Before he died, my dad, a Reform rabbi who was raised Orthodox, gave me some unsolicited advice. “I don’t want you dating a boy who isn’t Jewish. You might fall in love and I don’t want you marrying a man who isn’t Jewish.”
At the time, my love interests were Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, and Davy Jones. They weren’t Jewish, but the likelihood of my dating, much less marrying, one of them was remote. Consequently, I didn’t take Dad’s advice seriously. Or rather, I didn’t think I did.
I was barely 13. I did not date, I had crushes. I didn’t even kiss a boy until college. His name was Mike and he lived in my dorm. Short and hairy, he wore rectangular-shaped glasses with black plastic frames that held lenses even thicker than mine, but he exuded the sort of swagger associated with tall, smooth-skinned prep school boys with 20/20 vision. The only way I can explain the attraction is that he was Jewish and (I thought) nice to me.
On the night I turned 18, he and my friends got me drunk on screwdrivers. When I was no longer able to stand without wobbling, Mike presented my gift. “I don’t want to be your boyfriend,” he said, “but I know you’ve never been kissed, so for your birthday, I’m going to kiss you.”
Years later it occurred to me that his failure to go out and purchase an actual gift was another of his many shortcomings. At the time, however, I was thrilled with the kiss—slobber, tongue and all.
The next Jewish boy who showed me that religion probably shouldn’t be my top priority in a life partner was Ron. He was fun in an I’m-not-a-frat-boy-but-I-act-like-one way, which is to say that his idea of a night out was to get drunk with buddies in his apartment before speeding around the countryside in his sports car while slumped so low beneath the dashboard he couldn’t see where he was going.
After I graduated from college I had a Jewish housemate, Jim. I had a crush on him, too, even though he had a fiancé. Eventually I realized there was no hope, less because of the fiancé than because he’d grown up getting a Christmas tree every year and saw nothing wrong with that.
Jim did have a Jewish friend, though, one whose level of observance closely matched mine. He was single and earning his PhD in economics at Yale. He was the most knowledgeable Jewish guy I’d ever had a date with, which I found extremely appealing. Less appealing was that he felt obligated to express each and every one of his boneheaded observations, among them that my brand of Judaism was inferior to his.
The relationship was doomed the night he told me, “If you lost 15 pounds you’d be a fox.” I did not want to be a fox, nor did I want to be with someone who thought I needed to lose 15 pounds. I already lived with someone (myself) who thought that and I resented her. I didn’t need it echoed by my future Jewish husband.
By the time I met Mr. You’d-Be-A-Fox, my sister, Amy, had been unhappily married for six years. She’d met her Jewish husband while picking onions on a kibbutz in the Judean desert. (Somewhere in there is a metaphor, one I’m still parsing.)
My Jewish brother-in-law had no interest in going to worship services, which had always been a welcome part of my family’s Jewish practice. On the High Holidays, he went to work. If he had been a rabbi or a cantor or if his boss wouldn’t give him time off, that would have made sense, but he was a self-employed businessman. Worse, he treated Amy like a child, not a partner.
Intellectually, I knew that not all Jewish guys my age were callow, shallow, immature, and/or disinterested to the point of contempt in their religion. Nevertheless, by the time I reached my mid-twenties I was rethinking Dad’s dictum.
Eventually it dawned on me that I had bigger obstacles than my Jews-only mindset. My system of taxonomy was flawed. I had always divided the men in my life into two categories, friends and crushes, and had no idea how to bridge the gap. Hoping that therapy would teach me how to form a healthy, mature romantic relationship, I signed myself up.
A couple of weeks before my first appointment, I called my sister for guidance.
“You’ve been for therapy,” I said. “How has it helped you?”
“It helped me to realize that Dad committed suicide,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
I felt like she’d reached through the phone and slapped me. I’d spent the last 11 years believing that Dad’s death was an accident. That’s what Mom and the coroner said after his body turned up in a lake seven weeks after he disappeared on a late winter morning in 1974. I didn’t know that Amy had come to know otherwise. Mom had made it clear long ago that the topic of his death was off-limits. We never talked about it, not Amy and me, not Mom and me, and definitely not the three of us together.
