I’m both glad and saddened to read that my last post resonated with so many people; I hope we all find healing. For my part, there are some doors that have opened since I composed that piece. I am still in pain, and there is still an enormous sense of loss, but, not unlike Pandora’s box, there’s some hope in the bottom of it. I hope to come back to you in a few months with good news, but until then, I appreciate your thoughts, your prayers, and your company. Thank you.
This separation has really forced me to think very critically about the path that has led me to where I am in my Judaism. When my partner and I started dating two years ago, we were each minimally observant. I was a vegetarian, but I didn’t keep kosher; he ate everything but pork and shellfish (but had tried both). He went to services occasionally, but mostly for social interaction and he was not Shabbat-observant. I was an officer in my Jewish Law Students Association, but my regular observance was down to attendance at synagogue for holidays.
Once we found each other, our love for each other helped to make room for our love of Judaism. Supporting each other, we took on more and more mitzvot [commandments], eventually attending morning services on a near-daily basis. He gave up non-kosher meat and started separating meat and dairy; I began to look forward to having a kosher kitchen when I moved out of my current housing. We studied Torah together. We prayed together. Judaism is not a religion primarily based on faith, but on deeds, and our shared observance meant the creation of thousands of new memories, cementing us to Jewish ritual and to each other in one fell swoop.
That’s why this Shabbat was so difficult for me. Not only have I never lived here, in this neighborhood or this apartment, without my partner– I have also never been this kind of Jewish without him. It makes me miss him intensely: his presence at my side during services, his company on the walk to shul [synagogue], his voice chanting the kiddush [blessing over wine]. Havdalah [the ceremony separating Shabbat from the rest of the week] brought me to tears, because it was always the moment at which I felt closest to him, our voices mingling as we stood in the light of the braided candle, harmonizing the ancient words.
Judaism is so much about association. As a convert, I have had to build every association I have. Bagels and lox for me is not what I ate with my grandparents at a cousin’s bris [ritual circumcision]; it’s what my college Hillel handed out on Tuesdays. Brisket isn’t my mother’s recipe; it’s me trying to match my partner’s tastes. I don’t have years of Shabbat memories as a child, whiling away the hours and pining for the television. I will never have the kind of Jewish memory people describe as being so indelible, passed down from generation to generation, l’dor va’dor.
Many young Jews fall out of observance when they leave the family nest. Without the structure and support of parents and siblings, it is easy to fall into the popular culture. Judaism is nearly impossible in isolation. It is so communal, from the minyan [prayer quorum] to the Shabbat meals to the incredible loneliness of celebrating a holiday by oneself. I have celebrated so many holidays alone, or as an unfamiliar guest at an acquaintance’s table. It is heartbreaking. And today, my heart broke again. I realized that, just as my last ex ruined for me (at least temporarily) The West Wing, Jackson Browne, and sushi, so may the end of this relationship jeopardize my connections to Judaism. My associations, once so joyful, are now filled with pain.
I now understand a little better what causes those who lose a parent or a sibling to fall away from Judaism. I always thought it must have something to do with anger at God, but I realize now that to stand in synagogue, hearing the same tunes you heard your loved one chant, is the epitome of pain. My partner is luckier: his associations stretch back into childhood, so challah [braided egg bread] can mean dinner with his mother, not just what I bake on Friday morning; setting the light timers is an age-old ritual, not just what I remind him to do right before I light the candles.
I am trying now to regain my old associations. I was not observant before this man, but I was a Jew. I have no doubt this will rub salt in every wound I have, but somehow, I don’t think the impulse to run away and join a convent would serve me any better.
In synagogue this week, we read parshat [Torah portion] Ki Tissa. It’s a biggie, in which Moses breaks the tablets (Ten Commandments) at the sight of the golden calf. It’s also when God establishes Shabbat, and we hear for first time one of the most familiar Jewish prayers, V’shamru. A translation:
And the Children of Israel will observe the Sabbath,
to make the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant.
Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever,
that in six days did HASHEM make the heaven and the earth,
and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.
“Refreshed” is “va’yinafash,” from the Hebrew word “nefesh.” “Nefesh” means soul. God promises the people Israel that by observing Shabbat, we will be renewed in our souls, even though such a process is rooted in Divine, not human experience. I am praying now that soon this will be true for me again, that Shabbat can be a joyful rebirth of my soul and not the agent of sharpening my sorrow. I hope you all had a beautiful Shabbat. Shavua tov [a good week] to you all.