George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family — in another city.” That could explain why Jewish holidays can feel quite overwhelming and stressful.
Relatives who live out of town are suddenly sorting through the food in your refrigerator. Your niece and nephews do not seem to have the same table manners you have taught your children. You notice that your siblings are judging you and making comments that send the message that they are better parents, spouses, or children.
These are just a few common scenarios that can occur while spending time with family over Yom Tov.
Family get-togethers can be the most challenging when the last day of Yom Tov leads immediately into Shabbat, often referred to as a “three-day Yom Tov.” While family gatherings during a holiday season can be taxing for everyone, three-day Yom Tovs can feel particularly like a marathon for observant Jews, who spend a significant amount of the holiday eating meals together and cannot hop into a car or duck behind a cell phone to get a break.
With some advanced planning and the following tips, your family get-together over the course of just about any Yom Tov can run smoothly and with lots of joy.
Advanced Planning and Rehearsing. Every family has their own preferences, styles, and traditions. If you are hosting your family, tell your family guests in advance exactly what you expect them to contribute and/or to bring along with them. This can prevent misunderstandings and aggravations.
Plan on regular communication with your spouse. As a couples therapist, I often advise couples who are hosting or being hosted to schedule a minimum of 10 minutes each day of Yom Tov for communication with each other about how they are feeling among their extended family. During this communication time, each partner takes a turn being the talker and then the listener. Note that the role of the listener is to be an active listener and offer support.
This daily communication exercise can prevent unspoken feelings from escalating.
Assertive Communication. It’s okay to tell your sibling that you did not appreciate that they raised their voice at your child — as long as you are respectful, both verbally and non-verbally. Instead of hinting, nagging, or avoiding, be direct and honest. I often hear how surprised individuals are by how responsive their extended family was when they communicated assertively.
View difficult people as characters meant to teach you something. Rather than getting angry, think of your difficult in-law as an antagonist in a story featuring you as a main character. As Kim Schneiderman, a licensed clinical social worker, suggests: “Just like good fiction, life is about character development… These people push you to discover your strengths and your resources by presenting you with challenges.”
Ask yourself, Schneiderman says: What are they here to teach me?
Plan some away time. Up to 72 hours of non-stop family time punctuated by six large meals (at least!) can be intense for any family. Spending time visiting a friend outside the family home for a few hours during an afternoon can be a healthy break. If you do not have friends within walking distance, then try to schedule walks outside on your own or with your spouse.
Consider starting slow. If you have a history of difficult interactions with your family members and have not recently spent time together with them, then I would strongly advise against hosting or being hosted for a three-day Yom Tov. Instead, start small: host a Purim seudah (festive meal), or initiate a regular weekend Shabbat get-together.
Not spending time with your family for a Yom Tov does not have to be an act of protest or anger. In the words of writer Lauri Apple: “Sometimes it’s just healthier and more loving to let everyone have their space, until a better time comes for sharing one space.”
In summary, taking some time to be thoughtful and preparing in advance might actually present you with the opportunity to develop deeper and more meaningful bonds with your family.
By Dr. Levi Y. Breuer
Dr. Levi Y. Breuer holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the George Washington University and is an alumnus of Ner Israel in Baltimore. He is the owner of PsychCare, a mental health group practice in Silver Spring, Columbia, and Pikesville, Maryland. He helps individuals and couples with anxiety, depression, and relationship issues.