Modern Mishpocha: Juggling our interfaith family

Friday and Sunday dinners – Juggling our interfaith family

By Jenny T. Burns

My family, like so many families, has a very busy weekend and it is bookended by family dinners. It begins with Shabbat. When we’re able, our Shabbat dinner is a multigenerational affair with cousins, grandparents and a great-grandparent. It is a weekly endeavour to coordinate who is hosting, who is bringing the challah, the gluten-free challah, the wine, the dessert (you get the idea). In short, it is a cacophony and one that I value weekly.

My family’s weekend ends with dinner at my in-laws, with grandparents and an army of aunts and uncles, not to mention the active array of cats and dogs. Most of the humans in the house are devoted Wesleyan Christians. In my in-laws’ home, phrases like “OMG” are considered rude, and dinner is started with a grace that ends in thanking “Jesus, our most precious savior.” To be honest, years of Sunday dinners and that phrase still makes me uncomfortable. In short, it’s a far cry from the Shabbat dinner of two days prior.

While my partner and I are best termed an interfaith couple, we have no Jesus in our home. Ours is a Jewish house with a seder plate and chanukiot in the china cabinet. Even a decent chunk of the art on our walls is rooted in Judaism, from the papercut hamza in our kitchen to the modern art piece, “Jacob’s Ladder,” that hangs in our sitting room. Yet, once a week, my kids are in a deeply Christian house. At the moment they are little, but one day at the end of Sunday dinner’s grace they may ask who Jesus is or why Mommy doesn’t say “amen.” They may even ask more pointed questions that I have yet to dream up.

So how do we juggle these two families and dynamics? How do we keep shalom bayit (peace of the home) in an interfaith environment?

Now please bear in mind that everyone’s situation is unique, and what works for my family, may not work for yours. In our case, I find it helpful to have soft lines in the sand and firm lines in the sand, like a fence around the Torah.

I’ll give you some examples. Soft lines in the sand are places where dialogue and shared experience can happen. Rather than ‘othering’ my in-laws, I can focus on the aspects I admire about their religion and use them as a common ground. For instance, I love that their branch of Christianity supports egalitarian leadership. I love that their love of God and their spirituality is open and unabashed. Sometimes in synagogues, I find people are hesitant to even talk about God, so it’s refreshing to converse with people who are operating on the baseline of “of course, God is real!”

However, in my back pocket, I also have my internal firm lines in the sand that my partner and I have discussed. These are lines of non-negotiation. For instance, while we are happy to support my partner’s family in their religious expressions, like attending someone’s Christmas concert or someone’s baptism, those practices do not come into our own home. We will not accept religious gifts from my in-laws. We will never host a Sunday dinner in our home because we won’t allow their grace to be said in our home. These firm lines help reinforce that our home and my in-laws’ home are different and that that’s OK.

Now, with regards to my kids’ reactions, how do we reinforce these soft and hard lines in the sand? My attitude right now is that we can dissuade certain non-Jewish practices without diminishing. The same way the phrases “no thank you, not safe,” and “sharing is caring” are practically mantras in my kids’ lives, I can create similar phrases that acknowledge and respect others’ points-of-view while establishing our lines in the sand. “We don’t do that in our home,” or “Nanny and Grandpa do things a little differently,” are phrases I’m toying with at the moment.

Most importantly though, my partner and I have to help kids learn what it is to be Jewish. Living our Jewish lives, balancing the Sunday dinner with the Shabbat dinner – this may be the most important element of all. All the dissuading and lines in the sand have to be met with something Jewish on the other end, something special worth drawing those lines around.