HARTFORD, Conn. (JTA) — My wife stared at me as if I were from another planet.
“What do you mean you don’t know if you can come to my cousin’s wedding?” she demanded indignantly.
She hadn’t seen her relatives in years and was looking forward to a weekend getaway with her husband of 28 years without our grown children.
“Well, it’s on a Saturday afternoon, before Shabbat is over. It’s during the three weeks of mourning before Tisha b’Av, not to mention during my year of saying Kaddish,” I replied, knowing none of these reasons would resonate with her.
Julia and I had met in our mid-20s at a Yom Kippur break fast in the late ‘70s. We had been unaffiliated, Jewish Catalog-kind of Jews loosely tied to our religion and tradition. She grew up Reform and remained a proud Jew who felt her level of observance didn’t make her any less Jewish than anyone. I grew up Conservative, the son of a Holocaust survivor, with parents who spoke fluent Yiddish and kept basic traditions like not mixing milk and meat (although my mother had inexplicable exceptions, like serving Campbell’s clam chowder).
We forged our own way of doing things religiously. For our first child, a daughter, we crafted our own naming ceremony. We found a mohel and had a brit for our two sons. We joined a Reform temple because it was where most of our friends were joining, our kids attended its religious school and we went to Friday night services frequently.
About 20 years ago, however, I began taking classes from a rabbi who saw the Torah as a spiritual road map, and his teachings spoke to me like never before. “Give me a modern-day example of Mitzrayim,” he asked, referring to enslavement in Egypt.
Suddenly I saw how enslaved I felt in my job at the time. I resonated, too, with his definition of Shabbat as a daylong meditation focused on being instead of doing.
Soon I was going to Shabbat morning services almost weekly as I juggled our kids’ soccer schedules. Eventually we moved to a Conservative shul, where I felt more at home but where Julia felt disenfranchised. She stopped attending, though I constantly nudged her — a strategy that triggered more resentment than anything else. Going alone also made me feel embarrassed when other regulars at my newly adopted shul asked why they had never met my wife.
That mindset rippled beyond family. As I became more observant over the span of several years — keeping kosher and eventually joining an Orthodox shul — I longed for a circle that could enthusiastically participate in weekly Shabbat meals, Passover seders and my religious journey. I envied shul acquaintances whose communities of friends were more Jewishly literate.
Instead, Shabbat and Jewish holidays became points of friction when service schedules clashed with social invitations from our less Jewishly observant friends — which was most of them — or Julia’s desire just to take in a movie on a Saturday night, even if Shabbat’s end had yet to arrive. I imagined that when she looked at me, she increasingly saw the Hasidic Jew that Annie Hall’s grandmother saw while looking at Woody Allen.
“Why don’t you just find an Orthodox wife to marry?” Julia suggested in her most exasperated moments.
I shrugged off her proposal: Divorce might be a solution, but it would be too painful. Besides, it would give credence to what my wife and others thought of me — as “going over the deep end.”
Actually, I was struggling with who I was becoming Jewishly. I wasn’t the Hasid in “Annie Hall,” yet my compromises and efforts to show more flexibility came grudgingly.
Then one day, I saw our struggle from a new perspective. Ironically it came from a real Hasid, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who said you are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome. That meant committing to finding a way to bring some kind of wholeness to my marriage, divisions notwithstanding.
I still did not know what to do about the wedding of my wife’s cousin. I did not think I should attend, but I knew this was my obstacle to overcome. It was my encounter with the Divine. I consulted a rabbi who’d written about what he called the sacred messiness of life.
“The only issue is whether you want Judaism to be associated with judgmental holier-than-thou energy. Obviously, you don’t,” the rabbi said, “or you wouldn’t be asking me what to do.”
That startled me. I was certain he would have sided with me. I re-read his message again and again. Over the next few days I came to realize that for at least the past 15 years I had been acting holier than thou — to Julia, our kids and to our friends.
Even if I hadn’t always behaved that way outwardly, I thought that way, and that attitude made me less than the spouse, father and friend that God expected of me.
I went to the wedding. In preparation, I envisioned how a more flexible and loving husband would behave. For th
at weekend, I also challenged myself to suspend my judgments and be the partner my wife had fallen in love with years ago.
That Saturday afternoon, we sat on folding chairs in the hot Florida summer sun among guests at the ceremony. A minister and rabbi officiated. I held Julia’s hand. After the wedding, I hugged and congratulated Julia’s cousin, the father of the groom. I sipped champagne and toasted the new couple, chatted with Julia’s relatives during the reception. In short, I allowed myself to have a ball.
“I like the new flexible you,” Julia said over the band’s music, a smile on her face.
That weekend marked a turning point. I came to understand that despite our differences, religious or otherwise, I had taken a vow to honor my wife no matter how we changed. Despite what often seemed like my affair with God, I realized that I owed Julia a commitment, to hear her and be there for her no matter what life’s challenges.
I also realized that to hold her in my arms as we feel the joys and sorrows of life is a spiritual practice, too. It’s not always easy. But when I feel my inflexibility and holier-than-thou voice creeping back, I try to remember that having a sensitive heart is also one of God’s commandments.
(Leonard Felson has written for The New York Times, Tablet Magazine, the Jerusalem Report and many other publications.)