Editor’s Note: This is the concluding post in Simi Lichtman’s blog exploring her first year of married life as a young Modern Orthodox woman. Simi will still be writing for the Sisterhood blog and for the Forward. You’ll be able to find Just Married in Forward.com’s archives.
Jeremy and I watched a movie recently in which a couple getting married is told, “If you can make it through the first year, you can make it through anything.” Aside from that being just about the worst thing to tell a couple at their wedding, it just didn’t ring true. Is the first year really the hardest? About 10 months in, Jeremy and I are worried about the coming years, about what the future will hold, whether we will make it through challenges as yet unknown. But this year? We are in our honeymoon phase, aren’t we?
I posed this question to someone who got married about a year before me, and she responded, “We also thought that. But now that our first year is over, we realize just how much happier we are.” She pointed out that the first year is a time of settling in together, learning to live with each other and learning how to fight the right way. After thinking about it, I realized that even over the course of our first year, Jeremy and I have grown more comfortable with each other. We’ve rounded off each other’s sharper edges, or we’ve learned to accept them. We fight less because we know each other better — or because every fight we had at the beginning was resolved so we didn’t have to fight about those things anymore.
We’ve nearly made it through our first year. We’re more of a team now, more so that married couple who know each other so well we can communicate with our eyes across the dining room table (sorry, guests). But we don’t know each other so well that we’re bored. We’ve gotten through the hurdles of figuring each other out, but we haven’t really been faced with an outside challenge, with the bigger problems that life may hold for us. The first year is ending, but that just means there are many more years of relationship building and testing to come. We have decades of happiness and love to look forward to — but also to prepare for.
As I’m sure you know — or maybe you overheard some girls weeping recently and weren’t sure why — Andy Samberg got married to his girlfriend songwriter Joanna Newsom in California last weekend. But he’s not the only Jewish star to get married recently; a somewhat less-famous member of the tribe, Cornelia Griggs, was married the same day, on the other side of the country. Don’t recognize the name? Maybe you’ll recognize her mother’s: Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times.
Even if you hadn’t heard of Griggs, or read about her marriage in — you guessed it — the New York Times, you’re probably mildly interested in learning more. Let me fill you in on the scoop: Basically, she and her equally good-looking husband were both educated at Ivy League universities, went to top-tier medical schools and are currently surgical residents.
But why did any of that interest you? Why did it interest me when I saw the story? I’ve never met any of the key players in the story and likely never will. I could chalk it up to the usual fascination with fame that drives the sales of millions of glossy magazines, to the curiosity about how the other half (or, to use more current terminology, the 1%) live. Or maybe it’s the interest in one of my own, in the story of another Jew. But it’s not just any story that interests me — it’s her marriage, her husband, their story together.
Wedding stories have an entire section dedicated to them in many newspapers, not to mention the various columns dedicated to weddings in the New York Times alone (Vows, Weddings & Celebrations, Field Notes). Like obituaries, the stories of strangers become interesting once they’re summarized pithily in newspaper columns. Unlike obituaries, the people getting married are rarely major players in our lives or our news. Whey are we compelled to read about the details of their marriages, where they went to school, how they met?
Marriage is a unique milestone in life. I think that, as much as we expect it of ourselves and others, we’re still, on some level, mystified by it. What draws two people together? What compels them to decide to form an entirely new life together, to give up their independence and personal space to let another person in? In a sense, this is a question about love, but marriage is a unique aspect of love that seems even more curious — the public act of declaring it, and swearing to it in a court of law. Why do we do it? Jeremy recently told me about his evolutionary explanation that says something about change in status so we know who we can’t sleep with… but about 1/8th of the way through his explanation I decided I liked my mystery more and stopped listening.
I think marriage really is a question that people cannot fully answer, and that’s why we write and read stories about it. Death is one big question surrounded by a collective fear, and so it makes sense that we write endlessly about death, about those who’ve died. Marriage, too, is a question with its own fears, and that, in the end, is why we’re so fascinated by it.
I spent years learning how to be happy and healthy — to take care of myself, pay attention to my own needs, see a therapist and take anti-anxiety meds — before I met Jeremy. By the time we got married, I was two years out of my eating disorder with no relapses. It seemed I had finally figured out how to live a balanced, healthy life, and I was able to enter our marriage with relative confidence that life would continue in that positive direction. So when I ran out of refills on my anti-anxiety prescription and no longer had access to my college’s free psychiatry service, I figured I would be fine. It had been such a low dose, anyway, the lowest possible, and I was much better at handling difficult situations. Plus, I was in a happy marriage and loved my job. I had nothing to be stressed or anxious about, so I pronounced myself graduated from medication.
I was terminating therapy after three years — my therapist and I both agreed I was ready — and didn’t want to mess that up, so I didn’t tell my psychologist that I had stopped taking my meds as well. I didn’t want to be questioned for my choice, so I didn’t tell anyone else either. Including Jeremy.
I had no problem taking medications. I had mostly gotten over the stigma associated with psychiatric pills, but was relieved that I wouldn’t have to be on them for life. And it was fine, for a few weeks at least.
I had pretty much forgotten that anything was different when Jeremy and I both noticed our fighting was changing. I was becoming much more sensitive to everything, and took every innocent statement as an attack. I read into things and ended fights in tears because I was so upset — both about whatever we were fighting about, and because I knew that I was responding incredibly disproportionately to the scale of the disagreement. One particularly bad Sunday, I realized what I’d started to suspect must be true: I needed my meds back. I told Jeremy that I’d stopped taking them and, with his full support and not one recrimination for keeping it from him, found myself a new psychiatrist. I’ve been taking my pill every day since.
I learned a few lessons from that rather emotional period. One, of course, was to actually heed medical advice to never stop taking meds without a doctor’s approval. The more important lesson, though, was that if I wasn’t healthy, my marriage couldn’t possibly be healthy. Had I not attended to myself, had I not sought a new psychiatrist and paid attention to my mental state, the situation could have easily gotten much worse. As it was, it wasn’t a very fun month in our marriage.
Though I didn’t get married to become happy, there was a time in my life that I might have. What I know now is that a relationship can’t make anyone happy; it takes two healthy people to form a healthy union.
