Saturday, May 7, 2011

Advice to an OTDer who recently got engaged to a non jewish man

Next week my (OTD) brother and his girlfriend are coming to visit for a couple of days, after which my in laws are supposed to visit. Which means...spring cleaning! I finished the semester on Thursday (Yay, I have officially survived my first year as a professor!), so yesterday me and B spent the whole day cleaning, and we have more cleaning plans for today and tomorrow. We also have plans for the farmer's market and a poker game tonight- now that I've been here almost a year I'm starting to have a social life! Thus far it only involves other professors, but some of them aren't sociology professors, so I think that counts. :)

Meanwhile, my brother is coming to visit, and I want to post on facebook about it. I'm facebook friends with his girlfriend (although this will be my first time meeting her in person). So I feel it would be rude to post about him visiting and not mention her. But, I'm now facebook friends with my dad. And even though I find it particularly freeing that my dad can see all my pictures and facebook updates that reflect my *real* personality (or as real as I'm willing to share with colleagues and former students- but quite a few pictures of me up there in tank tops, pants, etc.), my brother is not quite as open.

He still lives at home, and has figured out some kind of weird arrangement with my parents, a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy- in which he somehow drives to work on Saturdays and has convinced my parents to be ok with it (He was always better at manipulating them than I was). So he asked me not to mention his girlfriend on facebook where our dad can see- he tells me that my mother has 'inferred' that he will be traveling with a passenger (I can just imagine my mom trying to confront him without actually confronting him- such things usually involve lots of snarky comments on my mom's end) but he doesn't want them to 'know the details.'

For all the tzures (trouble) I've gone through after 'coming out' to my parents as off the derech, it is SO WORTH not having to sneak around like that anymore. Cause I used to be the same way- having secret boyfriends I wouldn't tell my parents about. Lying about what I was up to. Hiding my true self all the time. And that double life thing is so not for me. But it took a long time to switch from the mindset that I have to hide everything from my family, to the mindset that- I'm going to be myself, if they don't like that, that's their problem and not mine. I don't think I really got to that point until I was married to someone not jewish, and felt like I had nothing left to lose by being myself.

Which is why I admire Tova so much for announcing her recent engagement to her family the way I should have announced mine- as the awesome celebratory thing it is, rather than like some secret to be ashamed of. Not surprisingly, her family did not exactly react in the way that decent human beings should behave. She emailed me to ask my advice:

I wanted to ask you a bit of advice after reading an old post of Heshy's on your relationship and subsequent marriage. This past weekend, I happily accepted my boyfriend's marriage proposal to me. I knew much of my Jewish family wouldn't be glad about the news, but one person's reaction was truly shocking. He had informed my mother (who then informed me) that he was tearing his clothes in mourning. I do not know if he is also sitting shiva for me, but it's not as though I can ask him if he is.

The shocking bit is that I always envisioned my frum family members as reasonable, Modern Orthodox people (my mother herself left the religion her parents raised her with - a liberal branch of Protestant Christianity - to become a Jew) who would never sit shiva or publicly condemn their children for "going off the derech". Sure, they are upset about it, but I was sure they'd never mourn their child's happiness.

The funny thing is that no one tore any clothing "for" my sister when she married her now ex-husband, and he was and is (by everyone's account) an unsavory individual who doesn't hold a candle to my fiance. I was advised by a few others to send a condolence card to - or "sit shiva" with - the person who claimed to be tearing clothing, but I was worried that this would be seen as a challenge instead of revealing the absurdity of mourning a relative's engagement.

Have you any advice for me, considering your similar personal history? You are free to publish this letter in its entirety on your blog, as I would like to know what your readers have to say.

So what's my advice, as I'm a week away from my 2 year wedding anniversary? I guess...don't take it personally, expect the worst of people and you will hardly ever be shocked, remember who is good to you and keep in closer touch with those people, get financially independent and out of your parent's house as soon as humanly possible, and be prepared to find out a lot of views of your family members that you didn't want to know they have.

