Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Extending a Welcome to Extended Family
Remember that old saying: You're not just marrying the girl; you're marrying her family. Somebody said it to me fourteen years ago, just days after I proposed to Bonnie and, I have to admit, that person was right.
It's not like I went down a receiving line at our wedding, saying "I do" to all of her relatives. But since that day, I have spent a lot of time with her family, and she with mine. We both have wonderful extended families.
However, because we were intermarrying, we knew from the start that we would have to work hard to maintain our warm relationships with them. Bonnie and I had been dating for the three years leading up to my popping the question. I was comfortable with her being Jewish. She was comfortable with my being Protestant. We knew that we would have issues that we'd have to work out--such as the religion of our future children, the possible appearance of a Christmas tree in our family room, and whether or not ham would reside in our refrigerator.
These were all questions that we could handle because they were all directly under our control. What was not within our grasp, however, was how our extended family would react to our interfaith marriage. Would they be supportive? Would they disown us? Would they be friendly on the surface, but try to derail us every chance they got? Like a fellow named Gump once said, "Life is like a box of chocolates . . . "
As was true in our situation, we had no idea what we'd get, but it would probably be an assortment. Fortunately, our box didn't contain any nuts, and there wasn't anything too serious that would force us to call off the wedding. The biggest disappointment was that Bonnie's grandmother, who was raised Orthodox, told us that she would not come to our wedding. She just couldn't do it out of principle. To her, Jews should not marry outside the faith. Showing up would mean, to her, that she endorsed intermarriage.
Bonnie was heartbroken. She was very close to her grandmother, whom she called Bubba. The wedding just wouldn't be the same without her. Bubba had been an integral part of every special occasion, including all the family weddings for years. Bonnie had always envisioned her grandmother being there for her day, too.
Instead of reacting negatively to Bubba's announcement, we decided that the best course of action would be to try and convince her to change her mind. Our wedding date was two years away. We had some time. We needed her to realize that her relationship with Bonnie was more important than making a statement about intermarriage.
We started with a gentle introduction. I had seen plenty of pictures of Bubba in albums, pinned up on bulletin boards, and magnetized to dryers, but I had never met her. From the stories, I knew that she was a wonderful woman. She, on the other hand, knew nothing of me. In the preceding years, Bonnie's family had made a conscious effort not to mention me. They hadn't known if Bonnie and I, two young college kids, would have the fortitude to stay together. So, why rock the boat? Why throw a scare into Bubba if they didn't have to?
When Bonnie broke the news to her grandmother, the only thing that Bubba knew about me was that I was this nice non-Jewish boy. That wasn't a great way to start--hence, the introduction. The first encounter was short and sweet. Fortunately, Bubba was open to meeting me. We went over to her apartment, Bonnie's parents in tow for support. We sat and talked. She gave us tea and cookies. We talked some more. She found out that I was from Michigan. She asked if I had any brothers and sisters. Mostly surface talk, but it was very important for a first impression face to face. After an hour, we said goodbye and that we would visit again soon.
Over the next year, I visited Bubba many times with Bonnie. Each time, we got to know one another a little better. More importantly, she saw how happy Bonnie was with me. One day, after talking with Bonnie's stepmother (who, to our benefit, happened to be a social worker), Bubba said that she thought she could go to our wedding. She felt that Bonnie's happiness was more important than anything. We were elated. Our approach had paid off.
The biggest thing we discovered from this experience was that inclusion, rather than exclusion, opens more eyes and more hearts. Throughout our marriage, Bonnie and I have always made an effort to include each other's extended families in our lives. It's natural for in-laws to be concerned for their children's well being--especially when a child has married a person of a different faith. Therefore, Bonnie and I have always thought it important to teach my parents about her Jewish traditions. Likewise, we have taught her parents about my Christian traditions.
Teaching, however, is just the first step. We like to put that education together with hands-on experience. My in-laws have attended Good Friday services with me at a church near their house. It's also not unusual that my mom, sister, and niece joined us at this year's Latke Hop at the Jewish Community Center. As a result of our efforts over the years, our families have built fond memories of holidays that aren't even theirs. For instance, my parents, siblings, and their families actually look forward to coming over to our house for our annual Hanukkah dinner and dreidel tournament. (Whoever wins the most Jelly-Bellies has bragging rights for the whole year.)
What would these events have been like if Bonnie and I only experienced them by ourselves? We could have just as easily written off Bonnie's grandmother. We could have turned a cold shoulder, muttering that it was her loss. If we had done that, we wouldn't have been able to spend those golden years with her. I never would have known for myself what an amazing woman she was. Because of our efforts, our families have responded positively and have wanted to be with us. We could have given up. I'm so glad we didn't.