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January 24, 2011
"I'm afraid to interfere," said Magda, whose son and Methodist daughter-in-law are raising their twin daughters in both faiths. Zayde Nathan shares her sentiments when he says, "My grandson is almost ten and I haven't brought up the Jewish thing. His parents go to a Unitarian Church and they and the kids are happy there, but I won't be here forever. I want my grandson to know about his Jewish roots."
With American intermarriage rate at 50 percent, interfaith families are a reality of modern Jewish life. Today 33 percent of American Jewish families are interfaith, a rise from 28 percent in 1990. These statistics indicate that Grandma Magda and Zayde Nathan are hardly alone. For more than one third of American Jewish families, issues regarding how and when to share Jewish traditions are an important part of the grandparenting experience.
One of the first to describe the joys and challenges facing interfaith grandparents was Sunie Levin, in her groundbreaking book, Mingled Roots – A Guide for Jewish Grandparents of Interfaith Children (UAHC Press, 2003). Levin shares her own experiences as a Jewish interfaith grandma. As a rabbi who supports intermarriage and the uniquely rich treasure trove of traditions that characterizes so many interfaith families, I've applied Levin's perspective to encourage Jewish grandparents to share their love of Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) with their grandkids. How to do it? Grandparents can employ that same patience and joy that works so well when they introduce their grandkids to cooking, sewing, reading and personal hobbies, and use it to gently introduce them to the culture and traditions of their Jewish heritage.
But first, some ground rules. Ancient Jewish practice dictates that we Jews do not proselytize. That means we don't actively try to convert others to become Jews. This rule also applies to our grandchildren. Depending on your family's Jewish denomination, you may already consider your grandchildren to be Jewish, but modern life demonstrates that Jewishness is less about bloodline and more about day to day behavior. Respect is also key. You may not agree with the religious climate (or lack of it) in your grandkids' home, but if you adopt an attitude that demonstrates respect for their choices, interfaith parents are more often than not quite happy with bubby or zayde sharing family history with their children.
The grandkids may understand that mom or dad is Jewish but they've had no experience with the history and traditions of the Jewish people. That's where the grandparents come in. As bearers of the flame of tradition and heritage, grandparents are the family members who give the youngest generation a sense of their history. So it doesn't matter if the grandkids are part of a synagogue-going family or if they are being raised in a Christian or secular environment, grandparents can play an important role in helping their grandkids appreciate who they are and where they've come from. Here are some things that you can do.
Create a Jewish corner in your own home. That means it's time to shine the Hanukkah menorah and buy some Shabbat candles. Find the kiddush cup and great-grandpa's tallit. Select a spot for your mini-museum, making sure that it is eye-level for the little ones. Ask your Jewish son or daughter if she/he would like to contribute a personal item to the "museum," as well. When the grandchildren visit, show them their family museum, let them explore, touch and ask questions. Personalize the items. "This is my father's tallit and these were my mother's Shabbat candlesticks." Before each visit add an item or two and ask your grandchild if she can find what's new in the mini-museum. When the kids are familiar with the items, organize a scavenger hunt to foster a personal hands-on relationship with your family's Jewish treasures.
One Jewish grandmother shared this idea with her in-laws. Her efforts inspired them to create a Catholic Corner in their home so that the interfaith grandchildren could have the same personal experience with the ritual items of their Catholic traditions.
If you and your grandchildren live miles or even continents apart, you can adapt this idea to your long-distance relationship. Discuss the idea with the parents. Let them know that you'd like the grandchildren to have a special shelf for old family pictures and Jewish items that you'll be sending. When the spot is selected, send the first item and explain via telephone, email, or video chat who it belonged to and what it means. Share photos and consider adding an item each month, such as family treasures or newly purchased books, games or toys that correspond with Jewish holidays.
If you are able to spend time with your grandchildren, create a cooking school experience. Use family recipes for brisket, latkes or matza balls and teach the grandkids how to become chefs in Bubby's Jewish Cooking School. While you're creating, be sure to share family memories of how, when and why these Jewish foods were eaten. Invite the parents to sample the feast.
If your personal library includes books on Jewish history, Israel or the Hebrew language, gather these in a child accessible spot to create a Jewish library for your grandchildren. Go shopping together for a special Jewish children's book or together go online to make a choice. Select a special name for your grandchild's Jewish library (one six year old came up with "Bubbe's Books") and together personalize each book with a special nameplate so that the little ones understand that the traditions shared in each book belong to them.
Passover is the Jewish holiday celebrated by more Jews than any other. Traditional, modern or secular, the Passover seder (traditional meal with symbolic foods, prayers and stories) has brought more Yiddishkeit to interfaith families than any other holiday experience. With this in mind, have your grandchildren help you organize the seder. There are websites and books galore that feature ideas for little hands to create individual seder plates and matzah covers, but be sure to plan ahead.
Modern Jewish seder traditions often include creative Haggadot (Passover seder booklets) and one in particular, "The Thirty Minute Seder, has been used effectively to introduce interfaith children and their non-Jewish parents and extended family members to the joys of Passover. Some families tell the Passover story via a short drama. (I recall how one interfaith family had all four grandparents hold the corners of a blue bed sheet. They wiggled it on the ground to simulate the Nile River. Next came the grandchildren who placed a bread basket with a Cabbage Patch Kid inside to dramatize how baby Moses survived Pharaoh's persecution!) If you are open to them, inclusive and creative ideas are endless.
Hanukkah ranks as the second most popular Jewish holiday, even more special because it has its own unique interfaith meaning. Kindling the candles and placing the lighted menorah in the window demonstrates the basic tenet of the festival—religious freedom. An interfaith family is an example of religious tolerance and the appreciation of differences that enhance all of our lives. Making a special Hanukkah celebration that features personal menorahs for each family member–an Italian Jewish tradition from my own family–will allow you and your grandchildren to make or purchase a menorah for everyone.