Ruth Nemzoff

Ruth Nemzoff

Intermarriage of all types is increasing. According to Pew Research Center, almost half of us in America are choosing spouses from different religions, different races, and different cultures. 

From day one, religious intermarriage often causes problems. It might serve us well to remember that early in the 20th century, if a Russian Jew married a German Jew it was considered problematic. Even later in the century, when Sephardic Jews chose to marry an Ashkenazi Jew, there was worry about what to eat on Passover. After all, Sephardic Jews eat rice on Passover, and Ashkenazi Jews do not. Who’s to decide which of these kitniyot foods can come into the house?

The issues become apparent the minute the couple announces their desire to wed. Weddings are both civil and religious ceremonies; therein lies the problem. You may be interested in a civil union, but your in-laws and or parents may be more inclined toward a religious union, or vice versa. Different beliefs and customs are tinder for a conflagration. So what do you do to keep the home fires burning and not burning up? How exactly do you mitigate intermarriage conflicts?

1. Be empathetic. The other family may be as disappointed as yours that their child has chosen to marry someone of a different faith. It is never easy for parents when their children make decisions different from their own.

2. Be curious. Learn about the other faith, and try to find the common themes. Most religions encourage all of us to be kind to others, to build community, to be charitable, and to celebrate important moments in life. Each one of these principles hold the potential to bring you and your machatunim (the parents of the person your child marries) together. One way to begin a relationship is by sharing some pleasant moments together; you might all go for a walk in the park, or some ice cream. It’s easier to build a relationship on neutral territory, before you tackle differences.

3. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Ask about their customs. Rather than judging them, focus on how enriching it is to learn about new traditions and ceremonies.

4. Be gracious. All religions advocate kindness to others. Find ways to include symbols or artifacts that are meaningful or universal in holiday celebrations, or in the wedding ceremony. Go out of your way to show that the in-laws’ opinions matter. This generosity can take the form of decorating your holiday table in their favorite color, or using their favorite flowers as a centerpiece.

5. Be respectful. Always wear clothing that the in-law community considers appropriate when you are visiting them. Follow whichever of their traditions matter most to them and don’t conflict with yours. Cover your arms if they do, and greet them with whatever words they use for the occasion. In our secular lives, we often dress to please or to make an impression. Men wear ties to interviews at big corporations but T-shirts when playing soccer. Women wear long gowns to weddings but not to class or to the office. As tourists, we dress modestly in a mosque, church, or synagogue out of respect. You may need to wear clothing around your in-laws that you would never choose to wear at home.

6. Be polite. Consideration and respect are always appropriate. While you do not need to participate in reciting the prayers of the other  tradition, you do need to be respectful when the in-law parents and siblings pray. We all know how to do this, since someone else’s vision of G-d is frequently invoked in public.

7. Honor the other family. Even if you don’t believe in their version of religious philosophy, honor the cultural customs of your in-law family. Food, dance, and music can be great unifiers across different religions and cultures. If the parents speak a language different from yours, mention that you hope they will teach it to the grandchildren (should there ever be any!).

8. Model opportunities. Invite them to your religious celebrations, and let them know that you respect their celebrations in their home. As their guest you may find that you enjoy participating in some of their rituals, and help with some of the non-religious parts of their celebrations.

9. Communicate knowledge. Share your traditions without denigrating theirs. The human search for G-d unites us, but different conceptions of G-d divide us. Share what you love and find worthwhile in your beliefs, and respect theirs.

10. Be flexible. All human relationships require bending and blending. Remember, if you want to pass on what is meaningful to you, compassion and understanding must be the foundation. Children learn at a very young age that another child’s birthday party is not their own. They can also understand that one person’s holiday is not another’s. Try to adopt the view that your children and grandchildren are enriched by learning about other religious customs from the in-law family. In time, they will sort out what customs and beliefs they wish to follow themselves. Hopefully, the strongest message of all will be to do justice and love mercy, and try to improve the lives of others.

Living in a multicultural world, we have learned that respecting others’ beliefs does not require diminishing our own. We may not view another person’s deity as divine, but we do believe in showing respect to others who may have different views. You have an opportunity to establish a pattern of mutual tolerance which hopefully your relatives will emulate.

Understanding and tolerance are the only ways to go if you want to keep peace in intermarried families.”

If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to


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