My daughter and her non-Jewish husband want to baptize their daughter. Can I object?
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In 2019, my daughter, who was in her late 20s at the time, announced that she had met a non-Jewish guy, raised Catholic in a Catholic country, and was moving in with him. I was stunned.
In the fall, she and her partner FaceTimed with me and my husband to announce that they had decided to start a family, meaning she was pregnant. I asked if the child would be raised Jewish. My daughter said yes. I asked her partner how he feels about raising a Jewish child. He shrugged and replied, “I’m OK with it.”
Because of COVID-19, I didn’t get to see my daughter during her pregnancy, but I finally got to see her the day before she delivered a little girl, and I stayed and helped her for a few weeks. She arranged a simchat bat over Zoom. My daughter expressed how much she liked the havdalah ritual, because it brings light into darkness. She said she hoped that her daughter would do this, too.
Shortly after my granddaughter’s first birthday, my daughter informed me that this fall, the child was going to be baptized. I cried. She said it was important to her husband’s family, but not to her and her partner, and that I just shouldn’t think about it. I told her she must always remember where she came from and that the baby comes from there too.
I asked her to promise me that the child will not learn catechism and not have a confirmation. She said she couldn’t promise that. I asked her to promise me that our granddaughter would become a bat mitzvah. She agreed. I asked if our granddaughter would go to religious school. And she said she would, if they could afford it, and if it was convenient.
Jewish continuity is so important to me. Growing up, we lit Shabbat candles, went to Hebrew School, took off from public school for the chagim, packed away our chametz for pesach. My father survived Birkenau, but besides one brother and an infant niece who was hidden, lost everyone else in his family. My parents married in their home country, settled in the U.S. with the help of HIAS, divorced after 21 years, and died less than two years apart.
Six years after my mother’s death, I found out that she was not born Jewish, that she had converted to Judaism before coming to the U.S. I wonder, if my own mother wasn’t born Jewish, what does that say about my own Judaism?
I am keenly aware of my status as a second-generation survivor and a first-generation American. I thought that my children understood how important being Jewish is, considering their upbringing, Jewish schools, camps, and bar and bat mitzvah. I am stung by my daughter’s choices.
Now I am wrestling with how to express to my daughter and her partner what baptizing my granddaughter means to me. I can’t help thinking about how I have very little extended family because they were murdered for being Jewish; and about how during the inquisition, Jews were either forcibly baptized or given the choice to convert or be killed or be expelled. I don’t buy into raising a child in multiple faiths and letting the child later decide what’s good for them.
If I am allowed to continue to have a presence in my granddaughter’s life, I know I can give her the Yiddishkeit. Will that be enough for her to become a knowledgeable Jewish woman who will want to have a Jewish family of her own? I need to get this off my chest and on the table. L’dor v’dor has never meant more to me than it does now.
Dear Heartbroken Bubbe,
We know that this isn’t a unique story. There are lots of hidden conversions in Jewish family trees, lots of interfaith couples and marriages in the United States, lots of families who have multiple religions, who are raising their children in both or all. There’s a lot of universality in here. But we can also hear the specific pain in your letter.
You’re not being unreasonable; you’re not making any threats or saying that you don’t respect the religion or faith of your daughter’s partner. You’re saying that you’re concerned about where Judaism will fit in their lives.
You have reason — aside from the family history piece — to be concerned about the future for your granddaughter. Will your granddaughter be someone who considers herself Jewish and is engaged in ritual, in religious practice, in a way that is going to feel meaningful to you? These concerns come from a place not just of being aware of family history and wanting to preserve Jewish tradition, but also being aware of the present and what that could mean for the future.
As we know, there’s lots of data out there, including recent data from the Pew Research Center, talking about interfaith families. Jews involved in interfaith marriages increasingly raise their kids Jewish — nearly half of respondents with one Jewish parent in the 18-49 age range identify as Jews.
To put this on the table and off of your chest, Heartbroken Bubbe, there are a few things that you’re going to need to do. One is to confront this secrecy and family story that hasn’t been brought out into the open. Make sure that the daughter knows some of these stories from the old world. Make sure she knows what her parents brought here to the United States, what she brings to their family, by being a part of that — and how this history plays into the strength of your need for your granddaughter to have Judaism in her life.
We see two distinct parts to the conversation you need to have with your daughter and her partner. One is to say something like, “I just have to tell you about our family’s story; here’s the history.” And the second is to explain, “Here’s why this particular ritual really troubles me. And here’s why it would mean a lot to me if you didn’t do it.”
That is a reasonable thing for a woman who was a first-generation American and second-generation survivor of Shoah, to do. But you also have to go into that conversation recognizing that your goal of stopping the baptism is very unlikely to be achieved. This is the child of your daughter and her partner. It’s OK for you to want to have input into important decisions in their lives, but you are not the decider.
So the next thing you can do is to think more about your role as bubbe. You say you can be the source of Yiddishkeit; you say you can bring ritual observance to your granddaughter’s life. Offer your daughter and her partner some specific, positive ideas about how you’re going to do that.
Also, it’s important to think about right-sizing your expectations of your granddaughter’s Jewish future. She might not grow up to be someone who wants to send her own kids to Jewish day school and Jewish camp and religious school. But you might get a granddaughter who wants to host a Seder and have a Hanukkah party and build a sukkah.
You have to try and think beyond the baptism. The best thing that you can do is share all of the ways that being Jewish is wonderful and enriching in your life — like havdalah. These things can make your granddaughter’s life more meaningful and interesting and happy. You can pass along the wisdom and joy of our ancestors, and not just their pain and trauma. That’s the best possible gift that you can give as bubbe.
And you can still be exactly who she needs you to be, whether or not she’s baptized.
To hear more of our advice to Heartbroken Bubbe, download the latest episode of “A Bintel Brief: The Jewish advice podcast” here or on any podcast platform. Send your dilemmas about Jewish-American life, identity, culture, politics or your personal hopes and dreams to [email protected], or leave a voicemail at (201-) 540-9728.