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BINTEL BRIEFI love traditional Rosh Hashanah services, but my wife says no to gender-segregated seating

In 1975, Bintel said the husband gets ‘the last word.’ That won’t fly today. But how to resolve differences in High Holiday practices remains an intriguing question

Editor’s note: The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. This letter was first printed Sept. 5, 1975, then republished as a “Legacy Bintel” with a new response on Sept. 19, 2020, when many synagogues moved their services online for the first time. With the High Holidays upon us for the fourth time since the COVID-19 shutdown began, we’re revisiting the letter along with both responses. Let us know your thoughts: [email protected].

Dear Bintel:

My wife and I have been together for over 20 years and are content. Our household is Jewish and our two sons both received a Jewish education.

I’m not the most observant Jew, but I belong to an Orthodox synagogue. I looked for a shul that reminded me of home, similar to the one my father attended. For many years now I’ve been a member of a synagogue where there are other Eastern European-born congregants and that makes me feel connected. With even more time to spare, I’d spend it at that shul.

My wife keeps a kosher kitchen and attends Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services with me. But lately she’s begun talking about us attending holiday services at the temple where her American-born relatives participate. She’s attended bar mitzvahs several times there and very much enjoyed men and women sitting together for services.

Seeing as my wife has relatives and a few friends who belong there, it suited her to follow that popular American style of services, and as the holidays drew near, she started up again complaining about me schlepping her to that old forsaken shul where men and women don’t sit together and services are conducted in that antiquated way from back in the old country that the Nazi murderers snuffed out.

It’s precious to me and I love it.

My wife and I get along very well, but her issues were starting to get to me. When the holidays rolled around this time and once more she began talking about going to the temple for services, once and for all I just told her she can decide anything for us, but not this. I told her in no uncertain terms that talking to me about this was fruitless because I won’t abandon my synagogue. Now she’s going around all annoyed and it’s rather unpleasant for me.

She maintains that she’s right and wants to know your opinion. I hope you’ll answer my letter and I thank you so much.

M. Ben Moshe

The Forward‘s answer from 1975:

Your wife, who has become a bit American in character, has absolutely no right to tell you what type of synagogue you should belong to and where you ought to daven. It seems she’s attracted to that temple where her American relatives and friends belong, but she must understand that in such situations, her husband has the last word.

As she doesn’t know how much you love your Orthodox synagogue that reminds you of your old home, she mustn’t pressure you so urgently to follow her directive.

We live in a country where everyone has the right to live however they see fit. Your wife surely knows this and so it’s offensive on her part that she’s trying to force you to attend a synagogue that’s not your style. We hope your wife will see that she’s wrong and will stop bellowing and fuming.

The Forward‘s take in 2020:

As the current Bintel Brief respondent, I am glad I don’t have to answer this letter. It’s a difficult one! The letter reflects a tension that many of us feel as the High Holidays approach — sometimes, what gives us religious inspiration and comfort is more about aesthetics and nostalgia than it is about rational values. Many of us have certain dishes, certain prayer tunes, even particular items of clothing, which make Rosh Hashanah feel like Rosh Hashanah. For this letter writer, it is the traditional, old-school European service that draws him in, for whatever reason.

I understand why he can’t be placated by a more modern-style service. We can’t replicate what moves us, by will or by choice. But I’m disappointed that the editors show so little compassion for his wife! Surely, they understand that for her, these services are distant and difficult to follow. And yet, they prioritize his religious experience over her own, and with so much confidence. I wish we could suggest that they split up for the services, though that seems not to be an option. But otherwise, there is no way to make this a win-win.

I chose this letter for this week both because I think it is a question that many couples encounter — what to do when each of you want to attend different High Holiday services — but also because I think many of us, in this COVID-19 year of 2020, will find ourselves at services that do not feel like the Rosh Hashanah we know and love. That will be hard, in all the ways that make this husband so resistant to his wife’s desired change of services. But unlike this husband, we have no choice. So this letter reminds me that sometimes there can be a value in having our desired venue of prayer shaken up a bit, and that others have encountered similar problems in the past.

Shana Tova!

Shira Telushkin

Do you have an opinion about this Bintel, or a question of your own? We’d love to hear from you. Email [email protected].

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