The following advice columns grew out of an event sponsored by New Center NOW, the young adult division of Boston’s New Center for Arts and Culture, an organization that explores universal themes through a Jewish lens. Laura Mandel, New Center NOW director and head of creative programming, offered a “Dear Abby” creative writing event for young writers and asked author and Journal columnist Dr. Ruth Nemzoff to mentor the group. Dr. Nemzoff asked the writers to come prepared with a Jewish question based on their own or their friends’ experiences. The columns are reprinted with permission below.
Q: I grew up in an observant Conservative household. These days, however, I’m not very observant at all. My mother knows this. But she keeps “forgetting.” For example, this year she knew I was attending a writing conference in Montreal. What she didn’t realize was that it was the same weekend as Yom Kippur. When she found out, her response was “Oh, so you’re having fun on the Day of Atonement.” How do I get my mother to remember — and respect — my non-observance without breaking her heart?
A: I’d start by asking yourself — are you happy with who you are and where you are as a Jewish young adult? Do you have observances that are more meaningful to you now, and other ways to connect? It’s a tough question to even ask, but assuming this answer is “yes,” try bringing that up to your mother so that she can understand a bit more about how you’ve chosen to live your life. It will not only deepen your adult “I now make my own decisions” relationship, but it will likely even make her proud to know that you have thought so deeply about these issues.
As with so many generational differences, your mom will have her own expectations of how you live your life, based on her own experiences. It’s even possible that she herself went through this with your grandparents, a question you can ask to help her understand where you’re coming from. And since writing is clearly such a passion for you, it can’t hurt to reinforce this to her, and to show that the conference goes beyond “fun” for you at this point in your life and career. She needs to hear the truth from you — her daughter whom she loves — to even begin the process of understanding what may seem heretical to her.
If the answer to the question is indeed “no,” look at it as an opportunity to consider what you might like to change in or add to your life. Is there a way you can reconnect with your Jewish roots that would have meaning for you? Is there something your mother would recognize as observance that would have meaning to you in your life now? It might feel good to take the opportunity to this “soul check,” and to have yet another topic to deepen your relationship with your mother.
Bottom line — be honest with your mother and yourself about what is meaningful to you.
— Laura Mandel
Q: I’m having my first baby in February. My mother-in-law is a planner who wants to book a flight to visit when the baby is born, now — four months in advance. Assuming it’s a boy, she wants to be here for the Bris. I’m not psychic and I can’t control when the baby arrives. I’m not even sure I want to have a Bris! How do I make my mother-in-law happy without having real answers for her?
A: Firstly, flight insurance, flight insurance, flight insurance!
Next, would having your husband act as a translator of sorts help out? How has he navigated these situations before? It sounds like what you’re missing is a common language with your mother-in-law. She’s a mother. What happened with the birth of your husband that she’s forgotten how babies usually come into existence? Finding that common ground between the three of you feels like it’s at the heart of this matter. As a mother — and the mother of a nice, Jewish boy — she’s already lived through a version of your experience. Put that to use!
You’ve mentioned that you’re not sure if you want to have a Bris. That’s okay! You can broach that option by mentioning to your mother-in-law that you want to make sure that your baby is healthy first before considering the next step of a Bris. And if you do decide you want to have a Bris, you’re in luck: you’ve got an expert planner for a relative. Ask your mother-in-law to help you work out the details of the event. Let her know if you want a big celebration or a small one for just the family, at home or at the hospital on the eighth day, and then let your mother-in-law deal with the details. Have her call the caterers. That’ll help take the edge off of her need to plan out everything.
It could also help to have a talk with your mother-in-law, woman to woman. Ask her for advice. It sounds to me like your mother-in-law wants to feel involved in the process and in the life of her future family member. Seeking her out would be an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with her. During this conversation, you can also ask her to plan out an itinerary for her visit. As you’ve mentioned, you’re not psychic — HaShem is the only one who knows exactly when this baby is going to arrive. Creating a definite itinerary for a visit on a flexible date might also give your planner a sense of purpose.
— Elana Friedland
Q: I’m in a serious relationship with a Catholic. I am Jewish, but was not raised in a traditionally Jewish family. I would like to raise my children Jewish, but don’t know much about the religious traditions. How can I make sure to do that?
A: Find a community. Find friends who can teach Torah on one foot. Learn to stand on one foot. Learn to stand on one foot with a book in your hands. Find a community. Find friends who will seat you at their table for holidays fill your cup hold your children let your children play out the stories under the table. Find teachers who will read you Jewish when the sky opens in the summer when the ghosts predict the weather in the fall to the light of eight candles until your eyes ache and your head runs right to left. Be the teacher and hold your partner’s hand as he stands on one foot and sway and stand and fall and balance again.
— Emily Jaeger