Despite my oath to myself to not write another blog post about babies, the recent TIME article about women and couples who have made the conscious decision not to have children struck a chord with me, too.
A running theme in the article is the constant expectation these people come up against that eventually all women will want children. I’ve always known I want to be a mother, and whether that’s because of a societal dictate or not, the desire hasn’t wavered. Jeremy, too, has always wanted kids. Yet since I’ve been married I’ve noticed just how consistent the expectation to have children is within the Orthodox community. Each time I encounter this expectation, I wonder, “How much would this annoy me if I didn’t plan on having kids?”
I don’t know of a single Modern Orthodox couple that has chosen to remain child-free, or at least none that would say it out loud. Marriage in Judaism is inherently in service of the ultimate goal of procreation; in fact, it’s the first Biblical commandment given to mankind. Be fruitful and multiply. So to tell someone in the community that he or she will have children one day is like telling a little girl that she’ll get her period one day; barring any medical issues, it will happen. That might sound weird to someone outside the community. But I would wager that to most Modern Orthodox couples, it’s weird to read about people who would choose not to have children.
When Jeremy and I read articles about the falling birth rate in America, about women and men who make the decision not to have children, our first thought is, “Why wouldn’t they want children?” We grew up with the knowledge that we would have children one day, possibly more so than the average American. But when we think about it, when we consciously step away from the instinctive acceptance of becoming parents, it becomes more complicated. Why do we want children? Why is it so obvious to us that we will be parents one day? Raising children is hard and draining. Babies are demanding. They’re expensive. You get little to no sleep. Study after study has shown having children actually decreases happiness. Whiny children are really, really irritating. Yet every time we raise these points with each other, we ultimately conclude with, “Yeah, but I really want children.”
As far as I know, the lure of the childfree life hasn’t reached the Modern Orthodox community. The TIME article emphasized the ease and simplicity of such a lifestyle, with pictures of relaxed couples on the beach, the lack of children painted clearly across their blissful smiles. Yet even as one in five American women in her 40s is childless — twice as many as there were 40 years ago — Modern Orthodox Jews continue to choose children over chilling. What is it that keeps us reproducing? The easy answer is the commandment, but in all the discussions Jeremy and I have had surrounding children, that issue has never been raised.
It may be societal, it may be because we were raised that way, but no matter what, Jeremy and I both look forward to having kids. No matter how much pause it gives me when a stranger expects us to have children, it’s an accurate assumption. We can’t explain it, but that parental instinct is just burning inside us both. If nothing else, babies are really, really cute.
Usually, when gender equality is discussed, it’s often in the context of how women can obtain equal rights and opportunities in society and in the workforce as men.
I’m married to a man who wants that, sure, but his objections to gender inequality go further: Jeremy wants a world where men get the same opportunities as women. Where men are not held to a standard of masculinity, where they hold equal sway in the home and in child-rearing.
As a child, I declared myself an ardent feminist and took the whole women-are-equal thing to the next level: I decided women are actually better than men. I enjoyed the holier-than-thou feeling of finding sexism and outing it: Letters should be addressed “Mrs. and Mr.,” not the opposite; women should propose to men instead of giving in to social expectations of the reverse; women should be able to lead various blessings that are so often presumed to be the man’s domain, and so on.
These were all fairly peripheral and unsophisticated concerns, but my righteous indignation matured with my age. I read articles about the pay difference in America, lamented the brief length of maternity leave in America. At a certain point, my focus on feminism faded in passion and simply became something I would be interested in discussing if raised in conversation. But until I was married, I never found real reason to challenge the notion that despite all the advances in modern society, women are still handed the short end of the stick.
Then, of course, along came Jeremy. While he would consider himself a feminist, and believes in gender equality, he began pointing out to me the unfairness that sometimes comes with being a modern man. While women have the right to demand not to be seen in a certain way simply because of their gender, men should be able to do so too. Sometimes we would get into philosophical discussions about gender equality that would make me think from his perspective; other times it was Jeremy’s own desires, so different from what I expected a standard husband to want, that showed me that women aren’t the only ones handed unfair expectations.
It started as early as the wedding. I, of course, despite my avowed feminism, had incredibly princessy ideas of what my wedding should be. I would get a pretty gown, pick out pretty flowers, and my husband would show up under the chuppah. Instead I got stuck with the one man who actually cared about all the decisions that go into making a wedding. Jeremy wanted to be involved in every step of planning the wedding, from flowers to tablecloths; he thought his tuxedo should be just as personalized and unique as my gown was, that, at the beginning of the wedding when bride and groom are separate, the room he’d be in should have an equally extensive selection of food as I did in my room, though that’s usually not the case. Why, he insisted, should a wedding be all about the bride? Why is that fair? I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for that, other than I wanted it to be that way.
Suddenly, the excuse “because I’m a woman” didn’t hold the power it used to. If you want equality, Jeremy’s determined attitude taught me, it has to go both ways. Paternity leave should be just as equally available as maternity. The husband should get a say in decorating the apartment, picking out wedding pictures, all the things I thought I would hold natural dominion over as the wife. Sure, I cook, but he cleans. He does the laundry.
Being married to someone like Jeremy has not only affected how our marriage works, but has also made me more open to the notion of reverse sexism in larger society. When I read an article about how being a stay-at-home dad can be so difficult, I no longer roll my eyes and think, “Whatever, it’s way harder being a woman.” Instead, I give the theory some weight. Feminism is a necessary movement, but paying attention to gender equality — equality that goes both ways — is just as important.
If you’ve been raised by Orthodox parents, attended only Orthodox schools and camps, and spent two years in Israel studying Jewish topics, it can be a bit embarrassing to realize that after 24 years, you have to check Chabad.org to remember all the rules of Tisha B’Av.
But until now, I didn’t need to remember — I had my parents to remind me. My mother would cook a big meal on the eve of the fast, my father would make sure we all got dressed and ate the last meal in time to get to synagogue and we were always told what sort of things constituted “mourning” — for instance, watching a sad Holocaust movie as opposed to reading a lighthearted novel to pass the long hours of the fast.
