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Dear Wendy: High Holiday Question

Beginning in this issue, InterfaithFamily.com offers a new advice column, "Dear Wendy." The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.

Dear Wendy,

I have checked the calendar and my worst fear is confirmed: this year both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall on weekdays. This means that I will be sitting in services by myself as my non-Jewish husband would never dream of taking off from work to observe holidays which mean nothing to him. He is very supportive of my own practice of Judaism and is also supportive of our membership at our local Reform temple. Occasionally he will even go to Friday night services with me--he just doesn't see the point of missing a day's work when he is not Jewish. I hate this time of year and end up feeling depressed rather than uplifted as I think one should at this season. Any suggestions?

Karen

Dear Karen,

First you need to know that you are not alone. Many Jews who find themselves in an interfaith relationship or marriage can feel a little put off by the requirements of the High Holiday season. Indeed, for Jews in general there are challenges at this time.

Why is that? Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with the Days of Awe which fall between the two, are serious holidays intended for deep prayer and earnest reflection. While Rosh Hashanah technically represents the Jewish New Year, its tone is more somber than celebratory. To top it off, the way to correctly observe these holidays is by attending synagogue, a challenge for anyone--Jewish or otherwise--who reflexively shuns religious institutions.

There are some additional difficulties for a partner in an interfaith relationship. These holidays have no parallel in the Christian world and so interpreting them to the non-Jew can be taxing. (As has been alluded to by others, these holidays do not neatly fall into the "four holiday" plan: Christmas-Hanukkah, Passover-Easter). For many Jews the very public act of taking off from work or school may have the effect of strengthening their identity, a gesture often lost on a person who has never experienced minority status and who does not identify as Jewish. And finally, all those special triggers that you probably respond to--the ones that help heighten and sweeten this season for you--guess what? Your non-Jewish partner is completely immune to them. Apples and honey? Weird taste treat. Blowing of the shofar? Anachronistic tribal ritual.

I suggest that you begin by thinking through what is important to you about this season. Are you seeking a companion to sit with at services so that you are literally not by yourself? Could a friend or another member of the congregation fill that function? Some synagogues set aside special areas for people coming alone so that they can have other congregants to sit with. If your synagogue doesn't currently offer this, perhaps you can talk with your rabbi about creating a section for intermarried partners coming alone that would also welcome widowed, divorced and single congregants.

If, on the other hand, you want your husband to be by your side during prayer so that he can physically share in your spiritual uplift, or if you wish he had a greater sense of openness to the majesty of the holidays, could the two of you participate in some educational sessions about the High Holidays through your synagogue or the Jewish Community Center?

If you seeking to share with him a sense of social connectedness that you link to the season, perhaps you can plan a Rosh Hashanah open house or invite some friends over for a Break Fast celebration at your home.

Your own clarification of what you are needing/wanting can lead you to what exactly to ask for in this relationship--or maybe, what you have to create for yourself.

I wish you good luck--and a Happy New Year.

Wendy

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Wendy Weltman Palmer

Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.

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