Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.
Jacob's Family and Ours
Have you ever noticed that people haven't changed much over history? The biblical Sarah runs a household, helps her husband, struggles with jealousy. Abraham feels insecurity as well as love, anger and compassion. Others in the Bible are equally human, working out alliances within families, dealing with marriage between people who are similar and people who are different. And throughout, people are working out their own relationship and their people's relationship to God or a god. And what was true of people in the Bible is true of people we know about in the Middle Ages and early America. And today.
I am a member of a large extended and blended family, which becomes more complicated as divorce and death and remarriage remake the lives that are part of my own.
My biological daughter's father was not Jewish. We were divorced. He died. His death, when she was twelve, fixed him as a photograph in her eyes. He is forever young. Her stepfather, my beloved husband, is Jewish. We made a Jewish home, put up mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) on our doorposts, lit Shabbat candles, went to temple and talked about our relationship to God. After consideration, having accompanied us to services, participated in my adult Bat Mitzvah and her step-brother's Bar Mitzvah, my daughter married a Baptist and chose to follow a path to God that I do not understand. She was baptized. Now divorced, she is in a happy relationship that also includes two teenage children. Her son, my six-year-old grandson, travels between his parents' homes and goes to church on Sundays with his families.
As was true of people in the Bible and the Middle Ages and is true today, in general, people seek to be in relationship with those with whom they share interests, feelings and imaginations.
And so, the first difficulty that our family has to cope with is that of finding common ground. My husband and I say prayers before eating. My daughter's family does, too. That is common ground. When together in my home, we all say a generalized prayer in English, sometimes holding hands. In cold season we clasp our own hands in front of our plates. At their nightly table, my daughter's family invokes Jesus Christ's name in their grace before meals. There have been times when one or another of the children in her home recited the blessing including Jesus' name, and although I try not to react, my daughter knows I am uncomfortable. Recently she offered me or my husband the privilege of saying the blessing in her home. I do not know if it makes the rest of her family feel strange. But it is a way to find common ground.
Maintaining good relationships in an intergenerational, interfaith family means that I ignore the nightlight that has Jesus on it and ooh and aah about the bedspread covered with planets and stars floating on a blue background.
Maintaining good relationships in an intergenerational interfaith family means that I ask before reading Once Upon A Shabbos or Something From Nothing to my grandson. I am able to answer any question that is asked of me . . . and I don't present Jewish information unasked.
Maintaining good relationships in an intergenerational, interfaith family means that we light candles on one night of Hanukkah together at my house, and on another night we carefully examine new ornament additions to my daughter's Christmas tree. I have circled her house with my grandson, searching for pastel plastic eggs. And we sing together at our seder.
Maintaining good relationships in an intergenerational, interfaith family means working to find togetherness time, even though this is sometimes hard. We developed a Tuesday evening dinner or hang-out time since we live close enough to each other for that to be possible.
When we are together as a family, we find family kinds of things to do that do not revolve around the different ways in which we approach our religion. We play Clue or Trivial Pursuit (in teams). We go for walks, picking up pine cones as we go. We go to museums. We go out for ice cream. We read chapter books to each other. The adults talk about child-rearing and shared values and how to deal with blending a family.
And we are very much aware of how much love flows among us all. The teenagers who are now part of my daughter's life and family are really good kids. My husband and I like them both. I share a love of reading with the sixteen-year-old girl. I borrow and read books that she has read for school, and through them, we find common ground. My husband plays ball and goes for long walks with the thirteen-year-old boy. And we all play with "our" six year old.
I often think of the biblical Jacob's intergenerational, interfaith family and feel that we are not so different after all.