Photo: Daniel Shapiro
Photo: Daniel Shapiro
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Home Is Where the Mezuzah Is

I had been building a Jewish home with my husband, but now that we’re separated, I’ve had to figure out how to do it on my own

by
Amy Schreibman Walter
January 03, 2017
Photo: Daniel Shapiro
Photo: Daniel Shapiro

My kitten Golda watched with curiosity from the doorway as I stood outside my new apartment, measuring the correct distance from the floor for a mezuzah. The simple task of finding the right mezuzah and then fixing it to the wall helped me connect, not only to my new home but to the person I was now: separated from my husband. In the temporary space between marriage and divorce, I had no choice but to reclaim what “home” meant, and hanging the mezuzah brought me a sense of groundedness as I entered a space, literally and figuratively, that was brand new.

Home is where the mezuzah is, I thought to myself as I placed it next to the front door. But it wasn’t always like this. In marriage, I’d gone from a place of very little observance to a place where I was marking Jewish holidays, hosting Friday night dinners, and learning more about Judaism. I was only just beginning to build a Jewish home with my husband when the strange unpredictability of life dictated that I was to be building this home alone—something I’d never envisioned doing. The Jewish home that I’d started to create would, I understood, provide a connection both with my past and with my future, even if I was doing it alone. And the traditions of Judaism had begun to take on a different poignancy during this tumultuous time.

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I grew up in a home that was culturally Jewish but not practicing. My father died young, and tragically, when I was 2 1/2, and my mother wasn’t religious—coming of age in the late ’60s, embracing that decade’s broader notion of spirituality, and attending Woodstock. I did have a deep sense of who we were. Family stories were told and retold about the ghettos of Kiev and of Brighton Beach. But aside from a couple of traditions my mother enjoyed—lighting the candles for Hanukkah and playing dreidel—there was rarely religion. We didn’t speak Hebrew, keep kosher, or attend synagogue. In my childhood home, there was no mezuzah on the door.

But there was a story about the bravery of beginning again: My great-grandparents had immigrated to New York City from Romania and Ukraine in the early part of the 20th century. Entrepreneurs, writers, and traditionalists, they practiced their religion wherever and whenever they could, and this habit was passed on to my grandparents, who lived nearby when I was a child. It was with my grandparents that I attended shul, a handful of times a year. The synagogue felt to me like an alluring space filled with something sacred, an ornate room within which lay soulful secrets. Synagogue was a place for things I didn’t know or understand, a place where another language held answers to questions I hadn’t asked yet. When they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about, my grandparents spoke in Yiddish. I wanted in on that mystery language; it seemed to be an entryway to a world I knew nothing about. I asked my grandparents to teach me some words, and they did; much to my delight. I was always their little Amyla, their little Bubbala.

My paternal grandparents took me to Hebrew school once a week, until we moved away when I was 9—and I lost whatever Hebrew I had learned. Mom and I moved to England, where my mother, 33 and single, began a new life. England quickly charmed her; in it she found a genteel refuge from the dramatic events of her past. She married a non-Jewish man who was to become my wonderful stepfather and we lived for several years in a non-Jewish swathe of the London commuter belt, where I knew only a handful of Jews outside my own family. My connections to the Jewish world began to dwindle. I had no bat mitzvah, and at the time I wasn’t even aware of missing out. Living so far from my grandparents, my attendance at synagogue stopped entirely.

I didn’t go to shul again until over a decade later, when my boyfriend Michael, a Jewish artist with whom I spent a lot of my twenties and thirties, suggested we go together. Keeping traditions was important to him; I’ll never forget the first time we lit the menorah and the surprised look on his face when he realized that I didn’t know the words to the blessing. Michael seemed to enjoy teaching me what I needed to know in order to pass for a competent Jew at social gatherings, and I did OK for someone who was pretty late to the party. On the High Holidays, I went with him to a Reform synagogue; being there felt like being in the company of a friend I’d known many years ago. I was unsure how to feel, not sure what we had in common anymore, but I wanted to be there nonetheless. We didn’t join a synagogue, but we attended several over the years.

In my twenties, I befriended several women and men who happened to be Jewish, and these friends remain some of my closest. With my Jewish friends I felt a sense of belonging that I hadn’t been aware I’d been missing.

After Michael and I ended our relationship, I knew that I wanted to get married and have a Jewish family. When I was 38, I met Steve, a handsome Jewish doctor, on JDate. From the first time we met, he had my heart. I thought often of my grandparents when Steve and I were dating; I felt like they were watching over me, like they had put Steve in my path, the mensch they’d always wanted me to find. After a whirlwind courtship, we got engaged.

Raised in a Conservative family, Steve was by now a mostly non-practicing Jew. He defined himself as an atheist, though he valued the rites of passage and many of the traditions of Judaism. He wanted to marry in an Orthodox ceremony because he felt it was the right thing to do, given his upbringing—that it would honor the beliefs of his parents and grandparents. That felt good to me, too, and I’d always wanted a Jewish—although not necessarily Orthodox—wedding.