When I got engaged, I didn't go about it the same way. I called my parents as soon as we had posted it on facebook, and then slowly told other family members over time, as I encountered them. My parents told a few people too (although they were too ashamed to tell any of their friends and most of our family). So I didn't have the initial shocked reaction of people tearing their clothes or whatever after we got engaged.

What I did have was a long engagement (almost a year). During that year, I got a number of long letters from my dad trying to reason me out of getting married (using very misinterpreted statistics in some cases- by the way if you are trying to convince a sociologist who specializes in marriage and divorce not to get married, don't misquote statistics on marriage and divorce), my dad also tried to convince me to convince B to convert, there was the infamous phone call from my little brother telling me a rabbi said if me and B got married either he would convert, we would break up, or "B would die within a year" (as I said- it's our two year anniversary a week from Tuesday, take THAT stupid rabbi who is full of shit!), my mom wrote to say that if I went through with the wedding we couldn't have a relationship anymore (and she mostly kept to that), and a cousin "just happened to be in the neighborhood" (2 hours from where he lived) and stopped by to try to convince me not to get married. After I was married, my charedi grandfather told me I wasn't married according to him and tried to get me to find a nice jewish boy at a wedding we were at.

I too was very shocked at some of these reactions. My parents are 'modern' orthodox too (although they are right wing MO). My parents also both changed religious backgrounds around my age- my mom from charedi to modern orthodox, and my dad to modern orthodox after growing up more traditional/conservative kinda (My grandparents went to a conservative shul, kept a loose version of kosher and shabbas, and celebrated holidays- but they sent my dad to an orthodox yeshiva for high school which is when he became a BT). My parents are supposedly reasonable people who talked about black hatter/charedi people as "people who have gone off the deep end." My parents even had religious drama at their own wedding, cause my paternal grandparents wanted mixed dancing and my maternal grandparents said they wouldn't go to the wedding if they had that. I always thought of my family as religious, but also reasonable people. My dad has a PhD for pete's sake.

But when it came to me getting married to someone not jewish, all that reason went out the window. The same people who were supportive when my cousin, at the age of 20, married a 40something year old Breslover guy with no job (my parents flew to Israel for that wedding! They bought my cousin an expensive mattress set! And my cousin got divorced 6 months later after the guy went through all my cousin's savings and sold all their wedding gifts-including the mattress set- for money which we think went to support a drug habit) would not even attend their own daughter's wedding for fear someone might actually think they supported me and my decision to get married in any way. To a guy who actually is my age (well a year and a half younger than me) who is perfectly awesome in every way, just not jewish. They were cool with all my cousins' arranged marriages to virtual strangers, and they are cool with the fact that some of my cousins were told by their rabbis that it's against halacha to use birth control (so my 24 year old cousin is now pregnant with her 4th child!). But marrying a non jewish guy is worse than all of that. Clearly our morals are not the same.

Not to say things were all bad. But you shouldn't be surprised by horrible things your family might do or say to convince you not to get married. I actually found that the worst reactions came from family members closest to me (my parents, my brother, my grandfather). But I was also really pleasantly surprised by the support I got from some of my extended family members, like my grandmother, who once stopped talking to me for 2 years for dating someone who was a convert when I was around 18, but after I got married called me to tell me to call her more often. An uncle of mine who lives in Israel called the morning of our wedding to say "even if we don't always agree on every decision, you are always part of our family, and we love you and we wish you the best today." One of my cousins (actually, the same one who got married/divorced to the dude 20 years her senior) even got us a wedding present.

Ok, reading that, that's kinda a pathetic excuse for "support." The only family member on my side that truly supported us was my brother (the one visiting next week- not the crazy rabbi death one) who was a witness at our wedding. So I guess another piece of advice is to lower your expectations of your family, and maybe even what your wedding will be like. Growing up MO, I'm sure you went to tons of fancy weddings where lots of family members came and had a huge celebration. By marrying someone not jewish,you won't have that. Which doesn't mean you can't have something even better- I used the fact that my family was non supportive to have the small non-traditional wedding I wanted (~20 guests) and since it was so small, we could do exactly what we wanted,and only invited people we really loved- didn't have to invite people out of obligation. We also got to have great non kosher italian food.

