“It’s not going to work.”
In a quest to find himself, my husband of many years had left the path of Torah. I am an ultra-Orthodox woman, and when I married my husband, he was also ultra-Orthodox. My dream was to raise my family in the ways of Torah and mitzvot. So when my husband stopped practicing our religious customs, I was at a loss.
“How am I going to continue to raise my children in the ways of Torah while still staying married to my husband whom I love?” I asked a good friend, searching for support in navigating a world of a mixed marriage.
“Fifty years ago it could have worked, but in today’s day and age it will never work. You will never be able to stay true to God and his ways while still being married to a guy who eats pork,” she said.
Fifty years ago, when young Jewish girls came from Europe to the U.S. after the war, they often married non-religious men. Even though they were committed to living a rich Torah Jewish life, the kind of life that had been torn away from them in Europe, they also wanted to settle in the United States, out of harm’s way. Despite their differences, many of these couples managed to raise observant Jewish families.
But that was 50 years ago, not today, in the 21st century, when it seems to have become increasingly difficult to be different but stay strongly involved and committed in a strictly observant Jewish community.
A few years after my husband’s announcement, I found myself outside of ShopRite, eyeing the display of mini roses. I was broke, but at four dollars a plant, the roses were something I could afford. I picked two white and two red plants. Driving home, I dreamed of red, white and green leading up to my front walkway. “How hard can it be to plant a few flowers?” I thought with all the confidence of a novice.
My first attempt at planting roses didn’t go well—they looked like a 2-year-old had trampled on them. What happened to my vision of red, white and green? The limbs of the roses were spread out and the pretty flowers were wilted. With a small tug, the entire plant came out of the earth.
“It will never work,” I thought to myself. “What’s the point? The soil is dry, I don’t have the skill, and these plants don’t have what it takes. Maybe if I give this project over to a real professional gardener they can make it work. What was I thinking?”
I was at war with myself, engaged in an inner battle. Immediately, after thinking of giving up, another thought popped up: “No! I believe I can do it. I believe these roses will grow and blossom. I might have to learn more about growing plants. I might have to do research, get some more information. But the first step is that I want them to grow and bloom. If I give up now, I have failed.”
So I did some research on growing roses. I learned how to use good topsoil, and break the hard ground to make it soft, so that roots might grow. I cut off all the old wilted flowers to make room for new buds. I fought the bumblebees that were mad at me for messing up their space. And after my hard work, I stepped back and prayed. My work was done; now the roses had to take root. I will feed and care for them, but they do the real work.
Let’s go back nine years, to when I first met my husband. He arrived for our first date looking tall and regal in his black hat and jacket, with a sweet smile, which won me over. We dated a couple of times, strolling near the water, in the park, and in the mall, talking philosophy and God while trying to come up with ways to fix the world’s problems. My vision of a beautiful religious home was in the making.
But my husband didn’t end up being what I envisioned. He stopped being religious. He never gave up loving his family though.
For years I tried to “fix” my husband but I couldn’t. I felt I’d wilted—like my roses, like my husband’s religious practices. I worried our marriage would end; that my friends’ predictions would come true. I wondered if it was time to give up and walk away from my dream of having a beautiful religious family. I doubted my own strength.
“Fifty years ago,” I thought to myself, “women were stronger. They were more closely connected to the old world of Europe, where they were treated to a traditional Jewish education from their mothers while they baked challah or washed clothing by the river. Because of their traditional ways and lifestyle, they were able to raise religiously committed children, even if their husbands were not religious.
“I will never be able to do it,” I thought. “I need to fit in. I need to be like everyone else. Being married to my husband will make me different, and I’ll be alone.
But I couldn’t give up. I knew I needed to focus on what was important. My children, my husband and myself. My children adore their father, and it would destroy them to be without him. I knew that while my husband might not be on the same page as me when it comes to religion, he has never hurt my children or me and he doesn’t deserve to be abandoned because his feelings about religion have changed. When we first met, we connected on so many levels. He became my best friend and my greatest emotional support. If I gave up on him, I’d hurt us all.
I needed to cut away the negative ideas I had about non-religious people, so I could make room for love and respect. I needed to grind up the dirt and change it to soft topsoil so that the roots of my marriage could dig deep and hold strong. I needed to leave my well-worn community, and settle somewhere that would welcome us. Most importantly, I needed to believe in myself, just as I believed that my roses would grow. I learned that I had what it takes to make this family work.
This Rosh Hashanah, as I walked out of my house with my children on our way to hear the shofar, I stopped and looked at the beautiful roses that have finally bloomed. We did it! The roses took hold and pulled through. And so have we.
Read Rikki’s husband, Eli, reflect on his religious and family journey here.