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For the past eight-and-a-half years, I’ve been the rabbi of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai (TMKC). It’s a small community with a close-knit group of congregants. During our Friday night Shabbat service each week, we have Simcha Time: when people are invited to come up to the bimah and share about birthdays, anniversaries and other good news.
Dottie Bricker, a TMKC congregant, is an amazing woman with a very strong Jewish background and connection to Judaism and the Jewish people. Dottie grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. As a young girl, Dottie spoke only Yiddish at home – she didn’t even learn English until she went to kindergarten. Dottie comes to services regularly and often comes to the bima to kvell about her four grandchildren.
Dottie is, in every way, the consummate Jewish grandmother. She bursts with love and pride when she speaks about each of her four grandchildren, all of whom call her “Bubba.” Though she’s a Jewish grandmother, not all four of Dottie’s grandchildren are Jewish. Here, in her own words, are Dottie’s thoughts about being a grandmother in an interfaith family.
My Journey that Started Twenty-Two Years Ago (by Dottie Bricker)
It was a few days before Hanukkah when my son Howard called and asked if he could bring someone to our party. I said, “Of course.” And he said, “Mom, she’s not Jewish.” I asked, “Is she nice?” And he answered, “Very.”
Howard married Gail a year later. Two years later my Charlie was born, and when he was 3, my Rachel was born. Oh, happy day-I’m the mother of three boys, the grandmother of three boys and now I finally had my little girl!
After Rachel was born, my son called and said that Gail wanted to raise the kids in her Catholic faith. Then he asked me if I would be OK with this. My answer was, “Are you nuts?! I love them the same as the other grandkids. They are the air I breathe. They are my naches.”
When Charlie and Rachel started school, I became very familiar with their school, Our Lady of Good Counsel. When they received awards, I was there at Mass to see them honored. My Charlie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Yerkes, asked if his Bubba would come to read the story of Hanukkah to his class. I said I would love to. I read the story and taught them to play dreidel. I bought them jelly doughnuts to eat and they had a great time. A few months later, Mrs. Yerkes asked if I would read the story of Passover, and I was happy to go back. I brought matzah for the students to try. They said they liked it, but they liked the jelly doughnuts better.
When Charlie was in fifth grade, he told his teacher about his dad’s small Torah. The teacher asked if he could bring it to school. My Charlie called me and asked if I’d come to school and teach about the Torah. Once again, I said, “Of course.” It was a wonderful experience for me.
My grandkids are now in high school and I have just been retired from my job at Our Lady of Good Counsel. There’s a new “Bubbie” in Mrs. Yerkes’ class.
My grandkids know that if they need Bubba I will be there for them. I have chaperoned school trips, gone to Phillies games with Rachel and even taken Charlie to the Mother-and-Son Dance when Gail was called into work at the last minute.
I like to say that my family is a “blended family.” We learn from each other. It’s special.
They are truly the air I breathe.
Some Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being brought up in a different religious tradition may understandably have a much harder time accepting that reality than Dottie. In my blog post about honoring grandmothers of Jewish kids who aren’t themselves Jewish, I noted that, “Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandparents who aren’t Jewish never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.” Of course, the same is true for Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in a different religious tradition. It can be difficult to accept your own child’s decision to not raise your grandchild as a Jew.
Ultimately, it’s a parent’s decision how to raise their child. With mutual respect and lots of communication between grandparents and adult children, grandparents can hopefully find ways to share their Jewish traditions with their grandchildren without the parents feeling that the grandparent is “pushing” Judaism on their child. This may be hard, and the grandparent may legitimately feel a sense of loss that their grandchild isn’t Jewish (see my blog on acknowledging the loss of a parent who commits to raise children in a religious tradition other than the one they grew up with-this can be all the more difficult for grandparents who didn’t have the choice to make.) But hopefully, like Dottie, the grandparent will love their grandchildren unconditionally, and describe them as nothing less than “the air I breathe.”
My grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.
For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.
Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.
Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.
More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.
This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.
I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.
This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.
There are usually two types of Jewish blogs written in connection with Mother’s Day:
1. Those that focus on the commandment to honor your parents and note that in Judaism EVERY day should be Mother’s Day. These blogs almost always make one of two arguments: either that Mother’s Day isn’t necessary since we should be honoring our mothers every day; or that Mother’s Day is valuable in that it’s a time to re-focus on the importance of honoring our mothers, and to recommit to honoring them throughout the year.
2. Those that focus on the importance of the Jewish community honoring and supporting mothers who aren’t themselves Jewish, but are raising their children as Jews.
