On Relating to Our Non-Religious Family

By Gail Pozner

My family and I recently arrived back from a family “simcha” – the bas mitzvah in a reform temple of our niece. Being frum for 20 years and having made no dent at all in the religious interest of our respective families, I have come to the realization that the most my husband and I can hope for in terms of impacting them is making a Kiddush Hashem; and that is no little thing. It is one of the reasons why we were created. So for those out there who share the inability to be mekarev our families: how to create a Kiddush Hashem in the midst of non-religious family and old friends? I’ll share a few experiences we’ve had over the years.

First, if you are fortunate to have children, your kids will naturally display certain types of self-discipline that we take for granted but which are noticed by others, no matter if the children are 4 or 14 years old. At one family gathering, my then-4 year old daughter’s jaw dropped when she spied the birthday cake: a giant castle, dripping with candies, even dolls. When I told her it wasn’t kosher, however, she accepted this fact with equanimity and never again asked if she could partake. Which grandparent wouldn’t notice and admire this self-restraint from such a young child? This is a Kiddush Hashem.

Last week at the post-service Kiddush on Shabbos in the reform synagogue my 16 year old son asked me if he could eat something served. A lovely non-religious woman I was chatting with was absolutely non-plussed. I couldn’t understand why! She said, “Your son is 16 and he is asking your PERMISSION before he eats something? What ever did you do to raise such a mentch?!” I explained that there were kashrus issues, but she still insisted that most teenagers would never think to ask a parent such permission, never mind agree to! Kiddush Hashem.

Second, the fact that we have a commandment to respect our parents goes a LONG way in FORCING us to be a Kiddush Hashem! How many times have I wanted to scream back at my father when he started lecturing me on the folly of my (religious) ways! However, my husband repeatedly told me in no uncertain terms that it was forbidden for me to scream at or contradict him, so I stiffened myself and continued to reply with respectful questions and statements in response to his many lectures. Without the commandment, the relationship would have been diminished repeatedly; my self-control (really, my husband’s!) over time however has built up the relationship instead of destroyed it. This is recognizable by my father, hence it is a Kiddush Hashem even though he has not ostensibly changed his opinion about Judaism one iota.

This may be the most effective approach to relating to our families. Notwithstanding that most new BTs, enthused with their new-found treasure, prefer the “Ayatollah Khomeini” approach: blow-torching mom’s kitchen and loudly insulting her TV programs, perhaps we should focus on the many subtle ways we can become a Kiddush Hashem in our family’s eyes, and hopefully, they will start returning the favor by mirroring our respectful ways.

15 comments on “On Relating to Our Non-Religious Family

  1. One thing I found with my parents is not only to not force them to keep kosher or turn off the TV when I visit on Shabbot, but to actually act as if it doesn’t bother me. My dad who is a huge college football fan (always on Saturdays) always warns me to not say anything about the game if I visit over a shabbot. So, my last visit (now I am married with a son!) he actually turned off the game (even though it was his alma matar) and did not watch t.v. until almost sunset. Finally he couldn’t take it and asked me if it was allright if he could turn on the T.V. in his home. I smiled and said, “dad, it’s your home.”

    He waited until sunset to find out that his team had won. I always felt that the in your face approach a: was not my way before I became religious and b: counter-productive to my relationship with my parents. In actuality I would say that my relationship has improved with time — especially when they see that I stuck to something and that it gives me meaning — plus my wife and my mom love each other — so well, all in all, I thank G-d, literally for my parents and their resistance, why? Because it makes me secretly realize how special a gift we have by choosing to live this path.

  2. The Gemora in Kiddishun Daf 31a brings an interesting point, which by analogy may shed light on a topic mentioned in this post, namely the point regarding the importance of Baaley Teshuva in honoring their parents.

    The Gemora there states the following: “When the Holy One blessed is He said the first Commandments “I am Hashem…” and “there shall be no other gods before you…” the nations of the world (goyim) said “He (Hashem) wants his own honor” (In other words, this Torah “thing” is only about Hashem; there is nothing in it for us, so it is good that we did not choose to accept the Torah.”

    However, continues the Gemorah, when Hashem said [the fifth commandment] “Honor your father and mother…” the nations of the world went back [on their word] and admitted [to the validity of] the first of the Commandments, which spoke about honoring Hashem. The nations saw that the Torah was not only about Hashem’s honor.

    The analogy in the context of Baaley Teshuvah-parental relations is the following: When the BT comes home from Yeshiva and suddenly he won’t eat from mom’s kitchen and he won’t kiss dad’s sister, etc., then the parents become immediately disinterested, because that is all about Hashem, in whom they may not even believe.

    However, when the BT tries hard to honor his parents by, for example, having his mother prepare a meal and heat it up with two layers of foil, etc. or when he spends an hour explaining to his aunt about the beauty of being shomer nagiyah, then the parents may begin slowly to accept the BT child.

