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.
A quite religious Christian friend has invited me to his services, and mentioned that he’d like to see what my services are like. This raises two questions: (1) Do you think I should feel comfortable going to his services? I’m hesitant to bring him to Shabbos services because (a) it’s all in Hebrew, so he won’t understand much, (b) I think he’ll find separate seating offensive, and (c) I suspect he won’t like some of the translations of our prayers, including the portion in Aleinu about bowing to empty gods. (2) Should I invite him (with disclaimers?) or not?
A Friendship Bridge Too Far?
I think you should take him up on his offer, and then invite him to a Friday night service. I say this because, as a fairly traditionally practicing Jew—and I’m going off the all-Hebrew services and separate seating aspects of your regular synagogue—it’s likely that you won’t feel totally comfortable in church, just as you suspect your friend might not be entirely comfortable in synagogue. Different religions are not interchangeable modes of divine connection, and the divergences can be beautiful, profound, unsettling, even painful. But encountering those differences can prompt pretty deep reflection on what it means to be part of a community that prays, and its good to occasionally unsettle our prayer life. Some Jews hold that Jewish law forbids entering a Christian worship service (or even a church all together), but that’s a different kind of question than what I’ll take up here. If you are theologically open to it, then embedding yourself among another group of people earnestly seeking to connect to God, in a totally different way, can prompt you to encounter our tradition with new eyes. That’s a good thing, in my book.
And yet, you should approach this prayer-swap invite as serious business. This is not just a fun, cool offer to tour one another’s hobbies, like tagging along to a favorite band performance or beloved Swedish puppet show. Amidst all the important work being done in emphasizing similarities across religious practices, we sometimes forget that faith can also be particularistic. In this way, attending church will put into perspective some of your concerns about him feeling out of place at shul. You’re concerned he’ll encounter prayers and practices he’ll find offensive, but it’s certainly plausible you’ll also encounter prayers and practices in church that’ll freak you out. That’s part of the deal. It’s important to recognize that each of us is part of a tradition whose totality never reads as perfect. So, if this is a person you trust and who plays a meaningful role in your life, then go for it. But if he’s a casual acquaintance with whom you rarely discuss larger questions of meaning, and who as a Christian living his whole life in the religious majority might not realize cross-religious encounters can be fraught and heavy, then don’t feel obligated to bring him to synagogue. It might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Assuming, however, that he is a good thoughtful friend, then I’d go with a Friday night service invite over Shabbat morning, because the tunes are so beautiful and the run time is shorter, and navigating post-service chitchat is easier. Definitely give him a heads up about the separate seating and the Hebrew, and bring a good English siddur. I wouldn’t flag specific problematic phrases in advance, because he’s unlikely to notice anyway and it feels like overkill—save discussion about our unsavory theological points and gender disparity for afterwards, and mention that other Jewish services do things differently (and why you disagree, if you do). I also like to point English-only guests to the “Ethics of the Fathers” section in the back of siddurs, because its fun to read if you get bored, plus the ethic-specific teachings are especially intriguing to Christians.
Finally: Remember that he himself is religious, he asked you about attending, and Jewish prayer is awesome. Trust in the inherent worth of our services and assume their sacredness will translate across cultural barriers. Prepare your friend, and be prepared to discuss uncomfortable truths afterward, but don’t assume he’ll come in on the offensive. Share your enthusiasm and pride, and assume he’s offering the same in kind. And if you go to church, let me know what you think!
My mother converted to Judaism when I was a baby. No one else in our family is Jewish, not even my dad. I grew up very involved in our synagogue, was raised Jewish, and have always identified strongly as Jewish. Once I was old enough to understand that my mom converted to Judaism and I wasn’t ethnically or genetically Jewish, I realized I didn’t know how to respond to comments about my looks and identity. I’ve had many people comment that I don’t “look Jewish,” and say it makes a lot of sense that my mom converted. Or, I’ve had people (once they know I’m Jewish), claim that it makes sense that I have curly hair. I have blonde curly hair, light skin, and blue eyes. How should I address these stereotypical comments? How can I use it as a time to explain the beauty of Jewish diversity and pluralism? And, how should I address comments from non-Jews that I find anti-Semitic (back-handed comments like: “oh, but good thing you don’t look Jewish”)?
A Jew In the World
I wish I could suggest the perfect combination of words that would succinctly convey both how exhausting and rude these comments are to hear, and correct the ignorance that leads to them altogether. You mention that you became unsure about how to respond to these comments only once you realized your mother had converted, but that shouldn’t be a determining factor: You don’t owe anyone an explanation about your identity at all, and as you know well, Jews look like every kind of person on this planet.
But it sounds like, at times, you do want to engage with these people, and use these comments as an opportunity to counter widespread ignorance about the Jewish family. That’s admirable, and if you’re up for it, a tremendous kindness to those you meet (and the Jews they meet afterwards). I think a matter-of-fact response would be most effective. When someone says you don’t look Jewish, you can say, “well, Jews look like all kinds of people,” or if they comment that it makes sense you have curly hair, just say, “actually, the curly hair is from my grandmother, who is not Jewish.” The idea is to impart new information that forces people to confront their own false assumptions, without making the response specifically tied to your story. For more obnoxious comments about not looking Jewish, I think a pointed response could be simply: “I feel Jewish.” That re-centers the conversation on Jewish identity, and emphasizes that appearance has nothing to do with it. For openly hostile comments from non-Jews, I’d just ask them what they mean, and let them know you are as Jewish as you look: very.
Rising to the Occassion
A few weeks ago I stopped going to morning minyan. I had a disappointing job fall through, and I just felt overwhelmed and betrayed by the universe, and nothing about setting my alarm for 6 a.m. felt appealing. The synagogue is nearby, and I’d be attending regularly on and off for almost a year. Now, I need to ask the rabbi about something unrelated, and I’m wondering if I need to mention or acknowledge my absences. It’s not a tiny congregation, but I’m sure he noticed.
Staging My Reappearing Act
Looks like it’s prayer week at Thou Shalt. You don’t need to make excuses to your rabbi, or say anything at all. For all he knows, you’ve been traveling, fighting the flu, found another morning minyan, or just realized the early start time was killing your sleep cycle. If he says something like “I’ve missed you in the mornings,” you can say something vague like “I know! My schedule’s been out of wack,” or “I’ve missed you too!” and then pivot to your question.
But also maybe you should say something to your rabbi. I understand the impulse to process this lost opportunity on your own, but disappointing news is sometimes better borne in community, and sometimes “the universe” is code for “God.” I don’t know if morning minyan was about God for you, but if you’re feeling abandoned right now by God, cutting off that communication indefinitely might only compound your pain. Jews have a long history of bringing our bitterest complaints and most stinging accusations right to God’s door. It doesn’t always help, but it’s always justified. If it feels possible, maybe go somewhere and rail against God in all your anger and betrayal, without any trepidation or guilt, revealing the full depth of your pain. Maybe tell your rabbi you’ve been struggling with some disappointing news, and it’s been hard to get to minyan, and see what happens. I might be off the mark on the God stuff, but something kept you going to minyan for nearly a year, and reconnecting to that something might help right now.
And if in some time you realize these feelings won’t go away, or you’re struggling to stay on top of them, consider if therapy makes sense.
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.