Tradition! Tradition?

By Joan Millman


My three granddaughters, age 5, 8, and 11, attend a Montessori School. Set in bucolic woods, the glow of the white wooden buildings is like nothing I ever experienced in any school, or could give my own four children. A classroom there is a wonderland of discovery. Caring adults circulate as guides, while the students choose from a smorgasbord of brain-stretching activities.

This particular school specializes in musical performances. The children make the scenery, as much of the costumes as they can with adult help, and assist backstage with the makeup.

Of course “Fiddler on the Roof” provided a rich array of colorful sets, clothing, accents, music, dancing, hate, forgiveness, exile, pathos, pity.

How many times have I seen this show? By the best talented actors, on the stage, in film. Ah, Zero Mostel! It never fails to move me. I think of my own heritage, ancestors who live in stories told by my parents. The bitter word “pogrom” gags in my mouth. My own forebears ran away from Eastern Europe to escape these horrors.

As in any well-run elementary school, the school itself offers no sign of observed religion. One Asian classmate, adopted from Beijing, told me she is half-Jewish and half-Chinese. She wears a Star of David. Though my daughter also wears a Star of David, my grandchildren wear no religious sigs around their graceful necks.

Mike, one of the teachers, is Jewish. On a “Special Persons Visiting Day,” I watch him gather the 10-12 year olds for a story. His story is about Tevye. He goes into it in depth: why Tevye forbids his daughter to marry out of the faith; how he comes to forgive her anyway; how the Cossacks ransack the poor villagers; what the Jewish symbols mean. He is teaching them a story about immigration, common to us all.

Thus, when these children arrive on stage to perform “Fiddler,” they are not merely mouthing their memorized lines. They recall and identify with all the persecuted European Jews, whether their own ancestors or not.

When my grandchildren were born to a mixed set of parents, I had no way to know how or if they would learn our side of the equation. Of course I want them to know and identify with their paternal family. Such fine people, these relatives of Irish ancestry! The little girls go to them for Christmas and Easter. They hide eggs and trim a tree. We send Hanukkah gifts, while our counterparts give Christmas presents.

My grandchildren have been to funerals of both faiths. When their great grandmother was laid out for her wake, with an open casket of course, she was so lifelike, one of the little girls climbed up and practically got in with her. She stroked her cheek. Grandma clutched a rosary and cross in her hands. I doubt my granddaughter would have given this special notice.

Another time my grandchildren went to my brother-in-law’s funeral. The rabbi wore a plain black suit, nothing to strike their attention.

But I am relieved to see how, through their amazing school, they are discovering, in small part, what I have so wanted them to have.

The minute the choice was made: to blend two faiths into one strong marriage, it was out of my hands. A Justice of the Peace sealed their troth. Her father bestowed the bride, our youngest, to one of the sweetest young men we’ve ever met.

There was no huppah (wedding canopy). No uplifted dancing chairs. No broken glass. Would there never be any Judaism?

But, more than a mere vestige, a gold Star of David adorns my daughter’s neck. She has worn it since childhood, and wears it still.


About Joan Millman

Joan Millman is a longtime journalist, award-winning author of a Jewish-American story collection, and graduate of The Writing Program at Brown University. She has four children and eight grandchildren.