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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
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.
My friend’s daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For today’s society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you “need it now,” my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.
If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The family’s goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parent’s goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the family—its rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.
Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe it’s the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relative—just smile because they aren’t going to change just because you wish they would.
Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: “Grammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.” A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.
Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.
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.
My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. Smart as a whip and made up her own mind about everything. Incredibly independent considering she was married at 19 and never spent a night away from my grandfather in their 72 years together. She had a master’s degree. Traveled the world. Cared deeply about Judaism. All of her strength and character was put to the test when she developed esophageal cancer in her 70s. She moved from Florida to New York for treatment, which no one was particularly hopeful about. People much younger than her rarely beat this type of cancer. She did.
In the year before my grandmother passed at age 91, I explained to her what my new job was at InterfaithFamily, and while I don’t think she fully understood what it is that we do, I think she understood that we help people to live Jewishly. It seems like a simple goal: to help all kinds of people connect with Judaism at all different stages in their lives.
But most often, it’s when someone dies, or someone gets married or is born that people turn to religion. I felt the truth of this over the last week at her funeral and while sitting shiva with my family and friends. Having a rabbi from my family’s synagogue lead us in prayer at our house was unexpectedly comforting.
Just two weeks earlier, in the same house, the same friends were gathered to celebrate my engagement. The Jewish pieces my fiancé and I are fitting together in preparation for our wedding (What should the ketubah say? What will our chuppah be made out of?) are essential parts of the ceremony, for us.
But even though we were both brought up Jewish, we were not born with Jewish knowledge of how to have a Jewish funeral or a Jewish wedding. We needed the rabbi at the cemetery to tell us not to pass the shovel we were using to toss dirt into the grave from one person to another, but to stick it back in the earth first (so as not to pass death), and why to form a path for the immediate family to walk through on their departure from the cemetery (we were supporting my father, uncle and great aunts). While we don’t know all the answers, it is easier for us to find them: We have rabbis and religious family members to turn to with our questions. We had a cousin translate our ketubah into Hebrew.
What if what we needed was not within arm’s length? Where would we turn to find it? Would we even bother?
Creating inclusive Jewish resources for pivotal times in our lives as well as every day that couples with little or no prior religious knowledge can use, and letting people know we have them—and they’re free—is what I think about every day. I also think about my grandmother every day. I don’t think she believed for a second that she would succumb to cancer, and she moved back to Florida after her treatment like nothing had happened. Her natural way of moving through life was to persevere and to be proud of who she was and where she came from. I hope that when you visit this website, you feel welcomed for who you are and supported in finding what you’re looking for.
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?