Dear Emuna,

My son got married two years ago to a very nice girl but one who is very strong in her opinions and is more open religiously than we would have chosen for him. Nevertheless he appears quite happy and content with his choice and we are trying to get to know her better.

When the wedding plans were being made there were many disagreements between us concerning how religious a wedding we wanted as opposed to how she envisioned her wedding. Somehow we made it through that part. Soon after the wedding my father unfortunately passed away very suddenly. This son in particular was extremely close to my father and together with his new wife took care of much of the funeral arrangements in a calm and efficient manner. They truly were remarkable and everyone in the family was much appreciative.

A few months ago my son and his wife were blessed with their first child, a son. My mother, my older sister, my husband and my other children were all invited to attend the bris on Shabbat at my daughter-in-law's parents' home. It really was a beautiful Shabbat. However my daughter-in-law passed a message to my son that she did not want the baby being passed from hand to hand and that included me. Many in the family were more than a little surprised that the new baby was not named after my father. I held my tongue, but there were others in the family that did not and it got back to the parents. My daughter-in-law was highly insulted and called me up to tell me that I was out of place and if I can't control myself in the future perhaps she would have to limit any time that is spent with our grandchild. She told me that she cannot have a relationship with me until I apologize to her.

The conversation was not good. I told her that she cannot speak to me in that manner. There is some respect I am still entitled to as the mother and she is over stepping that boundary. Since then my son has tried to initiate a meeting between us but it has not worked out. I would like to see this baby. I would like to mend this relationship. I am sad and torn up about this. But I still maintain that I did not deserve to be treated this way by her or anyone else. How can I fix this so I don't lose my only grandchild?

Despondent in Jerusalem

Dear Despondent,

Cheer up. You have made some mistakes, some serious ones, with your daughter-in-law but if you own up to them the situation can almost certainly be improved. It is all in your hands.

Mistake #1: Your daughter-in-law knows that you don’t approve or her level of religious observance. She has felt from the start that you were critical of her and disappointed in your son’s choice. And she is correct about that. Needless to say, this is NOT a good beginning. You need to sincerely apologize to her, own your mistake and tell your how much you love her and how good she is for your son (whether you believe it or not).

Mistake #2: There was no reason to take your daughter-in-law’s wishes that the baby not be passed from hand to hand as a personal insult. I don’t know why she made that choice but many young mothers today are hyper-vigilant about germs (not a perspective I sympathize with but there it is) and don’t want crowds around their newborn. She wasn’t specifically excluding you. And, whether you like it or not, it was her prerogative.

Mistake #3: She does not owe it to you to name the baby after your father. This is such a common quarrel and spoiler of family simchas (celebrations). You are not privy to her reasoning but you have to respect her choice. It is her baby and she can name him whatever she likes. It is not her responsibility to choose the name that you prefer.

Mistake #4: Rebuking your daughter-in-law. You should never ever tell your daughter-in-law that she is doing something wrong. You should be all praise and giving. (In fact you should be that way with your own married children as well.)

Okay, now it’s up to you. You need to acknowledge to yourself that you were wrong. You need to swallow your pride and make that meeting happen. At that meeting, you must apologize profusely and repeatedly. You should fawn over the baby and praise her parenting and her marriage. Give her a gift.

Forget principles. Forget right or wrong. This is about having a relationship with your son and your grandchildren. Wouldn’t you do anything for that?


Ex-Convict Biological Father

Dear Emuna,

My mother and father divorced when I was 6. My mother remarried when I was 8. Around age 12 my biological father gave up his rights to me and I was adopted by my stepfather. This man raised me as his own child. Now at age 53 my biological father whom is due to be released from prison soon wants me to help him. Where is my honor obligation for this man?


Dear Conflicted,

I certainly understand why you are. Not only is your loyalty and love invested in the man who raised you and who you called father, but your biological father seems to have abandoned you.

We should never judge another human being and there are some pertinent details missing in this letter. Did your biological father waive his rights simultaneously with going to prison? Did he recognize that you might have a better life without him in it – more stability, less emotional upheaval, etc.? There’s a lot that’s unknown and perhaps all of his motivations were not as heartless or self-centered as they appear.

You also don’t mention the basis of his conviction. Was it a white-collar crime or a violent one? If our parents are truly evil, that might obviate our need to honor them, but that is a high bar.

In general, our Jewish obligation to honor our parents is inviolable, whether they raised us or not. Our feelings, conflicted as they are and appropriate as they may be, don’t shape the demand. Our parents gave us life and for that amazing gift alone we owe them – big time.

So you have a duty to help your father, regardless of the fact that he did not provide the same for you. You need to ensure that he is fed and has shelter. (To clarify, consult your local Rabbi)

But that is the extent of it. The rest is a judgment call. If you don’t want your children around him, then keep them away. If you do, facilitate the meeting. How often you visit him, your emotional ties, how vulnerable you make yourself to him – none of this is spelled out. You need to use your common sense.

It’s possible, as suggested earlier, that your father’s motives for giving up his rights were in fact altruistic. It’s also possible that, even if they weren’t, he has changed over the years, that he has repented and become a better person. Keep your eyes open and respond accordingly.


Ex-Uncle Convict

Dear Emuna,

My husband is spending every Sunday with his ex-uncle who is in jail. He sees him every week and wants to bring him into our life. I absolutely forbid it and we fight about it all the time...but he continues to go to see this man. He is allowed to go out on weekends if an appointment is made for a few hours, so he takes him out to lunch and to the store. My 13 year old daughter and I are alone on Sundays. My husband works crazy hours during the week and usually travels all week and is home only on Shabbos and Sunday. What should I do about this?

Unhappy Wife

Dear Unhappy Wife,

What are the chances of getting two questions about prisoners in one week? In this case, the jail situation is almost irrelevant. Again, without knowing what his crime was, it’s hard to know whether you are correct in standing your ground or whether you should be a little more flexible about bringing this relative into your life. But it seems to me that’s not really the point.

The real question is: why is your husband spending every Sunday with his ex-uncle (not even his uncle anymore) and not with you and your daughter? Is there something about their relationship in the past that would explain this? Was this uncle like a father figure to him? Is there a logical explanation to the bond? Perhaps that would aid in understanding part of your husband’s motive – but not all.

We are still left with the bigger question and no clues in your letter as to the answer. You mention that you fight about the uncle and you forbid his presence in your life. Is this your regular pattern of interaction or is it limited to this particular situation? Something for you to think about.

I don’t like to punt to professionals but without more information about the root of your problems, my best advice is to see a marriage counselor. There is something off in your marriage that neither one of you is facing. It is not normal for a married man who has limited free time to want to spend almost all of it away from your family. Perhaps you have made this situation with the uncle the target of your frustration and anger but something deeper is going on. I don’t know how long this has been occurring but if you want it to stop, you need to get into therapy now. There seems to be a lot of anger and avoidance of confrontation here but this is my two cents worth without really hearing the full picture.

It’s not about the ex-uncle; it’s about your marriage. You need to get help now.