But you won't have that big family wedding that you grew up seeing- at least not with your side of the family. You won't have the big traditional jewish wedding that we all saw over and over again growing up. Your parents will likely not give you any money for your wedding, so you will have to rely on what your fiance's family can give + your own savings.

Your relationship with most of your family members will probably change. Some will be supportive and some will not, and you will remember which is which, and that can't help but change your relationship with those people. Remember that even though you will probably 'lose' some family members, you still are gaining a whole new family- your fiance's family. :) And my in-laws are pretty awesome, which has helped me a lot. And even the family you 'lose' will probably not be lost- I still talk to my mom at least 2 or 3 times a year even though we supposedly don't have a relationship anymore.

What helps in keeping your sanity through all this? Apart from blogging about the crazyness (which helps, because whenever something crazy happens you can be like "this will make for a great blog post!" instead of "woe is me I'm surrounded by asshole zealots!"), As a sociologist,I try to approach everything like an ethnographer. An ethnographer does 'participant observation'- they go into a strange culture and try to figure out the social arrangements, the rituals, the internal logic of that culture, etc. But while the ethnographer is participating in the culture, they are also apart from the culture, an objective outside observer.

So from my ethnographer/sociologist stance, a relative tearing their clothes is a form of community pressure to promote endogamy (marrying within a group). Your relative was socialized (or brainwashed) to tear his clothes and/or sit shiva in reaction to news of a family member marrying someone not Jewish. There will also likely be an enormous amount of community pressure on your parents(if their MO community is anything like my parents') to not give approval of your wedding. These responses are methods of preservation of their culture by promoting within-group marriages. It's sort of like a survival instinct, but for a culture rather than a person. Jewish culture has survived for thousands of years despite people trying to kill us all the time. In order for that to have happened, the community must have developed very strong norms and social sanctions against assimilation/exogamy (Marrying outside a group). These are those strong norms in action.

This isn't about you, it's about the symbolic nature of what you are doing- leaving a religious community, signaling that you will probably not raise your (theoretical) children in that religious tradition and continue to socialize your descendants into their culture. The community therefore reacts to try to prevent that in order to preserve itself, in whatever insane way possible. And family members are one of the strongest 'policers' of community social norms (in this case the norm that you should marry within your group)in part because they are closer to you and therefore have a stronger influence (one of the functions of the family is to socialize members into community norms of behavior), and also have the most to lose (because they can lose community standing) if you violate community norms.

As for how you should react to this person, that's up to you and your relationship with them. With my little brother, I laughed at him when he told me that thing about our rabbi,and on our own year anniversary I made sure to send him a message mocking him for passing on that idiotic advice. But that's based on my relationship with him, where we frequently make fun of each other. Other people might not react as well to that.

The way I see it you have 4 options:
1. Make fun of him
2. Confront him in a serious way, saying he hurt your feelings
3. Confront him in an angry way, telling him he's being a ginourmous asshole who needs to get over himself
4. Ignore the whole thing, pretend like you never heard about it, and let things blow over.

I will say that now that I've been married a couple of years,and people have had time to get used to the idea (and the idea that no, we're not getting divorced so I can marry a jew) things have settled down some with my family. The absolute worst time was when I was engaged,and people were trying to convince me not to get married, and I was constantly defending my decision to get married. But after we got married (apart from that one thing with my grandfather) it's been mostly quiet, and I even talked to that insane brother for like an hour on the phone right before pesach.

Was it all worth it? Definitely. I get to live with my husband every day, we have our own family that we hope to build in the future when we are ready to start having kids, I've found out which of my family members will be there for me no matter what, and which are insane. I can finally be open with my family about my actual level of religiosity because I have nothing left to lose. For me just getting to be with B is worth it all. But looking back I do feel like my engagement was a battle with my family(and engagements can be stressful even if your family is completely supportive), so I wish you the best of luck!