Unexamined trauma can trap you at the age at which you experienced it. I learned that one of the many repercussions of the silence and secrets surrounding Dad’s death was that emotionally, I was still 13. Irm, my therapist, saw that in our first visit. And so, instead of picking up dating advice, I spent three years in therapy coming to terms with the truth, a process that involved excavating buried memories and forcing my mother to tell me what she’d known all along: that my dad had been deeply depressed and that the night before he disappeared he’d told her we’d all be better off without him.
When you’ve willingly swallowed the comfort of a lie for nearly half your life, it’s not easy to accept the truth, no matter how obvious it is. In fact, nearly three more decades would pass before I came to peace with my father’s suicide. Mercifully, it took less time for me to start acting my chronological age, which is how it came to pass that when I met David at a party a few months before my 27th birthday, I was ready for a mature relationship.
David was everything I’d ever wanted in a guy—smart, funny, kind, cute, curious, and good at math and science. He was also what Dad had warned me to stay away from: a not-Jewish boy. On our first date, however, David mentioned that his best friend at graduate school was Jewish. Not only that, the friend was engaged to the daughter of a Reform rabbi.
If I’d believed in signs from above, I might have interpreted the news as a message from Dad that I should embrace this budding relationship. But at the time I didn’t believe in signs from above, so while I was relieved that David was clearly comfortable around Jews, I was uncomfortable that he wasn’t one.
“I’ve met somebody nice,” I told my sister.
“That’s great,” Amy said. “What’s his name?”
“David.” I paused. “He’s not Jewish.”
“So what?” She seemed genuinely confused.
“Don’t you remember Dad used to tell us all the time, ‘I don’t want you dating boys who aren’t Jewish’?”
As it turned out, she didn’t. Not only that, she clearly believed my fealty was misplaced. “Debby,” she said, using her bossy big sister voice, “why should you keep your promise to him? He didn’t exactly keep his promise to us. He died, remember?”
Her response threw me. I’d been unaware she was carrying around so much anger. Also, I didn’t know what promise she was talking about. It wasn’t as if Dad had ever said, “I promise I will stay alive.”
Did parents say such things? I had no idea. I was years away from being a parent. Amy, on the other hand, was pregnant with her third child. She understood far better what I, newly emerged from my protracted childhood, was only beginning to comprehend: Growing up means making your own choices.
Had Dad not chosen to end his life, I no doubt would have had a more traditional adolescence, one in which I clashed with him as I began to develop my own ideas about right, wrong, religion, and whom to love. Amy made it clear that I’d be nuts to pass up an opportunity for a loving relationship because I was still playing the role of obedient, unquestioning child.
I continued seeing David, telling myself that Dad would rather I spend my life with a non-Jewish man who respected me and my religion than to be stuck like Amy, unhappily married to a Jewish guy who didn’t respect her or her Judaism.
By the time David and I got married, four-and-a-half years later, Amy was divorced. In September 2022, David and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. He’s still not Jewish, but every Friday night on Shabbat we light candles and recite blessings over the Manischewitz and homemade challah. We host High Holiday meals and Passover seders for as many people of all faiths as can fit around our dining room table.
Among the many things I’ve come to understand in the years since Dad died is that the label you’re born with is less important than the kind of person you are. It wasn’t easy for me to turn my back on what I sometimes think of as my father’s dying wish. But now I make my own choices. I’m glad I chose David.
Debby Waldman and David Wishart live in Edmonton, where Debby writes, works at a writing center at the University of Alberta, and teaches music at Temple Beth Ora, their Reform synagogue. David is a U of A. professor of Biological Sciences and Computing Science. They have two children, Elizabeth and Noah. You can read more of Debby’s work at https://www.debbywaldman.com/
Opening Image: Sisters Debby (on the right) and Amy Waldman as children, with their dad, Rabbi Elliot Waldman in Utica, New York.