One of the first things my husband (z’’l) told me about himself on that first coffee date after meeting on OKCupid — the coffee date that turned into a weekend in my tiny studio as we fell head over heels for each other — was that he was part Jewish. His grandmother had been smuggled out of Poland during the war and adopted a vaguely culturally Christian lifestyle, as it didn’t feel much safer to be a Jew in Scotland at the time.
This Jewish past was an important part of how he saw himself. He was a Nice Jewish Boy™ who loved bossy women (*ahem*) and kvetching. This mattered to him even though he wasn’t religious at all; in fact, he was pretty hostile to all religion as a concept. I mean, he wasn’t a dick about it. He couldn’t have maintained a “skeptical” YouTube channel in 2012. But he thought the divine was something to which people gave credit for their own accomplishments, and he hated that. He hated anything he saw as diminishing people. I think he was wrong in how he saw religion, but I understood his negative view as coming from a place of respect for human dignity (which is, anyway, a very Jewish value).
Because he cared about his Jewishness, I wanted to help him explore this part of his heritage. I learned how to make latkes at Hanukkah, developed strong opinions on the best hamantaschen dough, read essays and articles on Jewish ethics and worldview in pop culture that I shared with him, and even found a bootleg stream of the “Rugrats” Hanukkah and Passover specials, as they never aired in the UK (I KNOW! And people act like Jeremy Corbyn invented antisemitism in this country) (it was actually Thomas of Monmouth, look it up). I could explain how the ideal of tikkun olam influenced Superman and why the third option of apple sauce AND sour cream was criminally overlooked.
Eventually, I realized that I had kind of passed the point where he was really interested. I was doing this for me, and using his Jewishness as a beard, and he was very clearly humoring me by pretending not to have noticed. I had fallen in love with Judaism, and not just with the fun cultural traditions (although very much also those).
But this was a thought I would never get to explore with him. Around the time of this realization, he started to have weird and unexplained problems eating — at first only occasionally and it seemed like maybe nothing serious, maybe anxiety, I told myself, staring at the ceiling wide awake late at night. But soon the words “adenocarcinoma” and “metastasized” were replacing latkes and tikkun olam in my thoughts, and for a while nothing else mattered.
And after that, I was alone.
At the age of 36, I was faced with reconstructing my adult life. I wasn’t entirely sure how to do that, but I knew I wanted Judaism to be a part of it.
I started studying Judaism with real seriousness — not just the occasional essay or Tumblr post on whether or not unicorns would be kosher. I found things that fit in the places I felt broken. Judaism has a kind of gritty optimism at its core that I find uplifting in a way that seems real: the idea that the world is in many ways broken, but that we can fix it if we all work together and do what we can. That people are basically good, made in the image of God and possessing a core of goodness, a spark of the divine, but the history of Judaism shows some people suck and it’s fine for your descendants to keep roasting them for the next four millennia. When studying Jewish mourning practices, I find an acknowledgement of the painful necessity of grief work, which contrasts sharp as a knife with the muscular American Christianity I was raised with, where mourning too much was a sign you didn’t really believe in the promise of eternal life.
In this difficult period of my life, I have found strength in the continuity and endurance of the Jewish people. When I light the Shabbat candles and sing badly in Hebrew, I find overwhelming beauty in doing something the women before me, maybe even my grandmother-in-law, have been doing for thousands of years, often in defiance of omnipresent oppression.
Though, about my grandmother-in-law: My husband would find out years later, through some research his sister did into their family history, that Nana may have been, just a little bit, lying about all of the Judaism stuff. I don’t know how you can even prove it one way or another at this point. She passed ages ago and all of the documents would have been forged, so the documentary trail is presumably unreliable anyway? And this revelation also came so close to the end of his life that there really wasn’t space to process it. But in any case, this very much feels like a footnote — this idea of Jewishness was important to his identity, how he saw himself, and how we related to Jewishness as a little family. I considered not even mentioning it, but that seems somehow dishonest. So instead, I’ll just stick this little complication here, near the end.
Regardless of whether what Nana said was true, I feel connected to these women through the ages, and through them, maybe, to God. I’m still working up to God. We haven’t even declared a thumb war, let alone wrestled, but I feel a certain potential.
I don’t know what kind of conversations I would have had with my partner about Judaism and conversion if we had ever gotten to talk about it seriously. I don’t know if he would disapprove, or if he would see it another way. He was generally down with anything that would make me happy, but he could also be stubbornly fixed in his opinions on some things. Never knowing is the hardest loss, the fact that you’ll never get their opinion on anything new. So I have to go forward without his input.
By folding this part of his own history into my new life, I believe I am helping to do the most important work of this stage of my life, which is making sure his memory is always, for me, a blessing.