After a big break-up, some people reach for the bottle. Others reach for cigarettes. I reached for a menorah.
It’s not like I’d ever turned to religion to assuage heartbreak before, but when my marriage abruptly came to an end last December, I didn’t know where else to look. When I turned inward, I saw empty rooms, cavernous spaces where my identity once lived. And so I searched for something to put back inside me, something that belonged there and couldn’t walk out the door.
“Do either of you know where the menorah is?” I hollered from my childhood bedroom, just days after moving back home with my parents.
“Probably in the attic,” my dad yelled.
He was right. I found it buried in a cardboard box, below a layer of sparkly Christmas ornaments. It’s a modest menorah, a triangular wood block no larger than a pencil case. After scraping off the candle wax, I brought it downstairs and placed it in the center of the dining room table. Even though my parents were curled up on the couch watching TV, I pestered them to come light the candles.
“Dad, do you want to lead the prayer?” I asked, offering the lighter.
“No,” he shook his silver head. “I don’t remember it.”
“Really?” I scoffed. “After decades of reciting it?”
He shook his head again. “Lauren, you’re the one who had your bat mitzvah this century.”
I turned toward my mom, who was clenching her teeth.
“Umm,” she bumbled. “It starts with Bah-ruk atah adonai, right?”
I opened my mouth in awe. The fact that my mother knew the first few words seemed like a miracle. Whereas my father is a Pittsburgh Jew, my mom is a Louisville Jew. She’s the kind of Jew whose family bought a Christmas tree to put in the window and packed ham sandwiches for lunch. So yes, I was impressed that she could recite three Hebrew words, but that wouldn’t be enough for a prayer.
“Jesus,” I said. “We really are awful Jews.”
I lit the center candle, mumbling a melody-less rendition of the blessing that reminded me how unqualified I’d long felt as one of the Chosen People.
Judaism was the last thing on my mind when I met my ex-husband, Paulo. I was 20, studying abroad in Buenos Aires. Paulo was 22 and also a college student, but that’s where our similarities ended. The fact that I was Jewish was just one more difference between us.
Whereas I had grown up in a big home in a big city, Paulo grew up in a small house in a pueblo of about 2,500 people. Whereas my family had money to study and travel abroad, few in his family had ever left their town, let alone their country. While Paulo couldn’t even imagine being vegetarian, I was learning to eat morcilla and share gourds of bitter yerba mate.
It was exciting to uncover this endless list of curiosities together. So when I told him I was Jewish, it didn’t surprise me that he scrunched up his face and wondered aloud why I didn’t cover my hair like the Orthodox Jews in Buenos Aires. On the surface, Paulo and I had hardly anything in common, and yet we became inseparable in that city of baroque buildings and grassy plazas. I was wide-eyed and entranced by the exoticness of it all.
Identities are slippery things, and over the 10 years I was with Paulo, I let the Jewish parts of mine wash away. Sure, after we moved in together in the U.S., I shared with him the few Jewish customs I had — most of which involved eating potato latkes and bagels with lox — but for the most part I brushed aside my Jewish heritage. I didn’t tell him how much I had loved my (very untraditional) Hebrew school or that I used to wear a silver Star of David necklace in the hopes that it might help me become “more Jewish.”
Looking back, it’s obvious Paulo was just as curious about my culture as I had been of his. I remember early on, when Paulo was still learning English, we were at my cousin’s wedding in Northern California. During the celebration, Paulo watched the guests form a circle, linking arms and dancing the hora. His eyes lit up and he smiled. Then he turned to me and my parents and asked stiffly, “Is that a Jew dance?” I laughed so hard I nearly spat out my wine.
“Yes, it’s a Jewish dance,” I replied, returning to whatever we’d been talking about. I could tell he wanted to know more, maybe even to join in and dance. But I didn’t grab his hands and pull him into the circle; I was too self-conscious that I didn’t know the steps.
For the first few years Paulo and I lived in the U.S., we spoke to each other almost exclusively in Spanish and drank yerba mate every night. We played soccer and made friends from South America and listened to the Argentine folk music of Atahualpa Yupanqui. I was trying to make him feel at home; in the process, his culture became my home as well.
