Can a Jewish Bubbe Help a New Generation Keep the Faith?

By Janet Silver Ghent


Reprinted with permission from j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.

Republished October 6, 2010

I am a Jewish grandmother who had neither a Jewish mother nor a real bubbe. I was born Jewish, but that’s about it.

My only living grandmother didn’t know from Yiddish and didn’t cook anything more demanding than Franco-American spaghetti. My mother cooked a mean brisket and great matzah ball soup, but she didn’t know Judaism. Friday night dinners were at a hamburger place on the way to the Hamptons. The only Shabbat I ever experienced was as a counselor at camp, where kids said a blessing before tossing napkins laden with chicken grease.

“My father’s American-born grandmother lit the candles and then served her Friday night special: clam chowder followed by baked ham.”

My father’s American-born grandmother lit the candles and then served her Friday night special: clam chowder followed by baked ham. On my maternal side, I’m told, my great-great-grandmother lit candles. But all that tradition was lost until I found religion.

In my 40s, after a divorce, I returned to Judaism. In 2000, two years after my bat mitzvah, my husband and I stood under the huppah, celebrating the first Jewish marriage for both of us. And now we find ourselves explaining customs not only to our grown children, but to grandkids who are not being raised Jewish.

Visiting us while her parents were in Hawaii, my oldest granddaughter, Lindsay, wanted to know if I could make pizza for lunch.

“No, I don’t make pizza.”

“Is that ’cause you’re Jewish?”

“No, I just don’t make pizza. I order pizza.”

The conversation turned to our holidays. Kelsey, her little sister, was concerned. “Do you have birthdays?” she asked, her blue eyes welling up.

“Yes,” I said. “We have birthdays. We have Shabbat every Friday night, and we have a lot of other holidays. We have everything you have, but we don’t do Christmas.”

That night, after we picked apricots from the tree and made a cobbler for dessert, we had Shabbat dinner on the patio. Lindsay giggled during my chanting (other family members have been known to do that as well, in spite of my singing lessons) and Kelsey tried to blow out the candles.

They loved the cobbler, but Lindsay and Kelsey weren’t all that impressed with Shabbat. They prefer Hanukkah, which brings gelt along with the latkes.

But William and Shelby, my husband’s grandkids, think Shabbat is the greatest thing since ripped hallah.

The same goes for Simchat Torah. Before we were married, we took William to a service in Alameda, Calif., where he marched around with an Israel flag, devoured candy and stayed up past his bedtime on sugar overload. So we didn’t need to twist his arm about coming to the “candy service” in Los Altos Hills, Calif. But he balked when I asked him to wear a yarmulke and wanted to know why he needed one.

I intoned, “Because you’re in the house of God.”

“God lives here?” he said, astonished. Then he noticed the guitar-playing rabbi and cantor on the bimah. “Who are those people?” he asked. “God’s family?”

“Yes,” I said. “We are all children of God.”

In wonderment, he took his seat and eventually joined the candy free-for-all.

But Judaism to William and Shelby is not just about candy. It’s about another kind of sweetness–the dining room table, set with a tablecloth and topped with flowers and our special challah plate. It’s about the glow of candles. It’s about stopping to catch our breath. And it’s about “grape milk,” the weird concoction of kosher grape juice and milk that my husband conceived one Shabbat and that the kids have grown to love.

One Shabbat, as we said the prayers over the candles, the bread and the wine, 4-year-old Shelby interrupted, asking when we were going to put our hands on her head and bless her. We did, singing a song written by Mah Tovu, our rabbi’s singing trio. She beamed, and we felt blessed.


About Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at