When I was pregnant, my husband and I talked at length about our child-to-be’s baby naming or bris and how we’d explain the ritual to his non-Jewish family. My husband was a committed and active Jew by choice, and could lead Friday night blessings with the best of them. It was always clear where Judaism stood in my life, and we had agreed about raising our children Jewish. We had navigated the “Christmas issue” with his family so that we would have meaningful holiday experiences with his family as well as mine. His family was accepting of both me and my culture, and we had arrived at a respectful understanding together.
Then everything changed.
Once our daughter was born, my husband struggled with the new dynamic in our house. Acclimating to another person monopolizing all our time and energy left little time for much else. He disengaged from me, started spending lots of time with old high school buddies. He met someone else, the same cliché story. When we were in our second counseling session, he told me he wanted a divorce.
A Divorce From Judaism
Our daughter was 8 months old. We hadn’t even made it through a year of new parenthood, holidays, or milestones. As things progressed, it became evident that not only did he want out of the promises he made to me, he wanted to untangle himself from being Jewish. The most hurtful part of this was a total disrespect for my need to have these values imparted to our daughter. My husband made it clear to me that he would not be celebrating Shabbat or holidays, nor keeping kosher any longer. He implied that my reticence to have our daughter participate in Christmas and Easter was “racist” and disrespectful to her grandparents. The shock of it all was crippling. What was I to do?
After much soul searching and some good advice from friends, I identified the things that I needed to hold on to through the process of disentangling our marriage. Priority number one was, of course, my daughter. I decided to do whatever I could, even at my own expense, to protect her through it all, keep her life as normal as possible, and shield her from the pain and anger that bubbled out at every turn.
The next priority was ensuring I would be able to parent her the way that we had planned. That included staying home as a full-time parent for as long as possible, raising her with a strong Jewish foundation, and dugma ishit–living through personal example. These became the issues I fought for. I simply let go of who got the blender or who got to claim our daughter on the taxes.
Identifying and Holding On to Values
I found it was important to ask myself key questions about Jewish life as I went through the divorce process. I knew I wanted to have my daughter with me for Jewish holidays and for most Shabbat dinners, even if I may not be schlepping her to synagogue for every service.
I wrote a paragraph about what raising a child Jewishly meant to me and included it in our divorce agreement. We needed to set clear parameters to live by, and it allowed me to remove these issues off the negotiating table.
This is not to say that I’m not a citizen of the world. I have friends and family from many ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. I want my daughter exposed to a wide variety of life experiences. My guiding belief is that, in order for children to relate to the world, they have to understand the morals and values that guide them through foreign situations. For me, Judaism is one of those major touchstones, a set of values and a road map for ethics, ritual, tradition, and knowledge.
Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do about the Christmas tree in the girlfriend’s house or my daughter being exposed to traditions that I’m not comfortable with. What I can do is provide the strongest possible sense of pride and joy connected to her Jewish life, and constantly build on that foundation. My job is to promise truth and honesty to my daughter, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient.
I will teach her the beauty of our traditions, even though I know she may resent studying for her Bat Mitzvah and roll her eyes at the idea of Jewish summer camp. When she is an adult, she will be free to choose her own path, but I want to make sure I have laid every stone at my disposal in front of her so she may have a sure and clear step, unfettered by the turbulent disintegration of our family.