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.
Vetting The Orthodox Heartthrob
I’m a proud, loving member of the progressive Jewish left, and I’ve started to develop a very real crush on an Orthodox Jewish boy. Should I pursue it, or is this bad news from the start?
Crossing That Mechitzah
Relationships are weird, religion is weird, and all sorts of very unexpected people end up happily together in real life. There is no harm in seeing if this crush is reciprocated, and figuring it out from there. After all, relationships that push us to think, engage, and reflect on our values can be the most rewarding kinds.
That said, the differences in your respective affiliations are real, and pose real questions. For example: Would one of you need to fundamentally change in order for this relationship to work? Meaning, could you only accept him if he agrees to join you at synagogues where all genders participate in services, or, conversely, would he need you to dress or eat differently in daily life? Pursuing a relationship whose success depends on one person fundamentally changing is always a rough move. I’d say, see if you even like each other, and then take some time to seriously consider whether you can accept and reconcile yourself to the aspects of his Jewish life with which you disagree. Love can overcome amazing things, but not everything.
And if you do end up dating, make sure you feel comfortable asserting your own Jewish choices, and don’t default to letting his halakhic needs guide the relationship for the both of you. You’ll need to navigate around one another’s religious commitments with respect, for sure, but you should never be made to feel guilty for not being Orthodox.
When holidays conflict
I’m a college senior responsible for a small group of freshman on campus, including registration deadlines and acclimating to college life. We have a mandatory meeting next month to go over class schedules, and one of the students emailed me to say it would be a Jewish holiday, and she would have to reschedule. This is a major headache, because there is a lot of signing and administrative work that involves other people, but I’m happy to do it. The thing is, there is another Jewish student in the group, but he hasn’t reached out. I want to email him to ask if he’ll also need to reschedule, because in that case I need to coordinate the new date with both of them, and I need to know immediately. How can I ask without sounding judgmental? I don’t care if he plans to skip his holiday, I just need to know one way or the other.
Avoiding Extra Paperwork
I wouldn’t email this student directly. I would send out a reminder email to your whole group, telling them to check their calendars and each confirm with you their availability. You can explain that one student needs to reschedule, and that any other accommodation requests must be received by a certain date.
Freshman year can be a confusing time in general for students trying to forge new religious identities away from home, and it’s time for this student to take ownership of his religious life. If it’s a small group, then it’s likely these two Jewish students have a sense of how they each practice, and the student who approached you would likely have given the other one a heads-up about the conflicting dates. There is also no reason to assume this other student observes the holidays, or that his attendance at this meeting means he is skipping out on the holiday – he might just practice in a way where attending this sort of meeting doesn’t conflict with his own Jewish practice. See? There are just too many assumptions involved in contacting him that you’re better off emailing the whole group. And who knows, you might even catch the freshman athlete who forgot to inform you she has a mandatory away game that same day.
p.s. I hope you didn’t make your first student feel bad. It’s not her fault that a major meeting was scheduled on a Jewish holiday, and I can assure you that any inconvenience this causes you definitely causes her much, much more.
Responding to anti-Semitism
A friend invited me to a big fancy party his company was hosting, with lots of drinking and dancing. It was fun, and as the evening wrapped up, we found ourselves chatting with some of his much more senior colleagues. Somebody asked where I live, and when I answered, the person responded, “Oh, that place is full of Jews. They always stick together, wherever they go.” I live in the most notably Jewish area in town, though I don’t think the person realized I’m Jewish. (For context, my friend is not Jewish, and the Jewish population in our city is pretty small).
I was so shocked I just laughed the comment off, and the night quickly disbanded. Afterwards, my friend texted me to apologize for the comment and said he recognized it was very inappropriate. But the more I think about it, the more upset I become. I wish I had said something, and I feel my friend should have done something in the moment too. I felt trapped, because I didn’t want to make things uncomfortable for him at work. And it’s not like this person waxed poetic about Hitler. Am I being too sensitive? How do I approach my friend?
I Like My Ghetto
Oh, hell no. The phrase “they always stick together” has no innocuous interpretation, and so you are not being too sensitive. This guy assumed everyone present saw Jews as suspiciously Other, and clearly evoked stereotypes that Jews look out for their own interests without concern for the broader community. These comments cut surprisingly deep, because they suddenly suggest that everyone, non-Jewish friends included, see us as outsiders. Even if rationally we know that’s not true, it’s unsettling, and it’s hard to predict how bad these comments can make us feel.
I wish your friend had said something. You were on his turf and it was his responsibility to stick up for you. When it comes to talk like that, even an imperfect, awkward, or fumbled response is better than no response at all. Something like, “Well, that presumes some weird stereotypes, but it is a nice neighborhood” can be said firmly and calmly, with the goal not of escalating the encounter but signaling to everyone involved that the remark did not go unnoticed. At the very least, if he had the presence of mind to text you about it, he should have had the guts to contact the person afterward as well.
I think you should speak with your friend. Sometimes, people with little experience of discrimination let such things slide because they are afraid their response will make the situation worse, or they worry they are misreading the situation. Share with him your pain. You can say something like, “That comment the other night was really painful, and I’m still thinking about it. I didn’t want to alienate your coworkers, but I wish you had said something to them. What do you think we could have said?”
This allows him to more fully apologize to you for his own role, and lets you both think together about how to best respond in these situations. If he is a good friend, he would welcome the chance to make this right, and learn how to be better. Of course, if he tries to make light of your concerns or becomes evasive, then you’ve learned something unfortunate about this friend.
Bottom line: The whole thing sucked, and so it would be an act of generosity and trust on your part to tell this friend exactly how upset you are—and to let him know, unambiguously, that he needed to support you in that moment and didn’t. I hope he proves worthy of your friendship.
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How do I submit a question?
Questions can be sent to [email protected].
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.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.