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I am a half-Jewish woman (mom Jewish, but not raised very religious) dating a Modern Orthodox man. When I am around his mother he expects me to dress modestly and recite all the prayers, something I don’t always feel comfortable doing but go along with anyway. Should I keep respecting her, or put my foot down before it gets too late?
JAMES PONET: Let’s begin by noting that your self-presentation as a “half-Jewish woman” conflicts with Modern Orthodoxy’s understanding that you are fully Jewish, since Jewish law holds that status is conferred by the mother. Your man is therefore dating a Jewish woman whom he clearly hopes will find favor in his mother’s eyes. This gives you the opportunity to explore whether you wish to remain half-Jewish and not very religious or whether you want to claim a full Jewish identity and give expression to it by taking up its etiquette and ethos.
But it also puts you in a context shaped by authority and burdened with guilt. Your man struggles between obedience to norms he received from his mother (through which he enacts his love and loyalty to her) and his affection for you, a woman who lives without personal connection to these norms.
Entrance into this family will require some form of observance of Jewish law. I invite you to figure out what makes you uncomfortable. You may resent the power your man’s mother exercises over her son; you may feel that dressing “modestly” entails suppression of your own style; you may feel inauthentic as you eat, dress and pray in ways you have never done before.
Does your man really want to live his life out within the frame of Modern Orthodoxy or is he secretly delighted that with you he may find a way out? Is his observance merely a way of placating mama or does he feel beauty, wisdom, joy in the community of the observant? Seems to me that both of you need to find out. While you may indeed need someday to put your foot down, I hope you will first find a way to converse openly with your man about your and his fears, uncertainties, perplexities.
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.
JANE LARKIN: The Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesn’t require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parents’ choices.
Your boyfriend’s mother is not your mother, but she still deserves to be honored. After all, she is responsible for bringing him into the world and has shaped who he is today. She may also be your future mother-in-law and how you interact with her now will set the tone for your relationship. Keep in mind that in order to get respect, you have to show respect.
When my husband and I were dating, we went to his parents for Christmas. Before dinner, his mother read a prayer. This made me uncomfortable. I didn’t grow-up in a home that said blessings before a meal and I feared that her grace was going to be Jesus centric. It wasn’t, it didn’t even mention him, but it still made me tense.
Yet, I sat, listened, and said “amen.” This wasn’t my holiday or my home. Still, I felt it was important to be respectful of my future mother-in-law’s traditions, and show my future husband that I respected where he came from. Over the years, my in-laws have accorded me the same respect. They recognize and celebrate my religious upbringing and participate in the Jewish home that my husband and I have created.
If you’re worried that honoring your boyfriend’s request might lead him to ask you to embrace Modern Orthodoxy, then discuss your concerns with him. In the meantime, continue to respect his mother and her traditions. Use your visits as an opportunity to learn more about your boyfriend and his upbringing. If the romance ends, you can be proud of how you treated his mother and will have gained insight into another type of observance. If it leads to marriage, you will have the foundation for a respectful relationship.
Jane Larkin writes about parenting for InterfaithFamily.com, a website that supports interfaith families exploring Jewish life. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity.” She lives with her family in Dallas, TX.
RUTH NEMZOFF: First, figure out on whom or what you are putting your foot down…. your mother-in-law, Modern Orthodoxy, or your boyfriend? Then use what you discover about yourself to discuss your own religious feelings and beliefs with your boyfriend. Talk about how you plan to reconcile your religious differences and how you plan to relate to your families. Will he eat in your mother’s home? Will he remain Modern Orthodox and how will you participate?
If you and your boyfriend decide to remain together and not be religious, you may still decide to respect your mother-in-law much like you would cover your shoulders when you visit a church or a mosque. All of us, in our secular lives, dress to please or to make an impression. Men wear ties to interviews at big corporations, but t-shirts when playing soccer. Women wear long gowns to weddings but not to class or to the office.
In this case, it seems that you feel you are being forced to wear modest garments. Perhaps when you and your beau decide that your relationship is a permanent one, you will feel that honoring your boyfriend’s mother is worth the effort it entails. If you do marry, both of you will need to figure out a way to incorporate respect for your families into your lives, perhaps he will eat cold uncooked food at your mother’s and you will wear modest dress in her home, but not in your own. In any case, as long as you feel your mother in- law is controlling you rather than that you are honoring her, dress will be a source of tension.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family” is a resident scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is on the Board of Interfaithfamily.com.