This year, Jeremy and I not only had to remind ourselves of all the rules, but also decide for ourselves how we would spend the day. I had the day off from work and Jeremy was off from school, so we had hours of not eating, not drinking,and generally not being happy — which, when you take the not eating into account, shouldn’t be all that challenging. But we didn’t have our parents around, pushing us to go to synagogue for the nighttime reading of Eicha (“Lamentations”) or to take the small chairs out so we don’t forget to avoid sitting up high (when we mourn, we sit low down, as during the days of shiva, the official Jewish mourning period after a death). In other words, instead of being told how to commemorate the fast day, we had to figure it out for ourselves for the first time.
The more obvious and direct laws we would, without question, follow: fasting, not wearing leather shoes, not engaging in “marital relations,” as our teachers had called it. But now that the option of skipping synagogue was in our hands, we had to grapple with our own feelings toward the tradition and make our own decisions. We had to decide for the first time whether we think it’s inappropriate to read a book on Tisha B’Av or whether we’d been watching sad movies all those years simply because the other option wasn’t available to us in our parents’ houses.
When we make these decisions, we find ourselves exploring more than just the decisions at hand, but also our own connections to Jewish law, Jewish tradition and the Jewish community at large. Until now, it sometimes seems, we’ve been instructed and guided: Now we are to choose our own paths. That we have each other for support and advice makes it that much more manageable and that much more complex. It’s easy to get caught up in: What will we teach our children? How will we tell them to observe such days as Tisha B’Av? But for now we first need to strike out on our own, take some time to try out different things, explore our own approaches. One day, maybe, we’ll have it all figured out, but for now we need to do the figuring out.
There’s an episode of “House” that Jeremy and I watched recently. In it, a doctor on House’s team is trying to thank him. When he avoids her, she says to him, “Do you know why people pray? Do you think they pray to him and praise him because they want him to know how great he is? God already knows that.” House responds, in his usual House-y way, “Are you comparing me to God?” She then explains, “I thank you because it means something to me. To be grateful for what I receive.”
It’s something I was taught in day school, as well. There are hundreds of answers Judaism can provide for why prayer is important, but one of the most repeated ones throughout my education was that prayer exists to teach us to be grateful. It’s not so God is told daily by millions that he’s so fabulous, but so that those praying to him remind themselves of how fabulous he is. I was always partial to that answer.
And while I don’t think of my husband as a deity or my lord — though he has tried to get the moniker “My Lord Husband” to stick (he claims it’s from a book) — I’ve come to realize how important this lesson is when applied to marriage as well. Though I thank Jeremy as often as I can for everything he does for me in part because I want him to know I recognize his efforts and appreciate them, and in part to subtly train him to do more good things for me, I’ve also discovered that in doing so, I’m able to feel more grateful and to love and appreciate him more.
Back when we were engaged, Jeremy started a tradition, inspired by his sister, that we’ve kept up every week since. On Friday nights, between kiddush and washing for challah, Jeremy and I take a moment to tell each other one thing that we appreciate about each other. Usually it’s something the other has done or said that past week, though sometimes it’s a personality trait we value in the other. It’s precious, it’s a personal moment sandwiched between Jewish traditions, and best of all it makes our guests or hosts nauseated by us.
When we first started doing this I thought it was sweet because it would give me a chance to show Jeremy how much I cherish every little thing he does. It would make him feel good for being as wonderful as I know he is. But lately I realized something: as the weekend rolls on, it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve told him I appreciate than what he’s told me he appreciates about me.
When I first realized that, I was unnerved. Am I so wrapped up in my head that I can’t even remember what Jeremy tells me? As I thought about it, though, I understood the analogy to prayer: Telling Jeremy that I love how he bought me flowers or was especially sweet to me when I was upset is just as rewarding for me to say as it is for him to hear. It helps me focus more on how lucky I am to be with him. As I recall the past week each Friday night, trying to pick out a memory that stands out, I discover that I’m grateful for so many things that it’s hard to choose. It’s important that Jeremy knows how much I appreciate him, but it’s just as important that I know that.
I was talking to a friend once, a woman who’s been married for a few years, and she said, “There will be times when you’ll think to yourself, ‘Why did I marry him? Did I make a terrible mistake?’ And that’s okay.” Out of relief, out of gratitude for her speaking so honestly, out of communion, I hugged her on the spot.
Having been married for less than three months at the time and having experienced similar fears already, hearing that other married couples had those thoughts too was the most reassuring thing I could imagine.
The Huffington Post published an article a few weeks ago on tips of a successful marriage. Surprisingly, I found it enlightening. Usually these articles tend to repeat the same ideas without any new angles, but this one — written by someone who’s never been married, but was editor of both the Divorce blog and the Marriage blog on the site — made me think. While stressing the importance of being “married to your marriage,” the article also reassured readers that it’s both okay and completely normal to think about divorce. Doing so does not mean your marriage is at stake.
Ninety-eight percent of the time I’m blissfully happy about marriage, that disgusting walking-on-clouds sensation that is so irritating when it’s not you. But there’s still that other 2%. Those times can be as extreme as a fight between the two of us — especially those momentous fights where we don’t agree on seemingly crucial matters, like a certain way of raising our children, or how we understand Jewish law. At those times, I worry that disagreeing on such consequential matters means we aren’t right for each other, or won’t be able to work past this. Other times it’s as simple as not feeling connected; for no apparent reason I just won’t feel a bond between us. In these moments, I worry that maybe we’re not communicating well or that the chemistry between us is only temporary.
In other words, 98% of the time I’m happy, but 2% of the time I’m terrified we’ll get divorced because of irreparable differences. These thoughts don’t follow the line of “I want a divorce,” but more something like, “Shoot, I wonder what this means. Does this mean we’re incompatible, does this mean we’ll have to get a divorce?”
As unnerving as these thoughts are, it was just as scary telling Jeremy about them. After reading the Huffington Post article, I felt secure enough to let him know that I occasionally worried about divorce. In turn, Jeremy assured me that while he didn’t have those thoughts, it didn’t concern him too much that I did.
