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Thursday, April 26, 2007 / 8 Iyyar 5767
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(04/27/2007)
The Grandparent Clause
Julie Wiener

This Passover, as my 3-year-old daughter Ellie gleefully ran around my grandparents’ Queens house with her cousins — playing restaurant in the basement and plunking out “music” on the out-of-tune piano — I remembered doing the exact same things here with my older sister.

For more than three decades, Grandma Gert and Grandpa Sam’s home has been an oasis of familiarity. And an unmistakably Jewish one at that. The kitchen is usually stocked with bagels, lox and Mandel bread. Chagall prints and assorted Jewish tchatchkes adorn the house. The mail table is covered with appeals from Jewish charities, while the end tables feature Philip Roth novels, Jewish history books and The Jewish Week (which they subscribed to long before they could proudly foist my bylines on innocent guests).

My grandparents often intersperse Yiddish, which they call “Jewish,” in their conversations with each other. Grandma buys only kosher meat, not because she observes dietary laws, but because she insists (so often and so vociferously that it has become a family joke): “Kosher meat tastes better.”

With its first-generation, ethnic quality, one forged in part by anti-Semitic quotas and restricted real estate, theirs is not a Jewish identity that I can continue. And traditionalists would have a field day critiquing it. Nonetheless, my grandparents’ immersion in Jewishness — combined with the fact that I visited them often as a child — instilled in me a strong desire to figure out an authentic and meaningful way I could incorporate Judaism into my life.

I’m hardly the only person to recognize the importance of grandparents. In their new book, “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren,” the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Paul Golin write that grandparents play a key role in shaping a child’s religious identity. (Full disclosure: I’m on the Institute’s women’s advisory board.)

The book is an answer to the many people who call the Institute when an adult child intermarries, eager for future grandchildren to be raised Jewish yet nervous about appearing meddlesome. My friend “Leah” whose brother recently married a Buddhist woman, tells me that her mother feels so awkward that she frequently tries (to her daughter’s annoyance) to make Leah a go-between, asking her to “remind him that Rosh HaShanah is coming.”

“There’s a general sense of not knowing what to do and feeling paralyzed,” Rabbi Olitzky says, noting that the new book offers “optimism,” as well as concrete suggestions. Those include throwing “the best holiday parties ever”; fostering a positive relationship with your grandchild’s parents and, if possible, offering to help pay for things like Jewish summer camp or other Jewish activities.

In tandem with the book, the Institute is designing a grandparents’ program, something that — like its Mothers Circles for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children — would be part class, part support group and part social network for grandparents, who tend to feel more isolated than they really are.

In many communities, says Golin, there are “tons of grandparents of interfaith grandchildren, and they don’t know who the others are because they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”

While I sympathize with the legions of beleaguered grandparents and share their desire to keep Jewishness alive, at times reading Rabbi Olitzky and Golin’s book made me uncomfortable. I kept picturing a well-meaning grandparent clumsily trying to implement some of the suggestions and coming off more like a missionary or Official Jewish Emissary than a loving relative.

And as a parent, I felt a little squeamish about grandparents consulting such a book, wondering how I would feel if I found my mother-in-law (who thankfully seems quite supportive of all things Jewish) reading a book on nurturing Catholic identity in grandchildren.

Golin and Rabbi Olitzky are definitely sensitive to these issues and urge readers to tread carefully, especially when the grandchildren are actively being raised in another religion. They repeatedly remind grandparents to make Judaism a part, but not the totality, of their connection with grandchildren. “If you haven’t developed a full relationship with your grandchildren, the questions you ask or suggestions you offer about being Jewish might make you come off as a caricature,” they write.

The book’s best advice, I think, is to “be the best Jew you can be.” You can’t share a passion you don’t actually have, and the more you immerse yourself in Jewish life — whether lighting Shabbat candles, studying Talmud or volunteering for the local federation — the more substantive and meaningful your Jewish identity is going to be. Plus, even if it doesn’t influence your grandchildren, it just might enrich your own life. I will never share my grandmother’s enthusiasm for Yiddish jokes or whitefish salad, but I’m glad she gets pleasure from them.

Despite all the gloom and doom we see published about intermarriage, bringing in gentiles sometimes actually strengthens a family’s Jewish ties, by forcing them to think hard about why Judaism is important to them.

Rachael Freed, a Minneapolis grandmother of seven, says she “took Judaism for granted and was quite secular” until her son married a Methodist. Her daughter-in-law’s constant questions about Judaism “made me conscious of what being Jewish was about,” says Freed, who went on to take classes at her Reform temple. She is now a regular at weekly Torah study and chair of adult learning there.

And her Methodist daughter-in-law? After nine years of marriage, she converted to Judaism. n

Paul Golin and Rabbi Kerry Olitzky will be leading “A Conversation About Intermarriage for Grandparents” at the JCC in Manhattan on Thursday, May 31 at 7 p.m. Call (646) 505-5708 for details.

“In The Mix” appears the third week of the month. To read past columns go to: http://intermarried.wordpress.com. E-mail julie.inthemix@gmail.com.

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