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.
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.
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?
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.