No Follow Thru on Raising Jewish Kids

I’ve begun writing a column, Mixed and Matched, for the local San Francisco Bay Area Jewish newspaper, the J-Weekly. My first column is No Follow-through on Agreement to Raise Jewish Kids.

A Jewish father wrote to me:

I’m Jewish, my wife is not. I told her before we got married that I wanted our kids to be Jewish, and she agreed. But she’s not doing anything — she’s not even trying to teach the kids how to be Jewish. How can I get her to move on this and keep her promise? — Frustrated Dad

Many of you have heard me respond to questions of this sort. I am a strong advocate of the idea that the Jewish partner must step up. Here is my reply:

Dear Frustrated Dad,

Let’s take a step back. When you were courting and you told her you wanted your kids to be Jewish, what exactly did you say? Did you articulate a clear plan of what that means to you? Did you tell her that any male child would have a bris, the children would receive Hebrew names, you’d join a synagogue, the kids would attend Hebrew school and have a bar or bat mitzvah, you’d practice the specific holidays at home and you, the parents, would attend Jewish religious services at least X times a month?

Or did you simply ask her whether she “agreed” to “raise the kids Jewish”?

I’m betting it was closer to the latter. How could your wife know what you meant when I’m not sure you know what you meant? I’m concerned that you are expecting her to be a mind reader. Or, perhaps you are secretly hoping she will embark on a study of Judaism in her spare time so she can create a Jewish home for your children.

Additionally, do you know whether she has any emotional attachment to her own traditions? Does she want the kids to observe holidays from her own childhood? Have you discussed her feelings?

Even if you had given her a clear-cut contract that she signed before your wedding, the reality of parenting is that it is full of surprises, many of them being what we discover about ourselves.

I encourage couples to make general plans but not to view them as written in stone. You simply don’t know how you will feel when you hold that newborn in your arms, or when you see your sister’s kids at their kindergarten consecration or your niece being christened.

You must be gentle with yourselves and keep the communication going. Many adults have profound personal discoveries regarding their own identity and their attachment to their tradition or religion of origin when they experience a powerful life event like the birth of a child or the death of a parent.

I must point out one huge obstacle to your plan: You appear to expect your non-Jewish wife to do all the work. You are the Jew in the family and you must lead the way. She was not raised Jewish. She has no warm memories of Jewish holidays. She may not be very comfortable in a Jewish environment. She has generously conceded the religious identity of her children to your desires. Now it is your turn to step up.

Find a quiet spot and make a list of what it means to you to “raise Jewish kids.” Which of the tasks on your sheet are you able to do? Begin with those.  You could say, “Honey, I realize I never spelled out what I meant when I said I wanted the kids to be Jewish. I guess I wasn’t so sure myself. But I’ve done some thinking, and I’d like to talk to you about my goals. I also want to know how you are feeling about my ideas.”

It would be lovely if you felt able to add, “In fact, I would like to take the initiative and begin by …” Pick something you can do. One idea would be to start having Shabbat dinner. You could offer to pick up a pizza on the way home from work on Friday and ask that she have a white tablecloth on the table. It can begin that simply. The next week you could bring her flowers with the pizza and let the kids add a bouquet to the Shabbat table. Then buy a pair of candlesticks and get a transliteration of the blessing — and you read it.

Now, Dad, I realize you may not know where to go with things from there, so why don’t you and I have a conversation so this can be presented in a loving way to your wife? I can help you with planning gradual steps and introducing them to your family while keeping the  communication open with your wife.