How Much Say Should a Jewish Parent Have in Their Child’s Dating Life?

This week, we answer two questions — one from a child and one from a parent — about what it means when a parent expects you to marry a fellow Jew.

Hello and welcome back to Hey Alma’s advice column on all things Jewish life — check out what our Instagram audience had to say about this week’s issue, read on for advice from our resident deputy managing editor/bossy Capricorn Jew, and submit your own dilemmas anonymously here.

This week we’re tackling two related questions that came in about dating — one from a young adult, and one from the parent of a young adult.

Hey, Hey Alma,

My parents have the expectation that I should marry someone Jewish. I am culturally Jewish, but not religious, and it has never mattered to me if I date someone Jewish or not.

However, my parents have expressed before that they would be very disappointed in me if I married someone not Jewish and won’t attend the wedding, even though any children I were to have with a partner would be Jewish since I’m a girl. Do you have any advice for navigating this?

Dear Hey Alma,

How should a mother handle her 30 year-old son dating a non-Jewish woman? I love him and want him to be happy, and she’s a nice person, but it upsets me and makes me feel like a failure as a Jewish parent. I don’t want to alienate him but I do want him to marry a Jewish woman.

As a longtime fan of The Advice Column Genre, I love when people send in questions that seem to be in conversation with each other. It reminds me that we’re all muddling through life with similar qualms and confusions, even if each of our experiences on this earthly plane uniquely belong to us. When I read each of these questions in the Hey, Hey Alma submission box, it was clear to me that answering them in tandem would be most useful for everyone involved. To be clear: The daughter and the mother who each submitted these questions are not related. But that doesn’t make their questions any less of a perfect pairing.

I like to envision the three of us — a daughter, a mother and myself — sitting on my blue velvet sofa and drinking some tea out of floral print mugs while I disperse my advice about each of their conundrums. And I like to imagine that at the end, we all feel a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more on the same page. So let’s metaphorically sit down in my living room and get into it.

Who you date — and who you marry — is a very personal choice that only you get to make

I think we can all agree: Dating these days is rough. The apps are terrible. The pandemic made us all a little more anxious and a little more socially awkward. It’s very hard to form secure attachments when literally everything about the modern world — from climate to economics to politics etc etc etc — feels wildly unstable. But even if there was once a period of time when dating wasn’t hell (as a millennial Jewish lesbian born in 1988 I don’t feel I ever experienced that time personally, but if you did, mazel!), it’s still always been a deeply personal experience. Sometimes a person looks great on paper but there’s just no chemistry on the actual date. Sometimes you fall in love and can truly imagine spending your life with this person, only to have them pull the rug out from under you when they reveal they never want kids, or don’t ever envision cohabitating with a partner (both absolutely fine choices, but definitely dealbreakers if you do want kids or do want to cohabitate). For some of us, dating a fellow Jew is extremely important; for some of us, it just doesn’t matter that much. However you feel about it is fine — and it is 100% your choice to make.

To the woman who sent in the first question: I get the feeling you know all of the above. Nothing about your question indicates you feel confused about what you’re looking for in a date or a spouse. But I say all of the above to really emphasize the key to the answer both these questions come down to: A child is not an extension of their parent, and the extremely important decision about who to share your life with belongs only to you.

So how do you navigate the disappointed parent, who you presumably love, otherwise you would not care about disappointing them?

Being a parent means sometimes your children’s choices will disappoint you

Let’s pause before answering the question I just posed and sit with this very important reality — and yes, this is mostly for the benefit of the parents reading this, but it’s good for adult children to internalize these truths as well. The thing about children is that they’re individuals. They will make their own choices. They will do things you perceive to be mistakes. They will make very big important life decisions that you disagree with. All of this might be very disappointing to you. That is simply part of being a parent. Your job as a parent is to accept this and love your child unconditionally anyway.

As a parent, your disappointment belongs to you, not your child

The thing that really stood out to me in the question from the mother in this week’s column is this phrase: “…it upsets me and makes me feel like a failure as a Jewish parent.” That’s a terrible feeling. It’s painful to feel as though we are failing at something we care about, and I hear in your letter that you love your son and want him to be happy. However, your feelings really have no impact on the situation here. They are yours to hold; they do not belong to your son.

Presumably, you’ve shared with your son your desire that he marry a Jewish woman over the course of his life. It seems like something that is very important to you, so I can’t imagine it hasn’t come up. Your son has heard your feelings on the subject, and yet, he has fallen in love with a non-Jewish woman. He may marry her! This reflects one single thing: Your son wants to marry his partner. It does not reflect on how your son wishes you to feel. It does not reflect on your parenting. It does not reflect on how your son feels about Judaism. It literally has nothing to do with you.

I would encourage you to unpack your disappointment, because your feelings matter and I think it would be helpful for your well-being and your relationship with your son if you had a safe container to figure out why his relationship makes you feel this way. A therapist is a great place to start, but close friends (who will keep your confidence and not share your feelings as gossip with your son or your friend group) or your own partner or spouse if you have one are also good places to process these emotions. The person you should absolutely not process these feelings with? Your son.

