Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
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?