Thou Shalt is a Jewish advice column for anyone navigating a Jewish situation about which they are unsure. Which is understandable: For thousands of years, Judaism has been rolling through time and space, picking up everything in its path. Which is awesome and beautiful and great, but also means that we’ve inherited a tradition with a complicated and often confusing mix of rituals, identity markers, red lines, and ways to practice. The peculiarities and particularities of the diverse Jewish world have tripped up many well-meaning Jews and non-Jews alike, and the goal of Thou Shalt is to create a space where we can all help decode our Judaism for one another, and the world.
Stranger in a Strange Shul
I just moved to a new city, and I want to make Jewish friends. I just feel so painfully shy at shul, walking into a service where I don’t have friends and nobody knows me. And then who do I talk to at kiddush afterwards? It’s so awkward! Any advice? I’m not a very extroverted person.
Find me by the cookies
One of the best ways to feel part of a community is to take on some responsibility. This gives you a “place” in the room, which is sometimes all the confidence we need. Email the service coordinator, or even the general synagogue email, and volunteer to give the dvar torah, help set up kiddush, lead services (if that feels in your wheelhouse or is an option for the minyan), or even just ask if they need any volunteers. Tell the person you’re new, which guarantees you at least one contact.
Beyond that: Act like you belong, because you do. Take a seat up front. Pray like nobody is watching. The fact that you are new in town should be the concern of the community, not you. At kiddush, try to catch someone’s eye—while, say, reaching for a Ritz cracker or putting away your siddur—and then smile, and say “Hey, I’m Puah.” They’ll be forced to tell you their name, and you respond, “I just moved here, and thought I’d check this place out. It seems nice!” Getting those first words out are the hardest part, especially if being outgoing to strangers is anathema to you, but you’ll strike up at least a few brief conversations. When you find yourself standing alone, remember it’s not a reflection on you and nobody is judging you (and they’re really not, because that would be so weird).
I know all of this can feel forced, or even just lame. Making new friends is hard, especially if this is your first time in a place without a built-in group of Jewish contacts (which is particularly common among recent college grads). But not having friends yet at synagogue is completely normal, and zero reflection on your worth as a cool fun human person who people will want to befriend. Whatever you do, don’t let your shyness keep you away; nestling into a Jewish community early on can really help a new city feel like home.
Should My Wedding Be Kosher?
My parents are insisting that my wedding be kosher, which feels like an immoral waste of money given that there will be less than five people in attendance who need explicitly kosher food. I’m happy to order special kosher meals, but that’s apparently not good enough. My father now says anything else would have broken his grandfather’s heart. I’m so frustrated. My parents have always eaten in non-kosher restaurants, and so do almost all of their friends (we attended an Orthodox synagogue growing up, but few people in the community are actually Orthodox). We’re trying to work within a budget, and my wife and I are also planning to buy a house, so balancing expenses there too. They just keep saying that it would be embarrassing to not have a kosher wedding. Embarrassing for who? How can I reason with them?
At my wit’s end
Dear Wit’s End,
I can’t be the only one who read that and wondered immediately: Who is paying for this wedding?
If it’s you, then you have every right to put your foot down. This is a wedding that reflects on you, and thus needs to be an expression of your own values. Give those five kosher guests a call and explain to them the situation, asking what options they might prefer – those calls should be on you, not your parents, even if they are relatives who you barely know. Be loving and kind to your parents, but explain that you are creating your own kind of Jewish home, and your wedding will reflect you and your partner’s lived values.
If, on the other hand, your parents are paying, then you have limited bargaining power. They are throwing you a party that reflects on them. The invitation is in their names. You can’t force them to pay for food they’re uneasy about, especially if it’s to bully them into giving you more money for your own house. That feels unfair, but I think it’s unavoidable.
