When you’re facing a divorce, you cast about for signposts of your identity. You seek indicators of who you were before, and glimmers of the stronger, more empowered person you hope to become.
In my case, newly separated from my non-Jewish husband, I find myself looking to Judaism for a renewed sense of self. Well, not Judaism, exactly — my relationship with the religion hasn’t changed much. I still go to a Reform shul on the occasional Shabbat, alone, as I have since college.
I’m not reading the Torah now to remind me who I am. I’m reconnecting with Jewish American culture — the most random strains of it.
I went to a lecture about Jewish music at the 92nd Street Y. “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” was written by the cantor’s son Harold Arlen, I learned. It voices a Jewish theme, the perpetual longing for a better homeland, or one left behind.
I thought, “See! This is why I complained about the country house my husband insisted we build on top of a mountain surrounded by 30,000 acres of forest. It’s not that I’m habitually discontent or have a panic disorder activated by vast wilderness. Jewish people have felt displaced for generations. It’s part of what makes us compelling and unique! My people, my people!”
I returned home uplifted. I like to attend lectures on random topics. My future ex, who works as a writer and pundit, has a narrower range of interests, and prefers learning about them alone. When we started dating back in 2000, I found his ambition and intense focus impressive, even exciting. Today I categorize his selective curiosity and auto-didacticism as “not Jewish.” Spending an evening listening to a scintillating debate about a subject of which I’m totally ignorant? Jewish.
My sister mailed me a book called “How to Raise a Jewish Dog.” In it, the rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary, a group fabricated for the sake of humor, share dog-training tips. They ask questions like, “What is so special and different about a Jewish dog’s relationship with his or her master?”
What’s so special? While most dog owners assert their dominance over their pets, the make-believe rabbis say, Jewish owners and their dogs take turns being alpha. Because what matters is a close relationship, not who fetches the stick. I want an intense, total-merge connection like the one described in the book, and not just with my poodle. I seek a marriage in which, “Neither knows where one ends and the other begins,” as the “rabbis” write.
My WASPy, cool-headed future ex idealizes a more independent marriage, one in which we pursue our passions and self-improvement plans alone. When we married in 2005, we knew this difference stood between us. We hoped our mutual attraction, shared interests in writing, rock-climbing, hosting parties and decorating a house, and our willingness to work at our marriage would be enough.
It wasn’t. When he told his parents about our separation, he explained it in terms of intimacy needs. “On a scale of one to 10, Wendy is a nine, and I’m a four,” he said.
“Oh, your father and I are both twos!” his mother responded. What can I say about these lovely, emotionally tepid people who have been my New York-area family all these years? “Not Jewish.”
I recognize that turning a conflict between two individuals into a larger religious or cultural issue is risky. Several years ago, I met a slender, soulful African-American poet who’d married a woman from Spain. I asked if their cultural difference created problems.
“We made a pact not to do that,” the poet said, “not to get in a fight and say, ‘Well, you think this way because you’re Spanish. Or because you’re American.’ It’s reductive. It shuts down communication and closes the door to change.”
I agree, in theory. My future ex isn’t even technically a WASP. Though his mother was raised a Southern Protestant, she converted to Catholicism at 18 and married her Catholic husband a few years later. They began their marriage on a shared mission to improve the world as part of the Catholic Worker movement.
My future ex doesn’t consider himself Catholic. Growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, in Westchester, he spent his youth hanging out in the wooded hills above the Hudson River, discussing politics with his mostly Jewish friends. He’s the least religious man I know, but of all religions, he feels the warmest toward Judaism.
So was our mismatch really about religion?
I know I want to live in close connection with a soulful, intelligent man with a strong sense of humor. I seek an emotionally intense, we-focused person who genuinely loves the arts. Does this mean my next husband must be Jewish? Are these really Jewish traits?
This is just the kind of question I look forward to debating on a future date. Skeptical as I am about this way of thinking, I hope it will be with a member of my own faith.
Wendy Paris, a writer and communications consultant living in Hoboken, is the author of a book on dating and the co-author of a book on weddings.