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Why Does My Hubby Fidget at the Shabbat Dinner Table

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 for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]

He Pretends Not to Know the Words to the Kiddush

In a totally predictable move, I started to become more interested in Shabbat after I had kids, thus surprising my half-secular Jewish, half-nothing husband. Now I have two sons, almost 3 and 5, and I make an attempt to bring us all around the table to light the candles on Friday night — albeit never on time.

My husband participates in a sense. He picks up the challah from the store and recites the prayer over the wine, but he never really seems focused and often makes a show about not really knowing the words — especially when guests are around. Worst of all, he appears distracted and fidgets when I light the candles or sing Shabbat songs afterwards with my kids. Should I be grateful that he participates to the degree he does? Or is it reasonable to expect him to enter a slightly introspective state in honor of a day that has real meaning for me and his sons who go to a Jewish preschool and love Shabbat? — Wife of Distracted in Dallas

Your Kids Need a United Front

JIM KEEN: Despite your husband’s ambivalence toward Judaism, your sons’ Jewish identity would benefit from a unified front. If the two of you agreed to raise your children as Jews, then it follows that both of you should deliver the same message to your boys.

If your husband continues to model an inconsistent attitude toward your sons’ religious upbringing, your sons will definitely pick up on it and become conflicted about their own Judaism.

Talk to your husband and suggest that this is an opportunity to develop your own Jewish family traditions and memories. Your boys are almost 3 and 5 right now, but it won’t be long before the family is pulled in a million directions. When the boys start having after-school activities, getting together for a peaceful Friday night dinner will become a major challenge.

As you create these traditions, is there something that your husband would like to add to it so that he feels more comfortable or connected? Perhaps picking out kippot for himself and the boys, a walk after dinner, or a game in the family room would help. Above all else, make this a time to enjoy your family. Cherish it; these days go by all too quickly.

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.

Find Out What Is Really Going On

SUSAN KATZ MILLER: I don’t think you should just ignore his obvious discomfort. Nor do I think expecting or asking him to change will have the desired effect. For the sake of your relationship, you need to find out how he feels, and why. Otherwise, his discomfort, and your own resentment, could deepen over time.

So sit down (without the kids), let him explain his feelings, and talk this out. If he tells you he’s a secular humanist or atheist, and the theist language is really bothering him, take a look, together, at the Shabbat prayers adapted by Humanistic Judaism. Many secular or cultural Jews feel inspired by Jewish ritual when it emphasizes humanism. He might be glad to take a more active role if your Shabbat celebration acknowledges his own beliefs, at least on some weeks.

Or, perhaps the problem is that he would really like to be a part of Shabbat but just did not grow up with and never learned the prayers that you and your children are reciting. In this case, if you help him find and learn the transliterated prayers, maybe he would be able to join in. He might even be interested in a “Judaism 101” course at your synagogue or Jewish community center.

Or, it’s possible that he simply is not comfortable participating in religious rituals at all. If this is the case, it will help if he gets to tell you this, and you get to hear him, and tell him that you accept that this is how he feels. Tell him that you respect his beliefs, and hope that he respects yours, and that it still means a lot to you and the children to have him present at Shabbat. Perhaps if his feelings are acknowledged, he will join you as a loving and supportive father on Shabbat, even if he does not say prayers.

I also strongly suggest that you both read Dale McGowan’s excellent new book on marriage between secular and religious people, called In Faith and In Doubt. He documents how this subset of “mixed marriages” can work. And he describes how children can benefit from exposure to the beliefs of both parents.

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).

He Needs to Find His Own Way In

SCOTT PERLO: John Locke once wrote, “And such is the nature of…understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.” As someone who spends much of his time persuading other people to consider different beliefs and ideas, Locke’s ideas have been watchwords for me. It is impossible to force another person to be spiritual, and that includes demanding introspection. The Talmud says it: “everything is in Heaven except for reverence of Heaven.” The one thing that God cannot control is what we believe.

I certainly understand why it gets to you, though. My yeshiva-educated father has been saying “hamotzi lechemMinnie Horowitz” for my entire life. That it irks me, I think, just increases his pleasure in the joke. Family.

I wonder if you’ve asked him why he’s doing it. I wonder if he’ll be able to answer. What you describe is clearly discomfort, whether from not knowing the blessings, not understanding why they matter, or not believing in God. It’d be helpful to clarify.

You could force him to pretend for the sake of the children, but I wouldn’t advise it. Something bitter grows when religious observance is put upon, even in small doses.

What you can do is see if he’s willing to find his way into a relationship with Shabbat dinner on his own terms. Ask if he’s open to trying to find meaning in the tradition — according to his own lights — so that you can share the meaning together. A good rabbi can help explain it all.

And one hard won lesson from years doing this work: if he laughs, laugh with him, and tell him you’re grateful that he’s there with you.

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.

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