February 7, 2008
Which comes first—the parent or the egg?
"You do not get to make your children's choices for them. You can only choose how you will act when their choices are already made."
Those words, which appear in the afterword of Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben's manual for parents of adult children involved in interfaith marriage, summarize in two sentences the crux of his entire book.
"There's an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate" (Praeger, 2007) could easily serve as a general guide for caring, thoughtful parenting of adult children in any context. His explanations and recommendations to parents rely on basic tools such as respect, open and considerate communication and the recognition that once children reach a certain age, they must be treated like the adults they are. Above all, Reuben notes frequently, parents of adult children in committed interfaith (or interracial or same-sex) relationships must always remember that the most important consideration for the parent is the preservation of a loving, long-term relationship between parent and adult child.
In this comprehensive guide, Reuben, of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, does an admirable job of walking parents through the issues they are most likely to confront in the various stages of their children's interfaith relationships. Eleven chapters lay out a roadmap of possible relationship landmines: dating; the wedding; feelings of failure, loss and guilt; the role of parents' own values; what adult children want from their parents; extended family relationships; the challenges of interfaith life; conversion; grandparenting; the value of learning about other religions; and separation and divorce. Reuben liberally sprinkles his exposition with examples and exercises designed to help readers work through both Reuben's conceptual points as well as the readers' own obstacles to building and sustaining lifelong bonds of love and respect between themselves and their grown children.
In the chapter on dating, Reuben affirms that for Jews, intermarriage used to mean a betrayal of Jewish history; some Jews even considered those who intermarried to be "voluntarily doing to the Jewish people what Hitler failed to do to us: wiping out the next generation of Jews through assimilation and abandonment." He refutes the application of this premise to present-day intermarriage. Reuben advises Jewish parents facing their children's interfaith relationships to consider that these grown children are not necessarily rejecting their parents or their parents' values. Rather, these adults are embracing the egalitarian values often taught to them by their parents as they were being raised. He notes that these adult children are simply expressing their parents' values in a different way than their parents did, and then guides readers through the process of discussing with their children the often volatile issues in a manner that will leave each side feeling heard and respected.
Later, in the context of conversion, Reuben complements his point by noting that "taking such a decision personally is one of the most insulting responses you could have.... Such an attitude from one's parent is a powerful statement that your parent continues to see you primarily as a child."
Reuben tells us repeatedly that parents need to keep their children's choices in perspective, maintain "emotional flexibility," and remember that "unconditional love is just that -- not conditional on your children making the choices that you might make, but [loving them] simply because they are your children."
Repetition is simultaneously the book's strength and its biggest weakness. Some readers will have no trouble understanding Reuben's thesis of respect and communication originating in and being exemplified by the parent in the parent-adult child relationship. For these readers, the frequent recurrence of similar points in chapter after chapter may cause them to wonder if perhaps the book's crucial concepts could have been satisfactorily covered in far fewer pages. However, for readers who perhaps seek a new approach to interfaith, same-sex or any variety of issues that cause friction in their relationships with their adult children, the repetition of Reuben's principles and the illustration of their application in many different contexts may come together to form a rare, helpful guide to an increasingly common dilemma.
That observation brings us to the paradox of "There's an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate." In his final chapter, Reuben notes that "[a]ny parent who asks ... how to be supportive without being intrusive and overbearing at the same time ... already has enough sensitivity to the possibility of overstepping their appropriate parental bounds that they probably don't need any advice from me or anyone else. It is usually those who never even think of this as an issue who are in need of having their level of sensitivity raised regarding the emotional impact that they as parents continue to have on their adult children."
True enough. So the question becomes: How do you get the people who could most benefit from Reuben's book to read it?
This article was first published on InterfaithFamily.com.
Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer who focuses on family topics, including interfaith and multicultural family issues. She blogs at UnchartedParent.com.