Four Generations Living Together: An Interfaith Mosaic

By Margery Clapp


It was raining that Saturday. My infant grandson was colicky and had serenaded the entire household all night to signal his displeasure. My daughter, son-in-law and I were snapping at each other for real or perceived misdeeds. I was annoyed about the toys that my eighteen-month-old grandson had scattered around the floor, my son-in-law was annoyed because everything seemed to annoy me, and my daughter simply had cabin fever.

In her quest for a quiet spot, my elderly mother locked herself in her room with the newspaper, a chocolate bar and a pair of earplugs. The stress was palpable, causing us all to rethink the question of whether family members who span four generations really could live in harmony under the same roof.

Could six people ranging from a newborn baby to a great-grandmother in her late eighties share living space for an extended time when the opinions, personalities and religious practices of the adults differ? Or was it really true that houseguests, like fish, begin to smell after three days? As inhabitants of a large house that appeared to be shrinking hourly, we were learning the answers.

Aside from comic relief provided by two furniture-eating dogs, a couple of temperamental box turtles and the inhabitants of two aquariums, such an arrangement is sobering and requires sacrifice, compromise, a sense of humor and the ability to become selectively deaf.

I made that discovery when my daughter–raised as a Jew although her father is not Jewish–and my Catholic son-in-law Jason moved in with my Jewish mother and me for two four-month periods. They were there the first time because they had just moved from another state and needed to catch up on overdue bills before renting an apartment. They eventually moved out, but returned after the birth of my second grandson–even though they had their own apartment by then–because they needed the kind of help and moral support that sympathetic grandparents can provide. Mother has lived with me since 1988. A widowed retiree, she finally accepted my invitation to live with us instead of being merely a frequent visitor. Now that my daughter is grown and married, I continue to enjoy Mother’s company.

We were all anxious to see how four generations would fare together, religiously and otherwise. Looking back, I think we approached the arrangement the way one might approach a dog that is wagging its tail at one end and growling at the other. We were full of hope, cautious optimism and trepidation.

While I was happy to have my daughter, son-in-law and grandsons stay with us, I had to decide how to accommodate their lifestyle without disrupting ours, especially since they observe the holidays of each of their religions. If I bent too much, I knew I would feel resentful. Too little and I would feel guilty.

I knew I would not discontinue our practice of lighting Shabbat, Sabbath, candles on Friday evenings or curtail my observation of other Jewish holidays while my daughter and her family were there. But I did not want them to feel inhibited about worshiping their own way, either. In short, we wanted them to feel invited, not pressured. It was important to show them that my hospitality had no strings attached.

Compromise was needed in the kitchen, too. For example, I do not keep kosher, but there still are certain foods I do not eat. My son-in-law adores pork chops and ham sandwiches, so I had to decide whether to allow such foods in the house. Ultimately, I decided that the presence of “forbidden foods” would not bother me, especially since my reasons for not eating them are as much dietary as religious.

Thus, our refrigerator housed a rather eclectic assortment of kosher hotdogs, sliced ham, matzah ball soup and Italian sausage during the initial four months that my daughter and her family lived with us, and during their second four-month visit the following year.

In general, Mother readily accepted the challenging role as matriarch of our live-in interfaith family. She got along well with Maia and Jason and adored her great-grandsons. However, in reality, the presence of extra people–including young children–can be stressful and chaotic, even for the most adoring grandmother. But like me, she felt that the benefits of hosting Maia, Jason and the boys often outweighed most of the concerns and inconveniences, even when it meant learning that Power Rangers do not flush.

The four of us often discussed the issue of religious consistency in children’s lives, but the discussions, while spirited, were civilized. During one such gabfest, Jason said he cared most about raising his boys to have good ethics and morals and didn’t want to focus on which pew they would sit in at which house of worship. Mother agreed with him.

However, Mother was brought up as an Orthodox Jew and I am certain that a part of her still would like to have Jewish great-grandchildren. But she knows that her opinion and mine are not the only ones that count, and that each time we find ourselves thinking about our preferences, there is another grandmother in Texas–Jason’s mother–who has an equal desire to see her grandsons raised as Catholics.

Holidays presented a unique challenge. As Hanukkah and Christmas approached, I wondered whether my daughter would ask to have a tree. Not wanting to deprive her and her family of something they may have had in their own home, I briefly considered suggesting one for their bedroom. But I never had had a tree and decided that I really did not want to break that record. I felt selfish, but compromising would have made me feel resentful which, ultimately, would have been worse for everyone.

It wasn’t that I felt that one religion was better than the other. Rather, I feared that observing both would confuse my grandsons or cause them to value both holidays mainly as sources of double gifts. I did not want the spiritual values, beliefs and teachings of either religion to be overshadowed by the superficial trappings of holidays.

As it turned out, Maia and her family moved out before Christmas, so the tree became a non-issue. Nevertheless, the conflicts I had felt about it had rekindled my concern about the potential for confusion in young children exposed to dual religions.

During both their four-month stays with us, Maia and Jason had their share of angst. We got along well and they were grateful to be there. But as adults, they were entitled to control their children’s religious upbringing, and they told us, politely but firmly, that neither of them would consider conversion or a focus on just one religion.

Despite the differences in our thinking, our mutual closeness helped us reach a détente that made it possible for us to live together. And, aside from my propensity for worry, there were encouraging signs. When Maia and Jason lived with me, they rarely participated in Shabbat or Hanukkah candle lighting, so I was pleased when they appeared in the kitchen one evening as Mother and I prepared to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

My pleasure turned to stunned pride when Jason began reciting the blessing over the candles in Hebrew. No gift could have topped that! Not only did it symbolize his desire to be part of our family, it also proved that he was participating in, and not just tolerating, the primary religion in which my daughter was raised.

Recently, I experienced a similar thrill when my daughter reported that my grandson, Evan, who is almost three years old, suddenly belted out the popular Hanukkah “Dreidel” song while his parents were decorating their Christmas tree. Evan, who attends a Jewish Community Center preschool, apparently learned the song there. He is teaching it to his father.

I kvell–feel great pride–over such things, and I watch from the sidelines as Maia and Jason pick their way through the minefield of interfaith marriage. They are learning what works for them and so far, they have managed to goose-step around some sticky issues.

There always will be spirited discussions with grown children who marry outside the faith. Aside from the issue of holiday observances, there are the pros and cons of circumcision and, in our case, the value of baptism in the eyes of the non-Jewish parent.

There is no easy fix, no way to skirt the issues in interfaith marriages. However, as always, the decisions belong to our children, whether they live with us or in separate homes. As much as we would like to believe otherwise, the reality is that they owe us nothing when it comes to religion.


About Margery Clapp

Margery Clapp is a freelance journalist based in Scottsdale, Arizona.