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My mother-in-law’s email about Christmas gifts for her was simple: “Have composed an extensive ‘Wish List’ on Amazon for those who might be looking for ideas!” When I logged onto her list, I found her typical requests for puzzles and small housewares mixed in with requests for items such as “a picture of the three Dallas people” (that would be my family).
As I scrolled through her requests deciding what to purchase, I came across one item that puzzled me: “Jewish prayer book like in the temple.” I wondered why my mother-in-law wanted a copy of Mishkan T’filah; the prayer book my Reform synagogue used. I knew she loved to talk religion with me and I knew she was very spiritual but I was curious as to why she wanted a Jewish prayer book. My best guess was that she wanted to familiarize herself with some of the prayers before my son’s bar mitzvah in October.
I purchased a copy of the prayer book at my congregation’s gift shop, wrapped it and shipped it to my in-laws in Vermont so it would arrive well before Christmas and our arrival at their home for the holiday. I was eager for my mother-in-law to open the gift and to find out the reason for her very Jewish Christmas request.
On Christmas Day, I watched as my mother-in-law unwrapped the prayer book. Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, I’m so happy to get this!” I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer, and I asked her why she wanted a copy of the prayer book we use in our Dallas synagogue.
“Well, whenever we’ve gone to services with you I’ve always noticed how similar the liturgy is to our Episcopal church. I’ve enjoyed the services and wanted to read more of the prayers,” she answered.
I smiled. My mother-in-law’s generosity of spirit when it comes to religion never ceases to amaze me. Her openness to and curiosity about Judaism was present from the moment I met her. She always accepted my Jewishness and my husband and my decision to raise our son Jewish. She was involved in our Jewish life and educated herself about Judaism. She celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah, participated in our son’s bris and will be a part of his bar mitzvah. She has never said, “No,” or “I won’t” or even “I’m not comfortable” to any Jewish thing we asked her to do.
I know I hit the jackpot in the in-law lottery. I know I’m lucky. Not all parents or in-laws of intermarried children are willing to bridge the religious divide or be so accepting.
About a week after we arrived home from our Christmas visit, I received an email from my mother-in-law with the subject line “Your Gift.”
Dear Jane, Want you to know I spent all yesterday dipping into your prayer book and being vastly impressed both with the lyricism of the prayers and the frequency of the liturgical elements exactly matching some of our Christian customs and events–perhaps if one studied all religions one would find common themes like that. I’ve got to dig out my “Judaism for Dummies,” and I’m trying to figure out some of the Hebrew–I make up my own pronunciation, of course, but it’s like I’m beginning to understand it a bit! Especially liked the Kaddish prayers and the post-Shabbat resolutions. Was talking with my friend Kathy at church today, and she wants to come over to the house to examine it, too. Thank you so much for adding depth to my spirituality!
The appreciation is all mine. Thank you for choosing love, for being a powerful example of how parents can navigate their relationship with intermarried or interdating children, and for modeling how to welcome and embrace the stranger.
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.