The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
My Non-Jewish Partner is Too Enthusiastic About Judaism
Hi Seesaw. I am six months into a same-sex relationship with a woman and I can imagine settling down with this one. One issue though, and I know this sounds strange: she is a little too enthusiastic about Judaism. I am very happy that she is excited about my Jewish identity and raising our possible children Jewish, but it bothers me when she acts like she really “gets” being Jewish because she is a lesbian and therefore a minority who has suffered too. Not all outsider identities are the same and I feel like she cheapens Judaism by believing so. So, how do I make her feel welcome in my Jewish world while also helping her understand that she doesn’t totally get it?
I Think I’d Feel the Same
LAUREL SNYDER: This is so tricky, but I think I’d feel the same in this situation. Judaism is a complex identity/idea/history/culture, and what her immediate excitement suggests is that she doesn’t perceive the complexity. So my best advice is that you share it with her.
As you say, you don’t want to push her away. It’s wonderful that she’s willing to learn about your background, raise Jewish kids, etc. But Judaism isn’t just a minority status with candles and wine. Judaism can also be boring, exclusive, dogmatic, politically problematic, or violent. Loving Judaism means understanding all the layers of the onion. Loving despite, not just because.
When my husband and I married, I remember that he did some serious reading. He picked up a range of books, from As a Driven Leaf to the Alter translation of the Torah. That was great for me, because it showed me he was serious about understanding Judaism, and creating his own relationship to it, whether or not he ever converted. Over the years, we’ve watched Jewish movies together, visited museums, argued about Israel in the news, and struggled with how to answer our kids’ questions about faith/death/afterlife. It’s not always easy, but it’s honest.
I think that kind of dialogue has to be rooted in actual information. I think if your partner’s going to embrace your culture, she’ll need to embrace it warts and all. So I think books might be a great starting point for you guys. As well as a very Jewish tool.
You Have Much to Learn from Her
JAMES PONET: You have found a partner who successfully pushes your Jewish buttons. Well done! Her enthusiastic embrace of your Jewishness which may be fueled in part by her desire to overcome outsider loneliness by joining a community of outsiders strikes you as a kind of cheapening of Judaism
I’d invite you to look at that reaction of yours. For while it is true that “Not all outsider identities are the same,” it may well be that Judaism is mythically and historically primed to empower outsiders to live with integrity and courage. Think Abraham who tells the people of Canaan, “I am a resident alien in your midst.” Think Moses who is neither quite Egyptian or Israelitish. Think Ruth, daughter of the despised Moabites, who becomes ancestor of King David. And think Sigmund Freud, himself mythic and historic, addressing Vienna’s B’nai Brith in 1926 on the occasion of his 70th birthday: “Because I was a Jew I found myself free from many prejudices which restricted others in the use of their intellect; and as a Jew I was prepared to join the Opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.’”
Judaism is an immigrant religion enacted by an historical community that embraces the stranger in its midst. Jewish culture has always teetered between nativist arrogance and universal responsibility. Both these postures are responses to a deep intuition that as a people we are chosen. The critical Jewish question then is “Chosen for what?” Here we do well to consider answers proffered by others who were not born into the swirling pathologies and privileges of present day Jewish life. We have much to learn about ourselves especially from those who, identifying with the Jewish drama, think they know who we really are.
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 2 grandchildren.
This Isn’t About Her, It’s About You
CARYN AVIV: Candidly, dear reader, I don’t think this question is about your girlfriend. I think this is all about you. The deeper question you might want to ask yourself is: “What does Judaism and Jewishness mean to me?” If your girlfriend’s interest is genuine, what is it about knowing who you are and where you come from that feels “cheapening”? What feels threatening about making connections across minority experiences? What remains difficult, unresolved or unclear for you about being Jewish?
You’re right, not all minority identities are the same. That your partner recognizes some overlap about exclusion and suffering is a good start. It means she has empathy: the capacity and willingness to learn about Judaism with you, and from you. Do you have the willingness to be her guide? Do you have an interest in exploring Judaism together?
Your girlfriend is probably looking to you for guidance. As she learns more about Judaism and Jewishness, she’ll come to her own insights about points of intersection and divergence. The clearer you get about your own relationship to Judaism and being Jewish, the better guide you’ll be to your partner.
I see this dilemma as a great opportunity. It’s a moment to express gratitude to your partner for her interest in who you are. And it’s an opportunity to figure out your own stuff.
Dr. Caryn Aviv is Associate Director of Judaism Your Way, an outreach organization based in Denver. She has taught Jewish and Israel Studies in university settings, co-founded two Jewish start-ups, and published research on contemporary Jewish culture for scholarly and popular audiences. Last year she began rabbinical studies through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.