Orthodox cousins get little respect in mixed family

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I’m 17 and my family is totally mixed. I have Modern Orthodox cousins but mostly Reform immediate family, and also family who identify as culturally Jewish. My parents and my Reform family members will refer to “non-Orthodox Jews” when talking about what Jews are like, saying things like, “Among the non-Orthodox Jews, this or that is true.” They talk about how all Jews are becoming intermarried, not keeping kosher or going to synagogue and that soon this will be the norm. They say the Orthodox have to accept that.

They don’t even talk to my Orthodox cousins to see what they think. I feel like my parents are hypocrites. I love all my family and am very close to one of my cousins, who is my age. Her parents never say things against me or my family. My question is, why are my parents like this, and how can I make them love my cousin and her family? — Sad Cousin

Dear Sad Cousin: You are clearly a thoughtful and caring young woman. Your love for your family and longing for peace is a good and just desire. Many self-proclaimed liberal Jews can be surprisingly intolerant of Jews who do not practice or believe as they do. This is ironic and, yes, hypocritical. But I would bet that your parents don’t realize this.

Most Jews who act as you are describing are also very quick to use proof texts from Orthodox sources to prove a point. In other words, they speak disparagingly of Orthodox Judaism, but in their hearts they believe it is the “true” Judaism. This is extremely hard on them. Here they are with a secret belief that Orthodox Judaism is the “real Judaism” but a total lack of desire to practice traditional Judaism themselves.

These Jews may feel inferior and react with anger. They make loud statements and write blazing articles saying such and such is the direction Judaism is taking, and the Orthodox should listen up and change. They may be unaware that often the very Orthodox people they want to influence have stopped reading such material because they are tired of being put down.

But being aware of this communal mudslinging doesn’t make your family situation any more tolerable. What is the relationship between your parents and your cousin’s parents? Are any of them siblings? There could be a longstanding but unacknowledged sibling rivalry. Or someone may feel deserted by a sibling becoming traditional and seeming to move away from the family emotionally. When your parents say “the Orthodox have to accept that,” they may be feeling that they want to be accepted as they are by their Orthodox family. They may be feeling rejected and carrying around a lot of sorrow and pain.

Talk to your parents. Tell them how much you love them and your cousin and her family. Tell them that it hurts you to overhear negative statements about other family members. If the family does not get together for holidays, that could be part of their sadness and anger. So ask if there is a way to have a big family gathering. Don’t take “No, because your aunt and uncle won’t eat off our plates” for an answer. There are lots of families that find ways to make it work.

You could ask your aunt and uncle the same question: Why don’t we have holidays together? I assure you that your local Modern Orthodox rabbi or Chabad rabbi would be swift to offer solutions. Food and dishes should not keep a family apart.

No family should be living like this, and I’m confident that your parents do not want to hurt you.

Finally, you should be very proud of yourself. You may be the one who brings the family together. I’ve seen cases where one person stating his or her love and calling out the elephant in the room has brought on a cascade of apologies, hugs and strengthened bonds in a family. Be brave and strong. Call me if you want help.

Dawn Kepler
Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to [email protected].