Still, it’s a horrible thought, to be married for less than a year and wonder if maybe you made a mistake, especially if you think you’re the only one with that worry. People don’t talk about those thoughts, so you start to think that it’s only you and therefore there’s something wrong with you and with your marriage. Which is why when people do talk about it, whether it’s a friend or a stranger in the Huffington Post, it’s such a relief.
I’d still rather be blissfully happy than doubting the biggest decision of my life thus far. But it’s good to know that the occasional doubt does not plunge my marriage into the depths of destined-to-be-divorced relationships.
Baking challah does not seem like a particularly frightening task. Time-consuming and delicate, yes, but not scary.
But for many years, I viewed challah as something more powerful than its ingredients. Challah, to me, posed a challenge about love and marriage.
In my all-girls high school — a wonderful school, I might add, though at this point in my life I would probably disagree with half the things they teach in Judaic courses — the students were taught how to bake challah. In retrospect it seems silly, even stereotypical and sexist, but at the time it was simply sweet: we were taught to bake challah because, we were told, challah is a special woman’s mitzvah that is significant and even powerful.
There’s a blessing made over a certain amount of challah before it’s baked, and many women recite extra prayers at that time, such as for sick people. On top of that, though, the challah was meant to be something especially for married women. I had tried baking challah a few times around that age, and it never came out quite as well as my mother’s, nor as good as my other baking. I can’t really remember the exact correlation, but somehow it became linked in my mind that my challah would only be tasty when I was married.
By the time I was married, the idea had taken root that not only was challah good only if the baker was a married woman, but that the love of the marriage was what made the challah delicious. On the flip side, if a marriage were unhappy or unhealthy, the challah would be bad. (In case you’ve already written me off as a nut job, this is not something I made up completely, but was helped along in this notion by teachers’ lessons and through stories I read.)
Today, I don’t agree with everything that I learned in high school, but for some reason this challah-as-litmus-test idea stuck. Thus, when I was finally married, baking challah was not simply another task on Friday, but a test of my marriage. If mine was a loving, happy marriage, my challah would be good. If not…well, I was screwed, basically. The pressure was too much.
With the memories of my mother’s delicious homemade challah spurring me on, I tried my hand (and KitchenAid) at it a month or two into marriage. Lo and behold, it was actually not bad. Aside from saving a couple bucks a week, it was tastier than the challah sold nearby, and I got to pretend it was healthy since it was all whole wheat. Win-win-win.
I recently asked a few friends from high school if they remember the challah lessons — the teacher who took a class period to have a baking lesson with us, the teacher who taught us that challah was a women’s commandment. A couple of them did, but most of them didn’t remember it the same way I did — like a warning about marriage. I don’t know why the lessons had such a strong hold over me, but I do know that I’ve finally gotten over them. At least, when the challah comes out bad some weeks, I don’t immediately consult a marriage counselor.
I’ve written about the changing nature of finding friends post-college, but I’ve not yet written about how friendships themselves change, particularly friendships with men.
My friendships with men shifted before marriage, back when Jeremy and I were still dating. In fact, it was one of the indicators that our relationship was becoming more serious: I had a tendency to flirt with my male friends, and that aspect of my friendships died down as I grew closer with Jeremy. The flirting had been harmless — silly teasing — but its absence indicated a certain removal of myself from the dating scene. In a way, I took myself off the market.
But my female friendships remained more or less the same throughout dating and engagement, and probably even during the beginning of my marriage. I’m a naturally candid person, preferring open conversation to cloaking personal or embarrassing matters beneath manners and discretion. When I began choosing what I revealed and to whom as opposed to sharing anything and everything with anyone and everyone — in other words, thinking before I spoke, a heretofore foreign concept — I chalked it up to Jeremy’s influence on me. Jeremy preferred privacy in private matters, and since my private life had become our private life, it was only fair that I not blurt out all the details of it with all my friends. Steadily, though, I came to realize that there were times I didn’t share things simply because I didn’t want to.
Instead of settling down with my best friends and spilling everything, opening up all the inner workings of my life like I used to, I felt boundaries come into place. I could actually feel myself bumping up against these boundaries like physical borders, as if some more mature version of myself had placed them around certain personal tidbits without my noticing. I would share some things but keep others to myself. I didn’t need friends to be privy to all private thoughts and incidents. And, surprisingly to me, my friends didn’t seem to mind. They respected my occasional decision to deny an answer to a question or hold back. There was always something else to talk about.
Marriage gave me someone with whom to share all my thoughts, from the most trivial to the most shameful. Where I would text a friend previously, I now confide in Jeremy. Above that, though, marriage also gave me reason to be private. I want there to be a certain sacredness to our union, and opening it up to others would, somehow, reduce the intimate to the smutty, the private to mere gossip fodder. Our marriage deserves more than that.
Nearly every week, young married couples make the Great Migration to their parents’ and in-laws’ houses. Your parents, who have raised you since infancy, suddenly forget how annoying it was to house you for eighteen-odd years, and clamor to have you return and spend Shabbat — And holidays, and maybe just dinner? Drop by whenever! — as soon as you threaten marital-induced independence. Thus, Jeremy and I, like all our married friends, are playing a constant game of rotating Shabbatot. A few at home, one at his parents’, one at my parents’, repeat cycle.
We just got back from Shabbat at my parents’ (preceded by a Shabbat at his) and the first thing I noticed was how quiet our apartment was. Getting there is never fun— two hours of driving, plus extra time spent in traffic — and being there means giving up the comforts of being in our own bed. But being there also means slipping back into the comforting hustle and bustle of a family. It means being fed home-cooked meals without having to be the one cooking them (or cleaning up after). It means, basically, that we trade in the easy luxury of our own quiet home for the cheerful noise of being with family. It’s a trade worth making.
There’s a certain stress involved with going to visit parents, and I say this knowing my own parents and in-laws will be among the first ones to read this. If you went away to college, you probably remember having to make an effort to leave weekends free to go home instead of spending time with friends. Being married doubles the pressure. We’ve found ourselves responding defensively to “We never see you,” from one set of parents with, “Well we never see the other set either!” as if it’s a competition. On a long holiday, we can spend the first two days with one family and the last two days with another so it’s an even split. But what if there’s a Shabbat in between? And what about holidays, like Shavuot, two days long without the option to travel? We want to maintain balance for our parents’ sakes, but also to be fair to one another. If we get to spend time with his family, it’s only fair that we spend time visiting mine.
