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On Simchat Torah, figuring out how my interfaith family fit into the community
Halfway to the holiday, I started feeling nervous.
“Where is Josh going for Simchat Torah?” asked Josh’s father.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, he should be somewhere, don’t you think? Either with me or you. He’s a Jewish kid and it’s a Jewish holiday.”
I sent Josh to his dad, knowing that if my son wasn’t with me on Simchat Torah, I might not go to synagogue, or to the celebrations the night before.
Making me nervous was the Torah itself—and my new marriage. Or was it my old one? There may be zillions of intermarried couples, but I didn’t know many who were formerly part of a family that included a Jewish clergy member. And trying to give my son a strong Jewish identity, as I promised to do both in marriage and divorce, was a promise I wanted to keep.
Two days before Simchat Torah, I investigated some of the things the Torah says about intermarriage:
“You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son.” Deuteronomy, 7:3.
In Prophets, I read, “And that we shall not give our daughters to the peoples of the land, and we shall not take their daughters for our sons.” Nehemiah, 10:31.
In Jewish Law, it is written, “The Torah forbids a Jew to enter a marital relationship with a non-Jew; be it a Jewish man to a non-Jewish woman, or a Jewish woman to a non-Jewish man.” Maimonides’ Laws of Forbidden Relationships, 12:1.
Reading this made me think of a conversation I overheard at the age of twelve between my mother and a friend. They were lamenting the fact that someone’s daughter had fallen in love with someone who wasn’t Jewish. The couple had encountered so much resistance from their families and religious communities, they had to break things off. This seemed to me the most devastating thing you could do to someone, but it was obviously, at least in my family, a very hard-and-fast rule.
This Maimonides. Was he ever in love? And what did he think about Moses, who married a non-Jewish woman, and Miriam his sister who was stricken with leprosy for telling others she disapproved? What about Esther and her Persian King, or Abraham and Hagar? How do we square their lives with traditional, unequivocal Torah law? Are some animals more equal than others, as George Orwell would say? Are these edicts a course in Hypocrisy 101? Because that’s awfully what they seem to be.
While the rabbi at my synagogue was forbidden by Jewish law from officiating at our wedding, he always held out his hands in welcome to both of us. I know he wanted to see Pete, me, and Josh at any one of his services, and I wanted to see us there, too. There was just this knotty ball at the bottom of my ribcage pulling at me, a dark-hearted dread that held me back. Luckily, my parents had no objections to my choices, having gotten used to my sister’s two marriages outside the faith. But it wasn’t my parents I worried about. It was my son.
Should I really be worried? I asked myself. I was raising my son Jewishly, and my husband was helping me. When we lit Shabbos candles, Pete tried to sing along with us even though he didn’t know a word of Hebrew. He sometimes came to synagogue and shared in all our holidays. The chance of him converting was slim to none, but I never asked for that and never felt it was relevant.
Yet, I still couldn’t bring myself to go to a synagogue the night before the holiday and dance around the Torah, whether alone or with Pete and Josh. In the end, I chickened out and went to services by myself the next day, listening to congregants chant the last chapter of Torah called Vezot Ha Berachah (“This is the Blessing”)—and start over with Genesis, or Bereshith.
I read through the Haftorah Vezot Ha Berachah:
Be strong and very courageous, to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses My servant commanded thee; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest.
At least it wasn’t saying something terrible would happen if you did skate right or left, though I wasn’t going to count on that. I had no special excuses, really, for marrying out. Just the old Trifecta, love and friendship, and respect. Plus (she says, blushing), chemistry. I probably shouldn’t put that in a chapter about Torah, but God help me, it was part of the equation—or God not help me, as the case may be.
My nerves persisted all through the service and for a day after. And then a week later, I got a letter in the mail from our rabbi. The letter was addressed to congregants who were, or were soon to be, married to someone who is not Jewish. It asked if we wanted to attend a meeting to find out how the synagogue can be most helpful to us.
I sat on my bed, reading it over. This was not my grandmother’s rabbi, or my mother’s, or even the one who performed the wedding ceremony with my former spouse. This was someone who understands that you can be Jewish and raise your children as Jews, and still not be married to a Jewish person. And instead of saying get out of here, he said, come in and talk to me. “How can I help?”
Did I still feel a little bit guilty? I’m Jewish, right? And I knew there were still many people who believed I did the wrong thing by getting married to Pete. But the rabbi’s letter made me feel like I could be a good parent to the son of a cantor no matter who I’m married to, that there were ways we could pass our heritage on to our children even if we did move a little to the right and a little to the left.
Which is, as far as I was concerned, plenty reason to rejoice.
Excerpted from “Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey” by Jenna Zark. Copyright © 2022 by Jenna Zark and reprinted courtesy of Koehler Books.
Jenna Zark is the author of Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey and a playwright.