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.
You're Raising Them What? Telling Your Parents You Are Raising Jewish Kids
You never think of these things before you're married. I mean, c'mon, why wouldn't you raise your kids in the same fashion as your parents raised you? As a Protestant, I just assumed that one day I'd be taking my future kids to Sunday school. I also thought that I'd be teaching my future son to play baseball. But, as it turns out, I take my kids to shul and my daughter to ballet! Life throws you unexpected curveballs, and you deal with it. Now that I actually have a family of my own, I feel blessed to have two wonderful girls. The decision to raise them in the Jewish faith, the faith of my wife, was not an easy one, but it's one I don't regret. What was equally hard was telling my parents.
Telling my in-laws was easy. After all, they're Jewish. Even though I did not convert, I think they felt fairly comfortable knowing that I would make every effort to help my wife teach the kids the Jewish faith and traditions. Telling my parents would be a different story. What on earth would I say? How would I broach the subject? What would their reaction be? Would they disapprove? Would they disown me?
Fortunately, my parents have always been loving and supportive, so I didn't think they would do anything rash. However, the thoughts did go through my mind because this was alien territory for them as well. In addition, many interfaith families are faced with strong disapproval from their parents when the news is broken. We've all heard the stories, and we've read the books. We may even know someone who's had problems. Heck, that someone might now be me!
No matter how open your parents are, there are some talks you have to be well prepared for if you want to see them go right. My wife and I went over and over our reasons for raising the kids Jewish: we wanted to raise them in one faith so as not to confuse them. Also, because their mother is Jewish, and from a traditional Conservative background, they would be considered Jewish. However, we wanted to teach them about Christianity, my religion, to enrich their lives and give them an understanding of their heritage. They would still be allowed to "help" their Protestant grandparents and me celebrate Christmas and Easter. But, they would know that, bottom line, they are Jewish. Also, it would be really nice if my Protestant parents helped my children celebrate Shabbat, Sukkot, Hanukkah, etc.
This was great in theory, but how would it work when we actually told my parents face to face? (I want to emphasize "face to face." This is not something I'd want to do over the phone.) If they gave us any argument or grief, we had to be prepared to tell them that it was important to us that they respect our decision. In addition, we've put a lot of thought into it, we feel it's best for the kids, and most of all, we really want them to be included in the raising of our children.
I think that last part is the one that really helped us over the hump. Letting my parents know that we still wanted them to help raise our children was key. We want them every bit as active as they would have been, had we decided to raise the kids Protestant. This let them know that they are needed. Obviously, they won't know very much about the Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, but we can teach them. And in turn, they can participate. Actually, just their being there is important. The Protestant grandparents can come over for a Shabbat dinner. They can assist us in putting up the sukkah (wooden hut built for holiday of Sukkot). They can play dreidel for chocolate gelt (or in our family, Jelly Bellies).
As it turns out, we had "the talk" one evening over dinner at my parents' house. It was a little nerve-racking trying to find a way to bring it up, but somehow, we managed to find the courage. My mom was talking about Christmas stockings.
"Someday, when you two have kids, we have to remember to tell Aunt Ann to make them stockings," she said.
"Uh, well, Mom, Dad, we'd like to discuss that with you a little bit. You see, about Christmas . . . "
They didn't say too much while we explained our plan--they just let us talk. However, when we got to the part about how much we hoped they would help us, they finally spoke.
"We'd love to help," they said.
Huh? You mean, that's it? No arguments? No grief?
Of course, it wasn't that simple--it never is. They still had their questions to ask. For instance, they wanted to know what to do about Santa. And every once in a while, we have to tell them that "we prefer to do things such and such a way."
They may have had an inkling from our previous four years of dating and engagement that we'd choose this route. But, they hadn't been through the details of it like my wife and I had. My mom was very concerned that our children would go around telling their Protestant cousins that there's no such thing as Santa Claus. However, we explained how our kids would help them celebrate the Christian holidays. I also know that my mother, even today, feels a little uncertain when it comes to the religious issues. She has admitted to me that she is uncomfortable talking about baby Jesus in the manger. She doesn't quite know what we want her to say to our kids, or even if it's appropriate to talk about baby Jesus at all. And, I think she may be a little disappointed that she's in this position. I'm sure she's always had visions of teaching her grandkids the Bible stories that she taught me. My wife and I need to give my parents more guidance in this area.
For my dad, his biggest worry was that, in focusing on Judaism with my kids, somehow I would lose sight of my Protestant traditions and background. I'm sure that he will love me no matter what I do, but it's got to be hard on a parent to think that their child would turn his back on the past twenty-three years of upbringing. I reassured him that this upbringing was something that I would not and could not ever forget. As he watches us raise our kids today, I know he feels good about how we haven't neglected to teach our children about "Daddy's religion." This is evident in the fact that he and my mom really get into helping my family celebrate Jewish traditions. I think they would be less cooperative if they weren't comfortable with our methods.
All in all, they were, and still are, supportive of our wish to raise our kids Jewish. I don't know if it was the part about including them, or the fact that they wouldn't have to share us with my In-laws on Christmas and Easter! But my wife and I are extremely lucky to have parents who are understanding and want to help.