January 28, 2020

The Inheritance

Editor’s note: The following piece is a work of fiction.

Gina sashayed her hips as she folded chopped apples into the cake batter, humming along to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” The buoyant big-band sounds energized her as she cooked Shabbat dinner for her husband, Aaron, and their three children. She inhaled deeply, gratified by the heavenly aroma of brisket, slowly simmering in the oven.     

Lavishing so much time and effort on Shabbat cooking was fairly new to Gina. Two years earlier, she had accepted an invitation by a Shomer Shabbat friend to attend a class on Shabbat, a day that means “cease.” With Aaron a borderline workaholic, and their children’s school and extracurricular activities making scheduling a routine dinnertime all but impossible, the concept of Shabbat as a time to stop, reflect and spend time as a family really spoke to Gina. 

She bought a family membership at a nearby Reform synagogue, where she hoped that Justin, 12, would agree to study for his bar mitzvah. Both 8-year-old Emily and 6-year-old Sam were very social and would gladly attend weekly religious school in the cheerfully decorated classrooms. Even Gina signed up for a Hebrew boot camp program.  

Gina slid the apple cake in the oven, relieved that meal preparation was finished. As much as she looked forward to dinner and to going to Shabbat services with her family, thinking about Aaron triggered a familiar little knot of anxiety inside. His relationship with Judaism was complicated. And her growing enthusiasm for Jewish involvement was complicating their marriage. 

As a busy real estate developer, Aaron’s projects kept him working late most evenings, so that Sam and Emily were fast asleep by the time he slipped into their rooms to kiss them softly on their heads. Gina knew better than to nag Aaron about his work hours. Instead, she’d sometimes text him in the late afternoon: Love to see you home for dinner tonight. Or, Can’t wait to see your smiling face! Every so often, it worked. Gina was thankful she had taken an extended break from her practice as a marriage and family therapist. Her children needed her.     

So, she considered it a major victory when Aaron promised to try to be home by 5:30 p.m. on Fridays, but after only a few weeks, he balked at going to temple, pleading exhaustion, a headache or both. Now, Gina frequently headed to services with the children, masking her disappointment for their sake. 

Tonight was the monthly “soul and music” service, where people brought their own instruments — Emily would bring her flute — and play as the congregation sang familiar Shabbat songs. Everyone had enjoyed it previous times, even Aaron.  

Gina’s phone rang, and she smiled as she said hello to her husband.    

“I’m sorry, hon,” he said. “I’ve got a problem here that I’ve got to straighten out. Go ahead and start dinner without me.”

“Aaron, you promised,” her tone a practiced calm. 

“I know, but the city inspector is hassling us over the height of a bathroom sink. For an eighth of an inch he wants to hold up the certificate of occupancy. Jesus! I’ve got to make some calls with some higher ups. I’ll call you later.” 

Gina hung up, her heart pounding with the frustration, even anger. Aaron was undermining all her efforts to carve out time for a family Shabbat, her efforts to strengthen the bonds between the two of them. Aaron’s absence tonight would be a glaring reminder that he was not onboard with Gina’s plan to make their family more Jewishly involved.    

She took a deep breath, trying to keep perspective. She appreciated Aaron’s hard work, which paid for their privileged lifestyle. But Gina knew too many families who were materially rich, yet with a vague emptiness at the core. All kids crave fair discipline and the sense of identity and purpose that healthy religion provides. She feared that Justin’s budding surliness would become a full-blown teenaged rebellion in a few years unless they could hold him close somehow.      

Recently, Gina had peeked at Justin’s email. Her stomach lurched when she saw the angry message he had sent to Aaron for missing Justin’s tennis match. How could she make Aaron understand how fleeting these years were with their children? Did he comprehend how high the stakes were? If Aaron’s seat at the dinner table remained empty tonight, Gina predicted that Justin would shovel in a few quick bites and then bolt to his room, slamming the door.  

“On Shabbat, Gina was suffused with a sense of peace that always took her little bit by surprise. Would that peace really spread over them all, like a protective spiritual canopy?”

As she set the table for five, Gina tried to recall the last time she and Aaron went on a date night. Four months? Five? There was tension in their marriage because of her spiritual quest. She needed to tactfully and supportively help Aaron regain his sense of priorities. 

For Emily and Sam, Jewish involvement already was paying off. They loved it when Rabbi Tziona called all the children up to the pulpit to sing “Lekhah Dodi.” Sam was particularly spiritually attuned, mesmerized when Gina lit her Shabbat candles, and hugging her tightly afterward. On Shabbat, Gina was suffused with a sense of peace that always took her a little bit by surprise. Would that peace really spread over them all, like a protective spiritual canopy? 

Sam also had begun asking questions about God: Is God married? Does God like everybody, even mean Mr. Larson down the block? Why did he let his friend Carson’s father get cancer? Some questions were easy to answer; others were deceptively complex. How much longer till his curiosity outstripped her God knowledge?  

