I Feel Like I Have To Hide My Judaism From My Family

How do I show up as my full Jewish self when it feels like the people around me are trying to shut me down?

Hello and welcome back to Hey Alma’s advice column on all things Jewish life — check out what our Instagram audience had to say about this week’s issue, read on for advice from our resident deputy managing editor/bossy Capricorn Jew, and submit your own dilemmas anonymously here.

Hey, Hey Alma,

I am a college student home on break and I feel like I have to hide my Judaism from my family. If I had it my way, I would wear my kippah every day, and keep Shabbat. But I cannot do that because my family is really judgmental. My mother is an atheist and is very anti-religion and sees me being Jewish as a slap in the face. Ironically she has no problem with me being LGBTQ+, but she has huge problems with me being religious.

How do I show up as my full Jewish self when it feels like the people around me are trying to shut me down?

Hi friend,

I read this question and felt a lot of compassion for you. I also have a lot of follow-up questions. If you and I were sitting at my kitchen table together right now, I’d make you a cup of tea and offer you a homemade biscuit, and then I’d ask some questions. Did you and your mom have a close relationship when you were growing up? Do you consider yourselves to have a close relationship now? Were you born Jewish, or did you convert? If you converted, how long ago did that journey begin? Is your mom Jewish? Has she always been an atheist? Does she have any religious trauma? Are there other members of your family who are supportive of your religion and your religious choices? Do you rely on your parents for financial support at this time in your life, and would bringing this up jeopardize your schooling and/or your housing? Do you want to continue to have a relationship with your mom or is that not important to you?

I could go on, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. My point is really this: You have asked one specific question — how do I show up as my full Jewish self when it feels like the people around me are trying to shut me down? — and I will do my best to answer. But without knowing the specifics of your predicament, I’ll be asking you some questions along the way, too.

So let’s go down this road together.

Is This a Big Change?

It’s not clear to me from this question if you were raised Jewish or not, or if your mom’s own relationship with religion has changed meaningfully since your childhood or not. My instinct is that she perhaps didn’t raise you to be as observant in Judaism (or any other religion) as you are now, and this is a big shift for her. I’m not saying that to excuse her behavior — as I always say, children are not extensions of their parents and it is appropriate for you to create your own identity and your own life with your own hopes, dreams, desires and values. But I’m saying it as a way to make space for her to be a whole person in this situation, too. Family systems are so complicated because we’re all bringing our whole selves and our whole lives to every interaction. How did your mom’s parents view religion? How did your family “do” religion when you were a kid? It’s not fair for her to view your Judaism as “a slap in the face,” but is there a history for your mom that makes it at least somewhat less surprising that she’s reacting this way? And if so, can you both find empathy for the other?

I ask if this is a big change also because sometimes, when things change, the people around us just need a little time to get used to it. That’s not ideal for us — we want our loved ones to be supportive right away, and in an ideal world they are — but on the bright side, it can mean that her reaction is temporary. Parents often feel they know their children better than anyone else, and when their child does something they don’t expect, they take it personally… which is their work to move through and get over, but can feel pretty bad to the child while it’s happening. If this is a shift from how you’ve interacted with your Judaism in the past, your mom may just need some time to get used to it. I encourage you to make boundaries about what that looks like — for example, if she says something rude about your kippah, you can leave the room or leave the house, or if she says she doesn’t want you lighting candles in her house, you can decide to go to synagogue on Shabbat to light and say the prayers — but also, if she’s open to it, invite her in. Might she want to learn about what your kippah signifies, or why we light candles on Shabbat?

Is There Space for Compromise?

This leads me to my next question: Is there space for compromise? This depends a lot on what your relationship with your mom is like. If you have had a generally loving and respectful relationship, it may feel important (to both of you!) to maintain it, even though this feels like a huge difference between you.

When I first came out to my mom as queer (more than 10 years ago!) she was not thrilled. In retrospect, I think she felt alienated from me and our formerly close relationship, but at the time, I was very hurt that she didn’t want to join me at a Pride parade waving a rainbow flag, and it was challenging for us to move through. But we had already established a really, really solid foundation of love and respect, and we moved through those early years of my queerness as best as we could. We fought. We hurt each other. We challenged each other. But we kept trying, because our relationship was of utmost importance to both of us. Last year, I married my wife, and I would say the only person more excited than me and my partner was my mom. She now refers to my wife as her other daughter. She’s probably never going to go to a Pride parade waving a rainbow flag because she’s just not a parade person, but she is so supportive. She is my dream ally. We got to this place because we both kept trying.

