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"Gimel!" my dad shouted as he scooped up the pile of Jelly Bellies in the center of the table. He was referring to the letter of the Hebrew alphabet on the dreidel (spinning top) that had just landed face up, telling him, "you win." It was Hanukkah, and we had my parents over for our annual dinner and game of dreidel, which we always play with such fervor. In my family, we play for Jelly Bellies in addition to the usual chocolate coins, called gelt.
We had just finished eating a wonderful meal of chicken, broccoli, and latkes (fried potato pancakes) with applesauce. Earlier, my parents had helped us light the menorah (the candelabra of eight candles, plus one "helper" candle that is lit during Hanukkah). My mom and dad had even sung some of the traditional songs with us. While they didn't do any of the cooking, they did play with our two daughters, Gabby and Molly, so that Bonnie and I could prepare the meal.
In many Jewish homes, it is not unusual for the grandparents to help out with religious celebrations — unless, that is, they're not Jewish. Although I am Protestant, I've had about fifteen years to learn a lot about Judaism from my wife, Bonnie. My mom and dad, on the other hand, are relatively just starting out. They finally began getting serious about learning more when our first daughter was born. Before then, they had an interested but limited knowledge of my wife's religion. My parents are very loving and family oriented. So, fortunately for us, they were really enthusiastic about helping their grandchildren celebrate their holidays.
The first step that Bonnie and I took in bringing my parents into the fold was explaining what each holiday is about. For example, we told them what Shabbat (the Sabbath) is, why we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, and why Bonnie fasts on Yom Kippur. The first time I built a sukkah (hut for eating and sleeping in during the holiday of Sukkot), I explained to my dad why I had just built this, in his words, "tool shed with a leaky roof." He was only trying to be funny. But, all kidding aside, my dad thought the whole tradition of inviting friends and family over for a special meal to be eaten under the stars was really "neat." It made me feel good that he took the time to ask about it and learn another aspect of the Jewish religion. Today, my parents know all about Sukkot and can speak intelligently about it to their grandchildren. I dare say, they know more about it than some of my Jewish friends who do not pay much attention to this holiday. I wouldn't call Mom and Dad experts, but at least they're knowledgeable. For instance, they probably couldn't tell a lulav from an etrog (two symbolic objects found in the sukkah), but at least they've seen them and know where they belong.
I think my parents enjoy learning as much as they can about their grandkids' religion. It helps them feel a lot more comfortable and welcome when they help our children celebrate their holidays. My mom and dad are just as much of a fixture at the Jewish Community Center pre-school holiday functions as any other kid's grandparents. Granted, they often have to be reminded when a Jewish holiday is coming up. (I guess having everything based on a lunar calendar doesn't help.)
Of course, living in an interfaith family has its advantages, too. It opens all sorts of windows to parts of society that you never knew existed. I know my life is richer for having met Bonnie and learned about Judaism. I try to pass these discoveries along to my parents, as well. I remember one day I was sitting around talking with my mom and dad about how lucky we were that all of our parents had been relatively accepting of our marriage. Many parents (of any religion) do not favor intermarriage. From a Jewish standpoint, one reason, I explained, is that many feel that it's harder to perpetuate their culture and religion if their members keep intermarrying. I don't think my mom and dad had ever looked at it that way.
Helping my parents understand their grandchildren's Judaism is not all about "on this holiday you sing this, and on this holiday you eat that." Living in the United States, my parents and I have always been in the majority. For the first time, I was able to show them a perspective that I had learned from a minority culture. Now, in my own way, I am a part of that minority. And, like it or not (and they do), my parents are, as well.