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Apr 22 2013

I Married an Atheist

By at 5:22 pm

i married an athiestWeeks before I met my husband, I went to Israel on a Birthright trip and pranced down twisting streets belting out Hebrew songs, swept up in the fervor of the group. I shared my feelings in drum circles and slipped a note into the Western Wall expressing the hope that I’d find love that year.

When my wish came true, the trip was so fresh in my mind that I could recount to Josh in detail the spectacle we’d made of ourselves, dancing through the desert in some proto-flash mob. When he joined me in rolling his eyes, I loved him even more.

But when I confided my belief that my prayer wedged into the Kotel had brought us together, he snapped: “I don’t buy that.” It was a J-Date algorithm, not mysticism, that resulted in our brief courtship and prompt engagement. It was the first instance of my faith colliding with his skepticism. But he wasn’t just skeptical; he was a staunch atheist.

Granted, I’d never dated someone unabashedly religious. My ex-boyfriends had all partaken of the “boys will be Jewish boys” tradition: hiding in bathroom stalls to avoid Hebrew school, listening to the World Series on headsets hidden under their yarmulkes at Yom Kippur. But they drew the line at renouncing their faith, and their behavior seemed more rooted in mischief or even ambivalence than flat out non-belief.

Allegedly, I knew Josh did not believe. Yet there he’d been on J-Date, limiting his prospects to Jewish girls, because he refused to raise his children in whatever other religion a kindred atheist might return to upon starting a family. And he was deeply and unflappably ethical, with consideration for others that bordered on the desperate-to-please. Better to be 20 minutes early, in his view, than to keep someone waiting 15 seconds. He also seemed nonplussed that we were planning a Jewish wedding—which gave me just enough hope that the simcha might spark a romantic notion of destiny fulfilled, the Kabbalistic idea of shards uniting into a whole even as the glass shattered. But even as Josh slipped the ring on my finger and recited the Jewish wedding vows in Hebrew, I heard my brother-in-law chortle, and winced under my veil.

The next year, I became pregnant and began to crave strange things, treyf things: shrimp dipped in ice cream, JELL-O on noodles. Josh was cheered to think I was growing a little heathen and, on video I’ve since deleted, exhorted the bump to “Eat pork!” He railed against the idea of a bris. Just because it’s “tradition” doesn’t mean it’s “right,” he argued. Hadn’t I heard of cults and brainwashing? He relished arguing, honing his objections against my rock of faith. In response, I prayed for a girl.

My father says Josh’s objection and dissent is embedded in Talmudic tradition. The more he quibbles with Judaism, the more “Jewish” he becomes. Perhaps this paradox is my father’s way of defanging his atheism. When my father calls his son-in-law “the Talmudic scholar of our family,” neither of them is displeased.

Now that our children have started Jewish preschool–the only area preschool without a waiting list, perhaps beshert–both have developed a love of Shabbat (their tummies know that challah and grape juice truly sweeten the day), the Alef Bet, Israeli flags, hand-painted tzedakah boxes, and braided Havdalah candles. Josh loves their happiness when he returns home in the evenings–it’s infectious–but tries to tamp down their enthusiasm by growling impishly when Sam greets him with a “Shabbat Shalom!”, or shooting me a glare when I refer to Shabbat dinner, saying: “Friday dinner is ready.”

Josh does not accompany us to synagogue, but my children never notice because my parents are always there, exuding passion for Tot Shabbat and the little Fruit Roll-up and pretzel-stick Torah the children bring home, evoking objections from my ardent atheist. (“They’re making something on Shabbat? They’re eating a sacred object?”) Josh tells me that he plans to answer the children candidly when they question why he doesn’t attend with us. He will educate them about his atheism to let them make an informed, intelligent choice about their religious beliefs. But I purposely married someone Jewish to avoid that very dilemma. I want to share the joys of Jewish life as a family, together.

We’re already butting heads over Jewish kindergarten, one of the few full-day options in our area. Josh says over his dead body will they attend Hillel. I say over my dead body will Sam waltz in the door at 11 a.m. I suppose I could enroll him in Catholic school, then sit back and let the objections begin.

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