Anyways this post has gotten insanely long and I have to go to the farmer's market, but congrats again to Tova, I hope this helps, and readers- please feel free to offer your own advice as well!


  1. Wow...That was a hell of a long post! Thanks for all your advice. As it happened, "Option 4" has already occurred (against my planning - this person ended up visiting and being totally friendly, acting like nothing had happened!).

    It's interesting that you mentioned the sociological angle of things, as one of my fiance's degrees is in sociology (the other is in criminology).

    And you're right...Despite my folks being open-minded deadheads who took me to art/historical museums and rock concerts and libraries as a kid, they still feel a need to promote their in-group. It should be noted, though, that the neighborhood (though not the area's frum community at large) is black hat and not MO. That could have something to do with their reaction, as the MO people I know (while not necessarily supportive of my decision) have certainly harbored less animosity than the black hatters I'm in touch with.

    As far as the wedding is concerned, the soonest we will be married is September of next year. I'm not sure if my fiance's family plans on helping us out (his mother, for example, is very supportive of us and thrilled at the engagement announcement), but even if they don't we are planning something beautiful and small: a spiritual (but non-sectarian) vow exchange somewhere outside, followed by NO dancing (I hate getting sweaty while dressed in layers of fancy clothing!) followed by a steakhouse/bar reception and hopefully a camping trip honeymoon in the Upper Peninsula...or, if my fiance hasn't taken me yet, to his native South and predecessors' Texas.

    Having never been to a non-Jewish wedding and only gathering information from friends' experiences and the media, I have no idea "how things work". But that's fun, because I get to keep some traditions and reject others as I see fit. Since our wedding won't be an Orthodox Jewish one, we don't "have" to have a chuppa, break a glass, listen to 7 brachos, or anything else like that. (My dress will be fairly demure, though, as I love vintage style and would like a Grace Kelly-inspired outfit. Of course, its low neckline would not be approved by Bais Yaakov!)

    You're right about the financial independence bit. Right now, I'm close to finishing my degree. And as soon as I graduate, I plan on moving out and starting a career/"real" job/whatever's decent and makes some money. Until then, my only option is to continue getting excellent grades, walking the tightrope of respecting my family vs. living my life as I see fit.

    Thank you again for all your advice! I'm sure I'll re-read it in time.

  2. Great post, and great analysis.

    Just an FYI, if you want to share something on Facebook, but not have it shared with some subset of your 'friends', you can. Here's a quick guide how:

  3. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do to be happy and you gotta at least mentally tell your antagonists to jump in a lake.

  4. >I too was very shocked at some of these reactions. My parents are 'modern' orthodox too

    What does that even mean? No matter left wing orthodox, or right wing orthodox, what ORTHODOX is ok with intermarriage? If anything, they are being quite reasonable and consistent with their principles. Had they been ok with you intermarriage, than I would suspect something off with them reasoning "Its ok to be orthodox and be ok with intermarriage."

  5. Tova- that sounds like an awesome wedding plan. My wedding was outside too, and we also considered the resturaunt thing afterward (but instead we found an awesome state park with a pavilion that we could rent for $80, and decided to have a daytime wedding followed by a catered picnic instead- I recommend checking out state parks for your ceremony, although most won't allow any alcohol). I had only been to a couple of non jewish weddings, but the one that inspired me the most is when a couple of friends of mine got married on stage at a music festival - after that i realized, there are no rules to weddings (other then the legal aspect) and you can do whatever you want!

    If you want to check out some of my wedding planning things, I have a bunch of posts about planning my wedding from back when we were engaged (July 2008-May 2009).

    Also I find it a little funny/sad you think going to the library and art museums is "open minded"...the rock concerts definitely, but how sad is it that going to a freakin library or to see some art is so out of the norm it makes them "open minded."

