Preventing Difference from Adding to Distance

By Teresa McMahon


My daughter’s chirpy toddler voice loudly singing “Die-Die-an-You!” over and over while she gallops around the family room prompts me to giggle and then telephone the grandparents to share the funny moment. Barry’s Jewish parents immediately laugh at the sound of the traditional Passover song “Dayeinu” being sung by their young granddaughter.

Setting my Catholic parents up for the joke takes a little longer. I explain that this rousing song is one of our favorite parts of the annual Passover seder, or ritual meal. The verses of the song list the many gifts God has bestowed and Dayeinu is the Hebrew refrain meaning “It would have been enough.” For example, “Had God brought us out of Egypt and not divided the sea for us, Dayeinu!” (It would have been enough.) “Had God divided the sea and not permitted us to cross on dry land, Dayeinu!” I take the time to explain the context because it is important to me that my parents fully understand and share in the joy that I get from my two beautiful daughters.

My parents’ home is in Rhode Island, while I live with my husband and our daughters, Claire (four) and Emily (two), in Michigan. Living 800 miles away from your grandchildren is hard enough. I don’t want a difference in religion to make my Catholic parents feel any more distant from their Jewish granddaughters. Making that phone call was a continuation of what my parents and I have done from the beginning of my interfaith relationship–talk, include, ask questions, and learn together.

I was raised Catholic, and my parents are still very active in the church. Catholicism is such an important part of their lives that I was afraid I would disappoint them with my decision not only to marry a Jew but to raise any future children as Jews.

I decided that the way to help my parents feel most comfortable with my decision was to give them plenty of time to understand it. A whole year prior to our engagement, my parents (and Barry’s) were told that we were headed toward marriage. Our announcement elicited lots of questions, but not the deep disappointment or rejection that I had feared my parents might feel. They were more curious and concerned about how we were going to make our interfaith marriage work than in trying to dissuade us from having the marriage take place.

Believing in God and doing service is a very important part of my parents’ lives. For them, adhering to the Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrine is the most comfortable way to practice their faith. Their reaction to my decision assured me that their belief in God is more important than any institution, and that faith is more important than specific rules and regulations. My parents don’t see Jews as “non-believers,” but rather as different believers. They feel we all need to find our own way to a good, moral life that brings comfort and joy to ourselves and others. Clearly, my parents don’t worry about their Jewish granddaughters’ eternal souls. They do, however, have their share of worries.

They worry that they will inadvertently offend us by sending an inappropriate gift or by failing to acknowledge a major Jewish holiday. My mother always asks, “Is it all right to use Santa Claus wrapping paper?” “May I send a chocolate Easter Bunny?” “How many Hanukkah gifts should I send?” “Are angels okay?” I am pleased that she thinks to ask and I sympathize with her confusion. Barry and I continually negotiate how to incorporate the best from both of our heritages and traditions without confusing the children or making either partner feel uncomfortable. Our negotiations take grandparents into consideration.

When each of our daughters was born, we had a Jewish baby-naming ceremony. We worked with our rabbi to make sure my parents would be on equal footing with the other grandparents–an integral part of the event instead of observers. First, we chose to have the ceremony in our own home instead of the temple to which we belong. Second, all Hebrew prayers were repeated in English. Third, each set of grandparents had a part in the ceremony, reading a specially written blessing for the baby.

The gifts my parents gave the girls on those occasions could not have been more appropriate. Each girl received a set of Shabbat (Sabbath) candle sticks, as well as a children’s book that addressed religious issues from an interfaith perspective. Both Bubbe & Gram: My Two Grandmothers (written by Joan C. Hawxhurst and illustrated by Jane K. Bynum, Dovetail Publishing, P. O. Box 19945, Kalamazoo, MI 49019) and In God’s Name (written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Phoebe Stone, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont) have been read over and over again in our home. The combination of gifts reflected respect for the girls’ religion as well as a means to begin educating the little ones to respect and gain awareness of their interfaith heritage.

In preparing this article, I called my mom and asked what has helped her understand and nurture the Judaism of the girls. She told me things I already knew–she reads a lot on the subject, talks to Jewish friends, and has even taken a class at the local synagogue. Then she confessed something I didn’t know. She worries that as the girls grow older, she won’t be able to keep up with all that they are learning. I promised to send her their religious school homework–and I wasn’t just joking. We agreed that we’d learn Hebrew together.

When my father got on the phone, I asked him a similar question: what have I done to help him understand and nurture the Judaism of the girls?

He responded without hesitation, “Oh, you made it easy. You presented me with two beautiful grandchildren!”

“And that was enough?” I probed.

“That was more than enough” he responded.

Well, Dayeinu!


About Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.