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Modern Love: Finding God in a Hot Slice of Pizza

Modern Love

By TOVA MIRVIS

“Do you really believe God cares about kosher pizza?” my 10-year-old son asked me as I was tucking him into bed.

I paused at his question, though the answer had once come easily: This is what we believe. This is what we do. This is who we are.

But that was before his father and I separated and I ceased following the rules of Orthodox Judaism with which I was raised. In the midst of divorce, we divided our money and possessions, divided weekends and holidays with our three children, but there are no rules for who retains the rights over the children’s beliefs.

Only tacitly did we agree that when the children are with me, I decide what they do; when they are with him, he does. Like rulers of neighboring kingdoms, we only have jurisdiction within our borders. Our children are dual citizens.

“I don’t believe God cares about pizza,” I admitted, unsure of what his father would say if he heard this conversation. I was afraid too that our respective families, all Orthodox, still expected me to teach our children that religion is where the truth resides.

Raised inside this world, I knew all too well the script I should be following, the lines that would instill in my son the belief that God watches his every deed; God judges even the smallest moments of his life.

“If you don’t believe that, then why do I have to?” my son asked.

In those early months, with the divorce still fresh, I had been cagey with my children about the changes I was making in my life. When they were home with me, I tried to keep much the same, so that the gap between their father’s world and mine wouldn’t seem too vast. I hadn’t yet said to them: I no longer observe the rules with which I raised you. I no longer believe in the truths I instilled in you.

And I have continued to try to bridge this divide as the years pass. The kitchen in my house is strictly kosher. We observe the Sabbath, albeit not with all its particulars and rules. On the weekends when the children are at their father’s house, a few miles from mine but an alternate universe, I drive on the Sabbath and sample nonkosher Thai food and cannolis.

To this day, almost five years later, I wonder which is the greater betrayal: to change course at this late date, or to continue to raise them in a system in which I don’t believe.

That evening, in my son’s bedroom, his brown eyes searched mine for an answer.

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“I feel forced, all the time,” he said. “Do you even know how that feels?”

I wasn’t surprised to hear him say this. He had been chafing for months now — not wanting to go to synagogue or wear a yarmulke.

“I do know. I’ve been Orthodox my whole life, and now I’ve decided I don’t want to be,” I told him, knowing that with each word, I was upending not just who I was but also who he was supposed to be.

I was 22 when I got engaged, after being set up on a blind date by mutual friends.

“You’re the exact same,” our friends had told us. And they were right, or so it seemed. We were both religious but not overly dogmatic, both gentle and eager to please. In our religious world, dating had been like that children’s game Concentration: flip over the squares until you find two that are the same.

In college I harbored a few doubts about my belief, but entertaining such thoughts risked severing me from all that was fixed and known. Getting engaged, I felt relief, as if I were all of a sudden pinned securely to my world.

Whenever those doubts resurfaced — as I cooked Shabbat dinner, or immersed in a ritual bath each month, or sat in the women’s side of the synagogue — I pushed them away. Married, with children, I was supposed to know who I was.

“Have you ever had nonkosher pizza?” my son asked tentatively, his hand on my arm.

“I have.”

It was a few months after I had decided that I couldn’t remain inside a marriage or a religious world in which I couldn’t change or grow. After so many years trying to remain the same, I was starved not for the food, but for the freedom to choose how I would live.

Regina Pizzeria is in the North End of Boston, an Italian neighborhood where the streets are narrow and paved in cobblestone. The pizza, thin-crusted and gooey, threatened to fall apart unless I held it with both of my hands.

I paused before taking a bite, as a nonreligious friend looked on with a combination of sympathy and amusement. But for me, each trespass was like a first, unfathomable. I still heard the castigating voices in my head: To break this rule, any rule, was to render myself bad, cast out, alone.

What had held me inside all those years was the conviction that I needed to be the same person I’d always been, the same as those I loved. This, more than anything, was the iron bar across the exit door. Love was what tied you and kept you inside. Love was what you risked losing if you wanted to choose for yourself.

“Will you take me for pizza?” my son said, his voice heavy with impending sleep.

“One day,” I said. As he drifted off, I was aware that there was no longer any illusion that we all matched. This was part of what divorce meant. What was supposed to be unified had fractured.

Bill’s Pizzeria has oversize windows that look out on Beacon Street in the middle of Newton Centre. After some more cajoling on my son’s part and some more wrestling on mine, I finally agreed to this outing but was still rife with uncertainty. I couldn’t help but worry about who might walk past and see us. I was glad for the long line, which gave me time to ponder the theological implications of a slice of pizza. I could still decide to grab him and run.

My son was far too excited about this long-awaited outing to notice my trepidation. He eyed the toppings through the glass case. Every vegetable combination seemed exotic, as did the speckled rounds of pepperoni. On the drive there, I told him that we could order only vegetarian. In the codex of sins, plain cheese pizza is a misdemeanor, not a felony.

He hadn’t protested this limit, but now he seemed to be pondering, as I was, just how far he was allowed to traverse.

“One cheese slice, please,” he told the man behind the counter.

“Actually, two slices,” I said.

As we waited, I detected no sign of guilt, but when he saw me watching him, a serious look came over his face.

“I need to talk to you,” he told me, his voice hushed, his expression earnest.

“Bend down,” he said, and then whispered: “If one day, when I’m older, I decide to eat pizza with meat on it, will you still like who I am?”

I hugged him and felt my heart break open. He knew, at a young age, that once you leave a mapped world, there are no more assurances of where you end up.

As we got our slices of pizza, oversize triangles with sturdy crusts and thick layers of cheese, I began a series of proclamations.

“I will love you whoever you are. I will love you whatever you choose. I will respect the choices you make.”

He looked at me with eyes wide open, as if wondering if he could believe me. He seemed to want to give himself over to my reassurance, but already he understood that, given the world into which he was born, it was a complicated proposition.

“You’re only starting to figure out who you’re going to be,” I said. “You don’t have to be held back by what others think of you. You don’t have to match the people who love you.” I was in speechmaking mode, talking with far more passion than he expected, but I trusted that he would understand at least part of what I was saying.

“Life,” I said, “is about exploring and grappling and growing. You’re allowed to think for yourself. You don’t have to live something you don’t believe.”

Soon, I knew, he would change the subject to the Patriots or the Bruins, and his eyes would drift to the TV behind us, blaring ESPN. Until then, I would offer him these sentences that were becoming truer in my own mind as I said them.

“This is the most delicious pizza in the world,” he said, sauce dotting the corners of his mouth, as he savored his first slice.

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