When I was in middle school, I was lying on the couch one day reading a book when my dad walked through the living room. He asked if I’d done my study guide for a test I had the next day. I told him, “No,” as I continued reading and he asked if that was a smart idea. I said, half paying attention, that I would be fine. I failed the test.
When he asked about it later and I begrudgingly told him that the teacher surely had it out for me, he said, almost to himself, “I wonder if you’d have failed if you studied.”
That was how my parents parented. They let us go too far, offered us help back, and when we refused, were always there to subtly drive the lesson home.
My parents, my sister, and most of my family are Christian in the same way that my husband’s family is Jewish. They are committed, it is a part of their everyday life; in short, they’re Orthodox.
When I converted they didn’t say a word. The first few years of my being Jewish were a weird time in my life and in the life of my family. I was trying to find my footing in a new faith and I think my family was waiting for my Jewish phase to end. I didn’t tell my parents I was dating, knowing that they wouldn’t understand the world that I was now living in (a very Orthodox one at the time) and so, I brought my fiancé home to meet my parents a week before we were going to be married.
If you think that might have been awkward, you’d be right. Everyone was nice, polite, and praying to various deities to make the night end quickly.
At our wedding, both sides smiled and were polite and excited that their children were starting a new chapter in their lives. My blonde mother and sister stuck out like sore thumbs. My father and grandparents, with their slow southern drawls, didn’t blend in much better. But they came; they smiled and acted like it was the most normal thing in the world to be told your daughter was marrying someone she’d only known roughly a month. My grandfather and father danced on the mens’ side of the chuppah with my new family and both mentioned how nice “that older man with the beard” was, not realizing that they were describing nearly every older man in the room.
And that was the first moment my parents really surprised me. My relationship with them had played through a (hopefully) normal cycle of loving them when I was a child, resenting them as I grew older, and circling around to thinking they might still have one or two things to teach me on my wedding day–I stood watching them let me live my life without interference, knowing that they thought I was wrong.
I had to, and still sometimes have to, make peace with the fact that my parents don’t agree with my religious choices. They don’t disagree with Judaism as a whole, only that their daughter should choose to leave the religion she was brought up in and follow another one. Being brought up in the south as an evangelical Christian, Catholics are considered to be of another religion; Judaism isn’t even on the map.
But just as they had come to my wedding, they came to my new home for Shabbat dinner. They sat through Kiddush, giving one another an occasional sidelong glance, needing to be told many times that we would prefer them not to turn off lights we had turned on and asking if Kiddush was the “Jewish communion.” I was happy to have them there to see what Friday nights were like for us, but we all came to a mutual and silent understanding that for them, weekly Shabbat dinners might be too much.
When I was pregnant with my first son I wondered how our relationship would change. It had been good, if a little distant, as we all tried to figure out how life would work together. It bothered them to no end that we couldn’t eat at their house. They wanted us to go to church with them on Christmas, to celebrate Easter; they didn’t understand why we wouldn’t, why we insisted on being so different. When we said “no,” I saw frustration on their faces and in their looks to one another, but they never pressed the issue further.
I was just beginning to think that I might need to think of a way to compromise when my son was born. The tension seemed to lift. It didn’t matter to my parents if my husband and I decided to be circus clowns at the state fair as long as they had their grandbaby.
In the years since, we have reevaluated many of the rules we used to follow. We let the kids eat at my family’s house; we have a joint holiday celebration, and I talk with my 3 ½ year old openly about what I believe and what Nana and PawPaw believe.
Initially I took a lot of credit for the good relationship I have with my family, differences and all, but now I see that it had very little to do with me. If my parents had been different people, the kind of people who needed to have a hand in every decision their children made, I have no doubt that we wouldn’t see each other every week like we do now. If it hadn’t been for my mother (and her pushing my very stubborn father) to compromise, my son’s list of favorite people wouldn’t be: “Nana, PawPaw, Aunt Chelsea, Uncle Pete….oh yeah, you too Mama and Abba.”
So when I go into my boys’ room every night to make sure they’re sleeping and not just being quiet and mischievous, I look at their beautiful sleeping faces and try to remember to love them for all that they are and all that they will be and to show them that love even when I don’t understand them and they’re throwing curve balls in my face.
And honestly, I think about my father and tell myself that if he could do it, so can I.
Image: Helena Perez García