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Is it Possible to Blend Two Cultural Paths?

QUESTION: Two of my children's friends that I am very close to are getting married. One is Jewish and the other Baptist. They really want to have their act together around raising kids and also talking to their respective families. Is it possible to blend these two cultures? What advice can I give them?

ANSWER: In my clinical practice, I have known couples who come up with a blend of a variety of rituals and religious celebrations that they both enjoy and participate in with their children, without conflict. I have also known couples who feel isolated and alienated from one another in their cultural and religious differences. The key seems to lie in the couples ability to truly share the rituals of the other and participate, instead of merely tolerate such differences.

There are positive benefits to blending different cultural and spiritual paths. What is decided in terms family rituals and religious education will be determined by the parents themselves. There are no formulas for success in blending religions within the family. However it will be necessary for the couple to identify what is important to them in this regard and check out with one another what their partnership can embrace.

It is critical that the differences become a part of the very fabric of the family life. Marriage is the birth of a new family system which must incorporate and respect the beliefs and traditions of two different religious and cultural backgrounds. The task of this phase of the family life cycle is for the couple to establish their own unique rituals, traditions and shared values. It will be the values that hold the beliefs of both of their backgrounds in some way.

You might want to talk to your friends about identifing what these shared values are and how it is addressed in each of their religious/cultural systems. Ask them to imagine the year ahead of them. Identify what rituals and traditions they will celebrate together and how. How will having children be incorporated into these traditions?

For example, one Jewish/Protestant couple in my private practice are raising their two children celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. They plan on a bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah when their children reach the age of 13, the Jewish ceremony for entering beginning adulthood for young men and women. However, exactly how this occurs may in fact be adjusted by the family, as in the case of a friend of mine, whose son did not attend the traditional Hebrew schooling in preparation for his bar mitzvah. But in the spirit true to the bar mitzvah, he gave a speech on entering manhood and the meaning it held for him and his family in the community. A Rabbi led the ceremony and a celebration of food and dancing followed. The prayer shawl of his father's family was passed onto to him, with his grandparents looking on. Tradition changed, but the connection between generations remained true to spirit, though not strictly to form.

Alienation can happen when family members adopt their own rituals which are not shared between them. This can lead to feelings of being misunderstood at a deeply emotional or spiritual level. When couples feel that they are not sharing these important processes with one another they grow apart instead of together.

In the case of your friends, however, there seems to be an intent to respect and handle these very important aspects of family life. Encourage their openness to one another in creating a blend of their two spiritual paths. This may include inventing their own versions of the rituals and traditions they each grew up with, as well as educating their partner to the philosophy, beliefs and rituals practiced by their respective families. This will provide an opportunity for deepening their understanding and appreciation of the other, as well as become acquainted with a whole new way of experiencing the world. Each could benefit from taking their partner to church and synagogue and other family functions that celebrate their religious background, so that it can be experienced first hand by the partner who may be unfamiliar with this world view. Afterwards, be sure to debrief with one another, identifying what was hard, what was enjoyable or emotionally moving. This should give them some flavor for what they will be able to embrace and share together.

After each has become acquainted with the religious orientation and values of the other, and considered how they would bring this to their children in family life, arrange meetings with both sets of parents to share views, ideas and perhaps even solicit input if they are open to doing so and supportive of the couples bond.

The underlying value of any blend of religion and culture will be in the personal meaning it holds for the family. And the extent to which such blending promotes bonding in family relationships will determine its viability, whether tradition is strictly adhered to, or uniquely altered.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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