    In other words, the parents ask, “what’s in it for me.” Quite simply, if the parents see that this frum “thing” has made their child a better more respectful person, then the parents MAY begin to warm up to Yiddishkeit.

    I myself worked years on honoring my parents and now I believe that I have the closest relationship with them then all my other siblings, even though I live several thousands of miles away. I come home and I am shocked to see how my siblings speak so disrespectfully to my parents.

    Regarding the food issue, my dear parents, they should live and be well, went so far as to build me an separate kitchen in their house, so that when I come home with my own family, we can all eat the same food. And, my dear mother is able to prepare food once again for me after being denied that pleasure for several years.

    All of this is fine and dandy if one merits having parents who are generally decent people with good midos. However, when one has very difficult parents, all the honor in the world may not make a dent. Even so, one must still try his best in this regard. As one Yid once said, honoring one’s parents is one of the hardest of mitzvahs, because we have little choice in the matter. We cannot choose our parents. So, even if one has difficult parents, one must honor them also. (See for example, Kiddushin 31a “When Rav Dimi came, he said…”)

    My tefillah for all you BT out there is that with Hashem’s help, through love and respect, even the most difficult parents will lower their defenses just enough to let a little fear of heaven into their hearts.

  3. David is saying good. I think many baalei t’shuvah make the mistake of worrying too much about making a kiddush Hashem. It is as if they feel thay their families spiritual lives are dependent on them presenting Yiddishkeit favorably. Better to relax and be natural.

  4. I guess we both should recognize that every family situation is going to be different, yours, mine and everyone elses. some will be easier to navigate others more difficult but all, I hope, worth the challenge.

  5. I guess my response would be to share everything that we used to. Maybe to me that seems shallow now, because I have a whole new world of the spirit that interests me. But talking about current events, interesting scientific or psychological ideas, family, etc is what we used to talk about and we still can. That’s not shallow to them. Also, the emotional component of the relationship still exists. I still talk with my sibling and in laws about child-rearing and general family issues; I just don’t mention all the time that some of my ideas are based on Torah. They would interpret that as “religion pushing.”

    I jus think that at the core, we are going to feel alienated, because yes, we changed and have a whole dimension inside that they don’t. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t love them!

  6. I agree with the excellent point you make about self-control. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that I want my relationship with my non-frum family members to be so shallow. If we are only tip-toeing through our conversations, are we really listening to our family members’ concerns, fears, thoughts, etc? Are we really able to sympathize, empathize, fulfill the mitzva of v’ahavta lareyecha camocha (putting aside the halachic understanding of camocha since we are mostly discussing tinokim shenishbeh)?

    I also see a possible problem with presenting ourselves as automatons which, in and of itself, may cause chillul hashem and may stunt any possible interest in yiddishkeit since “I don’t want to be like that”.

    Rabbi Goldberg’s “You Used to be so Much Fun” makes the point that we have to understand that we were the ones who changed the rules. So, if we are (rightfully)”wholly interested in ideas, practices and values that they don’t share”, we can’t use that to build a barrier in the relationship and then wonder why we become alienated.

  7. To David Linn:

    I agree with you. However, I have found that it is the reality that I can’t be “me” anymore with them. They simply do not have the tools to understand where I am coming from. The real me is now wholly interested in ideas, practices and values that they don’t share, so why bring it up? I have simply gotten used to a diminution in the content of our relationship.

    And having self-control really doesn’t take away from what should really be “me,” actually we should try to restrain our yetzer hara at all times. We are just more aware of it when we feel we are on display with our parents.
    I think this may come more naturally to our own children, ironically, who are taught since a young age what kibud av v’em is. They are used to trying, at least, to have respect and restraint toward parents. We are not! We feel that if I don’t say everything I want to it is somehow not the “real me!”

  8. I’m new to your blog — found my way here via the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards nominations page — but wanted to tell you that I found this post really thought-provoking.

    It would be fascinating to read a similar post written from the other angle — “How to maintain a happy and loving relationship with your BT kids,” or something like that. *g* Do you know of any blogging parents whose children have become more from than they are?

  9. We are in the simmilar position. My kids are 2 4 and 6. It is hard to describe the feeling (pride? joy? someone is kissing you on the inside?) when little children refuse sweets or walk past a piece of cake because mom told them that this food is not kosher. My mother, while not observant at all, accepts and respects her grandchildren (not just love, but true respect). My brother bought separate cutlery and a supply of plastic plates for when we visit. And most importantly, the relationship within the family actually became better and stronger.

  10. I sometimes feel that having to always be concerned about having my guard up (to avoid creating a negative impression or a chilul hashem) means that I’m not being me. It’s a fine line.

  11. Of course it’s a tremendous mitzvah when that happens, but frum kids (and adults) also misbehave sometimes. That can lead to a chillul Hashem, and that is both embarrassing and counter-productive.

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