Yes, My Mother’s Anti-Semitic — But She’s Still Mom
The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]
My Mother is Anti-Semitic and My Jewish Husband Wants Her Out of My Life
I am a non-Jewish woman who has been married to a Jewish man for 39 years. We have had no problem supporting one another faith-wise — I have gone to temple and he has come to church — but we do have ongoing issues with our parents. My parents are German. My father, who died ten years ago, was raised here and my mother was raised in Nazi Germany.
Growing up she would tell me about how Jews were the cause of all Germany’s troubles, as well as how Jews are cheap, cheaters, liars, and more. Also, she claims that people in her town had no idea what was going on during World War II, something that drives my history buff husband crazy and he says isn’t really possible. I told my husband he no longer had to speak to my mother and in the past nine years they have had no contact.
The other thing you should know: My husband’s mother passed away three years ago. She was a nasty person and my husband had no contact with her about 12 years before her death, largely because he couldn’t stand how she spoke about me. For a long time my husband has been upset with me because I have not cut off my relationship with my mother like he did with his. I know my mother is not the best person, and she certainly wasn’t the best mother, but I do feel a responsibility to maintain a relationship with her, because she is my mother. How do I get my husband to understand this? —It’s More Than Complicated
This Might Be About His Mom, Not Yours
LAUREL SNYDER: I wonder if what your husband is feeling right now is mostly about losing his own mother. From what you’ve told us, the family relationships have always been fraught on both sides, but they’ve been equally fraught. Now that equality is gone. You still have the chance to resolve the conflict, to make peace and say goodbye, while he’s lost that opportunity for good. I can imagine how that might be hard for him. Perhaps he wants you to be orphans together, released at last from both family conflicts.
My inclination is to say that while you have every right to maintain your relationship with your mom, you should work really hard to make certain you’re extending sympathy to your husband as you do. It’s very hard to lose a parent when there’s unresolved conflict. Especially given that Judaism doesn’t place much focus on the afterlife. He might be struggling with all of that.
If this has become a battleground issue for you guys, I suggest you try to let him win. Of course you shouldn’t lie to him, but you also don’t have to share the experience with him fully. He doesn’t need the play-by-play. I’d stop trying to get him to understand. I’d de-emphasize the contact you’re having with your mother when you talk with your husband.
By staying married and maintaining contact with your mom, you’ve made a choice to live with a kind of permanent dissonance, but your husband didn’t make that choice, and given the anti-Semitism you’ve described, I can imagine that the dissonance is even more acute for him. He probably won’t ever understand why you choose to live with that ongoing strain.
Your Marriage is a Miracle, For Better and Worse
JAMES PONET: Your marriage is a miracle, testimony to the power of love to peer through the apparent lessons of history. You both suffered attacks from family and others when you courageously decided over 39 years ago to live your lives as if the German war against the Jews need not define the structure of your personal narrative. While you might have hoped that your love would bring healing and reconciliation, you saw immediately within your own family how hard that healing would be in coming. It is therefore not surprising that your marriage has not been free from conflict, accusation, and resentment.
Your husband felt the need to cut himself off from his own mother and, with your agreement, to cease communication with your mother. Those choices, necessitated by the unbearable pain he felt in speaking with them, carried a cost, his judgment against himself for being a cruel, heartless son. To escape self-condemnation he concluded, one way or another, that the mothers were toxic. But how can he hold to that judgment if his wife continues acting as a loving daughter?
I suggest you assure him that you see his choice as neither good nor bad, simply a valid expedient in the face of something insufferable. Then let him understand that while you reject your mother’s version of Nazi history, you recognize she uses her narrative to shield herself against a truth she cannot bear. It is wise to feel compassion for mere mortals who, in order to bumble their way through the present, shape for themselves a liveable past. Your commitment to your mother protects you, and may yet protect your husband, from the lacerating guilt one often feels in recognizing the intimate cruelty of one’s ancestors. You are a good daughter, a good wife.
James Ponet is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale where he also is a visiting lecturer at the Law School. Fortunately he has been married over 40 years to Elana Ponet with whom he has 4 children and 4 grandchildren.
I Applaud You for Keeping in Touch with Your Mother
RUTH NEMZOFF: I applaud you for wanting to keep a relationship with your mother. After all she birthed you, clothed you and fed you and made you into a person who thinks for herself and is loved by her husband. Families must make allowances for members who think differently from each other.
However, you need to be very clear with your mother that her attitudes towards Jews is strictly unfounded and that you would like to have a relationship with her, but she must never, ever say anything against your husband’s people. You might suggest to her that she learn more about the Holocaust and the Jewish people. You should also be clear to your husband that you have loyalty to your mother and refuse to abandon her even though she has thoughts and ideas which are wrong and egregious.
Both of your religious traditions as well as common courtesy commands us to honor our parents. This does not mean we need to agree with our parents on everything, but we do need to be dutiful and thankful for what they did give us.
You might tell your husband while you appreciated the way he stood by you when his mother made nasty comments about you, you regret that it disrupted their bond. Now that his mother is dead and there is no chance to repair the past, you hope to do better with your mother. Apologize to him for your part in allowing him to sever ties with his mother (even if it was his decision). Encourage your mother to apologize and reach out to him. And encourage your husband to make peace with his own mother even though she is dead.
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.