Beyond The Labels

Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

We are visiting Non-Local Sibling #1 & Non-Local Sibling #1’s Spouse for a weekend. NLS#1 called to discuss plans. NLS#1 & NLS#1’s Spouse are planning a traditional Shabbat dinner. Lighting candles, wine, challah (traditional braided bread eaten on Shabbat), and z’mirot (traditional Shabbat songs) followed by board games. NLS#1 said that NLS#1’s Spouse was really looking forward to this traditional Friday night!

Shabbat dinner with NLS#1 & NLS#1’s Spouse, perhaps? Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

This wouldn’t be all that remarkable except for one minor detail: NLS#1’s Spouse is not Jewish. And NLS#1 is largely disconnected from Jewish religious practice and the Jewish people.

About NLS#1 and Me

NLS#1 and I were raised by the same awesome parents. Attended the same synagogue, Hebrew School, Jewish summer camp and had pretty positive experiences. But as smart parents know, you really can’t predict or control how your kids ultimately turn out, and siblings with the same genetics and raised the same way could turn out completely different. I wound up getting more active in Jewish communities, joining multiple synagogues, keeping Shabbat, keeping Yom Tov, etc. And although NLS#1 emained deeply respectful of family traditions, NLS#1 disengaged from much of Jewish practice and community.

I don’t want to sounds like I’m bashing NLS#1. On the contrary! NLS#1 grew up to be an exceptionally competent, skilled adult: impressive full-time career, a talented artist, becoming extremely skilled at many complex home improvement and home décor projects, well-traveled, conversant in another language and learning another one, successfully convincing the parents / parents-in-law to take care of health/financial matters without pissing them off. In contrast, I…well, you’ve read this blog. Nothing about this blog says competence.

Also, NLS#1’s Spouse is amazing, and they are a perfect match and they truly love each other. I am overjoyed to have NLS#1’s Spouse as a sibling-in-law. NLS#1’s Spouse is never going to convert to Judaism, and I do not care.

“The Religious One”

When I became Shomer Shabbat and started going to Orthodox families for Shabbat meals, my Orthodox hosts were quick to label me as a “ba’al teshuvah” (a person who grows up not religious and becomes religious – actually, the feminine form is “ba’alat teshuvah“). They meant it with admiration and respect. (I know not all Orthodox communities are quite so kind and respectful to BTs, but mine was/is). It really wasn’t true because I didn’t grow up totally non-religious (actually, the real ba’al teshuvah in the family is my father) and I wasn’t Orthodox. But many people would hear “I’m now Shomer Shabbat” and jump to conclusions. But even my family, who really should have known better, kind of labeled me as “the religious one”.

Intermarriage

When I was growing up, the Conservative movement talked about marrying outside of Judaism as if it was the worst thing a Jew could do. Intermarriage was viewed as an existential threat to the Jewish people. Intermarriage would lead to the assimilation of the Jewish people. Intermarriage was viewed as “grant[ing] Hitler a posthumous victory”. Intermarriage was compared to the Holocaust at a Jewish federation conference in 1991.

Now there is truth to the assimilation fears. The Pew Research Center report on Jewish Americans in 2020 (full report here) found that intermarried Jewish parents are much less likely to be raising their children Jewish than Jews married to a Jewish spouse. (I should add that Pew found that 47% of non-Orthodox Jews had non-Jewish spouses, with 6 out of 10 of those who married within the last decade have a non-Jewish spouse – the point being that intermarried Jews comprise a significant segment of the population.) But nearly half of young adult children of intermarriage are still Jewish and 57% of intermarried couples say they are raising their kids Jewish (these rates are much lower than those of Jews married to Jewish spouses).

Still, the Pew survey only tells us correlations, not causation. Does intermarriage really cause one to assimilate? Or were the people who intermarry already assimilated / likely to assimilate? Or would intermarried couples be more likely to remain connected if the community were more accepting? This article suggests the latter. And this piece suggests that the Conservative Movement’s failure to retain young people could be related to its previous rejection of intermarried couples, leading those couples to the more welcoming Reform movement.

The Irony

But my personal takeaways aren’t really about the macros of Jewish community or continuity.

