Intermarriage and Circumcision

Everyone in the sphere of a family is affected when a couple intermarries. Life suddenly gets a little more complicated – there are more holidays to celebrate, more customs to learn, but more importantly everyone will want to know how you are going to raise your children. For the Jewish grandparents, this can manifest in numerous ways – will they have a bar/bat mitzvah? Will they go to Hebrew school? Will they celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah? And if it’s a boy, will they be circumcised?

It’s the last question that prompted someone to write a letter into the Forward newspaper’s Bintel Brief. Circumcision for a Jew is a lifelong reminder of their heritage, so when a grandmother found out that her son and daughter-in-law weren’t going to circumcise their child, she wanted to know what to do next. She and her husband have already explained how important it would be to them, so should she back off or push the issue? The remarkably sensitive reply came from a guy who wasn’t always known for being remarkably sensitive – former New York City mayor Ed Koch.

First, he said since the grandparents have already stated their case, they shouldn’t press the couple – that might drive away them and the grandchildren. He said its better to let the son and daughter-in-law bring it up:

If, in the future, during a conversation, your son or daughter-in-law raises the matter, as they might, you can use that opportunity to provide factual information, your views and even talk of the need for Jews to remember who they are and not become indifferent to the traditions into which they were born and for which so many died in the last 2,000 years…

But, be careful not to antagonize either of them. The most important aspect of life is family and the love and support of one another that exists among those in that family.

This is great advice. The worst thing these or any grandparents can do is create a relationship based on disappointment. Instead, grandparents should focus on what they can do to share and explain pieces of Jewish tradition with their grandchildren. Maybe it’s something as simple as having a mezuzah on the door or wearing a hai necklace – anything that will encourage children to say “What is that?” Those become perfect teaching moments.

It’s a delicate balance, and Jewish grandparents might not be happy with every decision made about raising interfaith grandchildren. But life will present itself with plenty of other opportunities for grandparents to nurture, and in some cases establish, the Jewish identity of their grandchildren.


  1. Here’s a better bit of advice: Support their decision not to circumsise. Merely ‘not antagonising’ sends a negative message as well.

    The fact that this couple will not circumcise the son sends a very strong indication of their wishes for their son.

    Comment by Dave — May 10, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  2. Dave, you don’t know what message is being sent by a decision not to circumcise the child because you don’t know the couple, their history, how the decision evolved, or why they are not making that choice. It may not be as black & white as Jewish/Not Jewish. Nor do you know that where they are now is where they’ll be in the future. And it doesn’t really matter, because ultimately, the kid gets to decide who he is. For all you know, he’ll get himself circumcised as an adult when the choice is meaningful to him and then become an Orthodox rabbi. You don’t know.

    It is not as if raising a child religiously guarantees that he’ll remain involved as an adult, no matter what his parents say, do, think, believe, or hyperventilate about. Parenting is an uncertain job. Hopefully you live your professed values in such a way that your child wants to be like you. I’ve met enough people who were raised religiously and now want nothing to do with religion because it was crammed down their throats. They toss Jewish wisdom aside like yesterday’s Chinese take-out. Maybe later they’ll pick it up again. That’s for God to know and us to find out. The choices other people make are beyond our control. On the bright side, we get to make our own choices.

    Comment by Sara — May 10, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  3. Being the grandparent of an inter-faith couple we’ve found that the same advice given to all grandparents no matter what their beliefs works best…………keep your mouth shut and your wallet open!

    Comment by Ell — May 11, 2009 @ 6:12 am

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