faith and religion and all that comes with it

Here’s something no one teaches you — growing up is hard. Becoming an adult is even harder. And making big life decisions that start to build a foundation for the life you want? Acutely terrifying, thanks for asking.

As I’ve talked about in various posts, I’ve been in the process of moving in to a new apartment with my boyfriend, marking both of our first serious steps in a relationship (he’s never lived with anyone before; I’ve had serious boyfriends before but I’ve never moved in with them or talked openly about marriage with them). With this comes a lot of questions and worries and “oh my god this is something I have to deal with” moments, and not all of them are things like trying to figure out what furniture to buy or how I’m going to get out of hanging out with his friends that I don’t particularly enjoy spending time with.

My boyfriend is technically Jewish, as in, his mom is Jewish while his dad is Catholic. But he had a Jewish upbringing. He went to Hebrew school, he had a Bar Mitzvah. On the flip side, because his dad wanted to keep his own traditions, he also celebrated Christmas every year with that side of the family, and he goes to Easter dinner and Christmas dinner with a family that does things like eat ham and go to church. And because his mom is kind of apathetic when it comes to religion, it’s ended up that Christian holidays and a lax upbringing of religion (they don’t take off work to celebrate Yom Kippur, they keep ham in the house) has taken precedence over the years. (It also doesn’t help his mom’s side of the family is small and estranged, while his dad’s side is warm and welcoming, and…well, you can guess where kids enjoyed going more for family gatherings when it came to Passover or Christmas.)

I was brought up as a Conservative Jew with all the proper foundations — a kosher home, Hebrew School, a Bat Mitzvah, synagogue every Saturday, celebrations of most Jewish holidays with keeping Passover and the like, Shabbat every Friday, fasting on Yom Kippur, years at a Jewish sleep away camp. My mom always made sure we knew religion was important, but my family wasn’t so overly religious that we were the epitome of following every rule. I clearly remember my dad sneaking Big Macs when he would pick my sister and I up from Hebrew School on Sundays, something I didn’t even understand wasn’t “allowed” until I spilled the beans to my mom by accident thinking it was no big deal. My dad would order Chinese food with small bits of pork in some of the meals. When I was old enough (aka after my Bat Mitzvah), I quit Hebrew School because I didn’t want to go anymore, though that was also largely because my town and temple were so small, there were only about 10 kids in my class — which in those years, made for a terrible experience if you weren’t part of some clique. (My sister went all the way through because by the time she was old enough, we had smartly partnered up with a larger group of temples around the Boston area, thus she attended a much more inclusive environment that I absolutely would’ve taken advantage of, if I had the opportunity.) Eventually, over the years, as my sister and I have gotten older, my family has gotten more lax about certain things — there’s shrimp around and my dad freely orders cheese on his meat and the like, and my mom doesn’t really yell anymore.

I always appreciated my heritage and knew where I came from, but over the years, I lost a little bit of enthusiasm for my religion. Once I got to college, I got distracted by more important things like new friends, and didn’t bother to actively involve myself in Hillel or services even though I was constantly told to, because those weren’t the friends I made. (The irony of all this was that George Washington, where I did my undergraduate study, had a hugely Jewish presence.) Being away from home meant suddenly I had freedom from my parents and I didn’t have to keep Passover when all my friends didn’t, and I didn’t have to go sit in temple for five hours when I couldn’t come home, thanks to not getting days off during the week for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I ate cheeseburgers and lots of things that had milk and meat together (I still do) and bacon. Man, I LOVE bacon. At a certain point, when I was trying to start to date, I argued with my parents a lot about the fact that I could totally date someone who wasn’t Jewish. I mean, love is love, right? Who cares about religion? If you love someone, you make it work!

Despite this thinking, I never dated anyone who WASN’T Jewish, even when I moved off JDate (where I pursued most of my options) and onto other, more open dating websites. I dated two people who were reform and one person who was a stronger side of Conservative (who was also a too-pure human robot with a strange family, proving that sometimes it’s not always better to be TOO religious), but all of those people came from families whose parents were brought up with the same religion. When I met my boyfriend, and when I was searching for people to send messages to, I didn’t look at anyone who wasn’t Jewish. He identified as Jewish in his profile, and it was only after I got to know him and started to like him I realized what his family history was.

