The Conversations We Should be Having

  

…with Grandparents with Grandchildren of Interfaith Marriages

 

By Rabbi Richard Address, D. Min. 

Portait of a big family with grandparents having a picnic at a vineyard

In my travels to congregations and Jewish organizations for Jewish Sacred Aging, many issues seem to emerge organically in discussions of family dynamics. More often than not, concerns about caregiving and end-of-life issues are quickly raised. Not unusually, as situations get unpacked, another issue emerges: that of how to grandparent our grandchildren who are products of interfaith marriages.

This issue is no longer representative of a small cohort of families. Indeed, as baby boomers age and become grandparents, we are beginning to see the impact of the gradual rise in interfaith marriages among our own children. How many of our friends have confronted their children when it comes to the question of “How will you be raising your children?” Those children—those names of those children—are part of our claim on immortality. Is it our name, our legacy that is at stake? Or is it something else – a sense of time passing, a loss of control and a sadness that the world we expected will not be ours?

Every clergy person who does weddings has walked this walk with families. Indeed, some of those very same clergy have dealt with this in their own families. The time has come for our community to begin a serious dialogue on this issue. Opportunities for discussions and support for grandparents who are dealing with this issue need to take place and include those grandparents who already are having the conversation and adults whose children are engaged and about to be married.

There are an increasing number of clergy who are now performing interfaith ceremonies. Often during premarital counseling, the issue of how one will raise children comes up. Rarely, in my experience, however, are there opportunities for a conversation with the potential grandparents on their feelings and concerns. We all wish our children to be “happy.” We take pride in the fact that we have raised independent adults, responsible for their own choices. We also are observing that our adult children are more and more choosing marital partners from diverse cultural backgrounds.

How is this growing cultural and religious pluralism given voice within the framework of the larger family system? Could greater opportunities for dialogue and honest sharing of emotions lead to greater harmony and understanding? Hiding those feelings surely can and does create barriers and in the end, don’t we all wish to nurture and savor these very primal family relationships? Aren’t these relationships ever more meaningful as we age?

I recently sat down with a grandparents whose children married partners who are not Jewish. Not atypical, this couple was in a second marriage and so we add the issues of “blended” relationships and the boundaries that come with this reality. We discussed some of the issues that these grandparents, both active and involved within their Jewish community, faced when dealing with their married children and their grandchildren. I asked them if they could suggest a brief checklist of issues that would be good to keep in mind. Some of the issues they raised were:

  • What does the role of “family” play in your religious tradition? What does the role of religion play within your family’s tradition?
  • How much discussion was there between your adult children and you, the parent, regarding their decision on how to raise children?
  • Looking back, what were the issues that influenced how you responded to this issue? How did friends, family, community, religious identification and philosophy influence you?
  • Was this the first interfaith marriage within your family or extended family? If not, how was it handled before? What lessons were learned?
  • Are the feelings you have for your grandchildren who are being raised in another tradition different from your feelings for grandchildren who are being raised in your own tradition? Do you feel less connected? Is your love of a “different” nature?
  • How do you handle speaking to your grandchildren about your tradition? Do you seek permission from the children’s parents to discuss holidays, books, etc.?
  • Have the two sets of grandparents ever discussed this issue?
  • If your adult child converted to their spouse’s religion, what were your emotions? Likewise, if your grandchild was baptized, how did you react?

These questions and concerns are being discussed and considered by an increasing number of grandparents now. It’s time for our community to create meaningful and non-judgmental opportunities for these issues to be raised. Our most important social connection remains family. How can we have an open conversation and honest dialogue? To repress emotions leads only to anger and discomfort and in an age which is so fraught with uncertainty, let’s open these doors to a pathway to “shalom bayit.”

Assisted Living Upgrade

  

By Joy Fields

Women laughing

When my fiercely independent mother recently suffered myriad health issues, it was clear she could no longer live alone. My husband and I were faced with finding an assisted living facility that would address all her health needs, but provide her with a comfortable social atmosphere that would keep her mentally healthy as well. We had to add to the decision making mix her being very active in Houston’s Jewish community—an area of town a 45 minute drive from us. Without traffic. When’s that?

Mom had been a five- to ten-minute bus ride from two Reform temples, two Conservative temples and a “Sephardic” temple, which made her raise her eyebrows but had the best onegs (post service desserts). There were also Orthodox temples and a Lubavitch Center but really, darling, who needs to be that religious? Friends accompanied her to the nearby Jewish Community Center for occasional classes, artistic performances and lunch seminars where, to be honest, she couldn’t quite understand the rebbe, but the lox was fantastic. She sang in two choirs and led karaoke as a volunteer at a Jewish nursing home.

