The Bintel Brief

My Husband's Atheism Is Cramping My Style

By Lenore Skenazy

  • Print
  • Share Share

Dear Bintel Brief,

My husband and I had a Jewish home. We were active members of our synagogue and celebrated all the Jewish holidays. My husband recently declared himself an atheist and gave up on all things religious. I still want to light candles and celebrate Shabbat, have seders, etc., but he refuses to participate. His hostility has put a damper on my ardor. I don’t want to be the only one in my home to keep up Jewish traditions. What should I do?


Dear Married:

If I were a psychologist — and I’m not, I’m just a gal sitting here trying to solve the world’s problems while eating way too many cheese crackers (delicious!) — I’d say the nugget to examine here is not your husband’s sudden atheism, it’s this: “His hostility has put a damper on my ardor.”

If anyone just happened to read this sentence by itself, they might think it was describing a husband’s hostility to his wife, and the wife’s response — a dampening of ardor.

Which is sort of how this letter is sounding anyway.

For instance, if you suddenly developed a real aversion to your husband’s favorite food — say, herring — would you sit there and make retching sounds every time he fished a piece or two out of the bottle? A bottle you bought together, holding hands at the deli? Or would you try to breathe through your mouth so your husband could continue to enjoy his former favorite part of the day: the herring and beer moment?

If your goal is harmony, you’d shush already about how stinky herring is, because your husband being happy is more important than your (new) opinion of his crazy taste buds.

And that’s just herring.

Moving on: Suddenly, your husband is not just rejecting the Judaism you once both loved, he is rejecting what sounds like the very foundation of the life you’ve built together. The holidays. The temple. The traditions. Worse, he is angry at them all. He refuses to be in the same room with them. He doesn’t care if Judaism is something that fills your life with joy and meaning, he’s making the retching sounds so you can’t enjoy it either.

Growing up, we had a word for this behavior: Moorsah. It was either Turkish or Ladino, but whatever it was, it meant being in a bad mood and trying to get everyone else in a bad mood, too — exactly what your husband seems to be doing. Something is making him very miserable — either a religious crisis or something else that he or the religious crisis is masking — and he wants you to be miserable too.

“Now wait!” some cry: “If he’s no longer a believer, why should he pretend?”

Same reason we cheer our hearts out at the school play, “Max and the Giant Safety Scissors.” Not because the play is any good. It stinks! But sitting through it is a small price to pay for seeing our kid grin when he spots us in the audience. Being family means supporting our loved ones, not sneering at them.

So shouldn’t you support your husband’s newfound atheism, too? I do think it deserves some support and no sneering. You can listen to his doubts, and appreciate his struggle. You can let him know that you love HIM, even if you don’t see eye to eye on religion. But then you have to help him understand that lately he’s been throwing your relationship out with the holy water (so to speak).

Tell him if he wants you two to be a team, he should be a mensch and partake of family life, which happens to be Jewish family life. After all: If God doesn’t exist, what does it matter if you light some candles?

But it’s possible all this anger and hostility is actually having the very effect he wants, consciously or not, which is to wear you down and drive the two of you apart. If that’s his goal, the Bintel Brief cannot bring him back. Maybe therapy can. Maybe talking to a friend can. Maybe herring and a beer?

It certainly couldn’t hurt.

Lenore Skenazy, a former columnist for the New York Daily News and the New York Sun, now writes a syndicated newspaper column and hosts a topical humor contest that runs in The Week magazine. She is the author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry” (Jossey-Bass), published in April, and “Who’s The Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know – But Can’t Remember Right Now” (Penguin), published in June.

If you have a question for the Bintel Brief, e-mail Questions selected for publication are printed anonymously.

Dav Lev Fri. Jul 24, 2009

The entire world regards the husband spouse as Jewish, so what difference does it really make?

This may be a passing phase in his life, who knows? He may return to his Jewish roots, some of them, or perhaps, never return? That's up to him. No one can dissuade him from his voluntary deflocking, so to speak.

I am reminded of Catholics who admit to not following the religion of their youth, yet deep down they are still Catholic.

Perhaps he should consider another less observant brand of Judaism, like the Reform, which is still the majority in the US, with over 2m members (the Orthodox have 10%)? Or he could join a progressive branch.

But the real question we should ask ourselves is, what is a Jew? I refer those who don't know to the book "What is a Jew", written by Rabbi Morris Kertzner, Chaplin WW2.

According to his definition, he is still very much a Jew, if not exactly observant.

Like it or not, he was born a Jew and will die a Jew.

Remember that Kassams, terrorists, Grads, Iranian nukes, and Hitler's ovens did not and will not discriminate.

Hopefully, he will never have to experience what other Jews throughout our history have experienced. That is what, like it or not, we share in common, besides not being a pagan religion, with a G-d that is not easily defined or described.

Aviva Shigon Jaffee Wed. Aug 19, 2009

I need to contact you to determine if I have renewed with you. Please send me an E -mail. thank you. Aviva

diane Fri. Sep 25, 2009

many jews like me are atheists and true non-believers but consider ourselves cultural jews. we observe the holidays but don't go to shul. i like to think that we do holidays 'israeli-style,'that is, focus on having nice holiday dinners w/ family and friends. your husband is in good company---there are a lot of jewish atheists out there. you should look up cultural judaism and you'll find a lot there. this is all to say that being an atheist doesn't necessarily mean he can't do some things jewish. my identity and friends and almost everything i do is jewish somehow but i do not like going to synagogue and do not believe in god. i encourage you to try and find others like your husband out there, or some reading on the subject, to help feel supported.

Atheist Guy Sat. Oct 3, 2009

You'll be fine. As long as you don't attack him, he'll get along with you. As an angry atheist myself, I find it hard to be frustrated by Judaism for any period of time when Islam and Christianity are an order of magnitude more vile in this age.

Just don't contradict how he defines himself with a definition you think is more correct. That is one slight that is more difficult to forget.

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.