The Lights Dimmed

The last half year has been surreal, so much tragedy in our lives, so much pain. And yet, miracles, too. So, we’ve rallied, adapted to a new reality. And I thought, this year, I’ll give my young teenage daughter a wonderful Hannukah. We’ll make it joyous.

Then the day before Hannukah I learned that her father, who I divorced because of domestic violence when she was a baby, had suddenly died. When you are divorced and have a child with someone, the relationship does not end. Even from a distance, there is still much to navigate.

We stayed legally married over five years after we separated because he refused to sign the divorce papers. And it turned out, he didn’t want custody or even visitation. Though I had escaped, he still held me captive. And still, even from a far, there was so much pain folded into the years, more than can be expressed here.

This man gave me the greatest gift of my life, a shining light for all eternity. And he also gave me the greatest pain and deepest humiliation. There are aspects of our lives that will be made easier by his death, there are aspects that will be made harder. It’s all so inextricably complicated.

He was part of my life, for better and worse, for 17 years. With him, I had two beautiful stepchildren who I loved with all my heart, two miscarriages, one devastating ectopic pregnancy, and one precious daughter. I had never been pregnant before or since with any man’s child.

We had an old-fashioned religious Chabad marriage. Both in our thirties, he, divorced with two young children, we became engaged after three weeks of dating and our gorgeous Malibu beach wedding was about seven weeks after that.

I knew immediately there was something wrong. But I had spent a year learning kabbalah and Torah insights about marriage. It’s different than anything held sacred in secular life — there is no ‘in love’ feeling expected. You cultivate love; love grows through working on the marriage. I was so devoted to our Jewish marriage, my young stepchildren, I focused on the good in him, I grew to love him.

And then he did unspeakable things to me, and still I persisted in loving him, in holding our family together. Every single time I went to mikveh, I sat on the floor of the changing room crying. Each month, I was faced with leaving or staying. The weight of the decision felt crushing. Divorce is even more ominous in the religious community.

His custody battle had raged on nearly the entire course of our marriage. My baby was born and I was afraid. I could not imagine another such custody battle. I stayed, even when I had to call for help from friends repeatedly. And then my father died when my daughter was 4-months-old. I was still sleep-deprived from giving birth.

The day after I got up from sitting shiva, I found out the foundation of our lives had been a lie. On top of trouble, there was more trouble. I kept trying to bring happiness into our lives, but underneath, we were going down. It was all spinning so fast, and, in the end, I didn’t want love anymore, I just wanted peace.

And then he punched me, broke my bones, tried to kill me, nearly killed our 8-month-old daughter, and finally, I was done. Police were called, arrest was made, I went to the hospital, filed a restraining order and separation, and we went on the run because he was out on bail.

But at 2 a.m., after the police had come, and we had left our home, and my daughter and I were ensconced in our rabbi and rebbetzin’s guest room, I made one more call. I left a message for his ex-wife telling her about the violence, to keep the kids home from school. The next day, I called their school and asked the Board to grant them both a full scholarship for the remainder of the school year so that at least one aspect of their lives would not be upended.

She and her new husband were there for me. We all cried. Within a week, we had each been granted legal and physical custody of our respective children.

My daughter and I were on the run, while he was out on bail pending his trial. He had an altercation at the courthouse with the guards when he broke his restraining order and they protected my now nearly 1-year-old baby.

Miraculously, I was granted an early hearing and he agreed as long as I relinquished all financial claims, I was granted full custody and permission to leave the state. We flew across country 10 days later. I had just $2K from Victims of Crime to start over.

We had owned three cars between us, now I had none. I walked everywhere for miles for 10 months in my religious suburb, where there was scant public transportation. Shopping, grocery bags were hung on her stroller. We walked to the library, shul, the park…and there were nights I cried myself to sleep, I missed my stepkids so much. It took another 18 months to accept I would have to live with missing them.

In the meantime, the weather got colder, I missed California, the ocean, which was the home of my soul. Even later when we moved to Florida to be near my mom, the Atlantic didn’t call to me the way the Pacific did. Before I was religious and married, I spent all my free time at Point Dune writing poems. Rosh Hashana was celebrated at the Malibu Jewish Center in an outdoor open white tent overlooking the ocean.

I missed everything that fit me so well in Los Angeles, my entertainment career, my feminism and liberal endeavors, When I moved back east, I never quite fit again — not in religious circles, certainly. Everything was more uptight.

And underneath, there was a seething, dark, sinister corruption. Just like my marriage. There were bells and whistles and merry-go-round music. Of course it wasn’t devoid of happiness. But nothing was as it seemed.

