Q: My fiancé was just home visiting his family ahead of our wedding next month. I’m Jewish, and he’s not (he was raised Methodist but does not have any interest in being a member of the church). We’re having a secular ceremony with a few Jewish elements (i.e., a chuppah, stomping the glass, and doing the hora, but that’s about it). He sat down with his parents to make sure they understood these traditions so they won’t be TOO overwhelmed the day of… his family is from a part of the country that doesn’t have many Jewish people.
His parents started saying some weird, vaguely anti-Semitic, things about Jews during this conversation. His mother, in particular, started talking about Netanyahu and Israeli-Palestinian politics, and claiming that she didn’t think “Jews from New York” would accept Methodists. I sense that she’s uncomfortable with the unknown in this instance, which is fair, but I find these statements and assumptions very hurtful, as does my fiancé. His family has said weird things to me in the past about my religion, and I’ve always chalked it up to them seeing me as “exotic,” but now I’m concerned that there’s something deeper going on.
I’ve suggested that we try and incorporate customs from his background, but we don’t want our wedding to mention Jesus or God, and his family didn’t have any suggestions for things they’d like us to include when we asked, multiple times. He’s doing some research into Dutch traditions we could include (since they are of Dutch heritage, but many generations ago), but that’s mostly coming up blank. I’m not sure what else we could do to make sure they feel comfortable around my family and my culture, and also that his parents don’t say anything to offend my family, especially my elderly grandmother.
Any thoughts on how to navigate this?
A: Oh, LW. I do not envy the position you’re in. As a fellow secular Jew, I think you are absolutely right to be unsettled by this. The bad news is that you’re not going to fix it just by tweaking your ceremony plans.
Regardless of your (or my) personal opinions on Israel, I’m willing to bet that your mother-in-law did not broach this topic out of pure intellectual curiosity. I suspect that she saw an opening to let loose her discomfort about her son marrying a Jewish person. But she knew she couldn’t frame it in precisely those terms, so instead she turned a conversation about Judaism into a geopolitical commentary criticizing the only Jewish country in the world.
That’s not just “vaguely anti-Semitic.” That’s anti-Semitic, full stop. And here’s why it’s so insidious.
Being Jewish in America is so often an exercise in cognitive dissonance. For those of us of Ashkenazi heritage (descended from the members of the Jewish Diaspora who ended up in Europe), there’s enormous pressure to assimilate. We are encouraged to cast aside our traditions and erase our identity in exchange for a slice of the privilege our white, Christian peers were born with. And because we are privileged, it’s easy for people like your in-laws to maintain plausible deniability. They can use you as a proxy for questioning the actions of another country. They can convince you that having their identity “accepted” (read: centered) is just as urgent as you having your identity acknowledged at all.
At the same time, even white-passing Jews are constantly reminded that we are other—that being Jewish is alien, that we are mistrusted and feared. In the words of activist and writer Scot Nakagawa:
Privilege is not the same as power, and privilege is not a bulwark against white nationalism and other fascistic movements for those who are targeted, because privilege is conditional and hinges on [who] is in power.
Given who’s in power in the U.S. right now, the stakes are higher than ever. In this country, in 2018, Jewish people are being murdered because white, Christian folks—like your in-laws—are afraid of our otherness and are “uncomfortable with the unknown.”
It might seem like I’m coming down hard on your in-laws. I am. It’s lovely that you want to make them feel included in your ceremony, but there are bigger fish to fry here. I would urge you to think carefully about what it means to marry into a family that sees you as a Jew first, and an individual second.
And here’s the question you knew was coming: Where is your fiancé in all of this? Forget researching Dutch wedding traditions. Has he stood up for you to his parents? Has he told them that they were out of line, and that he doesn’t want to hear those kinds of comments from them ever again? Has he told them that they need to be on their absolute best behavior around your family—no commentary on Israel, no shows of worry about being Methodist in a sea of Jews, none of it?
Is he willing to face blowback from his family for standing with you and putting your needs first? Not just around the wedding, but for the entire duration of your marriage?
Update: Anonymous reached out today to let us know:
My husband did call out his parents for the anti-Semitic remarks they made and used those terms and he has been very adamant about us being in this together, putting me first, and telling his parents that they could not behave this way at our wedding. My wedding happened nearly a month ago and, happily, all went well with both of our families.