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My Grandkids Aren't Jewish. So What?

September 25, 2007

My parents and grandparents were immigrants who came to this country from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. They all spoke Yiddish at home but discouraged us from learning to speak anything but English.

My grandfather built a house in Dorchester, Mass. Our neighbors were Armenian, Greek and Irish, but we remained the only Jews. My childhood was full of rich experiences with an ethnic diversity not found in many places. My neighborhood friends all went to church. I remember once even going to Confession with my best friend, because he thought it would be a good idea considering our frequent shoplifting activities at the corner candy store.

There was anti-Semitism, but not from our local neighbors with whom we shared many good times. But I was aware at a very early age that we were the only Jews in the area, and during World War II, there was often times when being a Jew was frightening. As a young boy I overheard family talking, in a whisper, about the atrocities in Europe, while they sat around my grandmother's dining table on Shabbos (the Sabbath).

Perhaps because of growing up with non-Jews, and because of the war fears, my two brothers and I all married Christian women. My sister was the only one to marry a Jew. My family originally opposed our marriage, as any God-loving Jewish family would then. They wrote to me, they cajoled me, they threatened not to attend the wedding. But in the long run they came to love my wife, who over the years became more Jewish, in many ways, than they were. She lights the candles and says the prayers at the seder, and is a much better Jewish cook than my mother. She even makes hamantaschen for Purim.

My wife's family was even more hostile to our marriage. The first fight my wife and I had occurred on the night before our wedding because I was upset that my wife's sister wore a cross around her neck to the rehearsal dinner. We got beyond this, and a couple of years later, I overheard my mother-in-law tell a friend of hers, "We love him even though he is Jewish."

Today, my wife loves the Jewish holidays and cooks and bakes holiday foods. I think she would convert if I were religious at all. We are more likely to attend a synagogue function than a church function. I would say that half of our friends are Jewish, and half Christian.

Growing up, our own children were offered a choice of going to a church or a synagogue. We suggested Sunday schools. We bought them books of Bible stories when they were young. But it appeared that neither of our boys wanted any part of formal religion. Big surprise, given that my neither wife not I did, either.

We always celebrated Hanukkah and Passover, as well as Christmas and Easter, with wonderful meals and theatrical productions around the Passover seder. We are cultural Jews. We rarely go to services. Not too long ago we went to a Purim reading of the Megillah. Another time we went to a Friday night service because the rabbi is a good friend.

So guess what happened? Almost according to Mendelian genetics, one son became more identified with Jewish tradition, and the other with Christianity. Our older son was married a few weeks ago under a huppah (wedding canopy) and stomped, along with his non-practicing Christian spouse, on wine glasses, and everyone shouted "Mazel tov." They asked me to officiate at the wedding. Our younger son, who I think regretted not having formal religion in his life, married a United Church of Christ minister and he has become very involved at their church.

Our grandchildren go to church, but my 10-year-old grandson, at one point, told me that he wanted to be Jewish, like me. The two grandchildren don't like going to church, but go, they tell me, because it's their family tradition.

My relationship with my grandson Andrew is very special. We live in Maine and he lives in Connecticut. For some period of time we have talked on the phone every day. We discuss baseball, school, how he has been doing with his Karate lessons, Runescape (a computer game we play over the Internet together), piano lessons, Little League, the family, when we are going to see each other again, and then we have secrets. My grandson is passionate about baseball, and in a few weeks my son, grandson and I are going to Fenway Park to eat peanuts, hotdogs, and watch the Red Sox win.

This past spring we all got together for a Passover seder. The grandchildren participated in the reading of the haggadah, and had a look of wonder on their faces as hail, locusts, and vermin fell from the ceiling, thanks to their magical uncle who can also make water turn into blood. Our 10-year-old grandson read the four questions, and his 12-year-old sister tasted everything, and with a smack of her lips, managed to say, "This is not too bad at all." The next day we celebrated Easter and had an Easter egg hunt. Our granddaughter always discovers most of the hidden eggs. And, of course, we had another fabulous meal that we all cooked together.

I know that both grandchildren are looking forward to Hanukkah because every year my wife and I wrap eight presents for each of them, and they light the menorah every night before they open their gifts. I think they light the menorah and say the prayer to honor me. And I do feel honored.

Yiddish for "Haman's pockets," and shaped after the three-corner hat of Haman (the villain of the Purim story), these are triangular cookies with poppy seed, jam or fruit filling in the middle. Hebrew and Yiddish for "good luck," a phrase used to express congratulations for happy and significant occasions. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. 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. Hebrew for "scroll," usually refers to the Scroll of Esther ("Megillat Esther"), the biblical book read on the holiday of Purim. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) 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. 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 "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. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Milton Davis is a retired psychiatrist living in Maine. He and his wife have been married over 50 years and together have two sons, one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. For each of them, family is valued very highly.

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