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Should I Shlep Him to Shul?
My non-Jewish husband says he is willing to join me for high holiday services this year, our first as a married couple. I appreciate this gesture, but am a little nervous to have him come. This will be his first impression of a temple service, and it is a lot to handle even for Jews at my Reform shul. My fear is that this will turn him off, and be less interested in joining a shul in the future. Should I tell him not to come? Or try to prepare him in some way?—Occupied in Ohio
How My Wife Made Me Feel Comfortable
JIM KEEN: By all means, have your husband come to services with you. Although I agree that the High Holiday services are a lot to experience, especially for a first-timer, they are a beautiful way to welcome him to your temple. Just don’t go into it without first providing your husband with some background knowledge.
Tell your husband what to expect. Let him know how much Hebrew there will be. Let him know the order of the service and the length of it. Talk about the different rituals, such as the blowing of the Shofar, and what they mean. You can also tell him that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very different services.
I would also recommend that you sit with family or friends, if possible. (Think of going to a spouse’s office party—sitting next to a familiar face often adds a feeling of comfort and support.) Also, try to have a celebratory meal planned with friends during the holidays. This could be the beginning of a wonderful tradition for the both of you.
I remember my first High Holiday service at my wife’s synagogue. She said for me not to worry about not understanding the Hebrew, and instead to focus on the bigger picture. Even for her, someone who can follow along with the Hebrew, her greatest joy during services is feeling connected to the community and knowing that Jews all over the world are doing the same thing. When I heard it explained to me like that, I stopped stressing about being bewildered and instead started watching her enjoy the service. That was enough for me right there.
Jim Keen is the author of “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” He has been in an interfaith relationship for 28 years, and has been an active participant with his wife in raising their two Jewish daughters. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Jim teaches in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Start with Shabbat
SUSAN KATZ MILLER: Absolutely encourage him to join you. It can be lonely going to services without your spouse. For over 50 years, my Christian mother has attended High Holidays with my Jewish father. And my Christian husband has attended them with me for over 25 years now, even though we brought up our children with both religions. You are lucky to have a spouse who is willing to do this for you, and seems interested in learning more about your religion.
All that said, I would like to suggest some ways to make it easier for him to have a positive experience:
If you can, start with Shabbat, rather than High Holidays. There’s still time this year. Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday! Even if that means saying blessings in your home, rather than going to synagogue, you can help him to learn some of the basics of Jewish prayer in the privacy of your own home, before his first Yom Kippur.
Choose one or two High Holiday services for him to attend this year, rather than all of them. Let him work his way up, over the next year maybe, to going to all of them, if that’s what you usually do. With no Hebrew and little sense of the history and meanings, the long hours of multiple services could indeed be a disincentive to return.
Prepare him by going through the services(s) you plan to attend ahead of time, and describing some of the key themes and prayers and melodies. Together, read the excellent guide to the High Holidays at InterfaithFamily.com.
Perhaps for next year, explore your options in terms of Jewish communities in your geographic area, and find one that will be fully supportive of your interfaith family, where he will feel comfortable, and where the services are accessible.
Susan Katz Miller is both an adult interfaith child, and an interfaith parent. She is a former Newsweek reporter, and the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family” (Beacon Press).
Remember, He Has No Baggage
SCOTT PERLO: A fair question. Bringing a non-Jew to the High Holidays might feel like you’re taking someone who’s never played football to the Super Bowl – and then asking him to call first down.
In my experience, non-Jews don’t tend to feel the way you’re concerned he might. This is because they don’t carry the baggage about Judaism that we do. For your fellow service-goers, Rosh Hashanah is like their mom telling them to put on a sweater: even once is too much, let alone hours of repetition. Your husband doesn’t have those associations. Would attending a service of his faith with him (or, if not a service, a family reunion) fascinate you? He’s likely to be intrigued too, and may gain much from the experience. Newcomers often see the beauty that old hands, jaded over a lifetime, take for granted. The holidays may speak to him. They may even speak to you anew through his eyes.
It’s a hard to know exactly how to answer without knowing him better. But I think what you might ask yourself is, at your shul, will people be nice to him? In this, I don’t mean welcoming to non-Jews, specifically (though that’s a plus). I just mean whether that shul is generally a warm place, and whether he’ll like the environment. How people treat each other speaks as loud as any sermon.
Also, a book or two wouldn’t hurt. I love Alan Lew’s (z’’l) “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.” Make sure he hears the shofar; May God bless you both with a sweet new year.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
Is Yom Kippur Too Much for Hubby?