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?
MARRIED TO AN ATHEIST
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.
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