Written By C. Sapir,
“Oh, rabbi, what’s good about it?”
My chassan, Ben, fielded this question while we were in a hospital room visiting a patient with advanced cancer. During our year-long engagement – we waited until he finished law school before getting married – we would often meet on Shabbos and walk over to Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, where we were part of a rotation of volunteers who visited the Jewish patients.
At the time, Ben sported a full beard and a big black yarmulke. In his Shabbos suit, he looked like a rabbi, even though he was a fairly recent baal teshuva. The compassion he showed each patient warmed their hearts, as well as mine. How lucky I was to be engaged to such a warm and caring man!
But the pain he confronted on those visits took a toll on him. And when patients mistook him for a rabbi and looked to him for words of solace, he was often at a loss. How could he explain to parents why G-d was inflicting so much pain on their little girl? How was he to explain to a dying teenager that Hashem loved him?
To me, the existence of pain in the world was no contradiction to the existence of a loving, perfect G-d. Unlike Him, we humans are imperfect, and we therefore can’t comprehend everything about the way He runs the world.
I had discovered Yiddishkeit as a teenager, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be part of it, even though I came from a completely nonreligious background.
Ben’s journey to frumkeit was very different. He hailed from a traditional American Jewish family that maintained some cultural Shabbos and kashrus observance, and he had become more religious in college, thanks to a campus kiruv organization.
When we first met some 30 years ago, we were on similar levels of observance. What I didn’t realize then is that although our religious trajectories intersected at that point, his was peaking at the time we met and would slowly decline from there, while mine would keep climbing.
I had attended seminary and loved learning Torah. Ben’s discovery of Yiddishkeit had been primarily experiential – campus Shabbos meals with gusty zemiros – but he never had the chance to study Torah in a serious way. By the time we got married, he had shaved off his beard.
Several months after our wedding, when Ben was about to begin his first job with a Manhattan law firm, he shared with me that he might not wear his yarmulke to work. “Stand up for what you believe in!” I encouraged him. “You’re either a yarmulke wearer or not. Why should you present yourself in two different ways, one at work and another at home?”
“You’re right,” he agreed. “I don’t think I’m a yarmulke wearer anymore. I’m going to stop right now, before I take that job. Thank you for helping me clarify that.” I was stunned.
When we were first married, he was davening three times a day with a minyan, but it wasn’t long before that turned into davening without a minyan, or skipping one or two of the daily prayers. Or not davening at all.
As a junior tax lawyer in Manhattan, Ben was under tremendous pressure to put in 2,000 billable hours a year at work. Most of his colleagues were working seven days a week, and many were double-billing or “padding” their hours (meaning that they would report the same hours twice if they did work for one client that they could reuse on behalf a second client). Ben did not work on Shabbos, and refused, on principle, to double-bill, which meant that during the week he had to work significantly longer than his colleagues. Most days he’d leave the house at six in the morning and return at ten pm, or even midnight. Friday afternoon, he’d slide into the house just before candle-lighting. On Shabbos, he’d go to shul and then catch up on his sleep for the week while I watched the kids.
Since he was out working all the time, I assumed the full responsibility of running the house and caring for the kids. I bought the kids’ clothing – and decided how to dress them. I got the kids out to school – and chose the schools they would attend. We agreed on no TV in the house – and I determined the flavor of the kids’ entertainment.
In the summer, I took the kids up to a yeshivish bungalow colony, while Ben stayed during the week with his parents, who looked askance at my religious fervor.
Ben’s schedule left him with little spare time, and since he had never studied in yeshiva, Torah learning was not a priority to him. It was a priority to me, however. Early on in our marriage, I would learn together with Ben: halachah, Jewish philosophy, Tanach. He went along with the learning, but it was always my initiative, my thing. Eventually, as he got tired of it, I found friends to learn with.
Orginally published in Mishpacha Magazine August 25, 2017
The narrator of this story has formed a support group for observant women (BT or FFB) married to men who are no longer observant.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org