I finally received a small amount of monthly child support when she was nearly 6-years-old. I mainly spoke with his lawyer until that time, who was pleasant. It seemed if I went along with no money, there wasn’t anything he wanted. He refused every written invitation to execute visitation for the next decade. Still, abuse came through the lines, and now she was old enough to understand it.

As the years went on, he made a bit more of an effort. But when she got sick, I reached out to him, his parents, his brother for help. I didn’t work for a year, as she was in and out of the hospital. The family ignored my pleas.

When my daughter matured, she tried to tell him how she felt, she wrote him emails. But she never felt heard. I know he cared about her, I know he loved her. It just never manifested as a loving relationship. I’ll never know why he chose not to spend time with her. They met twice again with a court monitor present when she was 11.

Sometimes, over the years, I held out hope he was softening. Other times, the rigidity seemed to prevail. We emailed for over a decade and spoke on occasion. We rarely communicated effectively.

He was absent from my daughter’s life. Their communications were infrequent. She was an artist, raised by a more bohemian mother, and he was a man of math, a genius in math, actually. They just never managed to speak the same language, though at times he tried.

I had long ago forgiven him for the violence, though he didn’t ask. I had a more difficult time forgiving the ongoing pain for her, the regret that he could not be the father that her soul needed. I’ve never forgiven myself for not choosing or finding the father she needed.

I think that when someone passes from this world they begin the process of becoming who their soul was truly meant to be. Now, I hope that there will be a spiritual healing for them.

This was my story with this man. It probably seems unfathomable to anyone who knew us, or anyone reading this, but I mourn his death with tremendous sadness. It’s too soon for me to fully understand it.

When I first became religious, more than 20 years ago, I felt that angels visited me, persuading me to learn our Torah, to seek God ever more closely. But as my daughter traversed elementary school she began asking me for us not to be religious. When she became ill, I made a quiet internal decision that I just wanted her to have her happiness.

Eventually, I started researching and diligently learning about other interpretations of Judaism. Two years later, we left Orthodoxy and ultimately found our way to a Reform practice and community, and we’ve been truly happy with our new lives.

This past Thursday, I woke up with a profound, overflowing joy in my heart, which lasted through the morning. And then suddenly I was overwhelmingly, inexplicably nauseous and violently sick. The rest of the day and night I continued to be nauseous. I felt enervated. My mind was racing, striving to reach some truths. At the end of the day I felt like I was mysteriously being urged to let go of pain. Finally, around midnight, I felt physically and spiritually calm. I didn’t know why or what had happened, but I understood that I had experienced a wrenching spiritual transformation. The results would remain to be seen.

The next morning I woke up to learn via Facebook from his first ex-wife’s post, that my ex-husband had suddenly died late Wednesday night. Her son had written to me on Thursday that he wanted to speak to his sister, but I never saw it because I was offline. When I saw the news, I began screaming in shock.

Even though he had given me a get and divorce, our souls were connected. In fact, I felt that most strongly at my get ceremony, which was held in two parts — he in the morning, me in the afternoon. When he was at his ceremony, he asked the rabbi to call me twice to change my mind. I could not. When I was seated at that same table later that day, I experienced this sense of knowing that we had been married — and divorced — in previous lifetimes. Until he died this week, and I wrote this, I had forgotten about the vision I had then…in fact, it was so strong I had paused the get ceremony to discuss it with everyone present.

We go about our lives and we try to understand our purpose. But I believe there are events of the soul, taking place on another plane, that may not make sense to us here. Having a soulmate may not mean a fairy tale. We hurt each other. I don’t think we ever really understood each other, or even had anything in common with respect to our interests or personalities. We were as different as two people could be. Yet, miraculously, we conceived a magnificent child together.

I cannot tell the story he would tell, or that of his first ex-wife, his other children or his family and friends. They will attempt to share some of that, through their loss and sorrow, at his funeral today. They will give him a proper eulogy, with accounts of good deeds and loving kindness. He was only 48, so young. My daughter’s story is not mine to tell, either.

But if there is anything I can share, it is that hate and anger seem to be rooted only in our bodies and minds in the here and now. Our souls carry eternal hope and love and a desire to know one another, to be one with each other. It is so impossibly hard to see, to feel. But we have to try.

I do not have any more insight into this love and grief that I feel. Maybe, despite the peculiar particulars, you will see something of yourself, your relationships, or even your politics, in this memoir. I can’t believe he’s gone.

May his neshama fly, may his mourners be comforted, and may we all know peace. He died just before Hannukah. I’d like to think his life, all of our lives together, are preparation for God’s wonderful acts of Deliverance.

About the Author
Dana is a Jewish feminist, writer and poet. She is passionate about her daughter, love, kindness, spirituality, the artist's voice, and speaking out for the vulnerable. She lives in Music City, Nashville, TN.
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