The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
My Brother May Not Come to My Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah
We are a tale of two brothers. Raised Modern Orthodox, I married out and am now raising my family as Reform Jews in Brooklyn. My brother became increasingly observant and now lives a Yeshivish life. We had no siblings and both of our parents passed away. This year my daughter is becoming a Bat Mitzvah and, as one does, I invited my family. I have not heard back from my brother yet as to whether he will come.
Here’s the thing Seesaw. My brother and I were best friends as children and still speak regularly and probably know one another better, or at least as well, as anyone else. I love him and it would mean so much to me to have him at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Do I push him on this because we are family — really one another’s only family? (Also, I know exceptions are often made in these matters.) Or do I let it go because I know this goes against his beliefs?—Bewildered in Brooklyn
Ask Your Brother to Reach Across the Aisle
KEREN MCGINITY: What exactly “goes against” your brother’s beliefs: your intermarriage, your daughter’s Jewish identity, egalitarian Judaism, or something else? If roles were reversed, would any of these factors be a reason why you wouldn’t accept the invitation and attend such an important family simcha?
Your daughter being called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah is worth a little sibling confrontation, especially given your childhood bond and ongoing relationship. Lately many people erroneously think that responding to invitations is optional rather than derigeur so requesting an answer is not pushing. Express your strong wish for your brother to attend, acknowledge the Jewish differences, and offer to find hospitality that will enable him to come without breaking Shabbat. Seek out a local Chabad willing to help accommodate folks from other Brooklyns. Ask your brother to find it in his heart, and perhaps seek his rabbi’s blessing, to make an exception even if the logistics are not Yeshivish perfect.
Major lifecycle events can bring people together or drive them apart. My daughter will ascend the bima at the end of January and I am likewise navigating fraught issues with family members (and chasing RSVPs!). One cousin who is Orthodox-by-marriage, will use his “Shabbat car” to attend her Bat Mitzvah while his Orthodox-Israeli wife remains home because she is uncomfortable in our non-Orthodox synagogue. I assured them that the Kiddush food will be strictly kosher but that did not change her mind. I am grateful that my cousin is prioritizing our relationship over Jewish law and his wife’s adherence to it.
Jewish pluralism is a reality and the more that Jews of all stripes reach across the denominational aisle, the stronger our collective faith and global family. Whatever your brother decides, you will know that you tried. On your daughter’s big day, focus on who is there and your cup will be full of blessings.
Dr. Keren R. McGinity is an author-educator affiliated with Brandeis University. Her books include the newly released “Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood” and “Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America”, a National Jewish Book Award finalist. Learn more at www.loveandtradition.com.
Don’t Push Him
HAROLD BERMAN: One of the great challenges Orthodox Jews have is to remain faithful to their values while maintaining a loving relationship with family members who live very different lives. Despite everything, you and your brother have each maintained strong bonds to the other, which speaks well of both of you, and gives reason for hope.
That you speak regularly, yet he hasn’t responded, suggests he is uncomfortable, and may have some religious issues with attending but also doesn’t want to hurt your feelings or the relationship.
Before writing, I consulted with a well-respected rabbi in Israel about the many issues involved. Among several others, there are issues of an Orthodox Jew praying or having an aliyah to the Torah in a synagogue with no mechitzah; concerns about whether his presence would give some a false impression; the practical matter of whether the food at the reception will be kosher so he can eat it, or whether aspects of his participation might violate traditional Shabbat observance.
Then there is your relationship. While some will automatically assume it is your brother who should compromise in deference to the relationship, the reality is that both of you have made specific life choices that have led each of you in very different directions which impact the current situation.
You need to have a heart-to-heart talk. You definitely shouldn’t push him, or he may see no other option than to push back. Make sure your conversation is open, and that you fully understand his position, and he understands yours. Be prepared that he might say no, even though he loves you; but see if there are things you can do that will make his attendance possible. Above all else, keep your relationship strong, even if your divergent paths may sometimes cause disappointment.
Harold Berman is a veteran Jewish communal professional, and the Director of J-Journey.org, which provides mentoring and support for intermarried families exploring the possibilities of observant Jewish life. Harold is also, with his wife Gayle, the co-author of “Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope,” about their “intermarriage gone Jewish.”
Perhaps There is a Different Way You Can Celebrate This Milestone Together
JAMES PONET: I urge you to meet soon with your brother to talk over the impending bat mitzvah and to air your feelings and concerns openly. Perhaps this will be hard for you particularly if your conversations these days are mostly polite and formal.
Do you have it in yourself to tell him that you would love for him to be there, that it would mean a lot to all of you, but you understand it might not be possible? If you can convey to him that you respect the structures and constraints of his religious life, that you do not want him and his family to feel uncomfortable, you will simultaneously open new possibilities. For once he knows it will be okay for him not to be there, it will become much easier for him to think about how he and his family might respond to and be part of their niece’s life celebration.
Who knows? There might well be new ways for your families to get together in conscious celebration of this turning point in your daughter’s life. I am sure you want her to feel how lucky she is that she has Orthodox relatives, uncle, aunt and cousins, who although they observe Judaism differently, love her and are happy for her.
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 5 grandchildren.
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