While I think both of these focuses are very important, as Mother’s Day approaches this year, I want to focus on other mothers—a group of mothers we don’t always talk about in the Jewish community: the grandmothers of other faiths … that is, those mothers whose daughters and sons marry someone Jewish and decide to raise their children as Jews. These are the Catholic grandmothers who never have the chance to see their grandchildren christened or to attend a first communion; the Hindu grandmothers who come to their grandchildren’s B’nai Mitzvah and feel uncomfortable and out of place at synagogue—all those grandmothers of other religions who don’t get to watch their grandchildren grow up in their own faith traditions and who may feel like “outsiders” at their own grandchildren’s lifecycle celebrations.
Unlike their own sons and daughters, who fell in love with someone Jewish and made the choice to have a Jewish home and raise their children as Jews (whether or not they themselves became Jewish), these grandmothers never had a choice—they’re bound by their children’s decisions.
We in the Jewish community should acknowledge these grandmothers (and the grandfathers) who aren’t Jewish. Here are some ways we can do this:
Of course, booklets shouldn’t be a substitute for conversation. Ideally, the booklet should be accompanied by an explanation by the grandparent’s own child who is raising Jewish kids, and/or the child-in-law who grew up Jewish. Depending on the age of the grandchild, perhaps the child can be involved in the conversation as well. For example, before a Bat Mitzvah, the granddaughter could talk to her grandparents and explain what will be happening in the service and answer any questions.
The list above is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather to get the conversation started. If you have other ideas of how Jewish families and the Jewish community can respect and honor grandparents who aren’t Jewish, please share them below.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are spending more and more time with parents of adult children who are intermarrying and grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in interfaith homes. The question I hear from them is often about how they can share their own love of Judaism and the family heritage and traditions with their grandchildren. We talk about the relationship with their adult children, honoring the decisions they have made and being in respectful dialogue about that. We speak about how grandchildren learn through osmosis the Jewish values grandparents live and breathe and will enjoy learning family recipes, participating in holiday celebrations and hearing the stories of their family.
The goal isn’t to make grandchildren Jewish unless that’s a shared goal with their parents. The goal is to love, accept, learn from, honor and celebrate this child for who they are and to show pride in who you are and how you became who you are. Will this lead to Jewish continuity? That’s in the stars. You’ve got your relationship with your children and grandchildren now. If there is bonding and togetherness and warm memories and sharing of values, not only will these young souls flourish but those who come into their circles will be enriched. If there is positivity and connectedness associated with Judaism, it’s all good.
My question to you, Chicago area grandparents: What are you doing June 19-21? Are your grandchildren done with school and not yet in camp? Take the plunge and try a special weekend away with them at the JCC’s Grandparents Weekend. The weekend is filled with programming that will engage children 4-12 years old in fun and meaningful activities. There is plenty of time for running around, enjoying the beautiful retreat center, playing games within the structure of the weekend, and also free time downtown when the magic of even more grandparent-grandchildren bonding happens.
Here are words from grandparents Barb and Denny Kessler who have participated in this JCC retreat for many years and have found it to be deeply worthwhile:
In a few months we will be returning to the L’Dor Va-Dor Grandparents & Grandkids program at Camp Chi for our 8th year!!! The opportunity to be with our grandkids for a weekend—without their parents—in a Jewish/camping setting has been our great pleasure. We take two of our seven grandkids each year for a truly fun and meaningful weekend together. The kids hear about it from their older sibs and cousins and can’t wait to be old enough to go. We have found this to be a unique way to deepen our relationship with our grandkids. Several of our grandkids are from an interfaith home and spending a weekend at Camp Chi has been a wonderful way to have them be part of a Jewish community, celebrate Shabbat and Jewish traditions as a family and interact with other Jewish kids. We usually take two cousins, rather than siblings, because our grandkids are from different cities and they love being together. At the end of the weekend we make a photo album for each of the kids, write about the weekend and give it to them so they remember our special weekend together. They all treasure their albums and even many years later talk about our weekends together at grandparent’s camp.
Rabbi Ari is the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. She also has children who will not eat matzah ball soup or a bagel and lox and is continually surprised and dismayed at their culinary preferences. She was inspired by this story because of how culturally astute the grandparents were to how their grandchildren were being raised and how quickly they made a bridge between the familiar to the new and exotic (the world of the matzah ball!).
A woman recently told me the story of her grandchildren who live out of state and aren’t being raised Jewish.* They come to visit for a week each summer. This past summer they went right from the airport to the deli. Not that there isn’t Jewish deli where these kids live, but the grandparents wanted the experience of eating Jewish foods with their grandchildren at one of their favorite spots. This is one way they share their love of Jewish culture with their grandchildren.
