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My boyfriend won’t answer my calls on Shabbat. Should we break up?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

I’m living in Israel for a few years, working in the Jerusalem office of an American company where I interned in college. When COVID came, I made the decision to stay in Israel. This was probably the right call, but everything changed day by day and I don’t have family here and don’t feel plugged into the system, if that makes sense, so I’ve felt pretty alone and foreign. My boyfriend is in America, and he’s Orthodox (he’s egalitarian in his Jewish practice, but his adherence to Jewish law is very traditional). We’ve argued a few times about eating in non-kosher restaurants, which is important to me as a way to live in the world and enjoy it, but he’s pretty stubborn. I love being Jewish and my community and Jewish learning, but he’s just so inflexible when it comes to the little things that make life navigable, such as buzzing up to an apartment on Shabbat.

When the lockdown was very strict here, there were a few times that I called him on Friday night. In Israel it was already Shabbat, but in America it was not. I was alone, isolated, worried, and very upset. He knew how hard this was for me, and yet he would not answer. Because it was Shabbat here. My friends say I’m being unfair; this is his practice. But I keep visualizing him walking around outside, bright as day on a Friday afternoon, looking at his phone and seeing my name, and clicking ‘X’.

Doesn’t he care about me at all? I feel so hurt. This was months ago, but I still carry it. He refuses to keep discussing it.

Why Does Shabbat Always Win?

dove flies through broken heart

Image by Liana finck

Dear Shabbat,

I had a friend who grew up in a household where her father would tell his children how much he loved them, but emphasize (jokingly and lovingly, but also seriously) that he loved God more. Some people hear this story and are moved by the piety he imparted to his children. The strength it takes to not be bowed by human love in the face of divine obligation. Some people hear this story and think, “‘What the hell! That’s a terrible thing for a father to say to his children!”’

Your letter reminded me of this story, because people really relate differently to religious obligation. For your boyfriend, this seems like a non-starter. In his understanding, and in the traditional ways that Jewish law has been interpreted, to answer your phone call on Shabbat is to break Jewish law. Of course, it was Shabbat for you and not for him, so I imagine his actions here might have seemed especially stubborn or even controlling (is he making you keep Shabbat?). And yet, almost all traditional Jews who practice as it sounds like your boyfriend does would not pick up that call, because participating in a Jew breaking Shabbat is understood to be against Jewish law.

This might seem ridiculous to you, but this is the law that Jews have kept alive for thousands of years, through all sorts of trying and inconvenient circumstances, simply because we’ve been a stubborn, stiff-necked people. Adhering to Jewish tradition holds the deepest meaning for many Jews. This is not a case of your boyfriend making you a low priority, but of your boyfriend making Shabbat the highest priority; he would go to great lengths, presumably, to not break Jewish law, including quitting his job if it became incompatible with Shabbat, or getting stuck in a random town and missing his sister’s wedding if a flight went awry on Friday and sunset came. Causing or enabling you to break Shabbat is just as forbidden. Keeping the law is a big, big deal. It’s a lifelong project, and one in which you are clearly not on board. That’s your prerogative, but his devotion to Jewish law doesn’t put him in the wrong.

Rather, I’m struck by the ways in which you two did not come up with other methods to ensure you got the emotional support you needed in those early months. For example, your boyfriend could have left a loving voicemail before Shabbat, so you could still hear his voice even when he couldn’t answer the phone. He could have sent you long emails to be read on Shabbat. He could have had food delivered to your apartment, or sent along surprise flowers. There are so many ways to make a person feel loved when we really care, and it sounds like none of those ways made their way to the surface.

I don’t want to say you two don’t truly care for one another — who could ever see inside a relationship? — but I think the problems run deeper than Shabbat. It sounds like you might struggle to feel cared for in this relationship in other ways as well, and this incident may be simply the clearest example you can point to. His refusal to further discuss the issue might mean he doesn’t want to engage with your pain, or it might mean he feels dramatically unsupported in his religious life, by you, and these conversations are hurtful to him.

Either way, I think it is time for you both to have a hard conversation.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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