We met with the rabbi of a synagogue close to our home a few times and decided to join the shul; we liked the small community and we felt welcomed. The rabbi and his wife had us over to dinner one night. It was a strange evening—their Hasidic home was so different from our non-Hasidic one—but we liked them. The rabbi was young and had a great sense of humor. We were the first wedding the synagogue had had in several years and there was a real feeling of excitement. I envisioned attending shul sometimes, after our wedding—on Friday nights, on High Holidays. Our hope was to have a child one day soon and to raise him or her within the Jewish tradition.

I took my role as a future Jewish wife seriously. I read books, and took Jewish pre-marriage classes. I felt not only a strong sense of connection and a relationship to the generations that had come before me, but a palpable sense of purpose and fulfillment for the future. I had never felt more present or content than when I was standing under the chuppah holding hands with Steve. The dulcet tones of both Aramaic and Hebrew flooded the room as sunlight danced on the stained glass windows; I didn’t always know what was being said but I found peace in the musicality of the words.

Steve’s family was everything I’d never had: parents having been married for decades, children having been raised in a Jewish religious tradition. This was a family who went regularly to synagogue and kept up traditions. Sitting with them around a large Passover table, all of us raising our glasses, I couldn’t finish the toast I was making without crying—I realized what I had lived without for so long. Steve felt similarly about my family; he relished the unconventional, non-religious small family that he had joined and it suited him more than his own at times. Perhaps we always want what we don’t have.

Then, last spring, just seven months into our marriage, Steve told me that he’d changed his mind: He wanted to end our marriage. Our ketubah, hanging near where he was sitting, and several of our wedding and honeymoon photos in frames sitting on our mantelpiece felt to me to be reminders of what was real and true. I heard the words Steve was saying but I didn’t understand.

During the weeks and months that followed, I was mostly in shock. Denial and bargaining were at play, too. I reached out to the rabbi, who called Steve. After speaking to him, the rabbi said that he felt powerless to help us: Steve didn’t want to change his decision; he’d made up his mind. I entered a surreal new world.

My relationship with Steve’s family changed almost immediately following his decision. I can only imagine that his parents are deeply saddened by Steve’s departure from our marriage. One member of his family reached out to me multiple times, for which I am so grateful, because to lose the other members of this family from my life so suddenly is a grief all of its own. I had only just found this lovely new family, and then, just like that, they were lost, only a couple of weeks after that Passover dinner.

Adrift, I found myself drawn toward the very things that had helped me feel rooted during happier times in my life. I began to host Friday night dinners, consciously using the tableware that we’d received as newlyweds, instead of keeping the gifts in a cupboard. I learned how to cook Israeli and Jewish American dishes that I’d never made before. I sought comfort from being with my family and friends. Though the Jewish wife I’d been had the trajectory of her marriage thrown wildly off course, I knew that, wife status gone, I could still be the Jewish woman— building a Jewish home on my own.

*

These strange days, as I await the finalities of both our Jewish and civil divorce, I take comfort in what I still have. My kitten Golda, whom Steve and I rescued from a shelter and named in honor of our grandparents’ mutual love of Yiddish, is like her name: a golden ray of light, affectionate and loving. Just as I did when I was married, I find solace in setting the table for Friday night dinners. I invite friends over to my apartment and together we embrace ritual, light, and food. We share a tradition shared by Jews over time and through grief, tragedy, and trauma. Though I don’t do this every week, these Shabbat dinners help me to feel rooted.

Lately I’ve gone to a few synagogues; I’m looking to join one that feels right, and I’d like to attend with some regularity. After spending time in several, I’ve decided that joining a Reform congregation is the right decision for me. Even though I still don’t always understand all of what goes on inside (even a Reform) synagogue, I like to sit within the walls of the sacred space and listen for the songs and prayers I’ve heard before. Being there reminds me of happier times, and still fills me with a mix of awe and curiosity—I like those feelings. Kol Nidre this year fell on our first wedding anniversary; the somber and soulful songs of the synagogue choir touched me at a time when I really needed comfort.

Saul Bellow, one of my favorite writers, wrote: “Everybody needs her memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” Memory is very much a part of my Jewishness, and I’m grateful for that. Gratitude for what I have helps quell anxiety about the unknown book that is my future. Amid the sadness, I find comfort in the familiar: my family, setting the table for dinner with friends, resting with Golda. Like my great-grandparents, I’m starting again in an unfamiliar place—resilient and rooted by my culture and its rituals. Like my great-grandparents, grandparents, and mother, I am aspirational, even in this unknown and strange place. The mezuzah on my door feels like home.

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Amy Schreibman Walter is a writer and teacher living in London. Follow her @amyswalter

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