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Grandparents: The Hidden Link in Interfaith Marriages

Grandparents are the hidden link to raising Jewish children in an interfaith marriage. Even when interfaith marriage creates tension between the generations, grandparents can still become warm and inviting ambassadors to Judaism for their grandchildren.

Grandparents are important in every family. Parents are concerned with limits and responsibility and authority, while grandparents–freed from the hard work of everyday parenting–can provide the loving acceptance and sweetness that children also need.

In an example from my own life, stopping for ice cream after a day of shopping and fun, my eight-year-old daughter once exclaimed to my mother, “Nana, you’re spoiling me!” To which my mom replied, “That’s my job. I’m your grandmother!”

In many Jewish families, Jewish identity is formed in part in the lap of our grandparents. Although intermarrying may strain the generational bond, even a rocky start can be healed.

In another example from my own life, when my wife and I got engaged, my parents’ initial reaction was as if a death had happened in the family. My wife was raised Protestant, and even though my parents had known her for several years and had expressed lots of support and love to us (even sending a check to help with the home furnishing when we moved in together), our youthful, enthusiastic announcement that we were going to marry was met with muted maternal murmurs, “Oh, that’s unexpected, dear,” and paternal silence, as my poor dad disappeared from the phone call. (Unexpected? What did they think it meant when we moved in together?)

But, after they’ve gotten angry, parents can sometimes let go and welcome the marriage. Initial angry reactions are not written in concrete. Sometimes our parents’ anger is to propitiate their parents, in actuality or spirit, a sort of ritual dance to let their elders know that they are upholding the heritage, even while they want the best for their kids.

In our own case, within six months we were again a happy extended family, as if that initial rocky period had never happened. It’s an outcome for which I am grateful, since my parents’ ultimately warm, loving embrace of my wife and their warm, unconditional love of their grandchildren were major factors in the eventual strong Jewish identification of our children.

Not that we made it easy for them. Christmas trees vied for space every year with menorahs; Easter egg hunts happened a few days before or after the Passover seder (ritual meal); and my parents found themselves at perhaps more performances of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol than they needed. Yet through it all they found the good humor and patience to be present, be themselves, and remain accepting and non-judgmental. Underneath the stew of Jewish-Christian icons and rituals, my parents’ profound family-centeredness came through. They read stories about Hanukkah to their grandchildren, played with them during the seders and also read Hebrew to them. They also often went to High Holiday services with us and showed their grandchildren how to light the Shabbat (Sabbath) candles. Every Hanukkah they’d arrive with or send small presents for each day, brightly festooned in “Jewish” wrapping paper. My father’s tallis (prayer shawl) bag fascinated the kids, as did his knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish history, while my mother had a special way of lighting the Shabbat candles.

The specific actions mattered less than the larger context of acceptance and love that the kids’ grandparents offered them. Judaism had a deep resonance because my kids felt so loved by–and loving of–their grandparents. The rituals only mattered because they were an expression and extension of the love they felt from their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. When the time came and the rabbi asked my son and daughter why they wanted to become b’nai mitzvah (assume the privileges and responsibilities of an adult Jew), each replied, “Because I’m Jewish,” and then each mentioned, “for Grandpa.”

How can we safeguard the grandparent relationship through the disappointments and tensions of the interfaith marriage decision? When we first marry, the reality of parenting is only a vague outline on the horizon. Some couples considering intermarriage can’t reassure their parents that they will raise the children Jewish. (We didn’t.) Often honest uncertainty is a more hopeful sign than hurried commitments that come apart when the realities of parenting set in. The partner who is not Jewish can assure the in-laws of his or her deep respect for and interest in Judaism, and assure them that their grandchildren will be fully exposed to their Jewish heritage. Sometimes a letter to that effect works better than face-to-face conversation. The parents may still be angry and sad at first, but they will likely remember what their future son- or daughter-in-law wrote.

It is helpful to be aware of the demands that we place on our parents by virtue of marrying someone from a different faith. When my wife and I married, in our youthful enthusiasm our marriage was a truly interfaith ceremony in the woods at our summer cabin in New Hampshire. What a far cry from the more urbane experiences of my parents, who lived all their life in New York City or its suburbs. Despite considerable cosmopolitanism in many Jewish families, if you scratch a little, there is also an insularity–a fear or distrust of the new and different. Yet, as a young adult, I had little inkling of the stretch I was asking my parents to make.

Seeing their son marry a woman born and bred in the tony suburbs of Boston, my parents were afraid that their first-born son and any ensuing grandchildren would disappear into the wilds of New England–for them a decidedly un-Jewish place. The friendly acceptance of me and my family by my wife’s family, and the gradual recognition that Judaism can thrive in many different parts of the country, left them more relaxed and appreciative of the marriage.

As the grown son or daughter, it can help to realize that your parents are struggling with worries and anxieties of their own. They may need your calm reassurance and help in not burning any bridges.

On the other hand, you should not feel completely responsible for a parent’s reactions. You can’t ultimately control their responses. Better to be as clear and direct and loving as possible, but not expect that if you only did it right they would not respond negatively.

Make clear over time, too, that you welcome your parents’ involvement in your children’s life and religious education. Some grandparents may be intrusive, and need clear direction and limits from you, but many others will hang back, not sure what their role is, or whether they are welcome. Savvy grandparents know that their children have all the power when it comes to access to their grandchildren, and they will take their cues from their children.

Good grandparenting, like good parenting, is a dance that involves clear communication between the generations. And it’s too important to let something as small as an interfaith marriage come between you.

Sam Osherson

Sam Osherson is author of Rekindling The Flame: The Many Paths to a Vibrant Judaism, and a psychotherapist in Cambridge, Mass. He is chair of the Psychology faculty at the Fielding Graduate Institute.


Author: Sam Osherson