Thoughts on Grandparenting a Christian Grandchild

By Paula Lee Hellman


When my daughter called to tell me that she was getting married to the young man she had been dating for over a year–the son of a Baptist minister–my heart sank. The announcement and the reality were so different from my fantasy of what should happen: my daughter and I together in her girlish bedroom, her announcement eliciting mutual whoops of delight, then my gathering her in my arms as we happily planned her Jewish wedding. In contrast to the fantasy, my reaction was somber silence and internal tears.

After a brief silence, I recovered my composure. “I don’t know what to say,” I admitted. “Say you are happy for me,” she replied. I did my best to acknowledge her happiness. I knew she loved this man and that her wedding was not about my happiness, but hers. And oh, how I wished that I could also be happy for me.

My daughter reminded me that her own father wasn’t Jewish. “Yes,” I said. “But your father did not practice any religion, while your boyfriend is connected to his Christian faith. Besides, for the past eleven years you have lived in a Jewish home with two Jewish parents.” “Mom,” she told me gently, “I find it comforting to know that Jesus loves me.” At that moment, I faced the probability that a future grandchild from this marriage would not be Jewish.

What I knew about being the grandparent of a Christian grandchild had been learned working with Elderhostel students who attended classes I led during the eight years I coordinated and taught at Eisner Camp Elderhostels in the Berkshires. Those classes often offered a first opportunity for many senior adults to discuss, within a Jewish context, their emotional responses to their children’s interfaith marriages. Universally, they expressed ambivalence about being grandparents to Jewish grandchildren whose other grandparents are Christian. And those whose adult children were raising children in a Christian tradition were especially confused. Most of them loved their Christian sons- or daughters-in-law. They loved their grandchildren, yet they struggled with their feelings.

“I feel like I’m walking on eggshells,” was an often-used expression. And many held themselves back, not giving their grandchildren books of Jewish stories in case the “other grandparents” would bring them Christian books. The hurt and heartache I had felt from them as they told their stories were now resonating in me.

My experience with the Elderhostelers taught me that what we want most as grandparents is to be freely ourselves. We want to tell our stories, to transmit our culture and heritage to our own grandchildren. But in this new world of interfaith marriage, we need to seek permission from our children to fully express ourselves and to assure them that what we want to do is to be relaxed grandparents, not proselytize for Judaism.

Many of the couples I met in Elderhostel workshops began to explore Judaism only after their children intermarried. Many responded to their children’s interfaith marriages by starting to light candles on Shabbat. Their grown children didn’t always like it. I heard about the discomfort of grown children when they came “home” for Friday night dinner and saw a white cloth on their parents’ dining table, a covered challah next to shiny candle holders. Adult children challenged this new ritual behavior by saying, “We never did that when we grew up.”

Over and over, parents told me that they had to convince their adult children that their new relationship to Judaism was real, not a charade for the grandchildren. They attended our workshops in order to learn what they didn’t have time to learn when they were younger. Most Elderhostelers were immigrants or children of immigrants. If a job required working on Shabbos, they worked on Saturdays. They grew up in families that emphasized living freely in America and living ethical lives more than religious lives. Now, they wonder if they had missed something by assimilating so thoroughly into American society. Now, they wonder how to be authentically themselves and still honor their children’s choice of religion for their grandchildren.

Since interfaith marriage on a large scale is relatively new, we are the ones creating the new etiquette for grandparenting children in interfaith families. There are questions about holidays and ritual objects: Questions about whether to give gifts at Hanukkah or Christmas and whether it is appropriate to give Jewish books or tapes. I think that the new etiquette means openly talking about your children’s choices and being willing to hear the answers. I try not to ask a question if I am not willing to hear the answer (because I don’t like what I hear). When I am openly looking for information, then I am willing to hear any answer. Sometimes the answer hurts. But the flip side is that you can ask your children to listen to you.

Open communication helps establish boundaries and gives all participants permission to be themselves. It’s important not to invite the interfaith family to dinner on a Christian holiday. But it’s great to bring them home for Passover or Shabbat or Hanukkah. Ask if they would like to receive a menorah for Hanukkah, if they would like tapes of Jewish songs. And be clear about what your own needs are. If it would be hard to see a cross or a crucifix around your young grandchild’s neck, say so. It is possible that the child can practice their religion without such an overt sign. (By the time your grandchild is a teenager, the communication can be directly with the teen.)

My daughter now has a one-year old son. He is a smiling delight. When they are with me, she and her son come to family Shabbat services at our temple and my daughter chants the appropriate responses. She says the Motzi ,or blessing over bread, at our dinner table. I often wonder what will happen when my grandson is older, I wonder how he will make the distinction between Christianity in one place and Judaism at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

Through our open communication, I know that I have permission to be myself, to tell Bible stories, to light Shabbat candles and give Hanukkah gifts rather than Christmas presents. Knowing the boundaries of what I can and can’t do has helped. And for now, I am happy. I don’t walk on eggshells.


About Paula Lee Hellman

Paula Lee Hellman is education director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire. She and her Jewish husband have a blended family, which includes children and stepchildren, grandchildren and a step-grandchild from their previous interfaith marriages.