January 17, 2006
L'dor V'dor... Hebrew for "from generation to generation." A beautiful and central concept in Judaism, and one that evokes emotional images of the Torah lovingly passed from grandparents who are kvelling (beaming with pride and happiness), to proud parents, to a child at his or her B'nai Mitzvah. A happy and proud moment for a family, enjoyed by the onlooking congregational community, but also an important moment symbolizing survival and continuity for the Jewish people. What does it mean in an interfaith family, when some of the grandparents are not Jewish?
I'm certain that when my mother Joan Coulson became an Episcopalian in her early twenties, she didn't imagine a future that included a Jewish daughter, never mind Jewish grandchildren! She had grown up in a Protestant Christian (though not particularly religious) home in Kansas City during the thirties. She tells the story of going to a Christmas concert with a friend and falling in love with the ritual and ceremony at that church... something about it spoke to her, and a month or so later, she joined St. Paul's Episcopal Church (which she still attends). Several years later she married my father, who was raised Southern Baptist but as an adult was thoroughly disinterested in church membership of any denomination. My brother and I attended Sunday school and church sporadically, but it was not a central aspect of our family life.
When I married my born-Jewish husband Nelson Obus, our totally Jewish wedding (complete with chuppah, or wedding canopy) was preceded by much exploration of Jewish resources in New York City and discussion of Christmas trees (or lack thereof) and how hypothetical children might be raised. My mother was aware of these premarital negotiations, and it was at this time that what I am certain is the world's largest Midwest-based Judaic clipping file was born. To this day, more than twenty years later, I regularly receive fat envelopes full of articles featuring Passover and Hanukkah recipes, Jewish women's events in Kansas City, and interfaith couples' December dilemma stories. When nearly a year after our wedding I called to tell her I had decided to convert to Judaism, her first response was, "That's great. I always thought it was a matter of when, not if."
It has been easy to include her, at our son's bris, on Shabbat (Sabbath), at Hanukkah, at Passover, even Purim. She has become something of an expert on everyday Judaism among her friends. When I had an adult Bat Mitzvah with five other women, my mother, of course, attended, bringing a carefully chosen gift of a Kiddish cup.
A year later, and about six months before my son's Bar Mitzvah, I approached our cantor and then rabbi with a simple request... that we find a way to honor and include my mother in the ceremony. They were willing but at first uncertain as to what she could do. In our congregation, she could not touch the Torah or open or close the doors to where the Torah is kept, or (what I had most commonly seen grandparents do) chant the traditional blessing before the Torah is read. I made it clear that I was not looking to cause controversy, but that it was important that she be recognized not only in her role as sole surviving grandparent, but also for her willingness to be a supportive fellow traveler in our family's religious life. I suggested that she might make a few personal remarks and perhaps find a poem to read. They agreed this sounded right.
In my entire life I had never known my mother to speak in public, and I expected her to hesitate, or possibly say no. So when I called her and asked if she was interested, she surprised (and pleased) me with her immediate willingness. She then drove me crazy for several months as she tried to come up with just the right words. Finally, these are the ones she chose:
Eli, I am sorry that you were not privileged to know your grandfathers. Your other grandmother, Clara Obus, who was very proud of you and would have been so much a part of this day, is also no longer with us. These words from the Talmud are a wish from all of us:
May you live to see your world fulfilled.
May your destiny be for worlds to come;
May you trust in generations past and yet to be.
My your heart be filled with intuition and words with insight;
May songs of praise ever be on your tongue
And your visions be on a straight path before you.
Eighteen months later, she blessed her granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah with some equally wonderful words:
You are a woman of a beautiful legacy,
with a future of endless possibility.
May your every dream be realized,
your every hope come true.
Many people later told me that they had been "fine" until my mother spoke, at which point they were moved to tears. One friend could not imagine her mother in the reverse situation, sitting in the pews of a church while her grandchild was welcomed into another faith. This simple act gave people a lot to think about. But mostly, it meant a lot to our family. Was my mother kvelling? Of course. It may be a Yiddish word, but it refers to the universal condition of grandparents in the presence of their grandchildren doing wonderful things.