My husband’s first gift when we began dating was a slim volume of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic work “The Sabbath.” It was his way of saying, “Welcome to my world.”
And a different world it was. Here we were, two middle-aged people, who each had taken a Jewish journey for more than 40 years, facing the differences between our Jewish lives.
I was willing to make concessions to a more traditional Jewish practice because I loved him and I wanted the relationship to work. I knew how important Jewish traditions were to him. It was worth it for me to open myself to a stricter Jewish practice, because although Jake prayed traditionally, he didn’t live traditionally.
I began to notice how many couples were in the same boat. Accommodations and compromises are made, but in my experience, more frequently they go in one direction: More observance prevails over less. A book by Azriela Jaffe, “Two Jews Can Still Be a Mixed Marriage” (Career Press, 2000), deals with the obstacles a couple can face when confronting their religious differences. It perfectly describes the situation in which Jake and I found ourselves.
When I met Jake, I attended a Reconstructionist synagogue, drove to services most Saturday mornings and in a restaurant I didn’t hesitate to eat anything except pork. On the other hand, before we met, I decided to make my kitchen kosher, because I grew up in a kosher home and wanted one again now that I had children. Nevertheless, I fed my sons shrimp at the Chinese restaurant we frequented, rationalizing that it was the only protein they ever ate.
Jake’s practice, in contrast, is on the conservative side of Conservative Judaism. Although on the Sabbath he turns on lights and uses the phone, he also walks to synagogue and doesn’t watch TV, cook or use computers. He likes a full reading of the weekly Torah portion. He is extremely erudite in Jewish practice. On Simchat Torah — one of the many holidays I now celebrate — Jake creates his own tradition and reads the Torah upside down.
I was a single mother with two small boys when I met Jake. It quickly became clear that this man was perfect for me in every way, and also a lot more observant. He would call me from his house, his voice already sleepy, anticipating the nap he was about to take. “Shabbat Shalom,” he’d murmur. I was beside myself. I was trying out the no-TV, no-computer Sabbath at my house. And the result? Without electronics, my two boys were bickering and fighting and making my day of rest the most stressful and hellish day of the week.
Perhaps the most challenging difference became apparent when I began attending services at Jake’s synagogue. He belonged to a traditional egalitarian Conservative havurah that still uses the traditional prayer book, in which God is male. As a Reconstructionist, I’d left that language behind, as well as the liturgy that declared Jews to be the chosen people. But for Jake, tradition trumped the more modern sensibility. He sat politely in my synagogue and even complimented the service, but it was very clear to me that no matter how much I preferred the gender-neutral liturgy, it lacked tradition.
During our next several years together, my love for Jake deepened, and I was exposed for the first time to people who had two sinks and two dishwashers in their kitchen. I frankly thought it was downright odd. I thought about how true the saying is about Judaism: “Everyone to the left of you is an assimilationist. Everyone to the right of you is a nut.”
Our differences over kashrut came to a head at a restaurant when I ordered chicken nuggets for my sons. Jake, usually an even-tempered man, freaked out. He couldn’t see why I would order nonkosher food in a restaurant when I could easily give the children kosher nuggets at home. And what was I teaching my boys? I was perpetrating a double standard — kosher at home, nonkosher out. I wondered, what’s wrong with that? That’s how I was raised.
Jake and I had long walks and talks about these and other observance matters before we married. When my kids began attending Jewish day school, I switched to a Conservative synagogue that incorporated a Reconstructionist havurah. For a while, I went back and forth between the Reconstructionists and the traditional Conservative havurah, where Jake, his children and my kids were. Ultimately, I settled into the traditional service because I like to pray with my family. I made peace with the fact that the Sabbath is not when I usually explore my relationship with the Divine. I do that when I study Jewish texts during the week. Yet, I participate in the service and read Torah and lead Musaf, the additional service.
Jake has brought us the joys of the Sabbath and a wealth of Jewish knowledge. Now, the slow rhythm of the day is natural to us. We walk to synagogue whatever the weather, then a nap, basketball, Ultimate Frisbee, or board games if the weather is bad. The day ends with Havdalah. The tradition has become very beautiful to me. On rare occasions, when we drive to a bar mitzvah — Jake is, thank goodness, flexible — the boys are unsettled. “It feels so strange,” one of them will say.
Years later, I’m the one going to morning minyan. (“Say hi to God,” Jake joked as I left one morning.) Now I’m the one trying to remember to say a blessing before I eat. Now I’m the one who studies Mussar — the Jewish tradition of character development, whose theology informs my Judaism. I’ve shifted my attitude. I’ve come to appreciate how Judaism marks time and how it provides deep values and a consistent structure for our family. The layers of meaning in the Torah, the holidays and the Sabbath unfold for me as the years go by.
Oh, yes: There are two sinks and two dishwashers in our home. It now makes perfect sense to me.
Linda Kriger is a writer who lives in Philadelphia.