Our suburb has one temple that services every denomination within a thirty mile radius. Over half the families are interfaith and there are many from a plethora of backgrounds who converted. The shul is open most Friday nights, plus Sunday and Wednesday evenings for classes. No choir. No cantor. The rabbi sings slightly off-tune but can be drowned out pretty easily.

The grocery store next to Mom’s apartment complex had every imaginable kosher-for-Passover item on display a month before the holidays. She could get up early in the morning and stock up on pesadich borscht before the masses completely bought it out (kosher for Passover beet soup—really, not something anyone need to know about). She could buy enough garlic/onion Tam Tams to provide snacks for twenty friends. Don’t worry darling, those never go bad. Sometimes she’d pull out a box in September and offer you one to prove that point.

Our suburban grocery stores usually remember to order multipacks of plain white matzah. They also carry gefilte fish in the “ethnic aisle” between the hoisin sauce and the frijoles. Not sure why.

My husband and I both work full time and were already exhausted from our numerous commutes to her hospital room near her old digs. We knew that if Mom were closer to us, we’d be able to visit more regularly and address her emergency issues (like bottle tops being screwed on too tightly, running out of pennies before the Bingo tournament or the prescription caddy spilling, which seems a higher priority to me).

So after a whirlwind of Internet searching and facility touring, we found a great place near us. In an ethnically diverse environment that would expose her to cultural richness from all over the world, but no JCC.

It’s a safe but affordable studio, with three daily meals served in a high ceilinged, brightly lit room on white linen and china, where she can be seated with friendly residents. Snacks available 24/7. Van transportation for appointments, organized outings and “WallyWorld Wednesdays.” On-site therapists, nurses, aids, beauticians and an activities director that would put The Love Boat staff to shame. There was even a sing-along group. We showed Mom the “Standard Favorites” song list. She could later ease in to gospel night.

At first Mom was very apprehensive, but realizing she would not be able to care for herself and not wanting to move in with us, she agreed to try it out. We addressed her dietary concerns: There were substitute menu items for pork chop night. She could politely decline bacon at breakfast. The activities director would introduce her around to residents who had similar interests to sit with. We explained showing silent respect to anyone blessing their meal according to their custom, without being expected to join in. No one would force her to cross herself. Or eat the crunchy white part of the lettuce that she hates.

We arranged all of her furniture that would fit as closely as possible to her previous apartment layout. Her prayer books and song books were on the most easy to reach bookcase shelf. Her Jewish community newspaper would arrive in her new mailbox. As, of course, would the TV guide. (This may not have religious significance to you, but to the retired, it’s universally sacred.)

We hung her family photos and set out her knick-knacks. Her “Shalom Y’all” and “Keep Calm and Kosher On” magnets were on her mini-fridge. Her candle holders and hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) were displayed on a top shelf. No way were we giving her matches…um, facility rules. We affixed a magnet to her mezuzah so it would hang on her door frame.

This turned out to be a conversation starter with residents taking a walker break in front of her door. She loved explaining what that “thing” was, and what was on the scroll inside it. Several of her neighbors had short term memory problems so she could explain it again the next day. And they could share background on their religious articles with her. Repeatedly.

We set out a large calendar and several pens so she could keep track of appointments. We set out her address book, because who needs to type all those numbers into your phone when you can just look it up? We pointed out the cords for emergency help, there, there and there. We clarified the definition of “emergency.”

We stocked her mini-fridge with healthy snacks, and were encouraged to later find her checking labels for non-vegetarian ingredients to make sure she could share with her new Hindu neighbor across the hall.

Very quickly, we were assured her transition was going smoothly. I picked up a prescription for her on my way home from work, and signed in to the reception area. One of Mom’s new lunch partners shuffled by and winked at me, adding, “Oh, aren’t you a mensch!  But I think she’s about to say ganug on the meds already.” (Yiddish for “good person” and “enough.”)

I pressed the elevator button. The door swung open and there was Mom, practically running me down with her walker. “Hi Mom, I got your medication.”

“Oh, thanks, doll. Just put it up in my room. They’re having a wine and cheese party in the activity room and I don’t want to be late.”

Praised be the maker of the fruit of the vine.