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Family Secrets and Tensions

When my Southern Baptist-born husband became a Jew-by-choice, I naively thought any interfaith problems we had as a couple would miraculously disappear. However, I soon discovered that, just as his previous religious background did not vanish into thin air, some interfaith issues remained after his conversion.

During the fourteen years I have been married, the difference between my religion and that of my husband's parents has caused stress between myself and my in-laws as well as between myself and my husband. My husband always has supported my Jewish observances and practices, and together we chose to raise our children as Jews, joined a temple, and began living as Reform Jews. Despite this fact, we have never discussed our religious beliefs or choices with my in-laws, who are now observant Presbyterians.

As the years have gone by, it has become more and more apparent to my in-laws that their grandchildren are being raised Jewish and that their son joins in my Jewish observances. My in-laws have never said anything negative about me being Jewish, about their son's participation in my religion, or about the religious upbringing of their grandchildren. However, their actions make it clear that they are uncomfortable with our religious choice.

We have several times celebrated Hanukkah at their home; they usually leave the room when we light candles. During visits with their grandparents my children have sported Stars of David around their necks, read Jewish books or sung Hebrew songs; my in-laws sit silently or awkwardly and without emotion say, "How pretty" or "Isn't that nice." We have even dropped the children off at religious school, which is housed in a Catholic high school, with grandparents in tow; my in-laws remained in the car rather than accompany the children inside.

Such reactions create discomfort in my own and my husband's relationship with his parents, which then creates stress in our marriage. This makes my husband less willing to discuss our religious choices with his parents. He believes doing so will neither make the situation better nor change his parents' views. In addition, he fears that broaching the topic might further strain the relationship.

The more strain I feel around my relationship with my in-laws or my husband, the more I want to air my feelings and hear their thoughts on the subject. While I often say this to my husband, out of respect for his wishes I remain silent with my in-laws.

As you can imagine, this makes for some tense visits with them. I fear that they blame me for their son's and their grandchildren's involvement in Judaism. I dread the years when Hanukkah and Christmas fall so close together that we cannot avoid celebrating at their house. Yet, I cringe at my mother-in-law's suggestion that they come to our house for Christmas. I prefer they not visit us on days when the children must be taken to religious or Hebrew school or on Shabbat (the Sabbath), and I listen nervously when my children tell their grandparents about anything that further reveals their "Jewishness."

Our children, of course, feel the effects of this tension. They want to participate in the fun of Christmas trees and Easter eggs offered by their grandparents, but surely feel their parents would rather avoid these celebrations altogether. My children also like to share their Jewish experiences with their grandparents but must sense their grandparents' discomfort when they do so.

Over time, I've learned not to pressure my husband to talk with his parents about our religious affiliation, and he has learned to let me air with him my feelings about our interfaith issues. When we are with his parents, which is not often since they live eight hours away, we try to be tolerant, which for the most part they are with us as well. We allow them their religious beliefs, and they allow us ours. And we allow our children to participate in my in-laws' religious observances while inviting them to participate in ours.

We also keep in mind that their religious beliefs may negate the possibility of accepting their son's conversion or their grandchildren's Jewish upbringing. They very likely have always felt uncomfortable with me being Jewish. I know their Christian upbringing colors their feelings about Jews and anyone who does not accept Jesus as the Savior or Son of God. In addition, I know their lives have given them little exposure to Jews in general.

My husband tends to ignore--or doesn't feel--the stress of our interfaith issues and enjoys a good, albeit not totally open, relationship with his parents. I also have a decent relationship with them, but when we are all together I feel the discomfort of the "white elephant" in the room--the subject no one is discussing. I feel the tension when we perform religious rituals in their presence, and this makes me uncomfortable not only with the situation but with my husband's lack of desire to change our habits when his parents are around. When they join us on a Friday night, I would rather keep Shabbat observance, for example, to candle lighting and only short English versions of the blessings over the candles, wine, and bread. He insists on doing all the blessings completely in Hebrew and English just as we do every other Friday. While he seems to not be bothered by the discomfort this causes his parents, I feel it and it heightens my own discomfort.

As long as my in-laws are alive, interfaith issues cannot be totally eliminated from my life or the life of my family. So, with acceptance, tolerance and understanding, my husband and I move through our interfaith issues despite any temporary stress or disharmony they create.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Nina Amir Lacey

Nina Amir Lacey is a freelance journalist, nonfiction editor and the author of several booklets about practical spirituality, human potential and personal growth from Jewish perspective. She sees herself as an "everywoman" and her work as crossing religious and spiritual lines. She also serves as the spirituality and holiday expert on Conversations with Ms. Claus, a weekly podcast downloaded by 85,000 listeners each month in 90 different countries and offered on www.yaktivate.com. You can learn more about Nina at Pure Spirit Creations.

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