Skip to main content

Highs and Lows: Jewish Holidays from the Sidelines

Jewish holidays can be the greatest—as well as the hardest—aspect of being part of an interfaith family. My wife, Juliet, is an observant, modern Orthodox woman, and during the time before we were married, she introduced me to each of the holidays and tried to find ways for me to engage in them with her.

I’ll admit that the results have been mixed, which is also perhaps predictable. Now that we are married, I’m an active part of many of these holidays. For example, Passover crosses over nicely with spring cleaning. I refer to it as the OCD holiday, and it’s a great excuse for me to dedicate more time than usual to deep-cleaning the house–something I enjoy and find meditative. I can dress up for Purim and build an outdoor house for Sukkot. Juliet likes that I’m participating in these holidays, and I like creating family traditions that are fun for us to enjoy with our young son. That’s the great part.

But the High Holidays in particular are hard for me to connect with as someone who doesn’t track the Jewish calendar and doesn’t spend much time in the sanctuary during services. As I think about why that is, I have found one reliable predictor that determines whether I am able to connect with the holiday: the degree to which the holiday is focused on services within the sanctuary of the synagogue.

More than any of the other holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem to be holidays of worship centered around the community joining together at the shul (synagogue). I do attend one or two services during the High Holidays, typically the Kol Nidre service. However, I usually find myself in the children’s room playing with our son during most of this service, joined by a handful of other young children and parents. This works out fine as long as our son isn’t yet engaged in the services taking place in the sanctuary.

After the service, we go home, my wife continues her fasting and stays home from work the next day, while I go to work and enjoy a nice lunch out. This is fine for now. My wife is able to actively observe and participate with the community, while I watch from the sidelines.

Watching from the sidelines raises questions about how much I will be able to participate in my son’s observance. As our son grows older, and as we raise him as an observant, modern Orthodox Jew, I wonder where and how I will be able to engage in his religion beyond the traditions we establish in our home. As Leif learns Hebrew, studies Torah, and ultimately has his bar mitzvah, will I find ways to participate in these activities as part of the family, or is that part of what I don’t get to do because I am not Jewish? As Leif starts going to services during the High Holidays because he is participating in the worship, will I simply stay at home?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I have some hopes, and I have started taking some steps that might help me engage.

For example, early on in my relationship with Juliet, before the wedding, we took a Kashrut class together. We keep a kosher home, and this class was a way to help me understand exactly what that meant. I learned some of the concepts quickly, as well as the many rules that are in place as safety measures on top of safety measures on top of safety measures to ensure that the core rules are not broken. My wife is vegetarian, and to the extent that we ever risk traifing dishes, I’m probably better at safeguarding our kitchen at this point than my wife. Because of my vigilance around Kashrut, I have been able to successfully keep a second set of dishes in our mostly dairy kitchen so that we can have kosher meat in the house.

At one point I had the idea that, to better understand Judaism, I would follow along and read an English translation of the Torah during the course of a year. Growing up in a Lutheran community, I’d never really read the Old Testament. I remember one person telling me as a child that the local church focused on reading the New Testament because God in the Old Testament is an angry, spiteful God, and that He lightened up a lot when Jesus arrived. So with very little knowledge of Torah, I went out and bought “The Five Books of Moses” by Robert Alter with every intention of reading it. However, once the long list of “begats” began, I lost steam and never regained my momentum. Since then my wife has suggested specific books about the Torah instead of the Torah itself, and that has in fact worked much better.

Ultimately, however, I have chosen not to convert for one primary reason: I don’t consider myself Jewish. That personal decision of mine will create a difference between my son and me, regardless of what else I do. I look for the places I can connect, and if I can find some place for myself in learning Torah with him, I will gladly take it.

The places I have found to connect with Judaism so far–the celebrations, meals, traditions in our home–are something I enjoy. I believe Judaism has brought much more tradition into my home than I have ever experienced before. Reflecting upon the High Holidays, if I can’t connect with my family as they observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so be it. It is a small price to pay.

Besides, Simchat Torah is right around the corner from there, and I have to admit I love to dance with my son.

Birger Stamperdahl

Birger Stamperdahl is the full-time father of a wonderful two-year-old boy and and the full-time non-Jewish partner of a wonderful Modern Orthodox woman. In his spare time, he holds down a full-time job as the Marketing Director for Give2Asia, a nonprofit helping US donors support local charitable groups based in Asia. Although originally from New Hampshire, he has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1993.