Really, Aaron had such chutzpah. According to Aaron’s Orthodox family — his parents and three sisters — Gina was still “the shiksa,” yet she was the one working to engineer Jewish content into their family! Gina, not Aaron, recognized the need for a coherent spiritual identity, but her discussions with him over it were at a stalemate.

“Aaron, don’t you feel we need some religious direction in our family? Don’t you feel something is missing without it?” she had asked.

“We live good, honest lives,” he said. “The children are learning the most important values from us.”

Gina shook her head. “That’s not enough anymore, not in today’s world. Too many values are up for grabs. Judaism provides a center, and the rituals are so family-friendly. You know, when we drive down Pico Boulevard on Saturdays and I see those Orthodox families all walking together with everybody dressed up, I think they have something special. They’re not working or shopping or on their phones. They’re really unplugged. They have time to think, to pray and to just be together as a family.”   

This was sensitive territory for Aaron. During their courtship, he had explained his rebellion from Orthodoxy, which began in high school. 

“There was too much pressure to conform,” he said. “I looked around and saw other guys praying, some of them with real emotion. I could never feel that, and I got tired of faking it. Nobody ever explained how you got that feeling.”

In college, he went with a classmate to a bar on a Friday night, expecting to feel a tidal wave of guilt. Instead, he said, “I couldn’t believe how easy it was for everything else to fall away.” He stopped attending the daily minyan, started eating non-kosher meat, actual treif, and dating gentile women. The slide was fast and steep, an almost thrilling detachment from his 3,300-year-old religious roots.

By the time Gina and Aaron met, his connection to Judaism had worn down to something thinner than a single thread from his long-discarded tzitzit, once a tangible reminder of the 613 commandments: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Tithe to the poor. Do not bear a grudge. Do not marry a gentile. The first time Aaron’s parents saw their only son bare-headed, his father was grim-faced. His mother, Sima, fought back tears.   

Gina went through a six-month conversion program with a Reform rabbi. She felt proud to have joined this small, plucky, determined people, and was relieved to have officially left a Christian denomination that taught that if you didn’t believe in Jesus, there was no salvation. Gina embraced the Jewish notion of a direct relationship to God — no intermediaries required. Despite her conversion, only Aaron’s youngest sister, Hadassah, had attended their wedding, though she sat there looking stricken and left before the salad course.

Since that wedding 14 years earlier, Gina’s dealings with Aaron’s parents were respectful yet stiff, more like a détente than a relationship. Last year, though, Sima sent Gina birthday and Mother’s Day cards — a first. Gina was pleased, yet still unprepared for the shock a few months later of receiving an antique candelabrum from her mother-in-law.   

The handwritten card inside the package had read:

Gina — I have thought for a long time about giving this to you. With the children getting older, I decided it was time to pass it along as part of our family legacy. It was a wedding gift to me from my own grandmother, Malka, of blessed memory. It was always meant to be handed down to the women of the family. Fondly, Sima

The five-armed candelabrum was crafted of filigreed silver, heavy physically and in spiritual significance. Gina turned it slowly in her hands, so stunned at receiving it that she forgot to breathe for so long that she began to feel faint. The polished silver winked at her. Was this Sima’s message that Gina’s conversion was “kosher enough” after all? Or as she was growing older, was her mother-in-law longing for a closer relationship with the mother of three of her grandchildren? Whatever the reason, Gina was grateful.  

Gina had been lighting Shabbat candles for two years in a set of ivory-colored Lenox candlestick holders, a wedding gift to her and Aaron. They were beautiful, elegant and completely nondenominational. Now that she had a real, Yiddishe-flavored Shabbat candelabrum, Gina longed to give it pride of place in the dining room. Yet she was anxious that the sight of this family heirloom might deepen the divide between her and Aaron, so she reluctantly tucked the box in the guest room closet. 

Each Friday night as she struck the match to light her candles, Gina imagined lighting candles nestled in that candelabrum, still secreted away like contraband. Now, after Aaron’s call this afternoon, Gina strode to the guest room, hauled it out from the box and set it on the side table in place of the Lenox candlesticks. She set her candles in each holder, and stood looking at them with pride. 

Let Aaron figure out his religious conflicts on his own. Gina would channel the strength of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Leah and of Rachel to teach as much Judaism as she could to their children. This was their inheritance, their birthright. Sima’s gift had empowered Gina to feel that she was a Jewish matriarch in her own right.  

Gina hardly wanted to become Orthodox, so she didn’t understand why Aaron said nothing when she joined the temple book club, and last fall chaired the Hanukkah boutique planning committee. Now she was taking an introduction to prayer class, knowing better than to share what she learned in class with him.   

One night she said, “You don’t seem to notice how my activities and involvement at temple give me a sense of community, or appreciate that our kids are making nice Jewish friends there. This is your religion, after all. How can you be so apathetic?” 

