It was back in November. We were at my parents’ house, gathered round the lit menorahs by the window, our reflections shining in the glass, making a very pretty picture against the black winter night. With Tom’s arm around my shoulder and mine around his waist, we swayed as my brother Ben led the family in a hearty rendition of “Maoz Tzor,” my mum, dad, siblings, nieces and nephews all mumbling the bits they’d forgotten and belting the bits they remembered, as is tradition.
And for the first time in maybe 10 years, I found myself joining in.
Tom, having never been at a Jewish affair, was ecstatic, a big puppy grin on his face as he heard me recite these foreign incantations by heart. I grinned back as I sang, feeling like I was revealing a secret skill 18 months into our relationship. Because as much as I am unashamed of my Jewish upbringing, mentioning it often, I have, for the majority of my adult life, actively distanced myself from it as an identity or a lifestyle. Tom knew my family was Jewish, but he had never seen me being Jewish before.
I was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, with mezuzahs on every doorframe and bar mitzvahs abounding. There were always big Friday night meals and Saturday lunches, everyone in suits and frocks. Debates and questions were encouraged throughout my Jewish education, which fostered in me a deep love of my faith and spirituality. I vividly remember being at the Wailing Wall for the first time when I was 14, feeling a rush of elation while dancing in a circle and singing with my school class. I actually cried with devotional joy.
But somehow, perhaps having debated and questioned a little too thoroughly, at the age of 19 I came to the conclusion that I didn’t believe in God, and that changed my life completely.
For starters, I began to do as I pleased on the Sabbath and revelled in the many small rebellions this entailed: carrying something, anything, in my pocket in public, watching TV, doing my groceries, getting in a car — this was weirdly the hardest line to cross, but after that the flood gates had well and truly opened. I got my first bar job working both Friday and Saturday nights, making the very best of friends with people I had always been taught to separate from, and beginning to date the same such people. I had been raised kosher pescatarian, but after first discovering how outrageously delicious shellfish was, I quickly moved on to meat in all its various glories. Not just lamb and chicken and beef, but slow-cooked pork ribs, honey-glazed ham and spicy chorizo, crispy fatty bacon, or better yet, crispy fatty bacon on a cheesy beef burger, the ultimate sin.
I loved it all. But along with all this broadening of horizons came a very painful and messy severance between what was me and what was my Jewish upbringing. This wasn’t a silly smattering of childish disobedience, despite the delight I took in eating non-kosher foods and befriending non-Jewish people. For me, this was a serious decision I had not undertaken lightly, but it was impossible to convince my family otherwise, and I found myself slipping further and further away from them, along with the community in which I had grown.
Visiting home, I suddenly felt like an awkward guest during Friday night rituals and festivals. I actively avoided my Jewish peers, and if I found myself in their presence, I felt an unjust disdain for them.
This wasn’t helped by my parents’ reaction. There was already a sense of unrest and discomfort with my lifestyle choices amongst the family, causing gossip in the guise of concern. I had a very strange conversation with my dad once, about a family rumor that I had a massive tattoo of a dragon and a dagger up my leg. I do not, in case you were wondering.
But any worries were always waylaid by the idea that this was a phase, that I would come back into the fold when I came back to my senses. In 2011, however, I started seriously dating a boy who was not Jewish, and after a few months, I decided to tell my parents. My loving, sweet dad told me that so long as this “affair” continued, my life would be a dead-end, as well as a lot of other sad, hurtful threats that I later happily discovered he was incapable of following through on.
One real consequence, however, was that my parents decided not to attend my sister’s wedding. Her then-fiancé (now loving husband of 11 years!) is not Jewish, and while my parents were already questioning their involvement in the nuptials, my dating a non-Jew cemented their decision. They believed that by going to the wedding they were giving their approval of the union and therefore leading me to think that it was OK. So they didn’t go. To their own daughter’s wedding.
After that, I found the sweeter temptations of Judaism much easier to resist. I felt that if I gave in a little, bought the tiniest honey cake around Rosh Hashanah, incidentally lit candles on Friday night, dated someone who happened to be Jewish, then I would be admitting defeat. I would be saying that I was in fact Jewish whether I liked it or not, that my parents’ behavior was justified, and I may as well just give up having my own ideas, move back to Manchester and shack up with the first “nice Jewish boy” I was awkwardly sat next to at a very obvious set-up (another reason I didn’t like to go home so often).
And that’s how it was for a decade or so. That is, until I met Tom.
Over the past few years, my parents have softened — not so much that they would say they were wrong in any way, but enough that their concern for my future happiness has outstripped their worries about my spiritual descent. So this time when I told my dad about Tom, despite the obvious strain in his voice, he told me he’d like to meet him.
Hanukkah wasn’t the first time Tom came to Manchester, but it was the first time, what with COVID, that he had been in the room with my whole family, and certainly during a Jewish ceremony.
It felt like a kind of coming-out party: With Tom on my arm, I was able to say, to myself and my family, my worldview is not the same as yours, but I have found someone who shares it. And now that I have that, I’m ready to reclaim, on my own terms, the parts of myself that I had until now forcibly discarded. I could ask my mum for her cholent recipe, and maybe host a quasi-Friday night dinner for my friends back in London. I could consider not using technology for one day a week, make cheese blintzes on Shavuot or fresh bagels on a Sunday (I’ve actually mastered that last one already). And I can happily join in singing “Maoz Tzor” with my family, gathered round the lit menorahs, with the arm of the man I love resting on my shoulder.