Navigating Religious Divides

In the Motherlode parenting section in the NY Times, Lisa Belkin writes Navigating Religious Divides Within Families about “parents out there who are befuddled by children who are more religious than they were raised.”

The article focuses on Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs, of East Windsor, N.J., a mother of an Orthodox daughter and son-in-law and 7 Orthodox grandchildren. The grandmother can’t take the grandchildren out for the day alone; no overnights, no baby-sitting, and no vacations.

Mrs. Dinerstein-Kurs has founded a support group for others in the same boat, called Parents of Religious Kids (PORK). Her advice for navigating religious divides within families is to rise to the highest degree of observance.

“I keep my house to the (kosher) level of my daughter and her family,” she says. “so anyone who comes to my house can eat, no matter who they are.”

The comments section turned into a bash-religion fest until this constructive comment by Chaya from Passaic:

I was raised in a reform Jewish household and now follow a Torah-observant lifestyle. Alienation and estrangement are not inherent in religious differences. They are obstacles to be overcome.

I love my parents (one a non-observant Jew and the other a non-Jew) and am committed to honoring them in the way the Torah shows me. If anything, I have become more committed to my relationships with them since becoming observant.

Part of that commitment is facilitating a close relationship between them and their grandchildren. This means being creative and vigilant on both sides to navigate religious issues.

By the way, some of the details of the Jewish family described in the post don’t make much sense. I think something might have been lost in the reporting.

28 comments on “Navigating Religious Divides

  1. My parents are both gone, sadly. My dear father Joe was niftar in 1985 and my dear mother Rhoda was niftar in 1994. It was not always easy between me the BT and my non-observant Jewish parents, but everyone tried very hard to make it work. The frum children adored their grandparents and the feeling was mutual. My oldest girl named her second boy after Grandpa Joe and my next two girls named their daughters after Grandma Rhoda. If there is love and respect on both sides a lot of obstacles can be gotten past. Of course, there still may be misunderstandings that occur, like when Grandma came for Pesach and brought as a gift for the kids a can of Play-Doh….which just happens to be chometz gmar.

  2. Neil Harris’ last point is very well taken. Once grandparents go to Siddur and Chumash parties, etc and see parents and teachers, etc, the question of “How do Orthodox Jews celebrate a Bar ( or Bas) Mitzvah” just might seem a lot less foreign to their POV.

  3. Miriam hit the nail on the head by writing:
    “She just hasn’t internalized that my kids are being raised very differently than I was..”

    That’s a big factor. My parents knew that their frum grandchildren attended day school, but until they say the school and met the Rabbeim/Morehs they thought it really was just a glorified “Hebrew School” that went all day.

    Knowing that you can’t call your children/grandchildren until after nightfall Sat night is very different than actually spending a Shabbos with them.

  4. I’mJewish, the book was ours — it was a gift from my parents, but it was given to us to keep, one of a collection of Braille/Print books that we save for when my parents visit. My father completely understood and sanctioned my tossing the book, and he now screens all such books by me before purchasing them for my kids. I think I have the right to determine what comes into and stays in my house in terms of Kosher literature as much as I do in terms of Kosher food.

    My father had read this particular book to them many times, and just not explained the game. I was a little uncomfortable with the veiled allusion, but let it go, until my mother made a point of *explaining* that it was a kissing game. I don’t know how familiar with the Arthur series you are, but the characters in it were all LITTLE KIDS — 8 or 9 at the most. The main premise of the book was that a boy and a girl were having birthday parties on the same day, and “parties just aren’t fun without boys *and* girls.” (Not something I believe in the first place!) I think there may have been a reference to how you can’t play spin-the-bottle at a segregated party. At the end they wind up combining the parties and end with one of the girls insisting that now they need to play spin-the-bottle.

    I was using the scenario with the book as an example of a cultural divide — it never occurred to my mother that I wouldn’t want my small children (none older than 10 at the time) to know about a kissing game. She just hasn’t internalized that my kids are being raised very differently than I was, although she isn’t (is no longer?) purposely antagonistic towards it either. And my father is very supportive.

  5. I’m Jewish, don’t we need to be open minded enough to accept the fact that different families will have different sensibilities and will draw the line in different places.

  6. Ok, well, then, I suppose being upset over your child hearing about a veiled allusion — “almost innocent reference” in the poster’s words — to spin-the-bottle is worth the family disruption it causes. Certainly we can all distinguish between a veiled allusion to a game in a child’s book, and Grandma and Grandpa showing the kiddies porn?

