One writer reveals how family and faith tore her relationship apart...
Sam and I had been together for four months when I returned home from university for the summer and announced excitedly to my family that I had met someone. ‘Is he Jewish?’ my father asked, uncharacteristically stern. ‘Catholic,’ I said, and he bristled, unable to meet my eye. My joy came crashing down. I’d never thought about it before. I’d attended a Jewish school and so all my boyfriends to date had been Jewish. We’d never discussed an alternative.
Sam and I had been friends for months after meeting at university in Birmingham. Then one night in his flat, for the first time in my life, I made the first move. Before we knew it, it was 6am. ‘This isn’t a one-night thing,’ he assured me. But I already knew.
Six months into our relationship, I began to feel like an outcast whenever I went home to London to visit my family. The heady thrill of falling in love with Sam was replaced by a low-level dread whenever I wasn’t with him. I felt trapped in two half-lives and I became an expert at skirting the subject. Many of my Jewish friends didn’t take the relationship seriously; ‘I’m glad you’re happy but, obviously, it can’t go anywhere,’ was the common, cutting response; they wouldn’t acknowledge any alternative or that I might want one.
Eventually I shunned synagogue altogether, seeking solace in the arms of my forbidden boyfriend. ‘They’re just a bit funny about boyfriends,’ I told Sam when he asked if he could meet my parents. I’d already visited his family several times who, despite being Catholic, had never questioned my religion except out of interest. Meanwhile, my father laid out his disapproval: ‘Judaism is our heritage,’ he explained. ‘It’s our responsibility to continue the faith.’ He made it very clear that he wanted me to end it with Sam. My mother didn’t feel as strongly, but it made little difference.
The layers of guilt built up, especially when my unaware grandpa asked me if I’d ‘been fishing lately,’ which was his endearing way of asking if I’d ‘caught’ a boyfriend yet. My mother eventually told me she had to stand by my father, who in turn felt he had to lie to his parents about me dating outside of the faith. I found it increasingly hard to reassure Sam that everything was fine.
‘I dreamt about our wedding last night,’ he told me one morning, before detailing the cathedral he imagined we’d get married in. But I knew that would never happen. When I changed the subject, Sam asked what was wrong and I couldn’t pretend any more. We sat on my bed and I explained my parents’ position. ‘But they’ve never met me…’ he kept repeating.
Sam and I had often talked about our faiths and what it meant to be Jewish or Catholic. It was hard to understand how my heritage had slammed the doors in the face of our future.
The following summer, over a year and a half into our relationship, I went back to London for three months, but I already felt miles away from Sam. He’d told me he wouldn’t end it, but he couldn’t commit so much of himself to someone he could lose at a moment’s notice. Our goodbye was strained.
Shortly after my homecoming, my father made it clear it was time I met someone else; someone Jewish. I didn’t agree, but it I was tired of lying to all the people I loved; of watching my friends’ relationships, unburdened and realistic.
The conversation with Sam was painfully brief. ‘What do you want me to say?’ he muttered when I told him it was over. ‘I still love you,’ I said firmly. ‘I know,’ he said. That was it. I hung up feeling shell-shocked. For the next few weeks, panic would build at unexpected moments. The first time I bumped into Sam again back at university I felt sick. We exchanged awkward small talk but kept our distance. Seeing him afar was like looking at a stranger. That was more hurtful than finding out, eight months later, he had a new girlfriend. I missed him.
My relationship with my father repaired slowly. I still had moments of resentment, but I didn’t want to lose anyone else I loved. He hadn’t intended to hurt me, he just came from a different culture and I could forgive that. My faith took a big hit, though, and it now plays a much smaller role in my life. Sam was the guinea pig who bore the brunt of my father’s anger, but my dad has since relaxed to the point where I have dated a couple of non-Jewish men. Sometimes I scroll through Sam’s Facebook and wonder if things would have been different if he hadn’t been my first love.