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Can a Jewish Bubbe Help a New Generation Keep the Faith?

Reprinted with permission from j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.

Republished October 6, 2010

I am a Jewish grandmother who had neither a Jewish mother nor a real bubbe. I was born Jewish, but that’s about it.

My only living grandmother didn’t know from Yiddish and didn’t cook anything more demanding than Franco-American spaghetti. My mother cooked a mean brisket and great matzah ball soup, but she didn’t know Judaism. Friday night dinners were at a hamburger place on the way to the Hamptons. The only Shabbat I ever experienced was as a counselor at camp, where kids said a blessing before tossing napkins laden with chicken grease.

"My father’s American-born grandmother lit the candles and then served her Friday night special: clam chowder followed by baked ham."

My father’s American-born grandmother lit the candles and then served her Friday night special: clam chowder followed by baked ham. On my maternal side, I’m told, my great-great-grandmother lit candles. But all that tradition was lost until I found religion.

In my 40s, after a divorce, I returned to Judaism. In 2000, two years after my bat mitzvah, my husband and I stood under the huppah, celebrating the first Jewish marriage for both of us. And now we find ourselves explaining customs not only to our grown children, but to grandkids who are not being raised Jewish.

Visiting us while her parents were in Hawaii, my oldest granddaughter, Lindsay, wanted to know if I could make pizza for lunch.

“No, I don’t make pizza.”

“Is that ’cause you’re Jewish?”

“No, I just don’t make pizza. I order pizza.”

The conversation turned to our holidays. Kelsey, her little sister, was concerned. “Do you have birthdays?” she asked, her blue eyes welling up.

“Yes,” I said. “We have birthdays. We have Shabbat every Friday night, and we have a lot of other holidays. We have everything you have, but we don’t do Christmas.”

That night, after we picked apricots from the tree and made a cobbler for dessert, we had Shabbat dinner on the patio. Lindsay giggled during my chanting (other family members have been known to do that as well, in spite of my singing lessons) and Kelsey tried to blow out the candles.

They loved the cobbler, but Lindsay and Kelsey weren’t all that impressed with Shabbat. They prefer Hanukkah, which brings gelt along with the latkes.

But William and Shelby, my husband’s grandkids, think Shabbat is the greatest thing since ripped hallah.

The same goes for Simchat Torah. Before we were married, we took William to a service in Alameda, Calif., where he marched around with an Israel flag, devoured candy and stayed up past his bedtime on sugar overload. So we didn’t need to twist his arm about coming to the “candy service” in Los Altos Hills, Calif. But he balked when I asked him to wear a yarmulke and wanted to know why he needed one.

I intoned, “Because you’re in the house of God.”

“God lives here?” he said, astonished. Then he noticed the guitar-playing rabbi and cantor on the bimah. “Who are those people?” he asked. “God’s family?”

“Yes,” I said. “We are all children of God.”

In wonderment, he took his seat and eventually joined the candy free-for-all.

But Judaism to William and Shelby is not just about candy. It’s about another kind of sweetness--the dining room table, set with a tablecloth and topped with flowers and our special challah plate. It’s about the glow of candles. It’s about stopping to catch our breath. And it’s about “grape milk,” the weird concoction of kosher grape juice and milk that my husband conceived one Shabbat and that the kids have grown to love.

One Shabbat, as we said the prayers over the candles, the bread and the wine, 4-year-old Shelby interrupted, asking when we were going to put our hands on her head and bless her. We did, singing a song written by Mah Tovu, our rabbi’s singing trio. She beamed, and we felt blessed.

Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. Yiddish for "grandmother." Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.

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