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Janet Cohn figured she would wait awhile before telling her Catholic parents that she and her husband Simon had decided to raise their children Jewish. Maybe not until they were enrolled in religious school. With them living in Oakland, California, and her parents in West Virginia, it just might work.
"It never occurred to me to lie to them, [but] I wasn't going to tell them until it came up," Cohn said. But her plan got derailed when a pregnant Cohn went to West Virginia for a visit. On the way home from the airport, with her aunt in the car, Cohn's mother asked her point blank what she was going to do about religion.
So she told them.
"My mother was pretty good about it. I could tell she wasn't very happy, but she didn't try to talk me out of it or throw guilt at me," said Cohn, who suspects her pregnancy tempered her mother's reaction. "My aunt said it would be OK as long as we baptize them. You can see from that comment that they really had no idea what being Jewish was."
Although Cohn got the job done, Rosanne Levitt, director of Interfaith Connection in San Francisco*, says there are better ways to handle the situation.
"I think it's better for couples to tell the parents together rather than for the Christian partner to be the messenger for the couple," says Levitt. "If it's a difficult encounter, then the Christian partner will need the support of their Jewish partner. It's best if you can do it in person, but it doesn't always work, depending on geography."
Levitt, a marriage and family therapist, leads interfaith workshops and discussion groups, and she has heard it all, including parents whose reaction is to refuse to have anything to do with their children or grandchildren. But, adds Levitt, that is very unusual. More often than not, the fear of how a parent will react is worse than the reality.
"Figure out what you want to say, then practice it a lot until it's really comfortable, so you won't get frazzled or off track," recommends Levitt, who uses role-playing in her workshops. "Role playing really helps take the emotional edge off it."
Although the approach will differ depending on a person's relationship with his or her parents, one thing Levitt advocates against is not telling your parents.
"Secrets like that don't work. It's not healthy for the relationship between [the grandparents and their children] or between the couple," she says. "And as the grandchildren get older, they're going to say something."
She also tells couples to be reassuring so their parents won't feel rejected, betrayed or like they've failed.
"Let parents know it doesn't mean you love them less or that you're not going to be a member of the family anymore or that they're losing their grandchildren," said Levitt.
Although Cohn's now teenage children have been raised Jewish, she never converted and still occasionally goes to Mass. Her parents participate in her children's life-cycle events and Cohn has imparted the non-religious part of her family's Italian and Irish cultural heritage to her children.
This inclusion is very important, Levitt says. "I suggest inviting parents to celebrations in the household to gain an understanding [of Judaism]. There are a lot of couples whose parents don't know any Jews."
That was the case for Jon Earp. Raised as a Protestant in a rural community of 2,700 in Minnesota, Earp's family didn't know any Jews.
"My parents are fairly religious," said Earp. "My mother works in the health profession, and to her knowledge she never met any Jewish people. We were pretty homogeneous."
His now wife Laurie said she wouldn't marry him unless he agreed to raised their children Jewish. So the choice of religion was made before "I do" was said.
Although Jon remembers that he and Laurie told his parents together, Laurie remembers it differently. It was their inaugural meeting, a couple of weeks after she and Jon had eloped. Jon's parents came to California to meet their daughter-in-law. Jon was late, Laurie was home alone, and the conversation got around to religion.
"There was surprise on the part of [Jon's] mother that we would be raising the children Jewish," remembers Laurie. "There were tears in that conversation. I felt badly about taking their son. I can't put an actual emotion on what his mother was feeling, but I am sure there was disappointment that [our children] wouldn't be raised with a knowledge of Jesus and be baptized."
Jon and Laurie now have two children, Erin, 4, and Dylan 2. Although his parents came to California and participated in the name ceremony and bris (circumcision ceremony), Jon knows that raising their children Jewish continues to be difficult for his parents.
"It's especially difficult for my mother because she comes from the stance that you have to be baptized to get into heaven," said Earp, adding that his parents are very supportive of his decision. "Once they knew I was marrying Laurie, they studied up on [Judaism]."
Nine months after their elopement, Jon and Laurie had a formal wedding, one which Laurie, who by then was seven months pregnant, describes as a very traditional Jewish ceremony. Jon's mother did her homework. She told Laurie to smash a light bulb instead of a wineglass.
*Interfaith Connection is funded by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties and meets at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., (415) 292-1252. Information about workshops and discussion groups can be found at www.intfaith.org