Going home means becoming a child again. Suddenly we’re being asked to run errands, pick people up from train stations or buy groceries from the store. We fall back into the habit of fighting with our siblings. We stamp our feet and roll our eyes more; our childhood rooms apparently have a time-travel affect on us as soon as we step into them. But we also are surrounded by unconditional love from every angle, the entire house exuding the support and affection you didn’t even realize was a gift in childhood. In your parents’ house, you take refuge from the world, even if just for the weekend.
Being at our own home has a similar effect — I come home and my body expands and relaxes in joy. But it still doesn’t compare with having my sister and brother upstairs, my parents across the hall, my grandmother in the room downstairs, even my dogs in their own beds. It’s being surrounded by so many people you love who love you back with equal force that makes traveling two hours in weekend traffic worthwhile. It’s being home, in the house where I first applied that word, that makes leaving the home I’ve built on my own worth leaving for a weekend.
For my birthday, Jeremy very sweetly planned a surprise dinner with friends for me in the city. After the dinner we headed over to a local dive bar to continue the party with alcohol-infused Scrabble. It was the perfect evening. And, by the time the clock struck 12:30, Jeremy and I were home and getting ready for bed, just in time to avoid missing our bedtimes and turning into married pumpkins.
In college, neither Jeremy nor I had very healthy sleep schedules. When we were dating and I would spend time on the men’s campus of Yeshiva University, we would bemoan the fact that the shuttle service between the campuses ended so early every night. Two in the morning was way too early to leave each other for sleep, we agreed. Nowadays 2 a.m. seems like a ludicrous time to be awake; one night last week I fell asleep by 10 p.m. and got 10 hours of sleep. If I become any more responsible and boring they’ll take away my Millennial card.
It’s not just Jeremy and me, either. After dinner at my party the other married couples all left instead of joining us at the bar. They were going home and getting into PJs to watch TV for the rest of the night, as Jeremy and I would have done if the situation were reversed. Overnight my friends and I seem to have turned old.
Part of it is the suburb thing — parties are much easier to enjoy when you don’t have to worry about an hour and a half journey home afterward. And part of it is also the responsibility thing. Jeremy and I both have to wake up earlier than we did in college on a regular basis, and so I can’t use my old trick of going to sleep at 2 a.m. and still getting in 10 hours. But the largest part of it, the part that keeps us anxiously checking our watches is the comfort of home. We love heading out for a day of activities or a night of hanging out with friends, but when the day ends, all we can think about is being comfortable and being with each other, getting out of our nice clothing and into our bed or setting up camp on our sofa to watch some TV or curling up together to read.
Perhaps a large factor is that, since we got married so young, we never really had apartments of our own until now. I lived in the dorms and Jeremy had an apartment with friends, but we had never really lived in a home that we had built on our own until now. Not since childhood has home meant a place of such warmth and happiness, and never before has home also meant a place of our own,
Leaving a party used to mean the end of the night for me; now it means the beginning of our night alone together. And being alone together is so fulfilling that it’s hard to pull myself away from it to see the other people in my life that I care about. But I want them to stay in my life, and I definitely don’t want to become that boring married couple that people only vaguely remember (any more than I already am). So Jeremy and I get dressed in our nice clothes every few days, push ourselves off the couch and out the door, and go make time for the people we love. For a few hours, anyway.
So don’t worry, loved ones. We’ll still be friends with you. As long as it’s before 10 p.m.
My older brother just left on a trip to Europe. When I say Europe, I don’t mean one or two European countries. I mean he bought a one-way ticket to London with a bus ticket the next day to Belgium and he doesn’t plan to stop traveling until he runs out of money or fun. Following in his little sister’s footsteps, he’ll be keeping a blog during his travels, which is how I and the rest of his family plans on keeping track of him as he wanders the continent.
Of course, as a Jewish mother-in-training, I spent a good part of the past couple of months leading up to his trip worrying over him and imagining him becoming one of those kids with a backpack on the sidewalk and a sign “Need Money for Plane Ticket.” The rest of the time, though, in those brief moments when I remembered that he’s an adult, I thought about how much his trip sounds like something I would love doing.
Jeremy and I plan on traveling to Greece this summer, but a perfectly planned trip to one country with every night in a comfy hotel bed is not exactly the same type of Euro-trip my brother is taking. Getting married is, to a certain extent, like signing a waiver: “I will no longer cast off all responsibilities and go on adventures to discover the world and find myself.” It’s that very obligation to another human being that keeps so many from marrying, or at least marrying young. It’s the philosophy that settling down seems most sensible once you’ve seen the world and found out everything about yourself that you can. According to some very reliable website I found, I have seen five percent of the world and am only beginning to understand myself, so I clearly didn’t choose that sensible route.
After Jeremy and I dropped my brother off at the airport — living in Jersey, near Newark, apparently does have some advantages after all — we both mentioned how we’d theoretically love to have a similar Euro-trip, even if the thought of my brother doing it turns me into a fretful bubbe. But the option to strike out on our own and discover ourselves through backpacking self-reliance is gone to us forever. Even though we could, theoretically, each quit our responsibilities, ditch our material goods at our parents’, and strike off across Europe together; even if the very idea of throwing our lives off their current course didn’t strike me as preposterous, there would still be the inevitable fact of our marriage. We wouldn’t be able to leave each other for our own journeys. The time for our separate self-discovery is over.
But we got married because we were ready to be bound to another person. Because neither of us felt truly fulfilled without someone else to care for. And because, we believe, we are ready for the next step of self-discovery, the kind that we can do with the help of and in the presence of another person. Being married does not preclude growth or an inner journey; it just changes how the growing is done. Instead of in a hostel in Nice, it might take place on a reflective night in our apartment. It’s a lot less glamorous, but equally rewarding. And in the meantime, I can always live vicariously through my brother’s blog, if he ever stops moving long enough to write another post.
Our six month anniversary was a couple of weeks ago, and I think I’ll take this time to reflect on this blog: how it began, how it’s affected Jeremy and me, and why I do it.