  7. I don’t know IJ, I personally reserve the right to dispose of any of my kid’s gifts that I deem inappropriate. And a six year old can generally read so it wouldn’t help to tell them not to read it to them.

  8. “They only knew the game even existed because of an almost innocent (without explaining the actual game) reference in a braille/print “Arthur” book, of all places, that my parents had bought the kids so that my father could read to them. After she explained it, I tossed the book. I hate tossing Braille books, but she ruined it for them.”

    I’m failing to see how you can toss someone else’s property. It wasn’t yours to toss. Might it have worked better if you then explained you didn’t want your children to hear that particular story? Surely your parents brought you up better than that.

  9. One has to wonder about the lack of tolerance that was manifested in many of the posted reactions to the NY Times article by many who apparently consider themselves “tolerant”-but only to the extent to the end of their own noses or what they consider a proper and PC way of life.

  10. Mark (#14),

    If we are to keep our rabbis “in reserve” for the harder questions, we need should periodically revisit our list of priorities. Enhancing, maintaining and even restoring family relationships should be at or near the top of the list.

  11. Mark,

    Of course not, but if big issues come up such as the ones in this post (the possible alienating of parents) I would consider it an imperative to make sure I knew all of my options before making a decision.

  12. Sooner or later, IMO, both sides involved in the issue have to ask themselves if they really want to maintain a relationship, regardless of the differences. The key is the ability to get past resentment and control issues, which IMO were manifested by many of the responses to the NY Times article.

  13. I would posit that if the parent-child relationship is dysfunctional (extreme superficiality, or parent harboring resentment, etc.), then the child’s becoming frum might indeed become an insurmountable obstacle, from the parent’s perspective, towards building a real relationship.

    I would add that in some cases, the dysfunctional relationship may have been one impetus for the child to seek out religion. Or the child may have purposefully become more religious knowing that it would be against the parent’s wishes.

  14. When we need advice from a Rav on family matters, we try whenever possible to use a particular Rav who has helped us in the past and has developed a good understanding of our extended family members and their interactions. In principle, some other rabbonim we know are suited to dealing with such questions, but it would be very difficult to bring them up to speed about the family details.

  15. AJ, It’s not an all or nothing thing. Many/most people have a Rav, but if they’re good, they’re busy and not accessible all the time and a person learns to use them for the harder questions and navigate the rest on their own.

    It is expected in Torah, that at varying points in time and on varying issues that you take the responsibility for certain decisions and interactions. For example, I’m sure you don’t call your Rav every time your child misbehaves to talk out your possible Torah based responses.

  16. Mark,

    I tip my hat to anyone who goes through the BT process w/o the guidance of a Rav, for me it would not have been possible at all. (BTW, I am in a small town but my Rav is in a big city.) In fact, I see being observant without access to Rebbeim (it could be by phone or E-mail) as being very difficult and maybe impossible for most.

  17. AJ, Good advice, but unfortunately the reality is that most BTs and Frum people in bigger towns do not have a Rav that they can ask questions to all the time. These observant Jews have varying degrees of access to their Rebbeim and therefore they need frameworks and understanding to deal with many issues that come up.

    I would agree with all the commentators who say the advice differs greatly depending on the relationship that previously existed and currently exists and the personalities of the parents and the observant children.

  18. If anything, I have become more committed to my relationships with them since becoming observant.

    Becoming “more committed” assumes there was a real relationship there to begin with. I would posit that if the parent-child relationship is dysfunctional (extreme superficiality, or parent harboring resentment, etc.), then the child’s becoming frum might indeed become an insurmountable obstacle, from the parent’s perspective, towards building a real relationship.

    There is no way for a BT to single-handedly create a relationship ex-nihilo just because the Torah says kibud av v’ am.

  19. Pirke Avot cautions: “Do not use the Torah as a crown, or a spade with which to dig”. I have personal experience with people who use their observance as an excuse to keep their distance from their own families, rather than seek to find a way to reach some sort of accommodation that stays within halacha, but allows for contact with (non-religious) relatives. Halacha certainly makes it harder to interact with frei relatives and friends, but it should not be used as a tool or an excuse to achieve that end.

  20. Crucial edit! My parents are a NON-observant Jew and a non-Jew. I left out the word non, and that obviously changes a number of things.

