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Religion as Romance

This article is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

I met my husband in college, hobbling my way through campus on crutches. He touched my shoulder, shouted, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran away. I laughed and found myself looking for his lanky swagger everywhere I went. We were both 20, both experimenting with the contours of our personality. I studied political theory and art history, fancied myself a performance artist, and wanted to spend my free time at philosophy lectures. He studied mycology, hiked every weekend, and knew how to fend for himself by putting spoonfuls of sugar in plain yogurt and lemon pepper on canned string beans.

He didn’t really know much about my background. He didn’t know that I had attended Orthodox yeshiva, that I had only recently suffered from the loss of my faith, or that somewhere deep inside my newfangled hipness, I really missed synagogue and my Tanakh class.

Reality came to my husband in waves. He met my grandparents and learned that it was me, not my family, who was, for a time, religious. I had made my home kosher, tyrannized my parents over the rules of Shabbos, moved to Israel and transferred to yeshiva. Religion was never imposed on me. I chose religion. For years, I had this feeling of closeness to history and to God and then, one day, I just stopped believing in that closeness.

What at the time seemed like a crisis of faith was, in retrospect, just the beginning of a new form of religious feeling. I was in the process of creating a practice that no longer hinged on faith alone but rather on the value of a life immersed in communal rituals. I met my husband during this transition. To his credit, after some initial confusion, he accepted this.
My husband converted to Judaism because we found together a life of beauty in studying Torah and organizing our weeks around Shabbos.

Seven years after we met, my husband converted to Judaism. We had taken a yearlong beginners class together and then he found a rabbi who was smart, realistic and inspiring. My husband didn’t convert to Judaism for me. He is not a man capable of falseness. My husband converted to Judaism because we found together a life of beauty in studying Torah and organizing our weeks around Shabbos. We found shared passion in discussing texts and arguing over the purpose of kashrut. We haven’t always agreed on content but we have always agreed on the kind of argument we should have.

Judaism is a space of romance for us. In the last few years, when money has been tight, he has learned prayers in lieu of a physical gift. He spent months learning how to say the Friday night Kiddush and now honors our Shabbos table with his sonorous prayer. When we moved to Columbus, Ohio, he arrived first to contact rabbis and get to know the Jewish community. His partnership in our religious life remains one of the strongest attributes of a marriage that, like all marriages, has weathered conflict.

My husband’s faith has been called into question. Not only by rabbis who doubt the verity or legality of his conversion, but also by peers and colleagues who don’t understand its purpose. His conversion has confused our children and been a point of serious conversation with family members. It has never been easy. In some ways it has even been hurtful. But how we have worked through this process has added remarkable depth to our relationship with each other and with the Jewish people. We know what it feels like to be rejected and to still show up, to give people the time they need to grow out of prejudice and into acceptance.

When I look back on the 15 years we have been together, I am awed by how my husband has come to express love through the language of Judaism. He is the one who suggested we call our rabbi when we couldn’t move past certain issues. He is the one who helped prepare the house for my grandparents’ shivahs. He rushes home so that I can go to Tanakh class and lifts our children in the air to make Shabbos magical at home. His relationship to Judaism is different from mine. He doesn’t yearn for closeness to God (a word that would probably even make him uncomfortable); he struggles with Hebrew, prayer and learning. But every gesture he makes seems to matter more to me than anything else I have ever witnessed religiously. Every day he opens himself to being new at something, to not knowing things that seem basic to other people, and he does it to give more religious content to our family life. He does it so that our children can grow up with a sense of their religion as a gift they have been given. A gift that requires practice and work. A gift their mother and father have both inherited and chosen.

Tamara Mann


Author: Tamara Mann