    HH- I'm not sure about your religious background, but at least in the MO community I grew up in, people prided themselves on being very open minded, with it, progressive, etc., compared to charedi people (although I never heard the word charedi until I was older, we called them "black hatters" in my house). As such the idea that my mom would cut off a relationship with me, that my brother would warn me of my husband dying, etc, was very shocking to me at the time, because it seemed almost like a midfield reaction (like tearing your clothes does) and after all these years of my parents telling me how much more modern and progressive they were, that's not how I would have expected them to react. I expected them to be against it, to disagree with me, but not to start acting like lunatics.

  6. *that should be Medieval not midfield, not idea how that happened

  7. >I'm not sure about your religious background, but at least in the MO community I grew up in, people prided themselves on being very open minded,

    Well, when you think about it, modern orthodox is still orthodox. Both [charedi and MO] hold intermarriage equally bad. Being open minded never ever meant what you thought it would mean. Not like you need me to tell you that now.

  8. Yes HH,how foolish I was when I was younger and thought my parent's love was unconditional

  9. >I was younger and thought my parent's love was unconditional

    If you are talking about love...i have a feeling they still love you very much. You simply chose a path they can't be part of. Think of that scene in Fiddle on the Roof, where his last daughter marries outside. Remember how he fights with himself? And how he said if he bends that far back, he will break himself. Yet, he still loved her.

  10. HH, would you say the same of a parent who refused to attend the wedding of one's Christian child to a Jew?

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  12. say what...that they still love em?

  13. Tova, I've had this argument with HH. It goes nowhere. He'd act the same if his kid wanted to be a communist.

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  15. My bad, I misremembered. He compared a kid going OTD to a kid going communist. A kid intermarrying is different to him.

  16. >My bad, I misremembered. He compared a kid going OTD to a kid going communist. A kid intermarrying is different to him.

    If you misremembered the first time, dare I say you misremembered AGAIN, because that is not what I said, nor was that what the conversation was here about.

    Here is the link if anyone is interested.

    I suggest before you attempt to smear someone, you get it right.

  17. Changing religions is commonly considered to be a just cause for disowning family members. When I told my adopted parents that I intended to convert to Judaism they handed me a suitcase and told me to get out. This was in spite of being upper middle class people who had not belonged to a church in ten years and in spite of my being only 16, making them guilty guilty of criminal endangerment of a minor. To this day, they see nothing wrong with it. And frankly, it's probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

  18. "handed me a suitcase and told me to get out"

    and some say religion is BAD? LOL

    seriously, HH, her parents KNEW where she was holding frum-wise. It wasnt like she was shuckleing in the bais medrash on monday, and married a sheygetz on tuesday (Sorry for the nasty terminology, i just want to make sure the HHs of the world understand me :)

    further, the very definition of MO being open to other philosophies and other derachim. some go this way, some go that way. mah sh'ein kein by black hatters - its my way or the highway. so by definition, her parents should have been more accepting of her life choice. - and they were not. that was shocking. you say "she crossed that line" - well, in her upbringing (As well as mine) that line was moving around all the time and it was NEVER a choice of cross the line and get cut off....

  19. You might be very surprised at how intolerant a lot of people are. Parents expect kids to toe their line, if they don't just abandon the kids anyway because they can't be bothered.

    I don't really know what Tova's griping about. In spite of all her antics, she is still apparently being fully supported by her hard working orthodox mom.

  20. >further, the very definition of MO being open to other philosophies and other derachim.

    You seem to be defining MO to broadly to something it was never intended. MO is still orthodox, it never allowed for one of the derachim being intermarriage. How can you ever suggest that being open minded to different things meant being OK with this?

  21. It should be noted that JP's parents deny his accusations of neglect and eviction.

  22. HH, I am not "defining" anything. modern orthodox PEOPLE are accepting of idffernt world views. If one of their adult children picks a different path than theirs, many (like the ones that I grew up with) would still love, accept and communicate with their child (THEIR CHILD!)

    I am not suggesting that MO hashkafa permits or is OK with it, but most of the modernishe that I know do not put that philosphy on others.