Still, you know — not a big deal, right? I mean, he’s technically Jewish. He even went to temple! He cares about religion!

Here’s where it gets complicated. Moving in together means that suddenly, everything happens together. I need to figure out how I want to run a home. Although we technically share the same religion, I’m now faced with butting heads with someone who might as well be a different religion, because of our different upbringings. He’d bring ham into the house, I wouldn’t. He wouldn’t care about keeping a kosher kitchen, I would. He wouldn’t bother to keep Passover for a week or only eat certain foods inside the house, I would. He wouldn’t necessarily take off for the High Holidays, I can’t even think about not observing one of the holiest times of the year.

It’s also complicated because due to a lot of anxiety and experiences in the past few years, I’ve started to come back around and openly embrace/appreciate my religion, coming to care about it in a fiercely important way. When I couldn’t cling to anything concrete, I clung to what I knew — my upbringing. I became less “whatever” about eating things I shouldn’t and saying that things don’t matter, and more committed to lighting candles each Friday night and keeping kosher. The good news is, my boyfriend is one of the most understanding, sweetest, open people I’ve ever met. He knows what’s important to me, and I’m not necessarily worried about the fact he’ll fight me on a lot of the things I want for our life, although I am prepared for a certain amount of push back — and maybe that’s something I need to accept, something that we need to compromise on while building what kind of home and life we want: who gets to eat what things and who gets to celebrate what things and to what extent do we do those things. But it still makes me stress, and even worse, it causes me to look at everyone else in my life who married people of the same faith and wonder if I really did make the right choice. Why didn’t I just stick to finding someone on JDate who was fully Jewish? Why did I give up past relationships? And, does it really matter? My Jewish cousin married a Catholic guy — a really great, wonderful guy — although she’s planning on raising her kid Jewish. Their wedding was predominantly Jewish. And I’m assuming at some point, they’ll have to explain why they celebrate Jewish holidays but also go to Christmas dinner with his family, and why they had their daughter wear his sister’s family Christening dress as part of her baby naming ceremony. I suppose the difference is that it’s easier when you’re fully one religion rather than “well, we’re Jewish but we also celebrate parts of this holiday, too.”

By nature (and most of my anxiety comes from this), I’m someone who immediately looks to the future and stresses about the when rather than the now. Maybe it comes from the fact that my mom was always adamant about me needing to look five or ten years ahead in planning my life so that I didn’t get stuck in my tracks, which is something that’s always stressed me out — but also, I’ve realized in the past few years that I probably should’ve listened to her more, even if I didn’t want to at the time. (You’re right, mom. I’ll be telling you that forever. You have no idea how much I regret not listening to you when I was in my early 20’s.) Anyway, what this means is that instead of thinking, “okay, so we’re moving in together and we’re going to have our first home together,  I get to call the shots on how I want to run it, he’s not living with his family anymore, this is our life, and we can have a Jewish home and do Jewish things, and it’ll be a process, but we’re just starting our life,” I’m thinking, “what will this mean for my kids? Will I have to fight him on keeping Passover food in the house because he’s not used to that at all? I’m bringing my kids up 100% Jewish but I can’t ignore his family and their traditions, so how do I eventually explain, one day in the future, that we’re Jewish but we also go celebrate Christmas even though we technically DON’T?” Sue me for thinking ahead when it comes to the family I’ll want someday, but at 33, I think I’m more than entitled to start wondering about these things and worrying about them. (My therapist would disagree.)

It’s a process that I know isn’t going to happen in one day. I’m currently in the middle of writing a long, long, LONG and involved fictional story that’s taken on a life of its own (literally, it’s longer than Lord of the Rings, but that’s another story altogether). In that story, there’s a lot of “me,” as I’ve realized I’ve infused a lot of my own anxiety and fears and thoughts into the relationships that I’m writing and showing having evolved over a period of 10-15 years, down to making compromises and making choices that maybe people in your life don’t agree with. But in the end, you realize you’re happy because you’re with the person you love, and that even if you think things might end up being hard, you have a life that you love and you’re proud of.

Religion is important. Religion is important to me. But it doesn’t have to be thing that sets my relationship apart, if I can remember to take it step-by-step, compromise, and believe in what I know — that I have someone by my side who would do anything to make me happy and make it work.

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