“Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life” is Andi Rosenthal’s monthly column about “the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage.”
Too Jewish: you’ve undoubtedly heard the punchline uttered in the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles. But in the end, it wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t really funny, either–because those were my ex-boyfriend’s favorite two words to describe me.
Our breakup–after three years, and plans to marry, eventually–didn’t exactly come as a shock. And looking back, I know now that I should have seen it coming. But when Claude and I fell in love, and I believed with all my heart that I had finally found the “nice Jewish boy” of my dreams, no one could have made me believe that it would be a symbol of Judaism that would, ultimately, tear us apart.
That symbol–the Havdalah (the Saturday night ceremony marking the separation between the Sabbath and the rest of the week) set that I’ve wanted for two years–finally arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I finally bought it for myself after waiting nearly a year for it. It was originally supposed to be a Valentine’s Day gift, but it ended up being the subject of a fight that ended our relationship–and also made me see that even though my boyfriend was born Jewish, I was wrong to assume that he was as fascinated with Judaism as I am.
As a convert to Judaism, I’m the first to admit that my approach to Jewish life–and my constant and unrelenting excitement about it–is not what you’d call typical. But over the course of the past three-and-a-half years, ever since my conversion in 2002, I’ve found that not everyone I meet–whether or not they are born Jewish–is as fascinated with Jewish life and faith as I am.
But when we first met, my excitement about finally becoming a Jew-by-choice was something that fascinated Claude. Our first conversation–on an Amtrak train on a bright October morning just weeks after my conversion ceremony–centered on my work at a Holocaust museum and his family history–both of his parents had escaped from Nazi Germany with their families in the late 1930s. While he was certainly committed to his faith, he hadn’t bothered to affiliate with a synagogue or attend services with any frequency or regularity, except at the High Holy Days.
But once we committed ourselves to one another, it was imperative–to me, at least–that we also committed ourselves to a Jewish life. And so, for the first time in his life, we lit Shabbat candles, attended Friday night services on a regular basis, and even started attending my temple’s Torah study group on Saturday mornings. We were in love; we wanted to experience everything together. And seen through my eyes, as a person new to Judaism, everything that Claude had learned back in the early 1970s as a recalcitrant, reluctant Hebrew school student suddenly seemed new and exciting to him.
Until it wasn’t. The first inclination I had that Claude didn’t share my enthusiasm for all things Jewish was when the High Holy Days arrived almost a year into our relationship. Over the course of the year that we had been together, I could tell at times that Claude was not so much interested in going to Friday night services with me as he was really indulging my desire for us to experience them together.
But I was shocked when he told me that not only was he not going to be attending High Holy Days services with me, but he also did not plan to take the days off from work. Alone and confused, I was nonetheless determined not to let what I perceived as his lack of commitment affect my practice. But more and more often, I found myself going to Friday night Shabbat services alone, while he stayed home to read or watch TV. And I gradually learned that he would rather be left at Starbucks with The New York Times than study Torah with me on Saturday mornings.
All of this left us both with a deep sense of resentment and misunderstanding. I couldn’t accept that this person I loved–born Jewish, seemingly committed to his heritage and his faith–would be so patently disinterested in everything that so excited me. And in fairness to him, I know that sometimes he felt that I was simply taking it all too seriously and too far, and that, at times, my enthusiasm bordered on fanaticism.
The Havdalah set, however, was the last straw. It was almost Valentine’s Day, and since we traditionally emailed one another the gifts that we had in mind, I had let him know that this was what I wanted. The day came and went; I gave him the Yankees tickets that he had asked for, and he told me that my present was on its way from Israel.
After several weeks of waiting for it to arrive, I finally confronted him and asked where it was. And what had been a civilized discussion exploded into a fight. He said that he couldn’t understand why I wanted it or why it was important to me; and that I would probably never even use it, because no one–no one–who was a Reform Jew ever performed Havdalah–and that he didn’t understand why everything I had to do was so extreme.
I shot back that I didn’t understand how he could care so little about being Jewish, because I had spent my whole life wanting to be Jewish–and he was lucky enough to have been born that way. After our fight that evening, we decided to “take a break” from one another, but I knew in my heart that our relationship was over.
In retrospect, I know that even though we were both Jewish, the ways in which we expressed our Judaism were clearly incompatible. After our relationship ended, I found that my faith in Judaism was unchanged, but my faith in my own level of observance and practice had been shaken. The pain caused by our separation–that same separation that we commemorate every week during Havdalah, between what is sacred and what is secular–made me wonder what it was about us–or about me–that had caused us to fight about our shared religion, instead of it being something that drew us closer together.
I know now that he perceived the depth and expression of my faith as a threat to the familiar, yet casual sense of Jewish identity by which he had come to define himself. And because my own Jewish identity is something that I am constantly questioning, I know now that I unfairly subjected his Jewish identity to the same level of scrutiny. Nonetheless, the fact that our relationship ended–and so painfully–makes me wonder if our separation–like the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week–was inevitable.
A year has passed since our breakup, and my beautiful new Havdalah set now sits on my mantel. Because I have not yet made Havdalah with it, it makes me wonder if Claude was right–that it’s not something I’ll ever use, and now I’m not even sure why it was so important to me in the first place. And it also makes me wonder whether or not I was “too Jewish” for him–or whether he wasn’t Jewish enough for me.