When Empty Nesters Go Looking for God

By Lisa Keys

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Gennye Feldman, along with her mother and her four siblings, kept kosher, ate Sabbath dinner on Fridays and drove to services at their Conservative synagogue every weekend.

“Judaism was definitely a core part of our family values,” Gennye, a 28-year-old marketing manager, told the Forward.

Now a young adult living in Manhattan, Gennye has upheld her family’s traditions and continues to observe the same strain of Conservative Judaism. As such, she is the dream of almost any Jewish mother, except for one not-quite-small conflict: In the past few years, Gennye’s mother and youngest brother have become Orthodox.

And so the Feldmans negotiate difficult territory regarding the family’s religious practices, from car and cell-phone usage on the Sabbath to appropriate clothing for a weekend visit to the family’s new home in Atlanta.

Similar conflicts often arise when parents send their children to Jewish day schools, which often graduate a child more religious than the one who enrolled, causing family traditions and more stringent religious practices to go head to head. Although less common, the reverse scenario also poses a challenge to families: Parents, freed from the constraints of raising children, “discover” religion later in life, often dividing a family between those maintaining the “old” way and those seeking a new, more observant path.

The situation is both difficult and familiar, said Rabbi Kenneth Brander of the Modern Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue. “There’s a certain social structure to the family,” he said. “It could be going out and having sushi on Friday nights and, all of the sudden, the mother is wearing a sheytl (wig) instead. From sushi to a sheytl is a big jump.”

“When certain social structures that comprise a family have to be reorganized — that’s a shock,” he said.

Gennye agrees. “It was hard for me to make the adjustment,” she said. Conflicts arise, said Gennye, not so much from her mother’s attendance at an Orthodox synagogue, but from her complete immersion in a religious community. “The synagogue is across the street,” Gennye said. “It infiltrates what I can do in my home. For instance, going running with my shorts on. My mom has issues with that.”

But as with any family issue, mother and daughter don’t see eye to eye. “I don’t live in a ghetto,” Gennye’s mother, Jane Feldman, said. “I live on a main street. There are other people running with shorts on. Gennye feels uncomfortable doing it; I think she feels as if I’m judging her. It’s her choice.”

Said Gennye: “It’s hard for me not to roll my eyes and get defensive. I try to take a step back and say, ‘I’m going to respect my mother; her decisions are hers.’”

But that’s sometimes a difficult task, especially when family traditions tend to be communal affairs. Isak Sjursen, for example, grew up in a non-Jewish family in a small town in Illinois. In 1995, however, his parents converted to Judaism, and now he is invited to his parents’ home in Brooklyn for Friday night dinners and Passover Seders. “I try to be respectful,” he said. “There seems to be a debate every year over whether or not we’re going to celebrate Christmas. It’s a family tradition — something we’ve been doing — and to ignore that is a little silly.”

Sjursen, 28, said his siblings, too, are understanding of his parents’ new beliefs. “We just don’t want them to reinvent their past,” he said. “We don’t want to erase a history — the history includes us. I don’t think it’s intentional, I think they’re just enthusiastic about their beliefs.”

Growing up in Newton, Mass., Newsweek reporter Seth Mnookin, 30, said he and his family “were High Holiday Jews.” In the past five years, however, his parents have grown more observant; they attend Sabbath services weekly and are studying for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

“The pendulum swing hasn’t been so extreme,” he said. “It’s not as if we go home and we’re eating on separate plates and my mother covers herself. But now, religion, spirituality and Judaism is a part of my parents’ discourse. If you have a discussion with them about any number of things, that’s part of the conversation. It was a surprise at first, and it took some getting used to.”

Mnookin said he and his two siblings had received a strong Jewish education and were, as children, more knowledgeable about Judaism than their parents. “Judaism has a rich tradition of entering adulthood at age 13,” said Mnookin, a former Forward staff member. “But maybe my parents are better equipped to make decisions about how they want to live their spiritual lives than we were at age 13.”

Indeed, an element of “what if father knows best?” adds to the confusion as adult children sometimes wonder whether the old way was the “right” way. As a teenager in the late 1970s, freelance writer Nancy Davidson was very active in the Long Island chapter of the Reform movement’s youth group. “I was at the height of my religious involvement,” she said.

However, as Davidson was “discovering” Reform Judaism, her father was discovering Orthodoxy — and the two developed conflicting views of women’s roles in synagogue. “He would ask me if I wanted to celebrate Simchat Torah with him, and then we wouldn’t agree on a shul,” she said. “I pulled away from religion because of my father’s increasing involvement. It was ironic.”

Today, as an adult, most of the tension has dissipated, bar one key area: meals. “Can I eat something not kosher in front of my father?” Davidson asks herself. “Do I do what he wants? Do I do what I want? How do I make peace between honoring my father and being true to myself?”

Worst of all, said Davidson, “is the underlying concern: What if he’s right? What if there is a God and He wants me to keep kosher?”

Religious conflict, said Manhattan psychoanalyst Gail Saltz, “is not so dissimilar from other kinds of moral values and house rules. It’s not a matter of being logical — it’s having different belief systems. If families have differences in how they handle money, the same kind of friction could arise.”

But there’s something particular about religious observance, which, for many families, is a flash point. While every person interviewed mentioned the necessity of compromise, some said compromise is not always so easy. “Unfortunately,” Jane Feldman said, “with Orthodoxy, a lot of the boundaries are so clear that there isn’t any room to give. A lot things have to be my way, or not. It’s a problem.”

And sometimes, familial conflicts over religious observance are rooted in something else entirely. “I’ve seen that religion is the cloud cover for other serious divisions in a family; religion becomes the screen on which everything is piled upon,” Brander said. “If the family has a healthy relationship, I’ve found that they can work through these issues.”

“I would definitely feel more comfortable if we’re all on the same page, but we’re not,” Jane said. “But it doesn’t mean we’re not a family.”

“Every family has issues they deal with,” Gennye said. “We’ve dealt with much worse. And my mom’s religion is a positive thing — even if it’s not what I’ve chosen as my path, it’s brought a lot of meaning to her life.”

Families Have New Conflict Fodder as Mom and Dad Find Religion

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