interfaith Rabbis

An Open Letter to My Dead Mother-in-Law at Christmas

Dear Bestemor (Grandmother),

We are here in Norway over Christmas.  I am sure you would be surprised since we have not visited at this season for the last 14 years. Before then, we regularly came at Christmas and stayed through New Year’s. I sat at your holiday table next to the Christmas tree in a house fully decked out in the Norwegian Christmas spirit, less garish than the American mode, but still full-on Christmas. In appropriate Norwegian style, we never spoke of why we stopped visiting at this time of year, but my guess is that you knew why. If you had been a Jewish New Yorker like me, we would have surely talked heatedly about this or perhaps even yelled and said regrettable words to one another. And you would have plagued me with unrestrained guilt for withholding the joy any grandmother deserved. But you were Norwegian and so bore your feelings wordlessly.

I thank you for making it easier. I apologize that now only after your death we have reappeared at the darkest time of the year to clean out your home and care for your widower, our beloved Bestefar, Grandfather.

As you knew, I am a Jew, a religious Reform Jew and a rabbi at that. It is not clear to me if you fully understood that last part, so integral to my identity. I met your son, my beloved, in Jerusalem on Rosh HaShanah. He was studying as a visiting doctoral candidate at Hebrew University; I was starting my American rabbinical studies with a first year in Israel. He was deep into his conversion studies; I was heady with my renewed love of Judaism. A perfect match.

Now 24 years later, I preach and teach, confidently speaking of intermarriage, pronouncing that we are ALL intermarried, whether we know it or not. It is true. In every American Jewish extended family there are members who are not Jewish. It would be extraordinarily rare to find a family untouched by the mixing inevitable in our modern world. Ours is no different. We navigate holidays, vacations and lifecycle events with this extra dimension of challenge, blessing and, yes sometimes, tension.

I could not continue to return for Christmas even though I wrote about my experiences at your holiday table so glowingly (“Kosher Christmas Dinner,” The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, CCAR Press: 2011). I described the kosher food laid out harmoniously next to the abundant treif, non-kosher food. Yet, I could not continue to visit during my son’s formative years despite your joy to host him. As someone trained to imprint religion on the next generation, I fully understood that the sights, sounds, tastes of a holiday, mixed with folklore of presents brought to the good little barna, children, all within a grandmother’s loving embrace, is the most powerful way to bond with religion.

It is ironic, as we were just about to announce a Christmas trip to Norway this year when you died suddenly in November. Our previous vacation plans fell through and, aware of your and Bestefar’s age, we thought it prudent to add an extra visit to the yearly schedule. The toddler who once marveled over the Christmas decorations in your house is now a teen, developing his own Jewish identity. He is surely beyond the stage of simple imprinting.

Please know that I never wanted to cause you any heartbreak. We stopped visiting in December and instead found other times for the long haul to your family. In addition, a continent away, I put your pictures around my baby’s crib and surrounded him with Norwegian culture. It was only fair to my husband and you, his family, that our child grow up knowing his people on both sides. I think you knew this, as you enjoyed speaking Norwegian with him on the phone and in person. Perhaps, this brought you joy the other 364 days of the year, but I am sure on Christmas it did not. Thank you for not obstructing our choices as parents; thank you for accepting difficult compromises with grace.

With much love,

Your American Jewish daughter-in-law

Mary Zamore is Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and was editor of “The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic.”  She is also currently the interim director of Mentoring for the CCAR.