It’s not like I forgot that I’m Jewish — I was always proud of that — I just wasn’t sure how it fit into my life.
The irony is that all my attempts to bring Argentina to Paulo weren’t enough to keep him from missing his home. Our relationship unraveled, in part, because he longed for his culture, his family, his identity. When we separated, I was completely lost. When I heard myself speaking words from the language we had shared, they suddenly sounded like someone else’s. When I noticed I was gesticulating with my hands in the wild and showy way of Paulo and his family, I felt like an imposter.
I thought something as basic as celebrating Hanukkah might ground me, but that night while lighting the candles with my parents, it hit me how little I knew of our traditions. Reciting the prayer felt like an act and the words like some foreign script. That’s when I started to wonder if I was a fake. If genetics might be my only link to Judaism. I cringed, thinking about if I had only leaned into Judaism, maybe it would have grown on me. Instead, I thought, I’d turned my back on thousands of years of tradition.
One afternoon this past March, I asked my father if he had any books on Judaism. The three lines in his forehead scrunched until they kissed. “I might,” he said, hobbling upstairs. When he returned, he handed me a faded-blue book titled This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life by Herman Wouk. It was first published in 1959.
“Your grandparents gave me this when your mom and I got married,” he said.
It looked more like an instruction book than a piece of literature. “Why’d they give you that?”
“Well, you know they didn’t exactly consider your mom a real Jew,” he said, winking.
I’d heard the gossip. She was a German-Jew from a family with law degrees and money. My dad’s folks were Russian Jews who worked in shoe and hat shops.
I flipped open the faded-blue canvas cover. Inscribed in cursive on the first page was written, “With Love to Martha and Murray from Joe and Diane.” The letters were curly and inviting.
“Can I borrow it?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “You can have it.”
My dad’s relationship with Judaism has all but vanished. Like me, he stopped going to synagogue after his bar mitzvah. And like me, when he was in his 30s and grieving after an awful break-up, he started searching for meaning and some sort of spiritual connection.
But instead of turning back to his roots, he turned to Buddhism. After all, it was the 1970s in San Francisco. By now my father has read a mountain of books on Buddhism, but he never picked up this one book on Judaism. No one in my family read it, until now. And I’m so glad I did.
The book divides Jews into several obvious categories: The Observant, The Assimilators, The Orthodox. But there is another category that stood out to me. The author calls this group “The Uncertain,” and describes them as follows:
“There’s a class of Jews just as large as the assimilators today, but wholly different. In them the nerve is damaged, but alive.”
Wouk writes that “The Uncertain” usually don’t belong to any temples, but “they cannot regard with calm their own fading Jewishness. The thought that their children may be lost from the Jewish tale darkens their peace, though they cannot say why.”
Reading this paragraph, I felt my breath stick in the base of my chest. The author was describing the disorienting emptiness I felt and whispering that I’m not alone. He argues that The Uncertain Jews are “vital Jews, thrown out of orbit by the cataclysms of the past two centuries. Their retention of identity and feeling is a marvel. They testify as much as the observant to the strange endurance of the spirit of Abraham’s House.”
A mysterious endurance indeed. All along, right under the surface, I’ve felt a longing to be Jewish, but not necessarily like I belong.
That tattered old book reminded me that there are a lot of ways to be part of a culture. And that in Judaism, uncertainty is more of a feature than a fluke. This realization gave me enough courage to reclaim a piece of myself. In April, I even decided to get together with a few friends in my COVID-19 “bubble” to celebrate Passover — not out of obligation but out of a desire to connect with a community of other very uncertain Jews.
About six months after we separated, Paulo and I started talking again. We decided to go to couples therapy and see if we could work things out. In those sessions, we talked a lot about our differences; we were both more clear about who we were and stronger in our own, separate identities. We were also both more clear that we wanted to be with each other, even though it would require a lot of work. We spent time talking about our fears and hopes and beliefs. And yes, we talked about Judaism — sometimes while cooking tortas fritas.
In September, Paulo came over on Rosh Hashanah. I was cutting up apples and pouring honey onto a plate. He smiled and asked what the treat was for, so I taught him the prayer for a sweet New Year. Neither of us know what our future together will look like, but I’m more comfortable with myself and the uncertainty of life than ever before.