  21. To my fellow BTs and potential BTs:

    We all need a Rav who knows where each of us are holding to help us navigate the extended family obstacle course (it may be an Olympic event in 2012!). It can actually be done in many cases without hurt feelings but it needs to be done carefully with proper guidance. Don’t make these decisions on your own! Just my 2 cents.

  22. Some people use whatever mechanism is necesary to maintain the upper hand in a relationship; when that mechanism is religion, the emotional response of the person on the receiving end is more intense.

    The “bossniks” (to borrow a term used in the Times article to describe a non-Jewish person who increased his observance) among us can begin by resolving not to use religion as a tool of control. Once we have mastered that vis-a-vis religion, we can then move on to being less bossy in other areas of our lives. I use “we” not in the editorial sense but in the personal narrative sense. I still have a long way to go!

    If we use religion as a club, it should be a club of people in a rewarding fellowship, rather than a club used, figuratively of course, to bash other people over the head.

  23. Tesyaa, I’m sure there are many issues, none of them insurmountable, but perhaps the grandparents and/or parents would feel that they are.

    Television (or the internet?) may be one of them. To think of one example from my own family, some of our non-religious relatives really don’t understand the cultural differences at all, so I try to limit contact to when I am around to diffuse things. My 12 year old son is really tired of being asked if he has a girlfriend yet by his great-grandmother, and my mother took it upon herself to explain to my kids that “spin-the-bottle” was a kissing game. They only knew the game even existed because of an almost innocent (without explaining the actual game) reference in a braille/print “Arthur” book, of all places, that my parents had bought the kids so that my father could read to them. After she explained it, I tossed the book. I hate tossing Braille books, but she ruined it for them.

    I’ve heard stories of frum kids staying with not-frum grandparents and “cheating” on Kashrut, Shabbos, or the like because it isn’t important to the grandparents and is actually an inconvenience to them to have the kids acting that way, and the kids pick up on that, even if it isn’t stated in so many words. I won’t play with my kids’ spirituality that way. They have to be mature enough to be responsible for themselves and able and willing to stand up to the grandparents in a respectful way if pressured to “let things slip,” before I’ll be willing to even contemplate an overnight with non-observant relatives. Your 14 year daughter was no doubt old enough and mature enough, but the kids from the article probably aren’t yet.

    I also understand completely why they don’t go to the grandparents for holidays — I’m also loathe to spend all of YomTov in a home that isn’t Shomer Shabbos — for one thing, I would feel obligated to take over the cooking to make sure it was done within the laws of Yom Tov and that we’d be allowed to eat it. We’ve solved that problem by having my parents come to us instead — they’re more portable than my big family anyway, and then I don’t have to worry about being able to eat the (Kosher until it was quite likely improperly cooked/heated on Yom Tov) food. They put up with leaving the lights alone and walking to shul for two days, and we get some nice visiting in.

  24. I agree with Tesyaa – there’s lots more brewing here than just religious tension. The claim that the grandmother is not allowed to babysit is really not sitting right with me – how many frum parents use non-Jewish babysitters? I’m wondering if a) there aren’t preexistent family rifts and/or b) creative selective quoting going on by the author of the piece to buzz it up a bit.

  25. Chaya’s comment (quoted in the main article) is not relevant to the situation of 95% of the readers of this blog. It’s not nearly as difficult to love and respect parents/in-laws who are observant Jews or non-Jewish, since, in both of these cases, there is a natural, mutual respect.

    The real problem is dealing with non-observant Jewish parents, and that is obviously outside of Chaya’s experience. Her opinion that “alienation and estrangement … are obstacles to be overcome” is like a sighted person saying that “blindness is an obstacle to be overcome.” If you haven’t lived with it, don’t talk.

  26. It sounds like there might be more issues here than just the kosher/Shabbos ones. If the mother is keeping kosher, why can’t the kids sleep overnight?

    Even if she’s not kosher, there’s no reason the kids can’t sleep over and have cold cereal in plastic bowls for breakfast.

    Is the issue television?

    Why can’t the kids go on day trips with the grandparents? Surely sandwiches can be packed.

    Vacations? My parents took my 14-year old to London for 2 weeks. They stayed with family friends who are religious, which helped with the kashrus/Shabbos issues, and my daughter was old enough to be aware of religious issues herself. My parents were tolerant when my daughter took a day off from sightseeing to fast on Shiva Asar bTamuz.

    There are sometimes family rifts and psychological issues that exist independently of religious differences, but may be exacerbated by religious differences, or may be blamed on religious differences. Each family is different. The Motherlode post may have reached different conclusions if it had focused on more than one family.

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