Grief in the Days of Awe


Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question. Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative in my husband’s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Ben’s great-aunt Elaine.

Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the Days of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Ben’s family shared this sad news.

Elaine, Karen, and Pauline

Elaine, left, with my mother-in-law Karen, center, and Elaine’s sister Pauline, next to the tissue paper flowers they created for my rehearsal dinner.

Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Ben’s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.

My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospital room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.

Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be the end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.

I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.” Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.

This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hug before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always brought desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways that went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!

Elaine’s funeral service at her synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that evening’s Kol Nidre service.

At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldn’t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.

As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. It’s a powerful song even after the Days of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasn’t, herself, chosen “by brave assent” that this could be her time.

If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or “at-one-ment” as I’ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.

Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.

Parents: Your Actions Are Disingenuous


servicesIn this space, we typically address parents who are part of an interfaith couple creating a Jewish home. But this month, I want to address the parents of children who are intermarried or in interfaith relationships. Their actions and behaviors often affect the choices that couples navigating intermarriage make.

As an engagement professional at my synagogue in Dallas, I’m charged with helping to connect interfaith couples and families, and 20s and 30s to Jewish life. One of the things I frequently hear from young married and engaged couples is how uber Jewish the Jewish partners’ family has become. Suddenly, the frequency of attendance at Friday evening services has jumped and there is an intense focus on all things Jewish. Holidays that were once fairly laid back gatherings are now more significant affairs.

This story of parents acting more Jewish and dragging intermarrieds to more Jewish services and events is usually followed by the comment, “My family has never been this involved in Jewish life. They’ve suddenly become Super Jews because I married someone who isn’t Jewish.” Sometimes, it’s the partner from another background who says; “My husband/wife says that his/her parents rarely went to services before we got engaged. Now, anything related to Judaism is important.”

My reaction to these stories is always the same. I smile and nod. I tell the couple that their parents or in-laws behavior is common. Many Jewish parents, in response to a child intermarrying or interdating, think that if they up their level of Jewish engagement, that they can influence the decisions of interfaith couples. They believe their newfound connection to Jewish life will communicate how important Judaism and its continuation is to them.

I explain to the couples that their parents or in-laws behavior is a result of various emotions–nervousness, uncertainty, fear, and guilt to name a few. Parents worry that the intermarrieds won’t make Jewish choices or honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. They fear their grandchildren won’t identify as Jews, that Christmas will overshadow Jewish rituals and traditions. They feel guilty for not having been more engaged in Judaism when their son or daughter was growing up and wonder if they had done more would their child have chosen a Jewish partner.

Parents use intensified engagement as a surrogate for talking with their child and his or her partner about their feelings and why Judaism and Jewish peoplehood is important to them. The problem with this approach is that intermarrieds see through it. They know their parents’ or in-laws’ actions are disingenuous.

So how can parents influence the religious choices of intermarrieds in a way that is genuine?

  1. Be honest, be true to yourself. Practice Judaism in the same way that you’ve always practiced. Rather than “pump up the volume” to connote importance, explain to your child and his or her spouse, why Judaism and it’s continuation is important to you. Share why certain rituals are meaningful and why other traditions are not. Communicate your hopes that the couple will engage, in some way, in Jewish life.
  2. Be welcoming and appreciative. Warmly welcome your not Jewish daughter- or son-in-law. Tell them that you appreciate him or her being part of your family. Include them as much as possible in the preparations and celebration of holidays. Ask them to help in the kitchen or to read a blessing in English. Explain holiday rituals, symbols, and foods. Tell them why certain traditions are important to you and how you find meaning in their observance. Share family stories and memories. Ask him or her about his or her family celebrations, religious and secular.
  3. Be positive. Work to make Jewish experiences positive ones for the intermarried couple. That may mean setting boundaries with family and friends. Educate the not Jewish partner about Jewish life. Show the couple an inclusive religious community. Demonstrate that your daughter- or son-in-law from another background is an important part of your Jewish family.
  4. Be open to new experiences and traditions. Incorporate dishes or rituals from the not Jewish partner in your family celebrations. Understand that your child and his or her partner will create their own traditions as they build their home. Participate, be respectful, don’t judge, be supportive. Remember, you did things differently from your parents and in-laws too!

Disingenuous hyper involvement in Jewish life won’t guarantee that intemarrieds will create Jewish homes or raise Jewish children. But it will turn them off or push them away. Instead, remember that your family’s Jewish journey is still unfolding. A strong embrace of Judaism by the interfaith couple may not happen quickly. But by being honest and welcoming, and supporting the choices the couple makes, you can have a positive influence on the future.

I Heart my In-Laws. What is Wrong With me?


As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.

In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”

But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.

I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?

I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.

The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.

I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.

My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.

Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.

The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.

Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.

We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.

My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.

While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.

But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.

I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.

This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.

It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.

I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.

My Christmas stocking recognizes my faith.

Thinking Like a Jew


A family member of my husband’s, whom I’ll call Devorah, recently told me that although I may have converted, “you will never think like a Jew.” At the time I didn’t say anything. This woman is an elder and I respect her opinion. But later I kept running that sentence through my head, and I realized it struck a nerve. Is she right? As an adult convert, will I never “think” like a Jew? And by extension, will my children never think like Jews, either?

After ruminating for days, I decided to ask my husband about Devorah’s comment. He explained that Devorah believed that I converted out of a sense of duty to him, rather than on my own terms. I thought back to my conversion process and it struck me: I had kept the process intensely private, and I sat before the beit din (rabbinic court) and had my mikveh (ritual bath) only one week before my son was born. In Devorah’s mind, I was Jewish for the sake of my children.

Rather than being upset with an elderly relative with whom I had never explained my conversion process, I realized that I needed to work on becoming comfortable discussing my beliefs and my very real reasons for converting. And I needed to be discussing it with both my non-Jewish relatives and my husband’s Jewish ones. This will be difficult for me. I came from a family where we didn’t discuss faith or religion, and we certainly didn’t discuss individual belief in the context of religious doctrine. My discomfort with discussing faith is rooted in not having any prior experience talking about it, and I have to explore how to do that. Additionally, I need to learn to share my beliefs with my children and teach them to verbalize what they believe. Not because I want them to fit into any particular doctrine, but because I never want a comment like “you don’t think like a Jew” to silence them.