"Grandma," he excitedly pronounced, "I'm taking Hebrew lessons!" Imagine, my remarkable grandson taking Hebrew lessons . . . on his own initiative! I was surprised and so proud! So, imagine my astonishment, the following year, when my daughter put off the decision to join a temple and said that she's just . . . thinking about a Bar Mitzvah for him. I took a grip and cooly stated that I thought it was a foregone conclusion. "Why does it matter so much to you, Mom?" was the heated response. "You never had a Bat Mitzvah; I never had one; we never even belonged to a temple." True, all true. Of course, in my childhood girls didn't have Bat Mitzvahs. The practice was just beginning in my daughter's time, and we couldn't afford to belong to a temple, but that's another story.
So, that's how my investigation began into why the Bar Mitzvah was important to me, and guess what, it turned out to be a much larger issue than I had anticipated. I have been a non-observant Jew all of my life, celebrating my heritage mostly outside any temple, enjoying the belief that, in America, religion is a private matter. Yet, time and again, being Jewish, observant or not, becomes a public and/or a generational matter, this time regarding my grandchildren's lives.
In my head, point 1: My grandchildren would have a much easier life in this interfaith family (a fact totally unknown to Christians, but well known to Jews) if they'd: a) proclaim themselves Christian, as many illustrious Jewish families have done for business and social purposes; or, b) identify themselves as having no particular religion, like another interfaith set of first cousins.
In my head, point 2: Don't I want their lives to be easier than mine? Why is it so important to me that they go to temple and/or become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?
In my head, point 3: I was raised by warm, caring European-bred parents who belonged to a socialist organization with very "modern" beliefs and called themselves "intellectual/cultural" non-observant Jews. They bonded us to this great country where we learned to respect all, yet take care of our own. We lived through the hell of World War II, worrying about our loved ones (known to me only through pictures and stories) and using our ration stamps for food and clothing to send abroad to help them survive. Many relatives and friends died in the Holocaust, including the four grandparents I never met; and it took hard work in therapy, decades later, to reconcile why I lived and they did not. This is what being a Jew has meant in my family.
After days of introspection, it turns out that what is important to me is the spirit of Judaism: the long, difficult history of our people, love of family, warmth of celebrating holidays, respect for all, sharing with others. This is who we are. This is what being a Jew has meant in my family.
Why is it important to me that my grandson and granddaughter identify themselves as Jews and celebrate their rite of passage with Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Choose from the following: 1) because I have a mission to venerate those who were lost to me and the Jewish world community; 2) because of the harsh anti-Semitic taunts endured in my own youth; 3) because gentiles thought they were complimenting me when they said I looked Italian or Irish and didn't talk like a Jew, so therefore I was acceptable; 4) because there are so many Christian relatives in my grandchildren's lives and so few Jewish ones; 5) because the Jewish cousins will all have their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs; 6) because it is. Pick one or all, you are correct.
So, how am I coping with the situation of being a grandmother in an interfaith family? Sometimes, well . . . sometimes, not so well . . . just like grandmothers in completely Jewish families. The hardest times are discussions with my daughter about too many Hanukkah gifts (she only got one as a child); becoming involved in discussions like temple attendance; their visits to the "other family" during major holidays; and my decision to visit on any day other than Christmas (always questioned by my grandchildren); but, that's another story.
Do I wish this distinction didn't exist? Yes, because it complicates my life. No, because then I wouldn't have the pleasure of my dear son-in-law's company; my sweet, forbearing daughter and I might not have had the necessity to encounter each other's view of a Jewish life; and these particularly unique and endearing grandchildren would not exist.
Would I feel the importance of Jewish identity if the family were not interfaith? Possibly not.
However, considering the problems of other families, Jewish or not, these don't seem to be overwhelming, just inconvenient or, perhaps, I've just gotten used to mine over time.
My new challenges are how to encourage my offspring to become more politically active and where to look for organic produce; but that's yet another story.