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A group of intermarried Jewish women gather for Shabbat but pack away their identities

Elizabeth Cohen
June 25, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photos: iStockPhoto.)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photos: iStockPhoto.)

We were invited to a Shabbat dinner, my daughter and I. It was at a brand-new home in a brand-new development in one of those suburb-of-a-suburb places where streets curve off one another in a seemingly infinite fashion, creating the sort of pattern you imagine might look like a leaf if viewed from space.

When we arrived we found ourselves in a group of seven; three moms and four children aged 2 through 11. Where were the men? Playing golf, working, making art, anywhere but here. The men in this particular configuration are not Jewish, but we, their wives, are, hence our Shabbat evening out, a Judaic experience that felt a little sneaky, like a backroom poker game. Nobody to see us, nobody to witness, just us women, our offspring, a loaf of challah, and some wine, marking the holiday as we did as children but cannot do or do not do in the presence of our non-Jewish spouses. Our husbands don’t object to the keeping of Shabbat; they just don’t care about it. They would all prefer not to look on.

You might wonder how we ended up married to men, so a-Jewish, so Jew-avoidant. Simple: When you are young you think you can handle anything. You think you can climb tall mountains, starve for your art, marry for love. What you don’t think of is what it’ll be like when you have children and want them to experience the same relationship with Judaism that you enjoyed as a child. Suddenly, having lived for art, married for love, climbed mountains, you find yourself living a paradox. Hiding your Judaic thoughts, objects, even your prayers.

The hostess at our Shabbat dinner, a lovely woman, a mother of two small children, admitted as much. Granddaughter of survivors, born in Israel, she showed me where she stores Jewish heritage in her home. “This is the drawer,” she said, opening a tall and broad wooden drawer in her designer kitchen, with its Sub-Zero fridge and Italian marble countertops. “Everything Jewish in this house goes here.”

The Judaica does not fit with the house’s design scheme. The interior is sparse, with a brown accent and a nature motif. In one room, there’s wallpaper of twigs and trees, a rug that looks like brown autumn grass. Amid such a landscape, havdalah candles, menorahs, seder plates are stashed away.

Oh yes, we nodded. We know about that. In my home there is a Jewish cabinet, in another’s home, the artifacts of Judaism are kept in boxes. A heritage stored away for another time, possibly even another generation.

It isn’t always like this, of course. There are plenty of mixed marriages where the spouse gets involved, shares the traditions, looks on with something like admiration, maybe even converts. But for many of us who married our shiksa boys, it’s a carefully guarded, discreet practice. After attending a few early seders, my husband started ducking out at Passover. At Sukkot, he might bring over a few branches for the Sukkah but then gets a call from a friend and excuses himself. He will buy a challah on Fridays but is somehow absent when the time comes to bless it.

How does this happen? How does a way of life become so marginalized as to have its own hiding place in a home? We all blushed at our Shabbat gathering with the deep recognition that a heritage in hiding echoes a people in hiding. It was the evening’s super yikes moment, when we admitted that we don’t discuss or mention Jewish topics with our significant others. It’s not that they are not anti-Semitic, because that could not work. They are Semitic-neutral. Semitic-bored, perhaps. “Don’t you ever get tired of Holocaust-themed movies?” my husband once asked me.

This is not a story of the undoing of Judaism, but of its cancellation through silence and storage.

The Jewish drawer, I realized that evening, is the place in the house that mimics the place in the soul where we let heritage retreat. The little corner of spirituality we keep lit, like a small fire, carefully and quietly tended, year after year. Each of us has our own set of circumstances. One has a husband who feigns interest from time to time in her observance and makes a lot of jokes. One has a husband who shows some hostility about organized religion. What we share is our willingness to let our own Judaism be marginalized and our unwillingness for that to be the case in our children’s lives. All of them are enrolled in the same Jewish day school. Their Hebrew is impeccable. Their understanding of Torah and mishneh is profound for grade-schoolers. And it was they who led our Shabbat, singing prayers aloud, blessings as second nature as those their grandparents uttered.

For us, it is OK to negate our Judaism, but do not dare touch my baby’s Jewish soul. That is our message.

If we were Latino our children would be called “mestizos,” mixed ones. In Portuguese-speaking Latin American, their miscegenation might signal a lower rung in an unacknowledged but very real caste system. But we are Jews, which means they are as well. Here, in the 21st-century United States, our miscegenation is different. It is about family style. It is about the way we decorate. While all three of us mothers won the mezuzah wars, we lost the battle of displaying other elements of our heritage. Hence the stuffing away of what defines us, in terms of family and religion and past.

Our hostess was proud of her home and her husband’s careful attention to detail. Everything in it had a conscious effort behind its choosing. Every tissue box, every lamp, every book, every window. It seemed to me that even the unseen was planned. The absence of a ketubah, candle sticks, art with Jewish motif was conspicuous, intentional.

“My husband once said he wanted to be buried beside me and asked where I thought we should be buried,” our hostess said. “How could I tell him it could not happen? Because I need to be buried in Israel, where I was born. He could never understand that.” Nor would he want to be buried there, even if he could.

In much of American culture, the most important thing is family identity, that island created by marriage and children. But for Jews it can be terribly hard to let go of the larger membership in a cultural or religious family. Membership there seems less important before children come along, and then suddenly it becomes paramount. What am I teaching them? What message do I send by not keeping Shabbat or celebrating high holidays? That there is shame or insignificance in this heritage? And lastly, what will they think, when they are grown and look back, of the Jewish drawer? Or cabinet? Or box?

“We are all descendants of Adam, and we are all products of racial miscegenation,” Lester Pearson, a former prime minister of Canada, once said. It sounds reasonable and true, this philosophy. The “pure blood” concept reeks of racism and antiquated ideas of self identity in today’s world.

But the truth is the women at our private Shabbat long for our cultural and, yes, even racial, Jewish identities. My own husband paints like Chagall, and plenty of it is hung in our house, but I have yearned for a home where my actual Judaism is displayed on the walls, too. We want to live the traditions we grew up with and love. So, we devise our own Shabbat, with candles and children and simple foods, songs and prayers. Our husbands know we’re doing this—they just choose not to see us. And after the flames die out and the food is put away, we return to our other world, our Jewishness neatly stored once again.

Elizabeth Cohen is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of The Family on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Love and Courage.

Elizabeth Cohen is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Plattsburgh and the author of The Family on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Love and Courage.