Editor’s note: Last week on Hey Alma’s Instagram account, we shared a DM we got from a reader (with her consent!) detailing a recent issue she had involving her non-Jewish boyfriend and an antisemitic remark his mother made. Turning to the Hey Alma community for advice, we and said advice seeker were blown away by the number of thoughtful replies and excellent ideas for broaching the issue. It was clearly an issue that resonated with a lot of Jews out there, so we decided to use it as an excuse to launch our very own advice column. Read on for the dilemma as well as advice from Hey Alma’s deputy managing editor Vanessa Friedman, a self-described bossy Capricorn Jew.
Hi Hey Alma team, I have a dilemma.
I’m dating someone who’s not Jewish — we’ve been together for two years and are living together. He is from rural Texas and didn’t grow up around anyone Jewish that he knew of. He’s always been super interested in/supportive of my Judaism (we cohosted a mini seder last year, he’s gone with me to high holiday services, etc.). I went home to Texas with him for Christmas last month, and at one point while his mom was telling a story about shopping for a piece of furniture, she off-handedly said “they tried to Jew me down.” I was shocked and didn’t say anything in the moment. Neither did my boyfriend.
Later when we were alone he brought it up and apologized, saying he knew his mom didn’t realize it was an antisemitic saying and that she didn’t mean anything by it. But when I asked if he’d talk to her about it, he said no, he didn’t want to make it a big deal and make her feel uncomfortable around me in the future worrying she might say something to offend me. We had a whole back and forth and eventually I just dropped it, but I am obviously still thinking about it and upset. I don’t think his mom is antisemitic, just ignorant, so it would be helpful for her to be educated on this topic, but I don’t think I should be the one to have to do it.
Is it too much for me to expect him to say something to her?
First of all, yikes. I’m so sorry this happened to you. Experiencing antisemitism out in the world is always jarring, but when it happens in an environment that you’re used to feeling safe and comfortable in, with people you feel close to, it’s especially upsetting. I’ve been there — and after chatting with the rest of the Hey Alma staff and a bunch of my Jewish friends, it truly feels as though we’ve all been there — and it really just sucks.
Before I get to the more pragmatic answer to your question, I want to emphasize that you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s OK that you didn’t react quickly when the comment was first made, and it’s OK that you’re still thinking about it now. It can be really challenging to confront a microaggression as it’s happening. It’s completely normal to continue thinking through and processing an upsetting event after it’s passed — and it’s actually very healthy to take some time to gather your thoughts and feelings and then bring those perspectives to your boyfriend once you’ve had time to sort through them yourself. Please don’t beat yourself up for continuing this conversation with your boyfriend or for having very reasonable wants and needs.
So, with all of that in mind: What do you do now?
There are two problems here
When I first read your question, I identified two main problems. The first problem is that your boyfriend’s mom made an antisemitic comment. The second problem is that your boyfriend is not willing to prioritize your feelings and your request for help in handling this uncomfortable situation. In my opinion, the second problem is actually the much bigger issue. Ultimately, your boyfriend is the person you are in a close relationship with — not his mom — and he is the one who really owes you his time, energy and empathy here. It would be nice for you to have an ongoing positive relationship with his mom, but you two haven’t built the same loving connection together, and that’s OK.
But on that note, your boyfriend has to realize the same thing: He is building a close relationship with you, not with his mom, and while of course our parents often remain a huge connection in our lives, if the two of you continue to date and get even more serious, he will have to figure out how to prioritize your relationship over his relationship with his mom. If he can’t do that, you’re likely to continue having conflicts like these for the rest of your lives.
So what exactly should you do?
As you may have seen in the Hey Alma comment section, there are a LOT of options about what you could and should do next. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that is mandatory is that you need to talk to your boyfriend again. From there, it’s possible that he could talk to his mom or you could both talk to his mom — a third option is that he may continue to refuse to talk to his mom, in which case I do think you need to consider ending the relationship. Another important concrete step? Set expectations for the next time something like this comes up. Let’s get into the nitty gritty about how to do all of the above.
How to talk to your boyfriend
From the way you wrote your question, your boyfriend sounds lovely and your relationship sounds healthy. If this weren’t the case, my advice may be different, but both from the brief background description of your dynamic and the way you phrased your question, nothing about your relationship screams “get out now!!!” or “dump him!!!” Nor does it seem that you want to end your relationship, which is why I think the first step is to talk to your boyfriend.