These grandchildren have been raised on sushi and other international cuisine. When the youngest grandson looked at his bowl of matzah ball soup, he did not want to eat it. He said that he is used to more “normal” food (like sushi!). The grandparent telling the story said that her husband turned to the grandchild without missing a beat and said, “It’s just like miso soup…” and the child dove in. Once that broth touched his lips, he was sold! He even liked the matzah ball.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are partners with the JUF (our Federation) and Grandparents for Social Action on a new program for grandparents called GIFTS: Grandparents, Inspiration, Family, Tzedakah, Sharing. We are offering a five-session class at 15 congregations and Jewish organizations around Chicagoland taking place now through the spring (to find a class, go to www.juf.org/gifts).
The classes consist of interactive lessons about how grandparents can pass on their values and deepen their engagement with their grandchildren. The fifth session is specifically geared toward talking about grandchildren raised in interfaith homes as well as any family situation that you might not have planned for or anticipated. The session is called “Changing our Narrative” and it is a hopeful session about what continuity means to us.
We just had a meeting for grandparents who are alumni of the classes that were offered this past year to talk about how to improve the program and to help plan an exciting city-wide Grandparent Conference to take place this spring (more information to come). One of the grandparents shared that fantastic story with me.
Our kids and grandkids have different cultural references than we have. They are growing up on different foods, their “normal” is nothing like what our life was like at their age and we have to constantly translate for ourselves and them as we bond and communicate. Is eating matzah ball soup with Jewish grandparents going to make these children Jewish? That’s not the point or the goal here. Feeling closeness, sharing our soul food, hearing the names of the foods in Yiddish, making connections, expanding one’s repertoire and experiences and creating memories of things only done with one’s grandparents is meaningful, impactful and important. Who these kids will be will happen over time. The closeness they feel with loving, open-minded, insightful, aware grandparents who know what their lives are like and who are willing to translate and help them relate to new things is priceless.
*We often hear this phrase. It means different things to different people who say it. For some it means that the family isn’t a member of a synagogue. For others it means that the parents do not articulate that the children are being raised with a Jewish identity—the parents want to raise them without specific religious references. Some say it means that the children are being raised “nothing.” This is one I particularly dislike as many children who are not raised with Jewish holidays or going to synagogue are raised with lots—not nothing—when it comes to values, for example. “Nothing” portrays such an empty, void and negative image.
Surprisingly, many children whose parents did not participate in Judaism and Jewish living affirm their Jewish identity as adults and seek avenues for engagement then because of relationships with grandparents, and other connections made along the way. Just knowing the cultural and religious heritage they inherited, even if it has been latent for some time, may mean something to one’s identity.
So, when you read or hear that children aren’t being raised Jewish, it is often an overly simplistic statement that may not capture a whole picture. As well, it hints at but doesn’t fully capture where the parents may be with their own religiosity, spirituality or communal ties. The parents’ own background and Jewish baggage may be coming in to play here and it may be complicated and messy in terms of how to raise children. Or, it may be that the parents are just not religiously, culturally or communally inclined even in the most open senses of Jewish expression. It’s not their thing, but it’s in their family and so a confrontation (whether warm and inviting or stressful) with Judaism occurs every now and then for their family.
A few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my son’s torah reading. They both said no.
At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, “There is no one here, go ahead.” They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.
An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the text…it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldn’t they want this honor?
The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the child’s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldn’t my in-laws want to participate?
Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldn’t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one person’s comfort is another person’s discomfort.
Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.
I have been thinking about my in-laws since…we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isn’t a synagogue where they are members. I get it—it wasn’t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.
While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isn’t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesn’t need to offer options because, “Why would a person who isn’t Jewish want to participate?” My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.
Are you a Jewish grandparent navigating your relationship with your child, their partner, and your grandchild? Are you the adult, sandwiched between your parent and your young child, respecting the one who raised you and hoping they will respect your choices in raising your own family? I am curious what works (and what doesn’t work). Please comment below and join me as we start a dialogue about the role of grandparents!
I believe step one should be to have a conversation. The grandparent should sit down with their adult child and discuss how each sees the other’s role. Share thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Respect each other. Recognize that this can be easier said than done!
But then what? Grandparents: what do you do (have you done) that has worked really well? What didn’t work so well that you would do differently next time? Children, what have your parents done that worked (or didn’t)? What do you wish they would do?
I have five ideas to get us started; I’m interested to hear if you think these will be well received.
What would you like to add to this list?