In either case, though, at some point you all need to address the emotional cost of this disagreement. Your parents’ feelings are not rational, and you’re not going to win them over with logic. Sometimes, in big moments, we want to put forward the best or, even, imaginary versions of people we wish we were. It sounds like for your parents, keeping kosher fits into their image of an ideal Jew in a way that it doesn’t for you, and in a way that they never communicated to you. That’s why their newfound insistence seems hypocritical, baffling, or simply a concession to social pressure. But it’s probably more than just those things.
Call up your dad and ask him to tell you more about his grandfather. Ask your mother whether she ever kept stricter kosher, and when that changed, if it did. You might know these things, but you’ll probably learn new things. Your parents may have made peace with the fact that they don’t keep kosher, but clearly it’s not something in which they take pride. Agree or disagree, you can probably understand that general feeling: All of us make concessions to practices in our lives we feel are not ideal, but we don’t celebrate them. Having a not-kosher wedding, in all its public pomp and circumstance, seems to tilt their ongoing concession to a celebrated point of pride, and that’s where they feel the rub. You can think their insistence ridiculous, but before you condemn them, try and understand the emotions behind it.
And regardless of what happens, seeing these feelings of theirs as “immoral” feels not just harsh but wrong. Is it any more immoral to insist that kosher food will allow them to enjoy the day just as much as beautiful flowers or a beautiful suit? They want to be proud about what this wedding says about their family, and how they’ve kept alive Judaism in America. Your parents may not keep kosher on the daily, but clearly they feel that a kosher wedding reflects the centrality of Judaism in their lives. This is likely a generational response, but weddings are pretty heavy on generational symbolism to begin with. They want their friends, and you, to know that being part of the ancient Jewish tradition is worth financial sacrifice; you might not agree with their means, but hopefully you can understand the ends.
All in all, you might not win this one. Weddings are symbolic, emotional events and people rarely act with reason, they act with heart—so, in however you proceed, argue from the heart as well.
Evil Eye Baby Blues
My sister is expecting a baby and a number of her friends reacted to the news with “Mazal Tov” or “Congratulations,” rather than the traditional “Be’Sha’ah Tovah”/”In a Good Hour”. While she’s normally very go-with-the-flow and not very superstitious, I know these well-wishes have made her quite uncomfortable—not least because several people close to us have delivered early or late (aka, not in a good hour). Do you have any insight into these superstitions and/or the appropriate way to respond in these circumstances?
When sharing the news, either verbally or in writing, your sister should add the caveat, “I’m a little superstitious, so we’re not saying congratulations or mazel tov just yet, but you can say ‘in good time!’” That comes off as a little odd to those unaware of the more traditional response—which, as you’ve seen, is almost all of American Jewry—but certainly not presumptuous. Just practice saying it all together quickly, so she’s not interrupted with a “mazel tov” squeal the moment she drops the word pregnant. Babies are a big deal, and most people are happy to take directions and make their pregnant friend as comfortable as possible.
As a sister, I think your move is to embrace the rich offerings of Jewish prayers and rituals around protecting pregnancies. This is a strange, mysterious, exciting and terrifying time for many women, and for centuries Jewish women have responded to that reality by developing prayers, amulets, rituals of protection, and a myriad of other ways to seek support and protection. Even if you both feel these things are sort-of silly, they can provide some comfort amidst a sea of unsettling uncertainty. Maybe write out one of the techinot for pregnancy and put it over her bed or in her purse, or give her a red string, or some special necklace to wear that you’ve blessed yourself. You can make up your own ritual or blessing. Counter her newfound discomfort with tokens of blessing and luck. They can’t hurt, and many generations of Jewish women before us have found them a solace. Be’sha’ah tovah!
How do I submit a question?
Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are all questions anonymous?
Yes, no identifying information will ever be revealed or published about the letter-writer or their situation. Your email address will be seen by those monitoring the inbox, but won’t be published.
I’m not Jewish. Can I still submit a question?
Definitely. If your question touches on navigating a Jewish situation—be it attending a synagogue service for the first time or baking a welcome pie for your new Jewish neighbors—then this column is for you.