Writing this blog was a no-brainer. In fact, as I had already been blogging for the Forward about our engagement, it was a perfectly natural progression. I am a writer by nature, constantly narrating my life in my head as if dictating a really, really boring novel, and I’m not a particularly private person. Those are the two main ingredients for a blogger.
I was fortunate enough to find a man who is more moderate than myself in practically every way and who nevertheless has consented to humor me in most of my craziness. With the blog, then, as with most things in our marriage, the solution was a compromise: I was allowed to blog about our first year of marriage if Jeremy could read and approve all the posts before I sent them in. He has ultimate veto over everything I write. In truth, Jeremy was compromising more, allowing my desire to write to override his preference for privacy.
Writing this blog makes our first year of marriage somewhat unique. Most couples choose not to publicize their private lives; in fact, in the Orthodox world, the first year of marriage is called shana rishona and has special significance. Back in the day, men didn’t have to go to war in their shana rishona, and nowadays it’s often a year where the couple chooses to be more private; they might decide not to have friends stay over so that their first year together is really just together. Clearly, Jeremy and I have not chosen the private route. But the blog has meant more to us than just publicizing our lives.
For us, it is something that teaches us, again and again, that the two of us can be so different yet work to compromise in a way that makes us both happy and respect each other even more. Jeremy suggests changes for each post, and I usually make them. In only one instance has he asked me to remove something, and though it wasn’t easy, it made me appreciate that in every single other post, he has given me license to write as I wished. I took that part out and knew that doing something to make my husband happy was more important than publishing a paragraph. Every time he tells me he likes a particular blog post, it means more to me than any reader comment could. He is equal parts my best editor, my strongest critic and my most loyal fan.
For me, the blog is a way to communicate a lot of what I find important about marriage and relationships, especially within the Orthodox community, and especially because our community is so unlikely to discuss such topics publicly. There are readers who appreciate what I write, and, if the comments section is anything to go by, readers who truly dislike the blog. I’ve learned to appreciate the positive responses, and to focus on the critical comments that have value and try to learn from them.
In many ways, I hope this blog is a discussion. It is an ongoing discussion between Jeremy and myself, between our friends and ourselves, between my readers and me and between my readers and others. I am the one writing, but it is my intention to write about topics that matter to others. I hope to open the ideas up to the public and make them equally available for critique and acceptance.
In other words, reader, you are why I write. You can hate the blog or you can love it — either way, I hope you and I both learn something from it.
In order to get your driver’s permit — in order to get on the road and operate a vehicle 300 times your weight with the terrifying ability to crush another human being if handled improperly — all you need to do is sit in a classroom and learn the theoretical rules of handling that vehicle. Of course, if you’re like most American teens, you’re probably not even paying attention in the class, but even if you do, as soon as you hit the road you realize something: All the studying and memorizing in the world cannot prepare you for the actual experience of driving. You have to learn by doing, and that’s terrifying because you’ve never done it before.
This is just like marriage. You can read every single book out there to prepare you, but it just isn’t the same as being married. Marriage is a scary thing for many people; it can’t crush another human, at least not literally, but it inevitably will change your life and the life of the person you marry. And marriage presents, at least for the Orthodox Jew, a plethora of new experiences that have remained hitherto on the pages of books or spoken about among peers and in classes.
Among others topics, I’ve written about on this blog: niddah, mikveh, and yes, sex. I learned and heard and spoke and read about the topics and their details before I got married, but many things didn’t really click until after I had experienced them for myself.
Let’s take, for example, living with another person. Every single book I’ve ever read talks about how hard it will be to live with a spouse — and I’m not even talking advice books here, I’m talking novels. That message is thrown at you in every possible way. I read about it so much I thought I knew what was coming. “Well, marriage will be tough, but we love each other and we know what’s coming, so we’ll work through it.” Easy peasy.
But then we got married and a few months in I noticed that whenever Jeremy puts the knives back in our fancy little knife block, some are turned around the wrong way. They come all facing one way. They’re clearly supposed to go the same way. It’s so obvious and so easy to me.
But for some reason, Jeremy just shoves them in helter skelter, throwing off my OCD need for organization and pattern. It’s really the smallest thing, and I can — and do — just turn them back around myself, but it bothers me in a way I never thought was possible.
And in the middle of the night, when Jeremy reaches for the blankets and I’ve got them all wrapped around me, I have no doubt that he thinks to himself that I’m more bothersome than he ever thought I could be before we lived and slept together. (Or, since it’s the middle of the night, he probably thinks something more like, “Grnnnthh” but that roughly translates to the same thing.)
Sometimes we get so annoyed with each other that we need space. But we live together. But we knew that living together would be hard and we loooove each other, right? Yeah. But it’s so much harder than either of us could have pictured in our pre-wedded bliss. And here’s the secret reason why: In the middle of whatever drama is ensuing, thinking about how much you love your spouse just isn’t going to make the problem go away. Trust me. I’ve tried.
The same rule applies for hundreds of other aspects of marriage, many of them a lot more difficult to contend with than backwards knives, such the constant need for communication, or the hardships of niddah. You can read about it all day long for every day of your engagement, but the reality doesn’t hit until it’s, well, real. Only then can you turn around and say, “Oh, that’s what they meant when they said that.”
You can and should prepare — don’t go in blind — but a lot of what you hear and see won’t hit home until you’re in the moment, handling that vehicle, and hoping to God you’re doing it right.
Part of the idea of marriage is to bind together with another human being; the word marry actually means “to combine,” and the idea of marriage in Jewish tradition, beginning with Adam and Eve, is to be “united…and become one flesh.” It’s all very romantic and wonderful sounding, until you remember somewhere down the line that if you don’t have time apart, you’re probably going to commit some very grave crimes. Or at least fantasize about them.
Jeremy understood this a lot earlier than I did. When we were dating he told me that one of the things he learned from his sister’s relationship with her husband is that they could both be sitting in one room together and doing completely different things for hours at a time. He wanted that same dynamic with his significant other. “Well that’s weird,” I thought, because why the hell would you want to be with someone and not spend time with him? “That’s sweet,” I said, because we were dating and that’s what you say when you’re dating someone and disagree with him.
