By Tinamarie Bernard
Interfaith marriages are a hot topic in the Jewish community, and for good reason. According to a new book by Naomi Schaefer Riley, “‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America,” more than 40 percent of marriages in the United States are mixed religiously, with Jews being more likely than any other faith group to marry outside of their religion.
In a New York Times review of “Faith,” Stanley Fish writes that at its heart, Riley’s book “is a cautionary thesis: the growing number of interfaith couples don’t know what they’re getting into.”
“Interfaith couples tend to marry without thinking through the practical implications of their religious differences. They assume that because they are decent and tolerant people … they will not encounter difficulties being married to someone of another faith,” Fish writes.
One of those difficulties is dealing with the concerns of the older generation. How do you integrate your children’s grandparents, remaining sensitive to their traditions and beliefs, which now differ from your own?
Divisions versus bridges
Long before I knew it and decades before it was personally relevant to my life, my Depression-era father was a Zionist. A deep-thinking Christian man with a quiet passion for historical accuracy, he recalled the struggles a young Israel faced during the early years of her creation.
I knew none of this when I converted to Judaism in my late 30s. I didn’t know he had studied religious or historical texts related to Judaism or Israel. I certainly never knew he had written letters to the editors of major news outlets criticizing them for news reports that favored the Palestinian narrative at the expense of the truth, calling them out on their fuzzy journalism.
Yes, indeed, Dad was and still is a Zionist. In his mid-80s now, he is clearly proud of his two Jewish grandchildren. As my Jewish life has unfolded, he’s made a point to understand my adopted holidays and traditions. My father’s love for Israel has translated into full and abiding support for my Jewish life.
My mother’s reaction has been less embracing. She’s been angry with me, at times confused and frustrated with my choice to convert and raise her only grandchildren Jewish. To say we’ve had family drama is an understatement.
As Riley and others who study interfaith relationships have pointed out, faith is a tricky thing that sneaks up on you during moments when you least suspect it. Holidays, celebrations and family events become, to borrow from Riley’s apt description of things, ‘bargaining chips’ at best, circumstances of strife at worst.
When we give up on the religion of our childhood, we deny grandparents specific dreams of their senior years. It means not showering their grandchildren with Easter egg hunts, Christmas cheer or Bible stories. Inviting them to join you for a Seder dinner may be met with a remorseful “No thank you.” When your children pray the Hamotzi at meals in their homes (along with faith-neutral words of gratitude), their lips may form a line of disapproval.
Keeping the faith and family ties intact
There’s plenty of advice and support for Jewish grandparents on what to do and not do to nurture their grandchildren when one parent isn’t Jewish. While the focus is on helping Jewish grandparents build stronger relationships with their non-Jewish grandchildren, I’ve come to appreciate the universal values of these ideas.
If you are a Jewish grandparent of children being raised in a two-religion home and want to introduce your grandchildren to their Jewish roots in meaningful and respectful ways, InterfaithFamily.com, an organization devoted to supporting interfaith families explore Judaism together, has five suggestions.
First, the “most effective thing a grandparent can do is to do.”
Be the model of good behaviors because, “there is no better way to communicate your own religious identity” than to model it day by day. If you live close by, invite your grandchildren to visit often, and make sure your home reflects your Jewish way of living. If you are far away and if religious identity is important, “focus your vacation time on spending holidays with your grandchildren rather than on traveling elsewhere,” the organization suggests.
This leads to its second piece of advice: Create positive memories with your grandchildren.
“Children carry their childhood memories into their own adulthood and strive to repeat positive ones — those that have become anticipated parts of their lives and that help them to feel personal happiness and self-worth,” the organization writes. “Such memories are indispensable in instilling and nurturing identities. Create the most engaging religious experiences for yourselves and invite your grandchildren to participate in them. For example, don’t rush through the Passover Seder. Plan it carefully and encourage others to savor the experience.”
Their third suggestion is to avoid being judgmental.
“It is natural for a child to want to explore the religious identity of both parents, regardless of the choices parents have made for their family or home. This is important to the development of his or her religious identity.” Grandparents can build stronger bonds by understanding that religious identity is “fluid during childhood” and it’s best to never put your grandchildren (or their parents) in “that awkward place between you and your own children, or between you and their other set of grandparents.”
Open communication is the fourth key.
“Provide your grandchildren with the opportunity to explore and question religious beliefs. Use their own experiences to spark questions about God and the world around them. Help them to build their knowledge base. Be honest and open about your own beliefs and doubts.”
Finally, interfaith marriage shouldn’t be used as a mask for family issues.
“It’s easy to blame the challenges you may have in your relationship with your own children on their decision to marry someone” of a different religion. InterfaithFamily advises grandparents to “deal with family issues head on. Otherwise, unresolved family issues that have been growing in intensity will emerge in the form of religious conflicts. That won’t be helpful to anyone, and in fact may be hurtful to the youngest and most easily influenced of your family: the grandchildren.”
What to do when Zayde or Bubbe isn’t a Jew
Though my family circumstances aren’t that unique — a Jewish household with one parent who is a Jew-by-choice — finding advice specifically to support healthy bonds between our home and my children’s non-Jewish grandparents is less forthcoming.
What have we done and how has it worked? Maintaining a strong Jewish identity and keeping a Jewish home is important to us, so we’ve focused our efforts on what it is we can manage, with one intention being that we include my parents in as many Jewish events and holidays as they show interest in. With an eye toward celebrations and finding common ground, avoiding confrontations can become easier.
My children’s non-Jewish grandfather is as much an ambassador to Judaism as we could hope. This has made our times easier together and more enjoyable; he has often served as a buffer between the intergenerational and religious discord that sometimes characterizes my extended family ties.
We’ve also been surprised by some unexpected opportunities — mutual prayer. When we share a meal with him, for example, my father invites and delights in my children when they make a bracha. He loves that they speak Hebrew and asks them to explain to him what the words mean.
I’d like to think his sensitivity as a grandfather eases the confusion for my children. They understand he isn’t Jewish, and it’s a non-issue for them because the emphasis is on making memories together. He regales them with stories of his childhood. They watch television or work in the garden together. Despite being in frail health, he recently attended one of my son’s baseball games, and with his youngest granddaughter, he is the epitome of the doting ‘Opa.’
Has it been easy? Not always. Have we had strife? Too much, especially with my mother, who only this past December finally stopped asking me what we wanted for Christmas. (“Mom,” I asked for the umpteenth time, “Let’s exchange ‘holiday’ presents instead, okay?”)
With time and patience, we’ve managed to navigate past some of the misunderstandings and disappointments, thanks in part to practice and flexibility, both useful traits for keeping the bonds intact in extended interfaith families like ours.