Dear Emuna,

I am not extremely religious but Judaism plays a big role in the home and in our family. When I was single, I would only date Jewish men because I would only consider someone Jewish as a potential spouse. However, I have several friends in my life who have married non-Jews and are quite happily married. Ditto for family members. Now that I have young children, I feel conflicted about setting the right example. I care very much about these friends and family, and care about their spouses and children too.

Yet how can I teach my children the importance of marrying Jewish, when our life is filled with people who haven't made that choice? How can Jewish parents today teach this value without seeming to denigrate friends and family, many of which our family shares a warm relationship?

Trying to Do the Right Thing

Dear Trying,

You are confronting an issue that is both as old as the hills and extremely contemporary, a subject that touches almost every Jewish home in America today.

Although all relationships are different and some situations are particularly sticky, I think the answer may, perhaps, be simpler than you think.

I certainly believe that your instinct is correct. We don’t want to denigrate friends and family. In fact, I would take it even one step further. We don’t want to denigrate anyone at all!

Why should we? Negativity is never an effective or lasting method for boosting individual or national self-esteem. And a constant barrage of criticism of the non-Jewish world rarely stops intermarriage and certainly doesn’t lead to embracing one’s Jewish heritage. It’s just not a winning strategy.

The goal is to make the opportunity of being Jewish and having a relationship with God so wonderful, so special, so dynamic, so exciting, so meaningful and life-affirming and rewarding and joyful that it’s inconceivable they would choose anything else.

Teach your children the positive in Judaism, the meaning, the festive, the richness of a relationship with the Almighty; show them it’s something to celebrate. This will be infinitely more effective than attacking the secular world.

Turn all Jewish holidays into joyous celebrations. Your children will develop fond memories and attachments. They will want to continue these traditions.

Explain to them the meaning behind what we do, how it deepens our lives – and theirs.

It’s not necessary to put down Xmas but it is crucial to understand Chanukah and to explain it to your children. It is essential that the holiday be fun and joyous.

You want to inculcate Jewish pride and an attachment to the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. You need to practice what you preach. Show them the positive and they will respond in kind.

-- Emuna

Different Standards at Ex-Wife’s Home

Dear Emuna,

I am divorced. In my home, we have very strict rules about what my daughter can watch on television and what books she can read. I feel very strongly about protecting her innocence and adhering to certain standards in my home. My ex-wife, on the other hand, allows anything – completely uncensored movies and television shows and reading material. I am very angry with her but not sure how to handle it with my daughter. Hoping you can help.

Frustrated Ex-Husband

Dear Frustrated Ex,

More important than the influence of media on your daughter is the influence of her parents and their relationship, even though no longer married.

What you do NOT want to do is attack your ex-wife or her values to your daughter or within her hearing range. That will only be confusing and upsetting to her. It will not accomplish your goals.

You need to accept that you can’t control what goes in your ex-wife’s home. Just like you can’t control what goes in your parent’s home, your neighbor’s home, their best friend’s home or the school yard.

The only thing you can control is your home. You can create a safe and secure environment that reflects your values. You can encourage open and honest discussion about experiences had outside the home, about movies viewed and novels read.

You are in a tough situation. It would be better if both of your child’s homes reflected the exact same values.

But more important than attitudes towards the media and other secular influences, is that attitude that you and your wife have towards each other. That will have the bigger impact on your child and be much more crucial.

This is your chance to teach your daughter how to get along with people you disagree with, how to compromise, how to smile through your frustration.

It’s tempting to just get frustrated and attack your ex-spouse. But you will defeat your own purpose. So just grin and bear it and work on thoughtful ways to explain some of these complex issues.

-- Emuna

Elderly Mother Driving ME Mad

Dear Emuna,

My 80-year-old mom, a widow, lives with my family. She refuses to cook in my home so every night she eats the dinner I cook for my family. She refuses to live in her own home near us. She is losing her eyesight and is going deaf. My brother and his wife live 900 miles away. When she gets mad at me, she threatens to move near my brother. She never follows through on this threat, most likely because she knows that he will have no compassion or time to assist her, and she will be forced to live in an assisted living for seniors - something she dreads. If my mother moves out, we will be forced to move to a small apartment since we cannot afford to live in a decent house without her contribution.

All my life she suffered from anxiety, and it has gotten worse. She has also grown more paranoid and suspicious. She speaks derogatorily about me with my brother, which causes me a lot of pain. We moved to a nicer rental home a few months ago. Within the past few weeks, she didn't receive two important pieces of mail. She told my husband and daughter that I stole her mail. I resent that she accused me of being a thief to my family, and she denied saying it. She used to say to me that my husband was a thief whenever he asked her to contribute to the household expenses. But, I put a stop to it. I told her that if she said that to me again, she'd have to move out. She never accused him again. Now I told her that if she doesn't apologize for accusing me of stealing her mail, that she will have to move out. She just says that she never told them that. Did I do the wrong thing? My husband said I should have ignored her. I have so much contempt for her; I now feel great hostility when she eats the lovely dinner I make for everyone every day. I think it is time for her to go.

She threatens she will never see me or my family again if she moves near my brother. A part of me feels relief, and another part feels great sadness. But I keep feeling my mom is toxic to my home. Should I change my thinking and just have compassion? I feel like a doormat.

Am I An Ungrateful Daughter?

Dear Daughter,

The situation is tough. Many of us take for granted that when our parents are no longer able to care for themselves, they will move in with us. But the situation is complicated and the solution should be thought through. Putting aside medical issues, it is not always healthy for parents to move in with children. Parents may feel a humiliating sense of dependence. Children may feel frustrated and resentful and caught between their parents and their children (the famous sandwich generation). This is under the best of circumstances. Which yours are not.

I confess that I’m not sure why making dinner for your mother every night bothers you. You’re making for your family anyway. Why would it be better for her to make her own, in addition to the one you are making? Didn’t she make dinner for you every night when you were growing up? Feeding her seems like basic decency. (Maybe I’m missing a piece of the story.)

On the other hand, you certainly don’t have to put up with malicious accusations or with being the victim of her derisive speech. If it remains within her control not to say these negative things, then she needs to be told not to say them. If it is out of her control, then you have to recognize that and not take her paranoid rantings so seriously.

I understand that it is a stressful situation for you. It may be that, whether she has control or not, the situation is just too difficult for you, is too “toxic” as you say and that she just needs to leave. Only you can evaluate what you can bear and what is too much.

There are good lessons for children when a grandparent lives with them. There are opportunities for closeness and compassion. But if your whole family is suffering instead, a different arrangement needs to be made, where possible.

-- Emuna