Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“How and when,” podcast listener Robin asks our Facebook group, “do you tell your family that you’re dating a goychik? Especially when they won’t see it coming.”
Before we offer you our sagacious advice, Robin, big props for “goychik,” a word that we had never heard and now will use weekly, at least. For those who don’t get it, Robin has merged “goy,” the oft-derisive term for a non-Jew, with “boychik,” meaning a young man. Webster’s prefers the spelling “boychick,” and confirms our suspicions that the word is a motley mashup of the English “boy” with the Yiddish suffix -tshik, which is just a diminutive. Both Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary—which niftily offers “lad” as a synonym—cannot find a usage before 1921, when H.L. Mencken included the word in his American Language; Oxford gives as its next usage a line from Clifford Odets’ 1935 lefty melodrama Awake and Sing!: “Boychick, wake up! Be something! Make your life something good.”
But we digress.
Robin, your question is a real one. And while parent relations in such cases can give rise to rueful humor—“I dated a Catholic guy in college,” Unorthodox host Stephanie Butnick reports. “The hardest part was telling my grandparents he was a Republican”—this is, for some people, no laughing matter. Which is why we turned to podcast producer, Harvard Divinity School graduate, and former hospital chaplaincy intern Shira Telushkin, who is a more sensitive soul than anyone else on the team. And she delivered.
“This is kind of tricky,” Shira begins, “because the writer gives us so little useful information: How serious is the relationship? How close is she with her parents? How often does she talk with them? Why won’t they see it coming, and does that imply they will be Very Upset or just surprised?”
Nevertheless, she says, some basic rules apply.
“Don’t make this a one-time sit-down dramatic conversation,” she says. “Robin may have spent years getting used to the idea that she dates non-Jews, or would. For her parents this will be a shock. So it’s unfair to expect them to be their most gracious/kindest selves instinctively. I know a lot of people might say to wait until she knows the relationship is very serious, but ideally she should be mentioning this guy to her parents from the time they start flirting to casually dating, so it’s not, ‘By the way my very serious boyfriend who I love is named Jason and he’s not Jewish,’ but more like, ‘So Jason (who you know and love) and I were getting drinks last night, and I realized that nobody makes me more happy and comfortable or feel more loved, and we decided to try dating.’
“But she can’t just drop what she knows will be a bomb and expect her parents to react in ways she knows they won’t. She needs to proactively frame it as a decision of love and happiness, and actively name their fears, continuing on with: ‘So Jason and I were getting drinks last night, and I realized that nobody makes me more happy and comfortable or feel more loved, and we’re dating now. It’s really confusing for me, because he’s not Jewish and I really love being Jewish and its important and meaningful for me, but it also feels so right.’ And she should be honest about her own feelings around the thing, maybe like ‘I’m really scared to tell you this.’
“The impulse, also, of a lot of people is to respond to parental caution or tepidness by dialing up their own commitment and defenses. The parents raise the Jew thing, and the kid is like, ‘Oh my God you’re the worst.’ That makes sense. Nobody wants to have their partner dismissed by their parents. BUT. In my experience, parents are much more likely to react with more compassion if the child presents the issue as also confusing and vulnerable for them, and thus they invite the parent into their own moral choices. Not, ‘I love him and screw you,’ but, ‘I love him and that’s amazing for me but also, sometimes, sad because I know how much my happiness hurts you.’ And prepare yourself for the fact that your parents very well might be sad, and that response will likely be painful, especially if you are really happy in this relationship.
“Last thing: It would be stellar if Robin had a specific ask of her parents, depending on how serious the relationship is and how much her parents will freak out. Like, ‘This is hard for me, but maybe let’s take a few days and talk on Thursday about whether you want to meet him for dinner,’ or something. There should be a clear, specific, hard-out to the conversation, so that not everyone is stuck in an endless hellhole loop.
“So, to recap: 1) Not having our parents share in our joy, especially if we’re close to them, sucks. 2) But hopefully will suck way less if you begin to casually mention the positive role of this person in your life right when you start getting into them. 3) And if you frame it to your parents in the context of you being so happy, while also naming your own hesitations and concerns. 4) And invite them into thinking through those emotions with you and your own pain/concerns, and also naming your own knowledge of their sadness. 5) Prepare yourself that this is not One Big Conversation, but likely will be the start of many smaller and often painful and frustrating conversations, but that everyone can and will get through it.
“So a starting gambit might be:
“So Jason and I were getting drinks last night, and I realized that nobody makes me more happy and comfortable or feel more loved, and we’re dating now. It’s really confusing for me, because he’s not Jewish and I really love being Jewish and its important and meaningful for me, but it also feels so right. I love him, truly, which is an amazing feeling but also, sometimes, sad because I know how much my happiness hurts you. I was so nervous to bring this up, but I want you guys to know, and I want you to know I realize this is hard for you. And for me. I also know this is a shock. Would it be helpful to take a day or two and talk on Thursday about how you feel?
“Hope that helps.”
Wow. Shira is good at this. You’re welcome, Robin. Let us know how it goes with the goychik.