Don’t be embarrassed about bringing up the conversation again, even if it feels like you “just dropped it” before. It’s very normal to revisit something that upset you and that you’ve had more time to consider on your own, after the original heated conversation. As my therapist always says, set yourself up for success when approaching a potentially upsetting issue: Pick a time when you’re both calm, relaxed and focused. Make sure neither of you are hungry or tired, and that you have plenty of time to talk things through. Then simply tell your boyfriend how you’re feeling. A good opener could be: “Hey babe, I know last time we spoke about your mom’s comment we ended up arguing, but it’s still really upsetting me. I want to share how I’m feeling. Is now a good time for that?” Or, if your boyfriend is someone who likes time to prepare, you could say: “Hey, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened with your mom, and I need to revisit it. When is a good time for us to check in about it this week?”
Once you open up the conversation, be as honest as possible. Don’t undermine your needs. You asked, “Is it too much for me to expect him to say something to her?” and I want to gently suggest that the phrasing of that question does you a disservice. It doesn’t matter if I — or anyone else — think it’s “too much” for you to want this to happen. We’re not in your relationship, and we’re not you. The fact that you want your boyfriend to say something to his mom about an antisemitic comment that hurt you is all that matters here. It might not be something everyone would want in this situation, but your boyfriend is dating you and you want it. So it’s important. And it’s not too much.
That said, by previously dropping the subject, I’m not sure you communicated to your boyfriend exactly how important it is to you that he speak to his mom. It’s fair for you to want or need something from a partner — it’s even fair for that thing to be a dealbreaker — but if you don’t make that request clear, your partner won’t be able to mind-read that they need to step up and show up. In your conversation, make this expectation clear to your boyfriend. You could say something like: “I understand that talking to your mom feels hard, and I hear that you’re worried about what it will do to her relationship with me in the future, but this is non-negotiable to me. I’m really hurt, and if she doesn’t know the phrase is antisemitic, she won’t know not to use it again. This is an opportunity to educate your mom and bring us all closer. As my non-Jewish partner and as her son, I really need you to take the lead on this one.”
If your boyfriend is as sweet as your letter leads me to believe, I hope he’ll be able to hear you.
How to talk to your boyfriend’s mom
It doesn’t sound like you want to be involved in this conversation, and I think that’s fair. No one responds well to being shamed, so I actually think the more low-key the correction, the more likely it is his mom will actually learn from it. My hope is that you’re right, and she’s not being intentionally antisemitic — she just never stopped to think what that term means. The conversation may be awkward, but that’s OK — learning can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. It’s important to establish a culture between your boyfriend and his family where he can let them know if they’re behaving inappropriately about your Judaism, and it shouldn’t fall on you to lead that conversation. If your boyfriend needs help thinking about how to approach the conversation, I’d genuinely suggest he scroll through the advice offered by the Hey Alma commenters on our Instagram! (Thank you all for your thoughtful and generous comments, btw!)
How to set expectations for next time
If things go well when you bring this up to your boyfriend, I think a really healthy next step is to set expectations for the future. I wish I could tell you this will never happen again, but we all know that’s not true. It might not be your boyfriend’s mom making a thoughtless antisemitic comment next time, but casual (and sometimes not so casual!) antisemitism is a part of Jewish life, and if your boyfriend is going to be with you, it’s going to come up again. If you stay together and end up getting married and having kids, it will be even more important to you that your future husband knows how to stand up for his whole family, including his children, not just you. But even if you don’t get married, or decide not to have children, you want to feel safe and supported by your partner, and knowing you can count on him is of utmost importance.
Go over the situation together and describe your ideal scenario. Do you wish he had said something in the moment? Is it OK that he didn’t but you’d want him to follow up with the person when you leave the room in the future? Think about what would truly be best case scenario for you, and ask for it. Then make sure he’s following through.
When to break up
So what if all of the above is for naught, because you try to bring this up with him and it goes terribly? Well, if your boyfriend is truly not willing to hear you out about this and then follow through with action when it comes to meeting your needs and talking to his mom, I would say it’s time to consider breaking up. Your wants and needs are not “too much” — they are simply yours. And if your partner can’t meet them, it’s time to move on.
Do you have a Jewish or Jewish-adjacent dilemma and want our advice? Submit a question anonymously and we’ll do our best to answer it!