Negotiating Family Dynamics

I apologize for my long absence from this blog. I will use the excuse that I have had no time to write anything meaningful, but below are my reasons:

1. I graduated, moved to Houston, and began a new consulting job in summer 2006.
2. My husband stayed at Penn State to finish his degree. This necessitated lots of logistics planning for holidays and weekend visits.
3. My job required me to travel to exotic locales such as Paducah, Kentucky and Birmingham, Alabama and most recently, to New Orleans on a relatively long engagement (which continues today).
4. We joined a shul, about which I posted earlier, and somehow I coordinated the shul’s annual gala in March.
5. We bought a house.
6. My sister had her baby a week before the gala, at the same time when I found out I am pregnant.
7. My husband graduated and moved down and has now started his new job.
8. Our lovely house needs a new kitchen and new windows, all of which will happen before the baby arrives.

That being said, it has been quite the year. But the most challenging aspect of it all has been negotiating family dynamics. Much has been written on this topic, some good and some bad, and I have had both experiences. I live within walking distance (by design) to my sister’s house and my parents’ house, neither of whom are kosher houses or observant in any way. However, it was important for me to raise my family near my family so I knew that compromises had to be reached. Perhaps some readers will not like my decisions so far, but I base all of my decisions on shalom bayit, both within my home with my husband and outside my home with my family. Some examples:

1. My mother and my sister buy kosher meat for us when they are expecting us, for which I am grateful. However, their dishes and their ovens are not kosher, and I suppose that once the dish is cooked, it is no longer kosher. Nevertheless, my husband and I eat their meals and appreciate their efforts. I am hoping to progress on this issue through conversation and by providing them with kosher utensils.
2. My family respects my refusal to eat in non-kosher restaurants. However, one time when I showed up at a non-kosher restaurant with a container of mac and cheese, my mom got offended and was vehement that I not pull it out. I learned the power of compromise – instead of bringing the box, I could order tea. I cannot make my mother uncomfortable and alienate her.
3. My family understands that we celebrate Shabbat. When we sing Shalom Aleichem at my house, it’s a beautiful thing. At our house, Friday night is more than just dinner. My parents love the peace that comes with it.

It is very hard for parents to not understand their child, and that is how my parents feel about me. They have not had good past experiences with observant people, both in the States and in Israel. Nevertheless, they respect me, and it is my responsibility not to push my boundaries too much too fast with them in fear of pushing them away.

11 comments on “Negotiating Family Dynamics

  1. Ilanit,
    Another thought for you, as long as you’re resting (been there, done that, got the maternity T-shirt and gotta love books!) check out the website – a friend told me it helped her a lot, I haven’t looked myself but you might gain some inspiration! As for the kosher aspect, you can order books online and have them delivered too! Or over the phone and if you explain you’re on bedrest if the shop is not far they might even offer to drop it off (Jews are like that sometimes!). I second the poster who said you need a sense of humor. We re-did our kitchen after we moved and I was expecting, I have simple white cabinets with lots of those DAIRY, MEAT etc. stickers everywhere. Get some of those from your Jewish bookstore, and/or mark all your utensils with some different colored nailpolish. In some ways, its easier to train the non-kosher family to your kosher kitchen than a semi-kosher family to a real kosher kitchen (we have both issues in our house when certain family visit). Good luck with it all, this is part of the fun of the journey, and you’ll look back fondly and laugh. And as long as you’re doing your kitchen, think about putting the child-proof locks on before the counters are in. Its very easy and the contractor will do it in 3 seconds whereas when you go to do it in a few months it will take you lots longer. :)

  2. Thanks everyone, again, for the insightful comments. Having now been put on bedrest my mom and sister have become quite the caretakers (which has relieved some of the pressure off of my husband) and it is amazing to me how they ask me, where are the meat dishes? Can I use this spoon for this dish? Which sponge should I use to wash these dishes with? I am so blessed that they are this understanding and while inside they may be thinking “what an insane question to ask”, they do not make me feel like a fanatic. MG – your suggestion is spot-on, and in fact that’s what we’ve been doing since we moved back here. We’ve had Shabbat meals here and gently insist on hosting all celebratory meals here (usually with the tactic of “I’ll make it easy for everyone!” – hard to argue with that). However, lately, my mom and sister have expressed a desire to host as well. I hate to say it, but there must be an ingrained need for balabustas to host meals and everyone sometimes wants to show off. So, we do what we can, which I touched on in the post, and that is where the sensitive issues come in. Fortunately, with these and other suggestions, I am sure that eventually we will come to compromises that will make everyone happy.

