InterfaithFamily.com is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering complicated interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.
Readers can contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about interfaith issues. Of course, Wendy will not be able to respond to every question, but she will try to respond to as many as she can and sometimes may combine questions on similar topics and address them in one article. She will use pseudonyms rather than real names to protect people's privacy.
My Jewish son is married to a Catholic woman. He is a non-practicing Jew and my two grandchildren are being raised Catholic.
I have been giving them Hanukkah gifts every year, but my son has now requested that there be presents from me to be placed under their Christmas tree. I disagree. I am the Jewish grandmother and feel that the gifts from me should be given during Hanukkah, and that her relatives should give them their Christmas gifts. He also questioned my giving his wife a Hanukkah gift rather than one for her holiday.
We decided to ask for other opinions . . . Thank you.
Dear Jewish Grandma,
I am imagining that as a grandmother you have one over-riding goal in life, which is to stay connected to your son and his family and to nurture a relationship with your two grandchildren. However, I am picking up from your words that you also have another interest, which is to preserve your Jewish values and share them with your grandchildren where appropriate. As the only Jewish grandparent in the picture, you seem aware of your role in your family as holder of all things Jewish.
What does it mean to take on this role? It means that whatever smells and sweet memories your grandchildren associate with Jewish life, they will have come through you. That whatever joy and wisdom your grandchildren associate with Judaism will have come from your own love of Judaism as reflected through you and in the way you live. As the only Jewish grandparent you become THE transmitter of Jewish values to the next generation.
The good news about your role is that you do not have to wait until December to "do your thing." For example, if you usually celebrate Shabbat on Friday evenings and your grandchildren are with you for Shabbat, you should be able to share your religious behaviors with your grandchildren. In general, you ought not to need permission to share values that are a natural part of your home life. However, it is always best to check with your adult children what their comfort level is and whether it is okay for you to do Jewish things with the grandchildren in your home. And, certainly you would seek permission to expose your grandchildren to something Jewish outside the home, such as bringing them to synagogue. And, you should definitely seek permission to do something Jewish with your grandchildren in your kids' home.
As to your dilemma, I am going to suggest that the "connecting" grandmother go ahead and send Christmas presents because by doing so you recognize and acknowledge your son and daughter-in-law's family traditions. After checking it out with your son and daughter-in-law you might elect to also send Hanukkah presents as a way of inviting your grandchildren to share in and acknowledge your holiday tradition.
Another option is to send no presents at all in the month of December. The "transmitter of Jewish values" in you knows that Hanukkah was never meant to be a Jewish Christmas. As a way of clarifying and drawing distinctions, you might choose to play up birthdays and anniversaries as your main time of gift-giving. Or if Thanksgiving is the time when the grandkids come to visit, you might ask to share Hanukkah lights and a little gelt with them at a time when there is not so much emotional heat.
The idea is that whatever rituals (or lack thereof) free you up to enjoy the closeness and preciousness of your grandkids, this is the direction you need to be heading. Feeling pigeon-holed and competitive with the other grandparents only serves to create tension and build resentment. Make your religious expression a natural, warm, and loving part of your grandparenting experience. And, feel free to make use of the entire Jewish cycle of celebrations, which include far more than the month of December.