You say you don’t want to alienate him. I can promise you that telling him you don’t approve of his potential future spouse because of her religion will alienate him. He knows how you feel about the subject. What he needs to know now is that you will show your support to him and to his future wife unconditionally.

What to do if your parents threaten not to attend your wedding

I’m going to be blunt here. There’s a time for assuming the best in someone and holding them in positive regard, which I think is useful because shame does not breed change. There’s also a time to cut to the chase. It is unacceptable for your parent(s) to threaten not to attend your wedding because you are not marrying the specific kind of person they want you to marry. This is unacceptable behavior!

Full disclosure: I think if you’d asked my parents before I actually met my wife (who was not born Jewish and who is interested in conversion but not currently in the process of it) if they would like me to marry a Jew, they would have said yes! If you’d asked my parents the day I was born if they envisioned me marrying a Jewish man, they probably would have said yes, too, because they care about Judaism and family, and because their experience told them that marrying a fellow Jew was the best way to create a loving Jewish family.

But then I grew up and became my own person. I hiked 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail even though it terrified my mom and I knew she wished I wouldn’t. I nannied for years after college so I could be a freelance writer even though I knew my parents wished I would get a more stable job. I came out as queer, I formed my own political opinions, I didn’t attend synagogue as much as my parents would have liked… I met my wife and I fell in love. One of the biggest tragedies of my life is that my dad died before my wife and I started dating, so not only could he not attend our wedding but he never even got the chance to meet her and see how happy we are together. Why am I telling you all this? Because it’s normal for parents to have hopes and dreams for their child that will lead to happiness, and I even empathize that Jewish parents may conflate “living a Jewish life” with happiness or “marrying a Jewish spouse” with living a Jewish life (which obviously isn’t true, seeing as how many happy and extremely Jewish interfaith families exist in the world!).

What is not normal is taking those hopes and dreams and weaponizing them by suggesting you won’t attend a huge celebratory ritual if your child doesn’t behave the way you want them to. To the person who wrote this letter, I’ll be generous to your folks for a moment and say it’s possible your parents are just saying that to be dramatic, and if you really get engaged to a non-Jewish person of course they’ll come to the wedding with joy and love. If this is the case (which I guess is the best case scenario), I think it’s appropriate to let them know how hurtful their dramatics are, and to challenge them to think about how it’s harming your relationship.

How to set boundaries around familial relationships

First, the boundaries.

For the adult child, I really want to empower you to bring this up with your parents sooner than later. Next time it comes up, you can simply say: “When you tell me that you won’t attend my wedding if I don’t marry a Jewish person, it hurts. It makes me question the foundation of our relationship, which I know is not your intention. I care about Judaism, but for me, that doesn’t mean I need to only date Jewish people. When I’m ready to marry someone, it will be my choice, not yours — if you’re not able to promise me you’ll be there with unconditional love and support, it will harm our relationship. I don’t want to have this conversation anymore; if you can’t respect this boundary, I’ll have to leave when it comes up or I’ll have to stop spending time with you/calling you.”

And for the mom — it will be up to you to instill your own boundaries around discussing this any further with your son. If your son hasn’t set any boundaries with you about discussing his love life, you can let him know you’ll be doing it yourself or you can just quietly make the shift. Saying something like: “I’m sorry if I’ve seemed unsupportive of your relationship in the past. I’ve been thinking about it, and I really just want you to be happy. I won’t bring it up again, and I want you to know you have my full support,” is a really powerful way to show your son you respect his autonomy. You will definitely not stop feeling all your feelings overnight, and that’s why I encourage you to process them in safe containers like I mentioned above.

How to cultivate gratitude despite differences

And now, more joyfully, the gratitude.

In both of these questions, the relationships between parent and child are intact. While I do think threatening to not attend your child’s wedding is manipulative and not OK, I am hopeful that it’s a case of dramatics and once a boundary is set, these parents will change their behavior. So in an ideal world, we can view all these relationships as coming from a place of love, and hope that there’s time to repair any cracks that may have surfaced from these tensions. Like I said, my dad, who definitely told me more than once that he’d like me to marry a Jewish person, was not alive to witness my joyful, loving, Jewish wedding. I know — without a hint of doubt — that he would have been beyond thrilled to see me marrying my wife.

The fact that the parents in these questions are alive to witness their children’s future weddings is a huge gift. The fact that there is hopefully a foundation of love in each of these families is a huge gift. The fact that the children in these questions have grown to be their own individual selves, no doubt helped along by their supportive parents, is a huge gift. We only get one chance in this life. Cultivating gratitude around happiness and love — whether it’s enacted in the exact way you envisioned it or not — is one of the biggest gifts of being alive.

Accept your children unconditionally. Accept their partners unconditionally. Be joyful that there are hopefully so many family simchas in all of your futures. Be grateful.

Do you have a Jewish or Jewish-adjacent dilemma and want our advice? Submit a question anonymously and we’ll do our best to answer it!

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