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By Joy Fields
We are commanded to honor our parents. The fifth commandment can present a few challenges, however, like when my Jewish mother is sitting next to my Presbyterian father-in-law in his favorite Chinese restaurant, waving a pink morsel around on her fork and loudly asking, â€śWhat is this?â€ť
â€śIt may be pork, Mom, just eat around it,â€ť I whisper. OK, maybe I hiss. Iâ€™d prefer to think I whisper. Loudly. Iâ€™m sure I try to make a point of using an indoor voice without actually telling Mom to shut it.
She holds the morsel closer and focuses through her bifocals as if checking a diamond for flaws.
â€śPut it down and eat around it,â€ť I repeat, trying not to appear angry.
â€śOh, fine. I have plenty to eat anyway. Who needs rice?â€ť She refocuses on her dinner plate. â€śDo you think I can eat the moo goo gai pan?â€ť
Not with your mouth open. Remember, thatâ€™s your rule, Mom.
Of course I donâ€™t verbalize this because itâ€™s not going to help to argue with her in front of my in-laws, the restaurateurs theyâ€™ve been visiting for 20 years and the general public. I can just quietly break my chopsticks under the tablecloth, so no one will notice. Ah, that feels better.
I make a mental note to do a little advance preparation in the future. There must be ways to avoid confrontation and honor my parents. Not to mention my mental health.
To start, I try looking at the situation from my parentsâ€™ viewpoint. I made a decision to embrace an interfaith relationship, but Mom didnâ€™t. Iâ€™m open to new experiences and accepting of different cultures; she loves me and is OK with my spouse, but isnâ€™t comfortable outside of her own microcosm. Before bringing her into an unfamiliar situation, I should have discussed it with her so she would be a bit more prepared.
I would also try to use a positive viewpoint to appeal to her. Next time Iâ€™ll say: â€śMom, the Smiths have invited you to their favorite restaurant because they really want you to enjoy a meal with them. They really love the food there and donâ€™t realize itâ€™s not what youâ€™re used to. There will be something on the menu you will be able to eat, but the most important thing will be enjoying each otherâ€™s company. They really look forward to seeing you.â€ť Iâ€™ll print a menu from the restaurantâ€™s website (in large font, no less) so Mom can be thinking about what she could comfortably tolerate before she even gets there.
I also consider my in-lawsâ€™ viewpoint. My father-in-law typically enjoys ordering family-style to show his prowess at selecting the best flavor combinations. So I would politely let him know in advance that Mom has complicated dietary concerns, and although everyone appreciates his expertise, it might be better this time to let everyone order their own thing. He would understand and reward me with a detailed recount of his recent gallbladder surgery recuperation that required a special diet. He would be careful to remind me that itâ€™s now perfectly OK to bring him a plate of those pecan cookies anytime I want to.
I would discuss with Mom their before-meal prayer routine. Most Jews I know donâ€™t say Kiddush (the prayer over wine) before sipping wine in a restaurant, but my Christian family bows their heads slightly as the head of the family says a blessing before digging in to the meal.
I would point out the similarities between this and saying Haâ€™Motzi (the prayer before meals) before Momâ€™s Shabbat meal. Iâ€™d let her know that although some may bow, sheâ€™s certainly not required to. Most will voice â€śamen,â€ť which is also not required of her. She can just keep her lips sealed. (I vaguely remember seeing her do this at some point in time and feel reasonably sure she can replicate it if she practices.)
Instead of focusing on differences, another great way to prepare is letting my family know what they have in common with others at the gathering. People of all backgrounds love gardening, crafting, investing and complaining about how long it takes their fancy new phone to update.
â€śMom, why donâ€™t you sit next to Ralph?â€ť I would suggest. â€śHe read that same Patterson novel you just did, and you can discuss the plot flaws with him until the cows come home while the rest of us talk about something weâ€™re interested in.â€ť
Finally, I heed the advice I received from a nurse experienced with dementia patients, which is applicable to all families: Donâ€™t correct or argue about recanted memories. If Mom wants to tell Ralph and Mary all about her experience as a Broadway chorus girl, Iâ€™ll sit back and enjoy the show. I donâ€™t mention that Mom grew up in New Jersey and couldnâ€™t dance her way out of a paper bag. The family is entertained, everyone is happy and the fifth commandment has been fulfilled.