But since we’ve been married, those moments — together, but also alone — have become a lot more frequent. And they hold a lot more appeal. In fact, they are crucial.
Jeremy and I love each other, and we love spending time together, but sometimes, for entirely practical reasons — like he has homework or I have a blog post to write — we need to be able to sit in the same room and not talk for hours at a time. And at other times, for entirely emotional reasons — like we are so tired of each other’s faces that we absolutely need to go hang out with other people — we need to be able to spend time apart. And we need to know that in neither of these scenarios is being apart a bad thing.
I think spending so much time with a single person makes the fewer moments of separation all the more essential. Jeremy and I are both highly independent people — we both have stories from our childhoods about when we would have friends over and sit to the side and read while they talked with each other. (In my case, I would make them read as well.) As much as we prefer each other’s company to anyone else’s, we don’t always want company at all. In fact, I hadn’t realized just how much I need time to myself until I chose to spend all my time with someone else.
Most days, I end work excited to come home to the apartment that I share with my husband, looking forward to the simple joy of a quiet evening with him after he comes home from late-night classes. What we were never taught about Adam and Eve is that even though they were “one flesh,” it wasn’t too hard for them to get away from each other when they needed to because they had the entire world to themselves. (And I’m guessing they needed to get away from each other more and more after the snake incident.) Jeremy and I, on the other hand, have a one-bedroom apartment. And while I can’t wait for him to get home most nights, I often find myself savoring those few hours that I have to myself.
I went to the mikveh recently, and it was the first time that I didn’t cry. For married women, going to the mikveh comes at the end of the niddah, or the length of the menstrual cycle, plus seven days. It concludes niddah; after a woman dunks in the mikveh she can touch her husband for the first time since her period began.
From everything I was told in high school, the mikveh is supposed to fill a woman with a spiritual feeling; it’s a magical experience, a sensation of rebirth and renewal and possibly, just possibly, unicorns will fly above your head during the process. (It’s highly possible that I’m a tiny bit bitter about what I was told.)
The truth is, the actual experience of dunking in the mikveh waters has so far been fine, if not downright pleasant. It’s kind of like swimming in a heated pool, only naked and with a woman politely watching you. So, weird, yes, but not exactly something to cry about. But the first time, I didn’t know that. All I knew was what I’d been told, and magical rebirth was a lot to live up to.
A lot of women find the mikveh a spiritual process. They spend time in the water after the ritual dunking, praying or praising or requesting. To me, the mikveh was scary. I’ve been practicing Judaism my whole life, and to suddenly have a new law thrust upon me was overwhelming. Before I went for the first time, my kallah teacher, or bridal coach, guided me through the process. But I was still afraid I would forget something or do it wrong. The mikveh process has a lot of steps, including intense cleaning. You have to remove all dirt, which is a lot harder than it sounds. You are supposed to dunk twice, with every part of your body submerged, and if even a hair floats above the water, you have to dunk again. There is also a blessing to say inbetween the dunks, and though the blessing is on the wall, I wasn’t allowed to wear contacts, so I wouldn’t be able to see it; I’d have to remember it. If only I could have had a practice run.
The first time I went was a few days before my wedding. Having a new law to suddenly practice, the weight of all these expectations of wonderfulness that I might not live up to, and yes, probably the fact that my wedding was two days away and I was due for a good cry, all hit me in the private waiting room. I ended up sobbing on the floor, calling Jeremy to calm me down. Suffice to say it wasn’t all that pretty, and certainly wasn’t what I expected to happen. My mother, who had brought me for my first time, came in to hug me and tell me it would be okay. By the time I went in the water, I was calmer, and the experience wasn’t so bad. I didn’t feel reborn or closer to God, but I survived and I did it right on the first try.
The next time I went wasn’t ideal either. I was in a different state, and wasn’t able to go to a mikveh that I was comfortable with. I cried again, yadda yadda. By this time, I was sure that it was just how I would do mikveh runs for the rest of my life: I’d cry, go in, and be done.
But this time, for the first time, I was excited to go to the mikveh. As the niddah time was coming to a close, I looked forward to the end. Jeremy was taking seriously the suggestion from our chatan/kallah (groom/bride) teacher to romance me on mikveh night, and I’m quite happy to be romanced. I still didn’t fully believe that I wouldn’t end up crying beforehand, because clearly that’s what I do, but at least then it would be over.
Finally, though, I didn’t cry. In fact, the mikveh was, if not a rejuvenating, spiritual experience, at least a neutral one, even leaning toward the more positive side of neutral. I prepared for the mikveh with anticipation, not dread. I knew this time what was required of me, and though I was slightly apprehensive about doing it in my community mikveh for the first time, the knowledge that I will be doing it in that mikveh for many years to come helped assuage my nerves. I dunked eagerly, still slightly worried that I would mess up. But it was over quickly, and as I showered and dressed to leave, I was excited. I felt the nervous excitement that I used to experience when I would go meet Jeremy for a date; I was tingly and happy and nervous all at once, and above all, I was happy that niddah was once again over, something that always feels so frustratingly long.
In fact, the analogy of the mikveh night to the wedding night was not perfectly apt but much more understandable to me. I felt a bit like a blushing bride. The mikveh may not have given me the opportunity to reach higher spiritual planes, but it inserted a spark into our relationship. It made the night exciting and thrilling, and the prospect of coming home to my husband was infinitely more electrifying than it usually is.
A few weeks ago, Jeremy and I were at a lunch hosted by one of our friends in our community. There were 11 people there, all around our age, and all more or less Modern Orthodox. I was the only person there who is not in graduate school.
This is a phenomenon I noticed soon after finishing college. While I was, fortunately, shifting immediately into the working world, most of my friends were either in college still, in graduate school, or applying to graduate school.
Less than one in 10 Americans has a graduate degree. Put another way, only about one-third of college graduates continue on to get graduate degrees. Yet among my friends, I’m the one in the minority. At Yeshiva University, my alma mater, 89% of graduates go to graduate school within a year. And that number doesn’t include my friends who take a few years off before they apply to graduate programs. I’m guessing that even among my friends who didn’t go to Y.U., the number is similarly high.