I know from your letter how special and important your Judaism is to you, and I know how disappointing it can be when someone we love doesn’t like or respect a facet of our identity. There will be people online who tell you to cut ties with a family member who doesn’t see you fully, but the older I get, the more I don’t think that’s the path to happiness for all of us. (If your family member is abusive or if you’ve never had a positive relationship, it’s possible this could be right for you — but I think if there is a foundation of love and respect, we owe each other the discomfort of working through hard things together.)

So how can you connect with your mom and your Judaism in this moment? Can you let her know how important certain rituals are to you, and invite her to join them without judgment? And can you allow that religion feels scary to her for whatever reason, and agree to talk about things you have in common (rather than this specific huge thing you don’t) or do activities that don’t touch on religion when you spend time together? In short: How can you maintain your relationship in healthy ways as you both work through this?

Are You Financially Dependent on Your Mom?

Because you are a college student, I’d be remiss not to bring this up. If you are financially dependent on your mom, and if you think your religious choices could put that support in jeopardy, I’d encourage you to keep the peace for now regardless of what kind of emotional relationship you do or don’t want with her in the future. I wish it wasn’t the case that parents cut kids off when they disagreed, but unfortunately some do. You deserve safe housing, you deserve to finish your degree, and you deserve material support from your parent if they are able to give it to you. If delving into the subject of your Judaism and your identity could put any of that at risk, I think it’s best to wait until you are no longer dependent on your mom to approach these topics, and no one could fault you for that.

How Can You Show Up For Yourself?

And now, your actual question: How do I show up as my full Jewish self when it feels like the people around me are trying to shut me down?

The questions I asked above have more to do with maintaining relationships with family members who don’t understand you, trying to find common ground, compromising and figuring out what makes most sense for you moving forward in your family. I think all of that is important, and I’m hopeful other readers who find this question and have similar challenges with family members about religion will find my thoughts above helpful, too. But the most important thing is the question you’ve posed: how to show up for yourself.

Showing up for ourselves looks different for everyone. Some of us are loud and proud, some of us reserved and steadfast. Many of us are somewhere in between. But showing up for ourselves, no matter what that looks like, always means the same thing: living your life with integrity, feeling happy with your choices when you go to bed in the evening, and looking in the mirror to see your most authentic self looking back.

Ask yourself: What do you need to do this summer to embody your full Jewish self? What can you do to meet that version of you without the help of your family? Do you belong to a synagogue in your hometown? Could you visit some and see where feels most comfortable, then start attending services regularly? If you have Jewish friends in the area, are you interested in studying Talmud together, or taking an online Jewish class together? Can you keep Shabbat even if the rest of your family doesn’t? Are you wanting to eat specific foods or keep kosher, and is there a way to do a version of that in your childhood home?

There are so many online Jewish communities (including the Hey Alma community!) to tap into — you may find a virtual space that feels good in this post about finding remote Jewish life. Or maybe you want to start planning a Jewish club at your college for the fall, or creating some Jewish programming with Jewish friends on campus to make you feel excited about the future.

Above all, stay true to yourself and your beliefs. Whether you and your mom have a good relationship that is going through a rough patch or whether she chooses never to accept the important role Judaism plays in your life, you know who you are. It’s nice when the people close to us see us fully, but unfortunately it’s not something we can control or require of others. What we can do is choose how much of ourselves we share, what boundaries we need to make to keep ourselves emotionally safe and what compromises and leaps of faith we’re willing to make, too. Move at your own pace. Take it one day at a time. Remember that life is long, and the people we love (hopefully) want to meet us where we’re at.

And if things are actually just really bad, and your mom isn’t interested in compromise or maintaining your relationship, remember that you won’t have to rely on her this much forever, and you’re only at home for a short time this summer. You have the rest of your life ahead of you to live an authentic Jewish existence. Your mom’s behavior will dictate whether she’s welcome to be a part of it or not — and that may ebb and flow over time — but you can choose yourself and your Jewish identity every single day, starting right now.

It sounds silly in its simplicity, but it’s the only truth we can control: You show up for yourself by showing up for yourself. You got this.

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