  23. JP, nothing better to do for a 50 year old man that to spend all day on his computer?

  24. >If one of their adult children picks a different path than theirs, many (like the ones that I grew up with) would still love, accept and communicate with their child (THEIR CHILD!)

    IF that is so, they are not speaking to that child because they are excepted of THAT PARTICULAR worldview. It's simply because they want to be close to their kids. So they bite their tongue. I don't think anyone of those would support their decision at all, no matter how modern they call themselves, that is, IF they are also calling themselves orthodox as well. I doubt very much the relationship would go back to what it was.

    BTW, I said initially the parents still love their children, and as we can see, AE's dad is even trying to communicate with her, even if it IS rather strained.

  25. BTW, I said initially the parents still love their children,

    you mean they love the person that they WISH their child is, not the person who their child ACTUALLY is.

    And parents who communicate with their intermarried/OTD children often do so in order "to leave the door open" for the child to return ... to the Orthodox way of life. Not because they are comfortable communicating with their wayward.

    Even this pathetic excuse for communication is better than nothing, of course, because it "leaves the door open" for the parent to come to his or her senses and become once again a part of his or her child's life.

    If you really believe it's God's command, you may feel you have not choice to throw your child under the bus, but what does that tell you about...

  26. >you mean they love the person that they WISH their child is, not the person who their child ACTUALLY is.

    I think emotions are a complex thing. Insticts are that every parent loves their child no matter what. Again, i think Fiddler on the Roof was really good on showing this beautifully. Now, somewhere, in the parent they of course wish their child was something else if that child when 180 degrees in the opposite direction, but that does not have to do with the love. That is just simply a hope they have inside of them. Parents aren't idiots. They know most likely there is no going back for their kids.

    Might I add, from a little experience, my in-laws go through this very much. My MIL's brother converted to Christianity. She loves him. It's her brother. At the same time, she has tried talking him out of it. But the love she still has for him stands on its own merits apart from her other [ended] mission.

    >If you really believe it's God's command, you may feel you have not choice to throw your child under the bus, but what does that tell you about...

    What does that tell me about what? God? It tells me that there are certain principles that deserve to be protected. If those principles are to be kept, the fort has to hold, and yes sometimes there will be deserters to that fort. It tells me this God is all about free will and for everyone to reap the consequences they have sown. They decided to intermarry, very willingly. Nobody threw them under the bus. Nobody is getting any benefit. It's a poor idiom you are trying to use.

  27. "It should be noted that JP's parents deny his accusations of neglect and eviction."

    And when did you last hear a child abuser confess? So that proves child abuse never happens?

  28. "JP, nothing better to do for a 50 year old man that to spend all day on his computer?"

    Actually, an iPad. Even hard workers get little breaks to spread shining rays of enlightenment.

  29. Jp, go outside and throw a ball around with your kids, get some fresh air, enjoy the world that god gave you. No reason to sit on your ipad all day and harass people.

    Or open up a sefer

  30. Hh, what are you getting all worked up about? You think its lovely to have an adult child that chooses to not be observant of rabbinic orthodox judaism and you think its just fine and dandy to put on a fake smile as a parent and pretend like you give a shit about her ot him?

    Always wishing and hoping for the day when they wont be eating at a traif restauraunt, or watching the game on saturday or paying golf on shavvuot.

    Cmon son! Thats some sick stuff you throwin up right therw. Annd i dont believe most modern orthodox that i know would do that. Sorry,

  31. ksil,

    Don't know what you are talking about (or insinuating I said)

  32. "No reason to sit on your ipad all day and harass people."

    I like to call it "constructive criticism". Unfortunately, some people are simply in denial. That's not my fault.

  33. I hate when people fight on my threads. Good analysis Rel- enjoyed it :)

  34. Oh, ps Ahava=quietgirl. Not really quiet anymore, plus I want to start a new health blog *someday*

  35. ksil - is there any way for me to contact you? email possibly? I would love to be in touch...
    my email is chaynobody at gmail


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