Sara dialed her mother’s number again, and this time she took a deep breath and waited for her to answer.
“Hi, Mom. I need to ask you a few things about the wedding.”
“Do we have to start a conversation right away with an argument, especially when you are so far away,” her mother, already feeling burdened by the strange wedding her daughter was planning, answered a little too quickly.
“I’m sorry that my wedding is so hard for you to talk about,” Sara held back the tears and tried to keep a calm voice.
“Believe me, dear, I am very excited for you and happy that you are going to have the wedding near home so I can have all my friends (whom you grew up with, and who know you and care so much about you). You just have asked for a lot of changes. I mean, why do we need a – what did you call it – mechitza? You think my friends are going to dance separately from their husbands? Listen, it is all very nice that you want an Orthodox wedding, but don’t forget who is paying for this event.”
“Mom, I really appreciate that you and Dad are willing to pay for the wedding, but it needs to be comfortable for Yaacov and me.”
“Yaacov? Oh, Jason. I keep forgetting his new name. And what about our comfort? And the comfort of our guests and older relatives? First, you needed it to be kosher. Fine, even if it is more money. Then you want some crazy band to come from New York City when your brother would be willing to bring his friends to play. They make a very nice band, especially with that lovely girl who has such a beautiful voice. Why you need some unknown band just because all the players are men, I don’t know. What ever happened to your feminist side? And now you want the dancing to be separate behind a tent! Is that another demand from your rabbis?”
“Mom, I know it’s a lot of changes. But remember when you told me that you didn’t like your wedding. Your mother made all the decisions – what dress you were going to wear, the place, the day. She didn’t even let you sleep in your own bed the night before because she had so many guests. Everything was for everyone else. I really appreciate that you are trying to let me have it my way.”
“Yeah, but your way was the way my mother wanted it for me. In a hotel. With some old Orthodox rabbi who doesn’t even know English!”
The issues that parents of baalei teshuva (BT) and converts, as well as children of mixed marriages, need to contend with are diverse and can lead to fallout, pain or, at the very least, a few misunderstandings.
Aliza Bulow who teaches and guides rebbetzins in the kiruv world is more than aware of these hazards. As many of you will recall from the feature we did on her (Jewess By Choice), Aliza is a ger herself and many of her students are BTs.
Aliza considers herself and her family very fortunate in that she and her non-Jewish mother, Oralee Stiles, enjoy an extremely close relationship. In fact, they wrote a book, “Growing Together” (which is available at www.abiteoftorah.com/my-book-growing-together.html), offering their advice on the many issues that parents and their more religious or different faith children need to contend with.
In it, Aliza explains normative Orthodox Judaism – from Shabbos and holiday rituals to the dating process, weddings and other issues that families need to understand. The book also addresses the various journeys baalei teshuva usually experience and inflict on their parents. It is a road map, providing parents with information on what to expect. Oralee joins in by enlightening us with her outside perspective looking into our world. They have given us a glimpse of how to achieve a winning relationship – by learning to share their lives, children and experiences together.
As Aliza and Oralee write, “There are two contrasting ways for the same parents to react to their observant child in the same set of circumstances: judgmental disapproval or loving acceptance.” And it goes both ways. It is their hope that the book will help families build a bridge to a beautiful relationship.
Dealing with either non-religious or non-Jewish grandparents can be an opening for an intense relationship; whether volatile or compassionate, remains the question. Does the BT and convert demand certain dress codes and behaviors from their own parents or do they just explain to their children that their grandparents are different from their friends?
Non-religious or non-Jewish grandparents of Orthodox grandchildren may not be comfortable with long sleeves in the summer, but may be sensitive to their grandchildren’s friends’ looks and agree to dress the part. It is a process to find the middle ground that works for both sides.
Aliza warns that in the beginning, when a BT experiences great excitement in regards to his or her new life, there is a great temptation to try to “convert” his or her parents (at least that is how the parents feel), which only causes uneasiness and misunderstandings – especially if the parents accuse the child of joining a new religion and/or cult.
Parents who see their children take the Judaism much more seriously than they had ever intended to, which can entail not only creating a new lifestyle but also the intentional discarding of their parent’s values (which could be from social action, theater, higher education, golf, etc.) can be very hurt. Parents feel either rejected or threatened, which in either case makes the process a difficult one. For parents of converts, however, the process can be altogether different.
“Jews always ask me, ‘How did your parents take your conversion?’” Aliza explains, “That is such a Jewish question. Jews count every Jew. Unless the parents and/or immediate family are very religious and think their children and grandchildren will burn in hell if they convert, many Christians are happy if their children believe in G-d, the Old Testament and try to do good things. They may also feel the conversion is temporary.”
“How can you have a daughter who is Jewish?” and “When are you going to become Jewish?” are questions Oralee would be asked. Her answer: “When Hashem lets me know that I should become Jewish I will, but so far He hasn’t told me.”
Oralee remembers when Aliza had first converted; a Jewish woman came up to her and asked, “How could you let your daughter convert to Judaism?” which Oralee found surprising. She hadn’t thought of the Jewish difficulties her daughter might face, which may be what this woman was alluding to, but truly Oralee’s first thought was, “I let? I had nothing to do with it; Aliza was so committed to the idea. Yet, years later” she reflected, “if she had become part of a cult like Hari Krishna or something – I would have tried my best to ‘not let’ her, but being Jewish was not a problem for me.”
“We really didn’t have many hardships or rough spots,” she continues. “As Aliza became more observant, she told me I couldn’t turn on the fire when I wanted to cook for them; I felt hurt by that change. Yet, for the most part, I have found that my life has been enriched by what I have learned about Judaism, [not speaking] lashon hora, modesty in dress, the cycle of the holidays and Shabbos. I have grown from my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.”Devorah Hirsch