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I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband’s parents are still semi-practicing Catholics, and his brother’s family are practicing Episcopalians. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I’m uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don’t want his family to think I’m ungrateful. It’s becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. There’s no prelude to the pre-meal prayer, and no acknowledgment that my family might not want to participate in it, or might have a different ritual. What’s the best way to handle this situation?
REBECCA LEHRER: Your family sounds like a lot of families I know and I can relate personally. I’ve learned that these situations are an opportunity to find meaningful new ways of enjoying your meals (and lives!) together.
You say you are uncomfortable with non-Jewish religious ritual…but you have a non-Jewish husband. Find a way to participate in his family’s traditions with an open heart, just as you hope they would when they come to your son’s Bar Mitzvah, or to your house for Pesach. Is it hard for me sometimes to decorate the Christmas tree at my in-laws? Sure. But this tradition gives them so much joy and holds so much meaning for them that out of respect and love, I have worked to find my own relationship with it.
I’m guessing the mention of Jesus during grace is what makes you uncomfortable. My suggestion is this: Tell them, with the support of your husband, how much you appreciate the prayer and that you and your children would like to be able to participate fully, but that the mention of Jesus is alienating. Suggest some ways to make it more inclusive, and ask your in-laws for their ideas.
My friend Kathleen, a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man, used grace as an opportunity to find common ground between her family and her husband. She and her family removed the mention of Jesus from the Catholic Grace so they would all feel comfortable saying it. The intention remained absolutely the same. They also alternate with a version of the Shehecheyanu that speaks to all of them: “Blessed are you, Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.“
Hopefully you’ll find a way to create new rituals, based in tradition, that resonate with all of you.
Rebecca Lehrer is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, a website and consultancy representing the hybrid culture and new face of America. The Mash-Up Americans is exploring Spanglish, kimchi + more, just not on Shabbos.
JIM KEEN: The chasm between family traditions and practices of prayer can be wide, even in same-faith marriages, let alone interfaith ones. For example, some families pray before each meal, some at night before bed, some only in houses of worship, and some never at all. What you do in your own home is up to you. And what you do in other peoples’ homes is…still up to you.
My advice to you is to participate only when you are comfortable participating. If you do not want to pray at your in-laws’, you can choose to sit quietly. That should be respectful enough. (This is what my wife and children do at my parents’ home.)
The other part of this issue is that, when your in-laws visit your home, they probably don’t expect to say the ha-motzi. (Although, you never know. A Christian saying this Hebrew prayer is still praying to the same form of God. In your case, praying to Jesus at their house can be problematic for theological reasons.) Important: to alleviate any ambiguity for your kids, make sure that you explain the similarities between the two traditions and what you as a family have decided to do in other homes.
While it would be nice for your husband’s family to acknowledge the 800 lb. matzo ball in the room, they may already assume that you’re not going to be joining in, and they’re just carrying on with their own traditions. You could try asking your husband to see if that’s the case. Or, you can even set the tone by inviting your in-laws over for Shabbat, so you can subtly model for them how to explain prayers and traditions — and how to let your guests off the hook of participating.
Jim Keen is the author of “Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family.” He has been in an interfaith relationship for 28 years, and has been an active participant with his wife in raising their two Jewish daughters. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan where Jim teaches in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
RUTH NEMZOFF: Is your discomfort with praying with these in-laws or with the idea that you must explain theology to your son? If the former is true, then you must make peace with your decision to marry into a family of another faith by acknowledging to yourself that just as your husband has accepted your ways and given the Jewish people the gift of his children, you have a responsibility to accommodate his family. If it is the latter, teach your son Jewish values including respecting others.
Politeness and respect are always appropriate. While you do not need to participate in reciting the prayers, you do need be respectful when your husband’s parents and siblings pray. We are accustomed to being polite in public settings even when someone else’s vision of God is invoked. We quietly observe a moment of silence to commemorate deaths of colleagues or national heroes. As tourists we show respect by wearing appropriate clothing to view Michelangelo’s masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel. Living in a multicultural world, we have learned that respecting others’ beliefs does not require diminishing our own. You have an opportunity to establish a pattern of mutual tolerance which hopefully your relatives will emulate.
Maybe you are uncomfortable because you do not know what to say to your seven year old son. While you state you have no warning before the dinners, you have been to your in-laws enough to know that prayers will occur. Prepare your son by talking about your religious beliefs and explain that different people pray to God in different ways. Just as we say the ha-motzi to thank God for food, Christians say grace to thank God for their food. Explain that the difference is your in-laws pray in the name of Jesus Christ and that some people believe Jesus is the son of God. Make sure he understands that Jews do not believe that Jesus is divine, but we do believe in showing respect to others who may have different views.
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family” is a resident scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She is on the Board of Interfaithfamily.com.