There’s a big difference between my life and my friends’ lives. While my friends spend all day among their own friends and classmates, I spend all day in my office, and while I love my job, it’s not quite the same social experience as school. When my friends get home, whether it’s to their spouse or to their roommates, they sit down and get busy with work. I have hours of free time that I try to fill with cooking, television, and running, especially those nights where Jeremy is sitting at his desk writing papers.
Jeremy and I were speaking with two friends of ours — a couple— who mentioned they know another couple in the same (well, reversed) situation: he’s working and she’s in grad school. “It’s really hard for them,” our friends said. The fact that they knew others who felt the same way was so validating for me, and only then did I realize just how hard the situation can be sometimes.
And that’s only talking about my relationship with my husband. When I’m in groups of friends, it’s almost harder sometimes. The entire crowd will begin commiserating about teachers or workloads or being in school forever, and while I am eternally grateful to be finished with school — that cannot be stated emphatically enough — I have nothing to add to the conversation and I feel separated from some of my closest friends. Our common ground has shrunk. Occasionally I even feel like I’m not as smart as they are, or that my lower education level makes me inferior. I feel, in other words, like I’m not as good as they are.
Believe me, I’m not complaining that I’m working. I’ve read the news. I know enough people looking in vain for jobs. I know how hard the economy is, and how lucky I am to have a job straight out of college. But there’s still an aspect of being in the working world that makes me feel like an outsider, that I can’t really empathize with my friends about some of the most basic aspects of our lives.
The good news is, there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way I do. The better news is, in a few years the reality will change entirely, as my friends and my husband leave school and enter the workforce. The situation is temporary, as I keep reminding myself, and in the meantime, at least I don’t have exams anymore.
A few weeks ago, one of my engaged friends was asking me for marriage advice and I told her that she should allow her husband to have his own opinions and respect him for them. Also, she should be able to give in every now and then.
This advice isn’t something I came up with out of thin air. It was based on a conversation, almost a fight, I had the night before with Jeremy with regard to an article I had read about teenage criminals.
In short, Jeremy and I disagreed over whether or not teenage criminals are to be pitied because their crimes are part of their permanent records. I believed that if they did something heinous, then they got what they deserved. Jeremy took a kinder approach; he thought if they did something terrible, they were not to be forgiven, but the fact that they were young means they probably didn’t fully understand the ramifications of their actions until it was too late. He felt bad for them.
I was livid. These teens are guilty. So what if their lives are forever altered? That’s the cost of doing something atrocious! I couldn’t understand Jeremy’s perspective, and I should have walked away and cooled off. But instead I sat at my desk fuming, wondering how I could be married to a person who didn’t feel that way.
It took me a few minutes, but then I reached into my own brain and stabilized myself. I told myself that this reflected really well on Jeremy, actually. He didn’t condone their actions, but he didn’t think they were terrible people either. As someone studying school psychology, his ability to see these teenagers as people who did something bad — instead of intrinsically bad people — was actually an admirable and necessary trait. So I took a few deep breaths, went back over to Jeremy, and told him so.
I’ve mentioned before that Jeremy is usually the first one to end our fights. By usually, I mean about 90% of the time. And this wasn’t a fight, nor did he have anything to apologize for, but it took a lot of courage for me to go over to him and admit that I was wrong, and in fact I respected his opinion, even though I didn’t agree with him. It was a heady feeling, in the end.
Too often, we get trapped in our own stubbornness. We won’t actually care what our opinions are, just that we prove the other one wrong. We get caught up in the rush of the argument and refuse to see the larger picture: that we love each other, and being right isn’t nearly as important as maintaining respect in the relationship.
I have no doubt that we’ll disagree again, and I’ll need to be right again. In fact, it will probably happen before this article is even posted. But now I know what it’s like to admit to being wrong, and not just because I wanted a fight to end, but because I was able to force myself to see things his way. And that’s a game-changer.
The other day, I whined to Jeremy that we spend too much time watching television together and not enough time doing interactive activities.
“Let’s get a puzzle!” I suggested, already picturing us sprawled out on the floor, putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle, nonexistent fireplace warming our nonexistent Golden Retriever by our sides.
“I don’t like puzzles,” Jeremy immediately vetoed. Well, we didn’t have a fireplace anyway. I could give up on that dream until we do. “But we could do my Star Wars lego set together!”
“No,” I grumbled. “That’s boring.”
We agreed we should do more things together, but were stuck on the precise activity we’d engage in.
“Let’s see if we can count the states!” I exclaimed, thinking of the Friends episode where they all try to name the states. It looked fun when they did it. Jeremy protested that I would be competitive about that too, but I insisted. We got 46 of them and immediately and forever felt ashamed of ourselves and our college degrees.
The next suggestion was Jeremy’s. “Let’s try and guess the heights of different celebrities.” It sounded dull, but we gave it a go. And that game carried us through the evening.
“Keira Knightley,” one of us would say, and we would each give our guess. Then we’d look it up. It was fun, and it didn’t really feel all that competitive because we were both equally bad at it.
It’s become our game now. We’ll be sitting reading and Jeremy will say, “Jon Stewart.” “5’10””,” I’ll reply, and Jeremy will give his guess. Then we’ll look it up, and it will start a conversation about how Jeremy saw him live and that’s how he knew Stewart is actually quite short.
Okay, it does sound silly, but we both find it fun and that’s all we care about. It gives us something that’s uniquely ours, and it gives us something that isn’t just a shared appreciation for a television show. There’s something nice about being able to enjoy each other’s company without outside stimulation.
I read so many articles about marriage advice — how to have a happy marriage, how to have a successful marriage. And much like diet advice in glossy magazines, it seems to me if there really were one true trick, we wouldn’t keep writing about it. But a constant refrain is to communicate. And while usually that means talking about the bigger things, I think it means talking about the little things too. To share the silly thoughts and the nonsense games and to be friends as well as partners. So to me, our game represents that. It means that Jeremy and I are weaving in friendship as we stitch our lives together. And I think that’s just as important as sharing our goals and dreams with each other.
And in case you were wondering, Jon Stewart is 5’6”.