Advice for Assimilated Family Reunions

  

By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Family Reunion

Q: I am having a family reunion. Half of the youngest generation has married people of other backgrounds. How can I use this opportunity to educate the Jewish members of my family about their heritage? And also to help those who do not currently identify as Jewish to understand how important Judaism has been in contributing to their lives?

A: I can only share my own experience in response to this question. A confluence of events—a bar mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding, a trip to Maine—brought four of the seven lines of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of my grandparents, Zelda and Shmuel, to Boston. Thus, a long talked-about family reunion was planned and executed. It involved 54 cousins of four generations from ages 2 to 88 with two in utero. I was the host for the meal.Dr. Ruth Nemzoff gives advice about family reunions

 

Like so many assimilated families, progeny of a once very close extended family had scattered across the States. Though many of us had never met each other, family behavior immediately kicked in. Everyone volunteered to either bring food or to pay the expenses. Many of us, including myself, found old insecurities coming to the fore. Though my self concept is not “hostess with the mostest,” I worried whether or not my family would approve of my choice of paper plates. After all, a gracious table could mean china and silver for some in the family and for others, matching paper plates. Of course, no one cared.

We used the opportunity to tell our family history, which few of the third or fourth generation knew. My family owes its existence to the courage of two people who separated themselves from their families and all that was familiar to chance life in a strange new land. My family is also a product of world events beyond their control.

My grandfather left Russia because he heard at the market that the Russo-Japanese War had broken out. He sent a note to his pregnant wife and three children under six that he would send for them. He had already served four years in the Czar’s army and was not interested in fighting in a war which meant nothing to him. Over fifty future lives were changed by that decision, changed by a war that many of us had never heard, or knew only as a footnote in a history book. Our family’s history is also the story of their progeny, growing up with one foot in the Old World culture of their parents and one in the new.

I used the food, too, to educate about our grandparents’ customs. It did not seem fitting to mix milk and meat at the event, since my grandparents kept a Kosher home. Their lives revolved around Shabbat and the holidays. I knew a meat deli platter would horrify the younger generation, some of whom are vegetarian, which is, after all, the new Kosher. Like Kashrut, vegetarianism adds meaning to the daily task of eating. It makes us think about what we do and how we live in the world. I pointed this out to the attendees.

Kugels, garden salad and mandel bread were the solution, a way to bring back the smells and tastes of weekly gatherings for all the aunts and uncles and their families: the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of those in the room. Planning this menu proved to be a wonderful way to manage conflict. We were able to compromise and accommodate the needs of everyone, despite their gastronomical preferences.

Food gives sustenance to families both literally and figuratively. It allows us to pass our customs on generation to generation. Food is both a way to control children and  to educate them. We used the food to teach the younger generation about kashrut: how it helped Jews to maintain their community, and how the lack of it—more recently—is one way of demonstrating their assimilation.

There was, for the older generation, emotional memory in the food. It connected us with the past and honored our grandparents. Food was a way of including our progenitors and bringing religion and culture, into a family in which only some of them considered themselves Jewish. The food was also a way of reinforcing identity. It was a reminder of family life. But, also, of a more gendered time: a time when women were in the kitchen and men sat in the living room. In the English aristocracy, a family meal meant work for the servants. For Jewish peasants, a family meal meant the women gossiping, preparing and cleaning, creating both memories and nourishment.

We spent the day connecting and fantasizing about a simpler time, much as our grandparents would have done as they told stories of the old country. In both cases, the nostalgia glossed over the difficulties. In der haim (in the old country), my grandmother would nostalgically recall the family Shabbat, despite the fact that their life involved hunger and dirt floors. We explored the losses and gains of assimilation.

The food provided a way to manage conflict and a way to reconnect. As we collectively produced the food and cleaned up, it gave us a shared task and a way for us to act like family.

Whether family members considered themselves Jewish or “of Jewish heritage,” the serendipity of our births rested on the more than the accidental coming together or a particular sperm and a particular egg. It was a result of the kindness of Christians who protected our grandmother in the shtetl as the Cossacks came through on a killing spree. She had stayed long enough to experience the rampage resulting from the Czar’s blame of the Jews for the losing the  war.

The existence of each one of us was owed to the kindness of the Jewish community as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) supported my grandmother when she was waylaid in Germany while my six-year-old Aunt Alice was cured of trachoma. My grandfather Shmuel had finally saved enough money working as a Kosher butcher to send passage for her and the kids. No one could deny that being Jewish was an integral part of their story, nor that each of us owes a debt to the organized Jewish community.

Zelda and Shmuel had seven children in total. The two boys won scholarships to college. The five girls settled for post-high school training. Who knows how far and how fast those five remarkable sisters might have gone had women had equal opportunity. We are indeed products of the opportunities our times give us.

What was evident as we sat and chatted, was that this family was built on Jewish values. Unlike most peasants, both my grandmother and grandfather could read. This gave them, and subsequently each of us, a leg up here in America. These values focused on family and education and involvement in their community.

