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Making From Generation to Generation Meaningful for ALL Grandparents

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.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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 "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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 language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. 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. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Eve Coulson

Eve Coulson has spoken, written, led groups, and organized conferences on intermarriage issues as they affect individuals, couples, families and the Jewish community. She serves on the boards of Lilith Magazine and Jewish Family and Children's Services of Greater Mercer County, NJ.

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