My nuclear clan is Jewish: My husband and kids have been Jews all along; I chose Judaism a couple decades into my life. The logical consequence of this set up is that my in-laws are Jewish, and my parents are not. In many ways, my mixed-religion extended family is among the lucky ones. Everyone generally gets along. My parents have, over time, recognized that my Judaism is precious to me. The kids adore both sets of grandparents, running from Zaide to Pap and back with unquestioning joy.
Yet, tensions rise when my in-laws invite the whole crew to Shabbat dinner. My in-laws are wholeheartedly inclined to offer seats at their table, some might say aggressively so. My parents, however, have expressed to me that they feel alienated at Shabbat. They don’t know the prayers, nor do they understand them. They feel left out of the singing. They don’t know the order of things, and are overwhelmed by what seems like an awful lot of hubbub for a day of rest.
These occurrences leave me on high alert. Are my parents comfortable? Do my in-laws sense their reluctance? Is everyone blaming me for the tension? (Also, did the baby just eat a beetle?) Luckily, over the years, I’ve developed some practices that have helped to bring a little more shalom (peace) to our bayit (house). If you’re also dealing with a mixed-religion family, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Always include translations and transliterations, of every single thing that is said in Hebrew. At the very least, this gives non-Jews at the table something to read while everyone is blessing things, and hopefully, it gives guests the ability to follow along and grasp the joy of the celebration. In reality, these may also provide an opportunity for Jews to take a moment to consider the actual meaning of the blessings.
Incorporate elements that guests are likely to recognize. My parents are Christians. When my husband and I bless our sons, asking God to make them like Ephraim, Manasseh, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, we follow the Hebrew version with an English translation. Christians may recognize the common benediction prayer: May God bless you and keep you, may s/he shine her face upon you, and give you peace.
Consider a Shabbat brunch for a less formal opportunity to enjoy one another’s company. It is possible that everyone will feel more comfortable and more able to connect with one another without the unfamiliar elements of the more ritualistic dinner. Plus, everybody loves brunch.
Know your people and play to their strengths. My parents need time to feel comfortable in new spaces, so I do my best to host extended family gatherings in my home, where my parents are at ease, instead of taking my mother-in-law up on her abundant offers to host. My mom loves to cook but is intimidated by the kosher laws. I ask her to bring dessert and we put the kids to bed between dinner and cake so that no one is awkwardly waiting for an hour to pass before digging in.
As R. Yosi ben Yohanan taught, our homes, like our chuppahs, are to be open on all sides, and filled with chesed, or kindness. The Shabbat table, and all of its beauty, brings great meaning and joy to my family. Making a welcoming space for my parents amplifies that meaning and joy.
Maybe my parents could make more of an effort to learn the blessings, or to consider the possibility that the hubbub is part of the delight. Maybe my conversion left a tear in the fabric of our relationship, and they are just doing their best to navigate this unfamiliar landscape. Regardless, it is within my family’s power to widen the doors to our home, to welcome our loved ones just as they are. Let’s let the blessings flow, together.