My generation spanned thirty years. Our varied stories were a lesson in historiography. What is truth, what is memory, and why do they differ? Our various interpretations of our past was also a chance to reinforce a collective identity, and remind the youngest generation of their debt to Jewish values and to the Jewish community. We talked of how the lessons passed on to us influenced our life choices, why so many of us volunteered our time and so many of went into helping professions. We knew our lives depended on others.

I cannot reverse the tide of history, nor the results of assimilation. But, I think our reunion was powerful tool for educating even those family members who do not identify as Jewish that they owe a huge debt to Judaism and the Jewish community for their very existence and for some of their opportunities. My hope is that each person who attended was inspired to tell this story to their children.

You can use your family reunion to demonstrate that as marvelous, brilliant and creative as we may think we are, we are also products of our current time and place, as well as cultural-historical past.

This post originally appeared on The American Israelite and is reprinted with permission.

A Not-So-Cookie Cutter Hanukkah

  

By Jessica TobacmanTobacman_cookie cutters

We were late. ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the aisles of Target, my husband and I were doing our version of stuffing stockings. We were running so fast we were practically sliding to try to fill his stocking and my festive Chinese takeout box before we left for his parents’ house.

We each picked up cookie cutters for the other person, but unfortunately Target is not known for its Jewish cookie cutters. Although I found a package of winter cookie cutters for him, they still included a tree. I love Target and would buy out the entire store, but it’s not our go-to for Jewish holiday foods or items. We were lucky to find a menorah at one store the year before, though. (What’s funny is that my husband is the one who usually remembers to light our Hanukkah candles.)

We did our best, but in the end he still couldn’t find cookie cutters for Hanukkah at Target. I think this exemplifies how I feel at Christmas: Takeout boxes and menorahs aside, it ain’t easy bein’ Jewish.

Growing up in a college town in Iowa, mine was one of the few Jewish families around. I still remember wanting to connect with other kids celebrating Christmas while we were ordering Chinese food and going to the movies. So although I feel guilty about it, there’s a part of me that’s happy that I finally get to celebrate Christmas. We open presents and bake cookies. It all works like clockwork until I go to church with my in-laws on Christmas Eve and hear the word “Jesus” one too many times. And, suddenly, I feel more alone than ever.

The winter holidays are easier and harder since I met my husband. Now I have the right person to celebrate them with, but it has come with a conflicted sense of identity. Instead of the clearly defined separation from Christmas that I grew up with, I can’t remain on the outside of the holiday and culture that surrounds us in the States. I still want to remain outside, but I’m also inside the phenomenon.

The phrase “December dilemma” implies there’s a conflict. But while it’s easy to say it’s external, between spending time decorating the tree or lighting Hanukkah candles, isn’t it more internal? It’s the cognitive dissonance between being with people you love and hearing about the one they adore, and needing to escape into the lobby of the church. It’s making Christmas cookies and needing to avoid most of the cookie cutters because they’re outlining the differences you’re not discussing.

Now, however, I’m trying a different strategy. For my husband, the holiday season was incomplete until we had a Christmas tree in our home. I still have trouble unfolding this umbrella tree (and not just because it’s larger than I am), but now I try to see it as a traditional symbol, not a religious one. Indeed, the tree is a fake one that my in-laws took with them when they moved from house to house; it’s literally part of their family’s history.

Helping my partner lug the tree up our basement stairs is part of helping him observe his holiday. (Our cats try to help set up the tree, too, but their version involves eating the tinsel instead of putting it up.) It’s all part of our life together. I used to walk through the store aisles, see menorah and dreidel ornaments and feel confused. Now I understand that these are pieces of new traditions we are creating. In a way, when we add these to a Christmas tree, we are resting symbols of a smaller Jewish holiday on the branches of a much bigger Christian one. We all make choices. I never anticipated having a Christmas tree in my home, but I always knew there would be a menorah shining out the window.

Christianity started when people began following a Jewish man. He searched and others found him to be so wise they thought he was the Messiah. Although Jews think he was a good man, we disagree with the Christian conclusion. This could be considered, simply, a major difference of opinion. The weird part is that it’s between Christians and Jews, rather than between two Jews (who would, of course, have three opinions).

We hold different beliefs and lug different traditions out of our storage closets. And Target may or may not have our cookie cutters. But in the end, I think each of us would like a secure place to keep whatever cookie cutters we’ve bought, and family to help us fill them with dough. My mother-in-law has a fabulous recipe, and although she keeps it close, I think it involves elements found in many kitchens: love, warmth and laughter.  Maybe a little bit of teasing and schmaltz, too.

Sugar Cookies

  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tsp. milk
  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ¼ tsp. salt

 

1. Thoroughly cream shortening, sugar and vanilla. Add egg; beat until light and fluffy. Stir in milk. Sift together dry ingredients, then blend into creamed mixture. Divide dough in half. Chill 1 hour.

2. On lightly floured surface, roll half of dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Keep other half of dough chilled until ready to use. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from pan. Makes two-dozen cookies.