When Intermarriage in the Extended Family Affects Our Religious Observance

By Nancy Reuben Greenfield


The fact that my Jewish sister-in-law married a devout Catholic was not my problem. Their family’s religious and spiritual issues were their business not mine.

This changed when our family’s visit to their home coincided with the Friday night Sabbath. Suddenly, their intermarriage became my problem. It became my husband¹s problem. It became a question for us and our family of what to do or not do, what to say or not say, what to ignore and what to insist upon.

At our house on Friday night, we are more ritually observant than some and less observant than others. Still, we do the Shabbat basics: candlelighting, challah, wine and prayers. At my sister-in-law’s, they do nothing and that suits them just fine.

My sister-in-law and her husband are well aware of our commitment to Judaism and our love of Shabbat and all its rituals. We wondered how they would respond to our presence in their home on the Sabbath night. We hoped it did not create conflict between them.

When my sister-in-law mentioned during pre-visit planning that she would barbecue some chicken that night, we wondered if candles and bread and wine might also be part of the menu. We tried not to expect. Regardless of what rituals were followed and what rituals were ignored, we wanted to simply be content to feast together as a family.

Then, right after we bought our plane tickets, we were told that the non-Jewish spouse was going to take one of their two children to a Spice Girls concert that Friday night. Well, we thought, maybe this decision took away the religious tension we created between them by the mere fact that our visit coincided with the Sabbath. Maybe this arrangement might make it easier for the Jewish parent to more fully celebrate the Sabbath rituals. Maybe it was simply coincidental. The Spice Girls just happened to be in town and that was that. We waited to see how Friday night would evolve.

Right about the time the Sabbath candles would have been lit in our home, my sister-in-law suggested a Spice Girls video. After all, the other parent and child went to the real concert . . . why couldn’t the other children vicariously experience the event? So instead of singing “Lecha Dodi” to invite the angels of good and evil to look inside this home, we invited the Spice Girls.

Now was the time for action or reaction. My husband and I wondered if our children knew that it was Friday night? Did they know the Sabbath was about to begin? Should we suggest a simple lighting of the candles? Or should we just go with the Spice Girl flow? After all, it was not our home. We were not the hosts. “When in Rome, do we or do we not do as the Romans do?”

The questions overwhelmed us. What is the line between respecting the non-religious flow in their home versus maintaining the religious flow we have tended and nurtured for our family? What kind of message do we send to our children when we somehow seem to forget our Sabbath rituals outside our house? What do we tell our children when they begin to ask questions? What do we tell our conscience when we have trouble answering our own questions?

Friday night finally evolved. My husband ended up feeding the children early without any Sabbath fanfare and later my sister-in-law and I ate leftovers. Then the whole gang traveled by car to Grandpop¹s house. It was dark now, and of the children only our son was still awake. We were listening to the radio and staring out the window.

Suddenly my son asked the question my husband and I had desperately tried to avoid. “Isn’t it Friday night? Isn’t it the Sabbath?”

Since no-one else answered, it was up to me. I tried to be matter-of-fact. “It is Friday night. We did not honor the Sabbath the way we do at home.”

“Why not?” my son questioned.

If an antacid would have helped, I would have taken one. Instead I just answered the question as honestly as I could. “Because your aunt and uncle do not share the same religion, they create their own spiritual traditions. We respect their traditions by following the Friday night flow in their home.”

My son was quiet. My husband was quiet. My sister-in-law was quiet. The radio was our only saving grace.

A full week later, on the plane coming home, it became clear that our response to Sabbath with our intermarried siblings had worked for our family. My husband and I were half-dozing on the plane. My son had been staring at the clouds with his sister. He turned to us and said with a voice that commanded us to open our eyes, “I’ll be glad to have Shabbes (Sabbath) at home this week.”

My husband and I smiled at the same time. Even our three-year-old daughter nodded with a smile. Each of us had learned something new about the Sabbath on this trip. We knew we missed it. We knew we cherished the rest and reflection, reconnection and renewal, that the Sabbath gave to each of us and to us as a family.

My husband and I will always be sad that Judaism is not part of his sister’s intermarried household. Still, we trust them to know what is best for their family and try to respect them for their spiritual traditions. And yet, there will always be a part of us that wishes that we could have somehow shared with them the Sabbath, as we understand it, so that they, too, could arrive at Havdalah (the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath) and smell the sweetness of a different kind of spice.

Copyright 1998 by Nancy Reuben Greenfield


About Nancy Reuben Greenfield

Nancy Reuben Greenfield prepares the Weekly Wisdom torah portion for JewishFamily.com.