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Dear Rabbi Artson:
Last weekend my husband and I went to visit my in-laws. At one point during the trip, my father-in-law privately asked me not to use so many Jewish words (Yiddish terms) in front of my brother-in-law's fiancée, who is not Jewish. He said he noticed by her body language that it made her nervous. My response was that I hadn't noticed using so many "Jewish words" in front of her. When I do, I translate them. And many people know them, because I frankly do not know too many Yiddish words.
I was very troubled by my father-in-law's remark because he is a Jewish man, and it seems hypocritical of him to mention this. And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, if being around Jewish people makes my brother's fiancée nervous, perhaps she should not be marrying one.
I would appreciate your advice on how I should handle the situation.
Thank you. And please do not use my full name in the paper.
Thank you for your letter. I can see why you would be troubled by your father-in-law's comment, although it does not seem hypocritical to me. I would imagine that he is acutely aware that his future daughter-in-law is not Jewish. I would imagine that he's not thrilled about that, but also doesn't want to risk alienating his son. Whether or not the fiancée is nervous about too much Yiddish, it's clear that it's tapping into some strong discomfort on the part of your father in law. He is trying to diffuse a potentially tense situation (both inside himself and in the family) by trying to make your future sister-in-law feel welcome. That the specific request may be unreasonable shouldn't blind you to his bind, and his good intentions.
If you are close enough to your brother-in-law's fiancée, you might ask her directly if the use of Yiddish makes her feel nervous. A candid discussion about religion and the role Judaism plays in family life (one that it is warm and loving and honest) might be good for the entire family.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson