Wendy Weltman Palmer M.S.W, is a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in interfaith couple counseling. Her "Dear Wendy" advice column has been seen in these pages.
A Therapist Responds to ?Choosing Christianity? by Tara Remick
Tara's essay presents us with a picture of many of the challenges of interfaith relationships. In telling the story of her interfaith marriage and its demise, we hear some common refrains filtered through the voice of her very personal account.
Tara begins by letting us know that she herself is a child of an interfaith marriage. Her father is Christian and her mother is Jewish. She says her parents raised her to find her own path to God, which says to me that she was not raised with a clear religious identity. Like many children of interfaith parents, it appears that Tara was raised with mixed messages regarding religion. Therefore, it comes as a surprise to her when her Jewish mother openly objects to her choice of a marital partner: a young man serious in his Southern Baptist persuasion.
Tara's mother seems to react most strongly to the fact that the Southern Baptists really see converting all Jews to Christianity as part of their mission. Would Tara's mother had been more comfortable with a less-proselytizing Christian, a run-of-the mill Methodist or Presbyterian, for instance? Perhaps someone like Tara's dad? Tara's mom is really in a bind at this point as a parent who herself intermarried. This new dilemma is something we are increasingly seeing as second- and even third-generation interfaith families enter the scene. How can an interfaith parent honestly raise an objection or even a concern when the response will likely be, "You and Dad seemed to have worked out your differences and I turned out just fine. So what is the problem with my choosing a partner from a different faith?" There is no quick retort to such a question.
While Tara's mother is clearly ambivalent and half-heartedly participates in the wedding festivities, Tara says, "I felt as if she had turned her back on me." And yet, could it not be that her mother felt it was Tara who had turned her back on Judaism and perhaps even her own family? We read that Tara chose a church ceremony rather than a civil ceremony or even a religious ceremony in a neutral setting, but we are missing key details that might further illuminate the situation. Was Tara's choice an olive branch she was extending to her new in-laws, who were also distressed by the interfaith marriage? Or did Tara's choosing to be married in the church signal a new religious path for her, one that might culminate (as indeed it did a few months later) with her conversion to Christianity?
Everything does seem to come to a head with Tara's conversion. I surmise that Tara's mother had felt that with this marriage she was losing her daughter on many levels: to another family, to another community, and also to a new religious faith. Such a reaction is common among parents whose children convert to a different faith. Also embedded in the initial swirl of emotions is the fear of losing the connection to one's child. It is not readily apparent whether one's adult child is merely rejecting his or her religious upbringing or all that the parent has meant to the child. It takes time for all these emotions to get sorted out and a new equilibrium as well as a new connection to be established. And then we are reminded of Tara's hurt and confusion. Her parents had raised her to find her own path to God and now that she is choosing a clear path, they are not there to celebrate with her!
Then along comes Caleb. Tara says she wants Caleb to know his Jewish heritage as well as Jesus Christ. This tells me that Caleb is to be raised as a Christian with knowledge of his Jewish cultural and ethnic background. What is salutary is that, as Tara is "picking up the pieces of her shattered life," she is providing her child with something she herself probably never had growing up: a clear religious identity. Caleb will know his "Jewish grandparents" and presumably will celebrate their holidays and life-cycle events with them.
Tara is now in the business of helping to create meaningful relationships. How does she help her Christian son to honor his relationship with his Jewish grandparents on a daily basis? Does she, for instance, allow her mother the opportunity to grieve that Caleb will never be called to the Torah, but then help grandmother and son to cultivate other small moments of "generation-to-generation" links? Caleb will have questions about why his family is "not all the same" and grandmother may secretly wish for a different type of connection with her grandchild. Tara is now the bridge between the cultural and religious factions of her family. The challenge for her is to maintain her own Christian home for herself and her son while staying related to and appreciative of her Jewish family and background.