“Don’t you mean ‘our’ religion?” Aaron replied, causing Gina to flinch. “Remember, I’m the one who grew up with lots of religion and ritual. I admit it gave me a sense of identity and values, but it also became claustrophobic. Rituals can become mechanistic. I won’t be penned in by having to go to the synagogue every week.”  

Aaron’s resistance only strengthened Gina’s resolve, and after receiving the candelabrum, she even emailed Sima occasional articles she had enjoyed about Jewish observance and philosophy, sparking conversation and greater kinship between them. Gina had been startled to discover an Orthodox rabbi writing about things like sex, how to organize your mind, deal with frustration, and live with joy despite life’s troubles. When Aaron saw an article printout on her nightstand about the Orthodox view of marital intimacy and the laws of niddah and mikvah, she could feel tension radiating from him. He flopped into bed, snapped off his reading light, and roughly yanked the blanket up to his neck, turning his back to her.  

“Why does this upset you so much?” Gina asked. “Were you abused by some great-uncle or rabbi as a child? Help me understand.”

“You can’t understand,” he said, still facing the wall. “You weren’t told growing up that if you weren’t thrilled to live under the ‘yoke of Heaven’ 24 hours a day that there was something wrong with you. You didn’t have to pretend that you’d never want to eat anything treif, or touch a woman before you were married, because if you did, you weren’t a real Yirat Shamayim, a real believer. I believe in God, but I don’t need all his rules. I live my life honestly and work hard to support my family. Isn’t that enough?” 

He sat up and faced her. “I love you. I love the kids. But I won’t constantly be reminded of what I never measured up to.”

“Then why not try more temple activities, at least for the kids’ sake? Next Friday night is Drum Circle Shabbat, and the kids really liked that last time. Can you be open to something creative? It can’t be all or nothing.”  

“Gina would channel the strength of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Leah and of Rachel to teach as much Judaism as she could to their children.”

Aaron laughed. “Drum circles! You’re right, I don’t have any of that to haunt me from the past. Look, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I knew more Rashi and Rambam commentaries by ninth grade than this rabbi knows now. I don’t buy a lot of this 21st-century interpretation of the text. It’s politicized, and a lot of it is shallow. Believe me, I wish I knew where I belonged Jewishly. I wish I could feel close to God, but I just can’t.”

Gina was quiet for a few moments. “Aaron, you were turned off to this when you were 17. You’re 42 years old now. Isn’t it time to give it another shot? Even a ‘shiksa’ like me knows our kids need a sense of purpose beyond themselves.” 

“I’ll try, but this is very hard for me.” 

They both slept fitfully that night. In the morning, Gina prayed that Aaron would begin to reconsider his relationship with his faith. 

• • • •

When Aaron came home that evening, Gina and the kids already were digging into the apple cake and chocolate chip cookies. His gaze was riveted by the sight of his great-grandmother’s candelabrum on the side table, the small flames swooning from a light breeze coming through the windows. 

“When … how … did you get that?”

“Your mother sent it to me as a gift. Isn’t it beautiful?” 

“My mother? She sent that to you?” Aaron was rooted to the spot, looking momentarily confused.   

“Don’t worry, Daddy, there’s lots of brisket left. It’s delicious,” Sam said. 

“Sit down, Aaron. You still have plenty of time to eat,” Gina said, filling his plate and setting it down before him. Aaron dipped a piece of challah into the brisket gravy as Emily chatted about the play her class was organizing, and Sam excitedly interrupted to report a lizard sighting on the school yard. Justin ate quietly, observing his father. Aaron was listening, trying to be present but clearly distracted by the candelabrum. He glanced at it frequently. It almost seemed as if he were seeing ghosts.   

“We used to have Shabbos dinners at my grandparents’ house with this on the table,” he said in a quiet voice. “Now it’s in our own home. Hard to believe.” Aaron smiled ruefully at his children. 

“It’s time to go, Mommy,” Sam said. “I don’t want them to sing without me. I want to sit right in front on the stage, so you and Daddy can see me.”

“Ready, Aaron?” Gina asked.

Aaron paused, as if unsure of himself, then rose heavily from the table. He lifted his jacket from the back of his chair, but moved slowly toward the door, as if he were pushing through a wall of water. As Sam and Emily clambered into the car, arguing about who would sit where, Aaron turned to look at the little flames still illuminating the dining room table.

“Gina … I’m sorry, I can’t.” 

“Dad? Are you coming or not?” Justin asked from the front door. 

“Not tonight, son.” 

Gina bit her lip and nodded. “OK, Aaron. Maybe next week.”

In the quiet house, Aaron sat down at his polished oak table, the glint of his great-grandmother’s candelabrum reflecting a moistness in his eyes. He tried to recall the feeling of peacefulness that Shabbos had brought when he was a child, before guilt and apathy overcame joy in his Jewish journey. He sat and watched the flames until the last one finally gave out, watched until the thin thread of smoke rose like a whisper in the air.  

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith” (She Writes Press).