Being the Best Bubbe

Yesterday, the Jewish Outreach Institute launched its first discussion group for grandparents looking to share their Jewish heritage with their interfaith grandchildren. The first Grandparents Circle was held at Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif. A second is hatching in Atlanta Jan. 25.

Modeled on JOI’s successful Mothers’ Circle program, Grandparents Circle is a five-week guided discussion course that allows grandparents to share their issues and teaches them ways to impart Judaism to their grandchildren in a non-intrusive manner.

Where Mothers’ Circle specifically deals with non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children, Grandparents Circle addresses grandparents in all kinds of situations: those with grandchildren being raised Jewish, those whose grandchildren are being raised Christian, those whose grandchildren’s upbrining is still up in the air, widowed grandparents trying to maintain the traditions of their late spouse, etc. Because of the ambiguities and boundaries of child-rearing, it can be difficult for grandparents to figure out their appropriate role. Do you share any Jewish tradition with Christian grandchildren? If the parents aren’t imparting Judaism to their children, is it appropriate for you to do so? How do you complement and not usurp your children’s parenting objectives?

The “Non-Jewish Jews”

In Israel, one in 25 people is both Jewish and not Jewish. They are Jewish enough to be allowed to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but not Jewish enough to be recognized by the Orthodox establishment that oversees lifecyle events like marriage, divorce and burial. They are what Israelis call the “non-Jewish Jews.”

A JTA story by Dina Kraft details the conundrum faced by these 320,000 people, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children. The problem is that the Law of Return uses a liberal definition of Jewish identity–you have a Jewish grandparent or are married to someone who does–while the Orthodox establishment uses a much stricter definition–your mother is Jewish. The Law of Return assumes that if you’re Jewish enough to be persecuted, you’re Jewish enough to need a Jewish homeland. But the Orthodox authorities change the rules of the game once you get there. For Russian immigrants, that means exchanging one form of government discrimination for another.

While the “non-Jewish Jews” may not be Jewish enough to marry another Jew, get a recognized divorce or be buried in a Jewish cemetery, they are Israeli enough to face the requirement of mandatory military service.

And conversion is not a realistic option either, since the Orthodox control the conversion process as well and require all converts to adopt a traditional religious lifestyle.

Just as with the intermarried in the U.S., Israel will only solve its demographic problems when it relaxes its definitions of what is appropriate Jewish behavior–or appropriate Jewish parentage.

Irving the Snowchicken

After a month of publishing almost exclusively “December Dilemma”-driven content, I promised myself that there would be no more. But then a friend sent me this essay on Salon.com, where Christopher Noxon explains the unique solution he and his Jewish wife found for their holiday hangups: Irving the Snowchicken.

snow chicken

Noxon relates how they came to hatch Irving:

Eventually, we arrived at our bottom lines. No matter how superficial or secular the holiday had become, she argued, it was still Christ’s birthday, and my beloved just couldn’t be party to that. No tree, no mistletoe, no Santa. I took stock and realized … none of that mattered to me, either. I didn’t care about the trimmings — they were mostly tacky and meaningless anyway. What mattered to me, as both a grown-up and a parent, was the make-believe. When I boiled it down, all I wanted was someone magical to break into our house and leave us cool stuff.

Every year, they and their three children devise more additions to their homespun tradition:

We now have a songbook of Winter Wonderday classics that includes a recording of “Born to Be Wild” with all-poultry vocals. While burning our wish lists, we now raise our voices in a song that includes a line written by 7-year-old Charlie: “Santa is fired from the job/ He gives presents like a slob.” We’ve also begun the custom of leaving out a tray of food near the pant-festooned mantle — Irving, the kids discovered, favors sunflower seeds and fruit juice. And we now go to great lengths to build a nest for Irving, the construction of which begins with a Winter Wonderhike to collect twigs and leaves, which we then stuff inside a ring of chicken wire (and which is mysteriously littered the next day with soft white feathers that look very much like they were clumsily extracted from an expensive pillow).

In recent years we’ve spent the evening with bowls of candy, frosting and cookie pieces, building entire encampments of Snowy North gingerbread chicken coops. And we’ve found that no Winter Wondereve is complete without a feast at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, where we delight in the combination of maple-soaked fried dough and the sacrificial body of our host.

From the Jewish perspective, their solution is brilliant. While we’ve shown that families can celebrate Christmas and still be unambiguously Jewish, there is no chance that a family that elevates Irving the Snowchicken will be confused religiously. There’s no religious content to Irving; he’s just a mythical figure who brings gifts, like the tooth fairy.

The most obvious argument against Irving is that the particularity of the Noxon family’s celebration isolates them from sharing in the communal spirit that is essential to most religious traditions. That’s true, but they were specifically searching for a non-religious answer to what was essentially a cultural conflict. Moreover, I’m not sure how Irving differs from other unique family traditions, like an annual summer migration to a house in Maine or a family game of capture-the-flag after Thanksgiving. Since most families’ celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah are primarily about family togetherness and gift-giving (same as Winter Wonderday), the difference between Winter Wonderday and other unique family traditions is more of degree than of kind.