NLS#1 & NLS#1’s Spouse spend time taking classes at their synagogue. Actually “their synagogue” is a misnomer – they also participate in more than one synagogue. They especially like classes before the Jewish holidays. Before High Holidays last year, they bought a Machzor workbook and took the time to actually do the exercises and have a reflective experience. They excelled in both the ‘spiritual’ and practical preparations of Passover – taking classes and planning discussion points for the seder, in addition to the cleaning and kashering. They mail holiday cards to everyone.

I’m “the religious one” and every holiday winds up being a clusterfuck when it comes to the preparations, even though you’d think Husband and I would be good at this by now. I don’t do any Jewish learning at all these days. Partly because I don’t love learning and also, see aforementioned Yom Tov clusterfuck. We spent Passover at a hotel. We have never sent holiday cards. And I’m so burnt out from, among other responsibilities, Jewish community ones, that I, “the religious one”, booked a last-minute, impulsive, frivolous vacation that compromises Shabbat observance.

The Limits of Labels

I remind myself not to make assumptions based on labels, self-applied or other-applied. I try hard not to apply the labels to myself or others. Labels can be true (or hypocritical and fraudulent) but even if true, they are often misleading.

Step away from the Sharpies. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

28 comments

  1. My brain is full. I don’t know how you keep track of everything, but as I got to the end, I see your brain is full, also. We never send out holiday cards, either. And while we have gone from attending church regularly to C&Es to just don’t go anymore, what’s the use after being kicked out of 4 Methodist Churches for my radical ideas about souls not going to heaven, the resurrection of the body, and saying Jesus was not a Christain? What’s one to do? I digress. While I’m considered the least religious one in the family, by the family, I know way more about theology than the religious ones. But theology is stuffy and academic compared to praise songs and rah, rah, rah for the infallible Bible. So many Christians have gotten so far off course they forget that Christianity is all about worshipping Jesus Christ. I digress again. I agree that one shouldn’t make assumptions based on labels. I hope you have a hell of a great time at your last-minute, impulsive, frivolous vacation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, 4 churches sounds like a record of sorts! The synagogues I’ve been a member of don’t care what you believe as long as you behave in a respectful manner when there, and if you volunteer for any one of a number of thankless jobs, they’ll welcome you happily, no matter what your personal beliefs*. I think this is because Judaism is a more action-oriented religion rather than belief-oriented one.
      But yeah, the assumptions that not believing in specific tenets = less religious = less theologically literate is unfair and inaccurate.

      *In the hyper-polarized political world of today, I’ve been hearing that people with unpopular political beliefs are being made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their own congregations. I think this is sad and unfortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That was what was so unique about Christianity being faith based and caring about what you believed and your actions where secondary. That has spilled over into political correctness and the nanny-state mentality.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s sad to me when people feel unwelcome in synagogues because of their political views, (regardless of whether I agree or disagree with the views themselves). Rabbis have a long standing tradition of disagreeing with each other! I’m convinced the political labels of today barely reflect what people actually think (I may be wrong) and yet, we make so many judgments based on them.

          Liked by 1 person

          • For some people politics is their religion, and they can be very intolerant of ideologies they don’t agree with.

            There was a time when disputation and rhetoric were major components of Christian theology, and disagreement was a major part of the process. Rabbis and theologians have had great traditions of disagreeing with each other, and among themselves. That has not spilled over into politics.

            I have friends who are polar opposite from me on politics, but we have so many other things in common, that politics are a minor part of our relationships. I agree that most of the time political labels don’t reflect what people really think. The political labels are much too simple for the complexity of most people’s thinking. I think the exceptions are career politicians who often tend to be as simple as their political labels.

