday night for Shabbat dinner. I enjoyed being around his family; I loved being around other Jews.   

While I loved Shabbat dinners with Yaacov’s extended family, those evenings felt more social than a way of life. We never spoke about how we were going to manage our different levels of observance until our engagement. He told me he’d like to keep a kosher home once we were married. I thought I was being clever when I said, “Sure. As soon as we can afford two dishwashers.” Instead of acknowledging the impasse between us, the “two dishwashers” joke became our constant refrain anytime the discussion of religious observation came up. It helped us lighten the mood, but deep down, neither of us found it humorous.  

We never did get those two dishwashers, but during the first years of our marriage we managed to find a way of life that satisfied us both, kind of. We only ate kosher meat in the home and never served meat and dairy together. We skirted through the high holidays. He would attend services while I stayed home. Or, since we had moved to my hometown of St. Louis, we’d often travel to New York to visit his family, where he could observe the traditions in the way he wanted to, but where I would sometimes feel alienated.  

When we had our first child, I tried to embrace Jewish ritual more. We had weekly Shabbat dinners. I bought a wooden box the size of a shoe box and glued on a wooden sun. I painted the box blue, the sun yellow and with a black marker, I wrote on the outstretched rays: Shalom. Peace. Love. Family. I decided that all those who’d join us for Shabbat dinner would add their signatures to the box. This tradition went on for some time and the Shabbat box became filled with signatures, but in hosting Shabbat dinners, I always felt like I was wearing a dress that never quite fit right.  

 With the birth of our second son, we began to argue more about the role religion would play in our lives. I believe my husband is a beautiful soul and much of his kindness and care for humanity stems from his religious upbringing, but there were moments he made me feel less of a Jew because I didn’t follow tradition. It wasn’t as easy to travel to New York with two children and religious holidays became a source of contention between us. He thought I was resentful towards Judaism and took it out on him by not going to synagogue. I was angry that he thought that because I didn’t go to services, I didn’t care about being Jewish.  

We enrolled our children in a Jewish day school, and I thought it might ease the tension between us. Our kids would learn about the rituals and traditions the way my husband did growing up.  

Having my children at a Jewish day school was only a band aid between us, and it didn’t hold long.  

I felt guilt over the years as my husband and boys embraced Judaism in a way that felt too rigid for me, even as it brought them closer. On Friday nights, after lighting the Sabbath candles, Yaacov would bless the children in Hebrew. Because they were learning how to read and speak Hebrew in school, they understood the words my husband was speaking. My sons also took turns reading Hebrew prayers on Friday nights, while I often stood by their sides listening, but not being able to fully participate. Was I in the wrong?  Did I deserve to feel so alone?  

Recently, we started seeing a marriage therapist who has been helping us with our communication and understanding of one another, along with acceptance. She asked us: Does it have to be one or the other? Must it be more religious or less religious? Could it be both? Could we support each other’s choices?   

With our therapist’s help, we came up with compromises. I would go to family services for the high holidays because I wanted to have that shared experience as a family, too. But there would be other times that I would not go: Shavuot, for example. We have learned to respect our different levels of observance with love and kindness.  

During our last Passover seder, my husband kindly tried to move the seder along, but our oldest son didn’t want to skip parts. I had a vision of the future: my sons, if they choose, may have an observant, kosher home. I will embrace their choices. I believe they will welcome me into their home and not judge me for my own level of observance. I pray, above all else, we have taught them that.  

The post My Sons Are Observant Jews. I’m Not. appeared first on Kveller.

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