  3. One suggestion on cooking the kosher meat at your parent’s house – buy a small grill (a George Foreman perhaps) and store it at their house. It’s easy to take out and I think they will respect the effort you are making to continue eating with them in their home. My parents took the leap and bought us a large BBQ grill (it stands covered next to their non-kosher one in the backyard) – my mom buys kosher meat and we grill in the back with all kosher utensils stored in the grill. Good luck to you!

  4. While you are putting in a new kitchen, this may not be practical, but since you live so close to your parents, perhaps you could minimize the kashrut hassle by inviting them over to your home?

    For me, visiting parents and family means peanut butter, fresh fruits and veggies, plastic ware, any kosher dairy I can find, and generally cold food. I look forward to the time when I have a home that I can invite my parents and family to, where we can all enjoy the same meal sitting around one table.

    Regarding Azriella’s book, I would also say that it can be a great conversation starter, but make sure that it is the start of a conversation and not the end of one. My mom cried her way through the book, because it gave a voice to some of the things that she was feeling. It was a good way for me to understand that and for us to discuss it.

  5. If you can arrange a class on kashrut in the workplace through your shul, it would benefit many people (not just BT’s). I attended a workshop on this issue and picked up some great information on halacha and status of food for those unusual and difficult situations.

    Creativity is key and I’m sure if you explore your options you will find a way to make kashrut in your parents home something that is not too daunting.

    If you have a chance, speak to a Rav about Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s take on Pyrex. It is not the same as the standard Ashkenazi psak, but if you could use it, it would give you much more flexibility to take the kashrut in your parents home up a step. Goodluck.

  6. Thanks for the comments. I’ve got to admit, this website, with all of its strategies and hearing other people’s successes and failures, is a huge resource for me.

    Azriela – I did see your book last summer in Houston’s religious bookstore called Jumbo Judaica. It’s not a sefarim store, but it’s a Chabad store….

  7. Congratulations on all of the wonderful things that you have accomplished in the past few months!

    I just wanted to pop in and second (third?) Azriella’s book, I found it very helpful.

  8. On the whole, I have found that people (not only relatives) are very willing to provide food we can eat and disposable plates/cups/ forks, etc. They go out of their way to make us comfortable as long as we politely give enough notice about the details.

    A couple of years ago, my wife and I were helping my parents on Staten Island to pack for their move to NJ. Since they were already largely in boxes, we stayed at a nearby bed-and-breakfast on SI, an ancient house on a steep hill hidden behind trees, that I found on the Web (I had never even noticed it before). The owner gladly supplied the disposable ware and kosher packaged goods we had requested for our stay. However, she felt that the Thomas bagels were not the real thing, so she drove out to the kosher bakery on her own to pick up something authentic for us.

  9. Ilanit,

    First of all, Azriela’s book was helpful to us so I do recommend it.

    What you are describing was also a stage for my wife and I, where we would eat the kosher food at my parents house on the non-kosher dishes. I think it is OK if that’s where you are holding. We then started to buy utensils and pots for my family and carefully educated them on their use. Ovens can be temporarily kashered! We were blessed that they did not reject these ideas (although there was lots of friction) as they saw us become more and more observant. Plastic and paper are always great and you might have to get used to having Thanksgiving at your house every year (if they don’t mind)

    Try to meet at kosher restaurants with your family (if possible) but if not, eat beforehand and then tea and coffee (coke or beer too) are good ideas! (although you may have to order it in a glass or paper, check with your Rav). Good luck, you seem like you are doing a pretty good job so far!

  10. Toot Toot. That’s me tooting my own horn. Sorry. Just think you and your family could really benefit from the book I wrote, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” because, as you say, it’s so painful when your family doesn’t understand why you do what you do, and sometimes it’s hard for us to find the right words to talk about it. That was the focus for me in writing this book, not to kiruv our families at all, but to bridge the understanding and calm the waters a bit by suggesting language for how to explain why we do what we do, or don’t do what we don’t do. I know, because I am living it myself, that no book will even come close to solving the complexities of issues that arise in mixed observant families. I hope in small part that the book does serve as a useful tool. You can find it at barnes and noble or any online bookstore. Ironically it’s not carried by most religious bookstores, but the secular ones! I applaud your commitment to family unity and your patience, and also, your courage. Azriela Jaffe

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