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Erin Lessans

Erin Lessans is a HealthyWomen contributor.

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Erin Lessans


After Being in a Toxic Marriage, I'm Finding Joy in Hanukkah Again

I’ve always valued the traditions surrounding the Jewish holidays. Now I’m free to enjoy them guilt-free.

Real Women, Real Stories

As told to Marnie Goodfriend

I’m not an overly religious person, but as a Jewish mother, it’s important for me to expose my two sons to the faith and let them decide later in life if it’s right for them. When we were together, my ex-husband made that hard because he denounced organized religion and went out of his way to ridicule all the cultural aspects that go along with it.

For me, the holidays aren’t as much about religion as they are about traditions and spending quality time with people I love. I carry on the customs I learned growing up in a Jewish household. My family observes the High Holidays with traditional dinners that include eating apples and honey and challah. On Yom Kippur, my family breaks our fast by enjoying bagels, lox and kugel. We have a Seder for Passover where we read from the Haggadah and eat Matzah ball soup. And I buy and wrap a gift for each of my boys and light the menorah for every night of Hanukkah. These moments may be simple — but they are meaningful to me.

Early in our marriage, my husband attended all the holidays my mother hosted. But as time passed, he chose not to participate and stayed home. It became an unspoken understanding that it was just going to be my kids and me celebrating at my mother’s, and I wasn’t allowed to host the holidays in our home. It wasn’t just that my husband didn’t get involved; he mocked me and tried to embarrass us when we got home, telling us we smelled from my mother’s cooking.

My ex often traveled for work, and it got to the point where I looked forward to the years when he was out of town for the holidays. Still, it was hard to honor my religion and make memories with my children when my husband didn’t want us to celebrate, regardless of whether he was present or not.

Even non-religious holidays were a challenge in our marriage. Once, we had Thanksgiving at our house because my mother had recently had surgery after battling breast cancer. My husband agreed to let me host, but then he made his resentment obvious by sitting upstairs the entire day, skipping dinner even though his father and brother were in attendance. I did my best to put on a brave face, but I was humiliated and angry and sad — and I kept my feelings bottled up inside.

Eventually, my ex and I separated. But for three years afterward, I continued to be traumatized by the arguments and negativity I had with him surrounding religion and holidays as we navigated joint custody of our children. It took time for me to process my feelings and have the strength to feel joyful without being judged or ridiculed. When I started dating another Jewish man, being in a healthy relationship with a positive person enabled me to get some clarity on how toxic my marriage had been. It reminded me that there are good people out there. It’s a breath of fresh air to have a partner who will drive my kids to Hebrew school and actively participate in the Jewish holidays.

This year, my boyfriend and I will exchange gifts together one night, visit his family on another and he will be at a Hanukkah party I’m having with my extended family in my new home. The space may be a bit smaller, but I enjoy entertaining and am looking forward to reclaiming the freedom to make my own decisions. I’m embracing the positive changes in my life by looking online for new recipes and experimenting in the kitchen while incorporating my family’s traditions into our celebration.

My mother will bake her famous sugar cookies with sugar sprinkles in the shape of dreidels and menorahs. My uncle will supply the potato latkes. And I’m bringing a fresh perspective.

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