After nearly 20 years together, my soon-to-be former wife and I decided this past winter to split up. We had, individually and collectively, agonized about the decision for at least a couple of years. How do you decide to end things? What’s the tipping point between “working on it” and “moving on”? “You’ll know when you know,” a friend of mine told me, and in the end, she was right. When my ex and I weren’t arguing, we still weren’t connecting. Even the good times felt forced, as though I was play-acting.
For me, the tipping point was the realization that I didn’t feel as though I had a real home, a safe emotional haven from the world. And I wanted one.
As we began the process of moving out, dividing up the household goods, negotiating a separation agreement—of disentangling both practically and emotionally—I began to ponder what I really meant by a “safe emotional haven.” One thought in particular surprised me: When I was ready to date again, I wanted to date someone Jewish.
At first blush, the desire seemed odd to me. I hadn’t dated anyone Jewish since high school. Why now? What difference did it make? Laura and I had worked hard over the years to merge our two religious backgrounds—mine Jewish; hers lapsed Catholicism—into a household that skewed toward Judaism with nods to Christmas and Easter. We were married by a rabbi, had agreed to raise our two daughters as Jewish, belonged to the tiny synagogue that served our isolated city’s ever-dwindling Jewish population. Surely, I’d be able to work out similar arrangements, similar compromises, with a new partner.
But maybe it was exactly that: compromise. In a dying relationship, everything begins to feel like a loss, a compromise, rather than a partnership. When we decided to end things, the last thing I felt like doing was compromising. I didn’t want to negotiate about whether a Christmas tree was too much. I didn’t want to deal with my ex’s increasingly visible annoyance at family Passover seders, or be the only parent who thought it might be worth dragging the girls to monthly Friday night services. I was done, ready to call the shots on, well, just about everything in my household, not the least of which would be religious tradition.
But beyond the need to reclaim my autonomy was something deeper: I was seeking a sense of home, that feeling of comfort and security and familiarity that had been slowly leaking out of my relationship. Dating someone Jewish, to my mind, meant dating someone who “got” me, who would recognize where I came from, who would understand the nuances and in-jokes without me having to explain. Dating someone Jewish meant that we could choose to accept or reject religious traditions without it feeling like a personal acceptance or rejection. Dating someone Jewish symbolized comfort, belonging, ease, home. And—especially in that awful several months of limbo in which we waited for Laura to find a house and she and I took turns couch-surfing with friends and staying with the girls—I was homesick.
Dating someone Jewish, however, isn’t a particularly likely scenario for me, given how few Jews—and how even fewer queer Jews—there are in close proximity to where I live. While I wouldn’t immediately say no to a long-distance relationship, practically speaking, I’d probably want a partner closer to home. That’s frustrating. (In my low moments, I get annoyed that my ex won’t have any problem finding someone with a cultural and religious background similar to her own; it’s even more annoying when I factor in that we moved here because of her career. But I’m working on that.)
Right now, finally back in my own space full time, I’m deep in the process of painting, rearranging furniture, purging, organizing, hanging new prints on the walls. With each tiny step, I’m feeling more and more as though I have a home, a haven, a safe emotional space to call my own.
In the end, the fact that my ex wasn’t Jewish wasn’t the reason our relationship ended. After all, we spent the better part of nearly two decades together successfully negotiating what it meant to be interfaith partners and parents. It’s just that, as the marriage faltered, the differences in our cultural and religious backgrounds became more apparent, just another line on the list of things driving us apart.
And while I’d be happy if the perfect Jewish partner suddenly materialized, I’m getting more comfortable with the idea that she or he probably won’t. Any new relationship will have its share of negotiations and compromises, no matter our backgrounds. As I move forward, I’m going to concentrate on making sure that if and when I find a partner, that person is someone who makes me feel safe, cherished, understood and respected. If and when I find a new partner, that person will be someone who makes me feel at home.