My Parents Practice Judaism Differently — How Do I Figure Out My Own Path?

This week, a Jewish teen writes in with a family dilemma.

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’m a teenager and I have two moms. They tend to have similar ideas of Judaism (they’re both agnostic/apathetic-about-God Jews) but have very different ways of observing our religion because of their upbringings.

My Ema was raised Reform and was bullied by Conservative people when she was a kid, so that made her kind of prejudiced against people who are traditional and more practicing. My Mom was raised much more religiously, with the whole shomer Shabbat/kosher/walk to synagogue on Saturdays shebang. Many of her traditions remain a big part of her identity.

Because a lot of their traditions are at odds, my parents often get into fights about how we should practice Judaism as a family.

That’s a long way to ask a relatively simple question: How do I navigate and figure out my own Jewish life when I’m still living in a house with two very different perspectives?

Hello! This question is phrased so beautifully, and I can really feel the strong foundation of love that is present in your family. Your explanation and your thought process make it clear you’re an extremely empathetic person, and I think that can be both a strength and a hinderance when it comes to family dynamics. It’s wonderful to be close to your parents and to hone your empathy skills, but it’s also important to make sure you know how to center your own wants and needs when it’s important. This question is a great portal into figuring out your own core values and creating scaffolding to make a life that feels good to you, not just the people around you.

It sounds like your Ema and your Mom have some things to figure out between themselves (that, let’s be real, it would have been useful for them to figure out before they had a kid, let alone a full grown teen, but we’re all doing our best so here we are!) and it’s unfair that you are inadvertently being put in the middle of their fights. But I think there are many paths you can take here to both forge your own way and coexist happily in your family unit, even while you’re still living with your Ema and your Mom in their house. There’s a third perspective here that is just as important as their two very different perspectives, and that’s yours.

Do your own learning

One of the greatest things about Judaism is how much writing is available about our religion, our customs, our traditions, our thoughts, our arguments, our dreams… name a Jewish topic and at least 100 people have written at least 100 different things about it. We are the People of the Book! We love to think things through (over, and over, and over…) and then we love to write them down!

Another one of the greatest things about Judaism is how much we all disagree all the time. Your Ema and your Mom are certainly not the first two Jews who love each other and who feel very differently about how to practice our religion. I think reading texts by and about people whose views align with your Ema and reading texts by and about people whose views align with your Mom will feel good because it will not be as up-close-and-personal. When someone we love shares their perspective, it’s hard to consider if we agree or disagree without also wondering if our response will hurt their feelings or make them mad. When we are reading words from a random rabbi who died 1000 years ago, we don’t have to stress so much about anyone else’s feelings, which frees us to consider what we actually think about their thoughts, traditions, etc.

To get started on your research journey, here are 12 great Introduction-to-Judaism books.

Spend time practicing Judaism with each of your parents

There is also value in spending solo time with people you love to see if the ways they do things resonate with you. If your parents have difficulty deciding how to practice Judaism together as a family, it might behoove you to spend time with each of them individually and witness what their practices look like when they’re doing them exactly how they were raised and how they enjoy. Does your Ema have special recipes she likes to bake for the holidays? Volunteer to help her with one and chat about why she likes it and what it means to her. Does your Mom still walk to synagogue on Saturdays? Join her one Shabbat and ask what her walks usually look like: What does she think about, does it remind her of her childhood, do any particular memories stand out for her? You don’t have to do every single Jewish tradition together as a whole family, and practicing meaningful traditions separately with each of your parents will help you figure out which ones resonate for you and which ones aren’t the right fit.

Spend time practicing Judaism outside of your home

Another way to find clarity about what matters to you — not your parents — when it comes to practicing Judaism is to investigate options outside of your house. Attend teen services at your synagogue! If you have Jewish friends who attend other synagogues, attend teen services at their synagogues! If there are Jewish classes or free events in your area (specifically for teens or open to anyone), go to the ones that spark your interest. Check out online Jewish communities and see if those forums help you decide what flavor of Judaism feels best for you. As with my suggestion about reading a wide variety of thinkers, interacting with a large swath of Jews that have no relation to you and will not take it personally if their style of Judaism isn’t a perfect fit for you is a great way to hone in on what exactly feels right for you without worrying about hurting either of your parent’s feelings or starting a family feud.

Share how you’re feeling with your parents

Which brings me to a piece of this quandary that I think is underlying the question you asked. I absolutely think this is a question about how a young person can find their own Jewish path, whether is mimics or diverges from the path of their parents. But I also think this is a question about family dynamics and how we all bring different pieces of ourselves to the whole family unit to create something collaborative and, ideally, meaningful for everyone involved.

It is not your job to help your parents through their ongoing struggle of how to practice Judaism meaningfully and differently as a family, but you are one part of the group being affected by their disagreement, and you deserve to have just as much of a voice as your parents do. Quite a few parents responded in our Instagram comments when we posted this particular question and shared that if their kid was feeling the way you describe, they’d really want to know. I acknowledge that it can be really hard as a teen to be honest with your parents about hard stuff, but if you feel up for it, I really want to advise you to tell your parents how their continued disagreements about Judaism is making you feel. I don’t know how your Ema and your Mom will respond, but I do know that only when you begin an open dialogue about this can you move on to my final suggested step.

Move forward as a family

Yes, your parents are your parents, and yes, for now you live in their house. But you are their child, and it’s also your house! Which is to say: How a family practices their religion is a family conversation, and you are very much part of your family. Your voice should be taken into account, too. It would be easy for either of your parents to try to rope you into “their side” which I imagine would feel bad for everyone — triangles are always tough. But I am hopeful that if you do all of the initial steps I recommended, reflect on which Jewish traditions are actually meaningful and important to you, and then approach your Ema and your Mom with those thoughts and request a way to figure out how the three of you can partake in a multitude of practices as a family, they will be receptive.

One day, you’ll have your own home and you’ll be able to practice Judaism exactly the way you want to — and if your Ema or your Mom lived alone, they could practice Judaism exactly the way they want to. But as of today, you all share a home and a life. And that home and that life should reflect a Judaism that feels good to everyone involved. I’m hopeful your parents will see your own journey exploring Judaism and what traditions matter to you as a way to move forward as a team. And if they don’t, at least you’ll have more clarity for yourself, both for today and for the future.

Read More