Gaining My Religion — Losing My Family?

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Dear Rivkie,

 My husband and I recently started to take on greater Jewish observance while raising our young family. We’ve started keeping kosher and observing Shabbos. Additionally, our oldest son is turning 3 soon, and after a lot of thought we decided to have an upsherin for him (a haircutting celebration for Jewish boys upon turning 3).


Most of my family live a few hundred miles from us, and I invited them to spend Thanksgiving with us with the plan of having the upsherin on Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. I thought the timing was perfect, but here’s the problem: My family hates anything to do with religion. They think the fact that my son has long hair is weird and the fact that we are cutting it at a party is even weirder. My feminist sister, for instance, is completely offended at any custom (aside from, say, a bris) that is only for one gender. Plus, they hate the idea of not going out for Thanksgiving dinner the way we’ve always done just because my husband and I keep kosher now.

None of them have committed to coming at all, and I feel miserable. How do I choose between my religious observance and my family? Please help.


 Broken-Hearted Brooke


Dear Brooke,

 This is difficult and I can’t say I have a perfect answer for you. It sounds like what you are hoping for is that your family comes for Thanksgiving, they spend Shabbos with you, they stay for the upsherin, and at all three events they have a magical time.

Brooke, I am sad to say that this likely won’t happen. The good news (sort of) is that even in a family where everyone has a similar level of religious observance, all those events would likely not be a great time for everyone at every moment.

For example, Aunt Faigy might not like your turkey and might not be too shy in telling you. Or Uncle Yitzy might make your son cry by telling him a scary story at Shabbos lunch, which will keep him up all night, which will make him extra cranky at his upsherin, where a gauntlet of frum (religious) family members stand in line to take a snip of hair and make him cry more.

In short, people are people, for better or for worse.

Let’s start with the premise that your family loves you; and that, for most people, doing things that are foreign to them is uncomfortable. Maybe your sister feels out of her depth when confronted by a practice that she is unfamiliar with, even though it’s part of her own religion. Maybe your father still sees you as his little girl, so you having children is weird enough without introducing all kinds of “strange” religious rituals. Maybe your mother is stressed about what to wear to an event full of frum people and doesn’t want to say it.

What I’m trying to say is that this is your opportunity to practice a very important tenet of Judaism: dan l’kaf zechus (give the benefit of the doubt). You could assign motives to people’s behaviors all the livelong day and drive yourself crazy, or you could assume everyone wants the best for you and your family and make things as comfortable as possible.

So, your family wants to go out for Thanksgiving dinner? Cool! Have it catered and print out menus for everyone to order from, or something else whimsical that shows you get where they’re coming from. Then invite your most fun, approachable friends for Friday night dinner (Thanksgiving leftovers) and serve a little extra wine.

As for the big event on Sunday: Do not cry if people choose to go home before the party. Do explain clearly that it’s just a regular 3-year-old birthday party, and leave the hair-cutting and Torah words to the rabbi on the day of. Whoever wants can skedaddle to the other room if they don’t want to partake.

Again, my assumption is that your family loves you and sure as heck loves your kids. And I don’t need to assume that Hashem loves you all. Don’t get hung up on the details, and don’t take it personally if not everyone wants to partake in every activity, because when you judge people favorably, you remember it’s not all about you.

 All the best,