            Liked by 1 person

    • There’s only so much one can capture in a single post while respecting my family members’ anonymity. I am overall very fortunate. Everyone gets along and is respectful. And I didn’t mention my parents’ reaction to NLS#1 marrying outside the faith – my parents also adore my non-Jewish sibling-in-law and are incredibly happy for them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I found this to be a very humorous take on the complicated dynamics of interacting with non-observant relatives. What made me chuckle more was “…every holiday winds up being a clusterfuck when it comes to the preparations, even though you’d think Husband and I would be good at this by now.” I like to eat, but I don’t like to prepare, so getting ready for the holiday meals is quite a job for me. I learned something from a dear friend, an older woman, who passed away some time ago. She would have big holiday meals with lots of people in attendance. Her secret was to prepare lots of food in advance and freeze it. So I’ll be making my honey cake shortly, as well as roast and chicken, then plop the whole lot in the freezer. Of course, any salads will have to be made the day of, or the night before the holiday. Thank G-d I’ve got stuff to serve. Anyway, wishing you a healthy, prosperous, and sweet new year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to say, these “non-observant” relatives are incredibly accommodating and clearly invested in Jewish learning and exploration.
      I’ve never managed to get my act together enough in advance to do any preparations in advance. I’m going away for most of the fall holidays. I told myself that if I want to mail new year’s cards for Rosh Hashanah, now is the time to start planning. We’ll see if that happens! Early Shana Tova to you as well!

      Like

  3. The more I of your posts I read the more life complicating layers I see. Do you consider Judaism a benefit or complication? I can’t tell. I can say it reads as very complicated. Ancient culture, tradition and religious ritual running in parallel with modern lifestyle appears to be a conflict. Surely, these are meant to enhance your lived experience rather than complicate them. Mind you, I am struggling to see how that can possibly work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You bring up an interesting point. I do consider Judaism a benefit overall, but there are things that I struggle with from a practical, philosophical, and societal perspective (and they aren’t all the same things). My blog seems unbalanced because it’s a space where I’m venting about the challenges, but my life is not devoid of joy. I am recognizing that I should cut or change things that aren’t working, especially re: Shabbat observance, though I’m also not fully comfortable yet telling my family and community, or even secular friends/coworkers (although I did just tell the internet). I could see traditional Shabbat observance being something I go back to someday in the future. But you do bring up a very good point.

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    • If one lives in a community that maintains these traditions, it’s infinitely more manageable in the modern world, and keeps such communities together to a large extent… it’s much harder to do as a modern person living apart from such a Jewish community.

      -David

      Liked by 1 person

    • I deliberately masked NLS#1’s gender for this post. I didn’t want the comments of “at least their children will be halachically Jewish” / “Their children won’t be halachically Jewish; this is a tragedy”. My sibling and sibling-in-law are more than mere agents of reproduction, and I’d feel the same way about their marriage regardless of NLS#’s gender.
      Also, there are no guarantees in life. Everyone thought my married-by-an-Orthodox-Rabbi-to-a-Cohein marriage would produce Jewish children. (Literally, someone at my wedding told my mom she’d be a grandmother in 9 months – a busybody’s prediction that didn’t bear out). NLS#1 & NLS#1’s Spouse are much more likely to raise Jewish children at this point. (They don’t have children yet either, but the odds are better that they will).

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      • I don’t think that would be a tragedy at all – I just think it would make their children’s lives easier if they want to be members of the Jewish community. And I think we (Jews who are active and relatively knowledgeable members of the Jewish community) all think about such matters.

        I don’t see the connection between what that guest at your wedding said and the Jewish status of your sibling’s children – one is, at best, a segula that isn’t founded on anything of substance that I’m aware of; and the other is a black-and-white halakhic matter that affects real people’s lives.

        Liked by 1 person

        • There are halachic implications. But they are only significant to sibling & spouse, and their children and future generations if sibling&spouse ascribe importance to the halachic implications, as they are the decision makers of their choices. Ultimately, it’s up to sibling&spouse to figure out the how/when/if of their children.

          I’m think communities would do better to make engagement the focal point more so than intermarriage.

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          • I agree with you regarding engagement, but I think you’d agree that it’s not black-and-white, right? It’s not either full acceptance or no acceptance, right? A form of acceptance could be – we want you to be a part of our community, but you are not Jewish so certain ritual aspects of community participation are not for you.

            Anyway, that’s not really the norm, I think. Most places go black-and-white’ish, in one way or another. I mean – there’s the ideal that I hold, and then there’s the real world, which doesn’t care what I think.

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          • I have been seeing non-Orthodox congregations, particularly those that cater to or have a sizeable population of interfaith families put out guidelines for participation for the non-Jewish member, in order to address the ritual concerns. I think that makes sense. I can’t speak to how many congregations do this. I’ve been exploring the possibility of moving and in looking up synagogues in other areas, I noticed some synagogues with guides right on the website.

            Liked by 1 person

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