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Is It Right To Ditch Secular Relatives for the High Holidays?

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. Join the discussion by commenting on this post, sharing it on Facebook or following the Forward on Twitter. And keep the questions coming. You can email your quandaries, which will remain anonymous, to: seesaw@forward.com

Would it Be So Bad if We Spent the Holidays with More Observant Jews?

My wife and I are the only practicing Jews in our generation. We’re not Orthodox, but more religious than we were raised, sometimes facing disapproval in becoming so. Our family members of the same generation, on the other hand, are exclusively cultural Jews or have turned their backs on Jewishness entirely. None has a Jewish spouse.

Around the holidays my family gets together, but there is a chasm between how reverent my wife and I are towards the holidays as religious, spiritual festivals and how our relatives feel about them as occasions to see family and eat good food. I love family and I love good food too, but to me that’s what Thanksgiving is about, with Passover and Rosh Hashanah being something more. I try not to be judgmental, but it feels strange to attend a Yom Kippur break-the-fast with people who haven’t fasted.

Is it OK to feel spiritually unfulfilled amidst a secular commemoration of a religious occasion? Is it forgivable to want to celebrate a religious holiday with people who enjoy it in the same way I do, even if it means not celebrating it with my relatives?

Jews Need One Another, Even Your Family

ALANA SUSKIN: As it happens, this is a perfect question to ask during the High Holidays, as there is a midrash for Sukkot that directly addresses the matter:

Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 30:12) states that the four species taken on Sukkot parallel four different types of Jews: The Etrog which has both taste and smell represents Jews with both Torah and good deeds. The Lulav which has taste but no smell represents Jews with Torah but without good deeds. The Hadassim which have smell but no taste represent Jews with good deeds but without Torah. And the Aravot which have no taste or smell represent Jews that have neither Torah nor good deeds.

The Midrash concludes that God commands the Jewish people to tie all four species together, to demonstrate that all Jews need one another.

Although it doesn’t feel spiritual to you, spending time with family at a holiday meal is a ritual — and it may be all the ritual your family members get. Perhaps you can take this as an opportunity to teach them. You don’t want to come across as proselytizing, but you can explain the rituals as you move through them, which might alleviate some of your feelings and also make memories for the younger family members. Some of the non-Jewish spouses might even find your religious observance interesting.

Try and figure out a way that you can both spend part of the day fulfilling your religious obligations without abandoning your family during the meals. Remember, your family won’t be there forever: children will grow up, the elderly will pass on. Don’t regret that you weren’t able to spend time with them when you had it.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is a writer, educator, and activist. She sits on the executive committee of [T’ruah]( The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is a Managing Editor of Jewschool, a leading Jewish faith blog, and was a founding fellow of Clal’s project, Rabbis Without Borders. She is the Director of Strategic Communications for Americans for Peace Now. ‘T’ruah’): The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, is a Managing Editor of Jewschool, a leading Jewish faith blog, and was a founding fellow of Clal’s project, Rabbis Without Borders. She is the Director of Strategic Communications for Americans for Peace Now.*

We Jews Are Growing Increasingly Diverse

STEVEN COHEN: This response is going to sound like the doctor who tells you that your ailment is quite common (“It’s going around”), but that there’s no real cure. In so many ways, your observations speak to a major trend in American Jewish life today.

You and your wife feel isolated as a religious couple amidst a sea of Jews who define themselves as culturally Jewish. Such Jews generally find meaning in four areas, each of which starts with the letter F: Family, Food, Festivals and Fear.

Indeed, according to the recently conducted Pew survey of American Jews, only about 15% of American Jews think being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion. While that number rises to about 50% among the Orthodox, it falls among other Jews (12% among Reform Jews, for instance). Instead, “ancestry” and “culture” predominate among Conservative, Reform and non-denominational Jews. So, your experience as a Jewish “religious minority” is to be expected.

Your comments also touch upon a larger and even more significant trend: We Jews are growing increasingly diverse as a group and idiosyncratic as individuals. We certainly maintain our differences around religion and culture, but we also experience even sharper differences around Israel. We have all sorts of combinations: pro-Israel advocates, pro-Israel critics, right-wing Zionists, left-wing Zionists, non-Zionists, alienated from Israel, and indifferent to Israel. If you really want to experience a sense of difference and distance with and from your Jewish friends and family, try talking about Israel!

This is all to say that finding a community of Jews with similar approaches to being Jewish is exceedingly difficult nowadays and becoming more so. That means, if we’re to remain a community and a people, we all need to negotiate our deeply held beliefs and preferences with varieties of friends and family whose approaches may not resemble our own.

The Rabbis enjoined us not to separate from the community. That injunction is becoming harder and harder to fulfill. Your experience is clear testimony to that.

Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

They Still Want to Celebrate

RUTH NEMZOFF: You can feel whatever you want, however it is not always wise to act on feelings alone. Your desire to have a spiritually rewarding holiday does not preclude you from spending time with your secular family. It is wonderful that despite their few spiritual feelings your family wants to somehow mark both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

If geography allows, you could invite the family to your house, as well as some observant friends. If the meal takes place at your home, you should certainly perform whatever rituals you feel adds to your religious and spiritual life. Be sure and provide explanations and transliterations so that your family members feel comfortable no matter what their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Alternatively, you could also ask the host or hostess for three minutes of time to share some thoughts or light the candles, make Kiddush and bless the apples and honey. Or, you could perform rituals privately and then enjoy your family dinner. Luckily, you can observe two days of Rosh Hashanah and spend one with your family and one with more observant Jews.

Judaism is not meant to serve as a wedge amongst family members. You are fortunate that you love your family and they want to spend time with you. If you approach your family with an open heart and mind rather than a holier-than-thou attitude, you are less likely to incur disapproval. The holidays are giving your family, regardless of how they view the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) a chance to give love to one another. There are many ways to be spiritually fulfilled and being loved by family is one way.

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.

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