Written and translated from French by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal
One of my best friends, whose mother wasn’t Jewish when she was born recently told me “What made me the Jew I am today isn’t my conversion or my Jewish dad – as much as my Jewish grandmother and the interest my mom had, from our birth, for this tradition she didn’t belong to then”
My generation of Western young Jewish adults is possibly among the most privileged of Jewish history. We don’t live any longer in countries at war, don’t suffer from State antisemitism, we have access to a diversity of great studies, we travel and emigrate all over the world, we have jobs with high responsibility, creativity and/or salary, we speak many languages, we find our readings, hobbies, sources of information in infinite horizons and finally mingle with people well beyond our own geographical, linguistic, religious and professional circles. Our Judaism also benefits from this unprecedented opening: we read various Jewish thinkers, celebrate shabbat in synagogues and houses throughout the world and meet diverse communities. With these multiple blessings has emerged a structurally and quantitatively significant phenomenon: some young Jewish adults build their lives, homes and sometimes families with people from other cultural and religious backgrounds.
These choices are often, among other things, for those who make them – and their parents – the breach of a taboo. In my opinion (and one is free to disagree!), an interfaith marriage isn’t a tragedy or a break per se. It is a break if it comes with giving up on transmitting a Jewish education to the children that come out of it. Pragmatically, it is not an interfaith wedding that interrupts Jewish continuity but the fact of not raising Jewish children. With a Jewish partner and an interested non-Jewish partner, if they’re supported by Jewish grandparents or even a Jewish community, rich Jewish education can happen. This brings to mind the meaning sometimes given to Ruth’s famous “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God”. Our Judaism is shaped by the people who inhabit it, before it is shaped by a connection to God and to transcendance.
The wording “interfaith wedding” or “mixed marriage” covers multiple human realities, but in my experience, Jewish people creating a relationship with a non-Jewish person rarely do it with the desire to cut their ties with Judaism. They are lucky enough to have found a life partner and are then faced with the need of finding a way to live their Judaism within this relationship. However, they can be confronted with people or organisations that will condemn them: if you did this, it means that you don’t want to belong to a/the Jewish community anymore. The more those comments and attitudes multiply, the more likely they are of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Their aggregation ends up demonstrating the rejection of community spaces to who they are and who they love.
I can’t neglect the pain and tensions that sometimes accompany those life choices. I also don’t wish to enter the legal discussion on patrilinearity and matrilinearity. I will only say that any educational transmission is a complex (and ideally exciting) adventure and that Jewish educational transmission is particularly so. It is the case in couples with both Jewish partners, and certainly more when only one of the two partners is Jewish. In these cases, the grandparents are then taken in very mixed feelings of guilt, resentment, joy, shame, love, confusion, worry, trust and enthusiasm. I want to hypothesize here that Jewish grandparents have a power, if not responsibility, to transmit Judaism to their grandchildren for whom opportunities slim when one of their parents is not Jewish. A lot of social circles, schools, synagogues or youth movements could be closed to them, overtly or covertly.
Of course, the commitment of grandparents can’t be in opposition to the parents’ will – out of respect for them (they are the ultimate educational authority), the children and Judaism. It’s hard to believe that children could grow a positive relation to Judaism if it transformed them into the object of a conflict (or even worse, rejection) between their parents and grandparents.
In June 2019, a group of Jewish high-level academics, lay leaders and philanthropists avec created the Jewish Grandparents Network with the goal of dealing frontally with those issues. A lot of these seasoned and observant Jewish professionals shared the fact that one or more of their children had married a non-Jewish person. All were deeply committed to explore and define the role of Jewish grandparents. They were often the person who answered Jewish questions and challenges for their children much more than Jewish institutions, since their children were generally unaffiliated. Yet, they felt invisible in debates about Jewish education and transmission. They started by ordering a sociological study on several thousands of North American Jewish grandparents. 94% of the respondents said that grandparenting was a joyful experience. More interestingly: almost half of them had one or more children who had intermarried but only 20% had grandchildren being raised exclusively in another faith. This proportion is not negligible but it does reflect that most mixed couples had chosen to transmit their Jewish identity and lives to their children. They decided to create a network and tools to celebrate these couples, and ideally increase their number.
Truth is 2020 Jewish grandparents don’t have it easy! More and more of them don’t live in the same neighborhood, city or even country than their children. A friend of my parents for instance now buys two of each book she gives to her grandchildren as presents so she can read it to them through Skype. Beyond this, 2020 grandparents are more connected, busy, traveling, volunteering and dynamic in general. It makes it complex for them to find time to create a relationship with their grandchildren. By the way, the cultural representations of grandparents, Jewish or not, are more and more disconnected from this reality. These grandparents are not anymore little bald men sitting in a green armchair in front of the TV or small women with a clean grey updo and apron in a kitchen. You’ll more likely find them in meeting rooms, treadmills, restaurants with their friends, concert halls, on a layover on their way to their next destination, etc.
In terms of Jewish education, grandparents often have knowledge to share: from the way we observe a specific holiday to personal stories that give flesh to collective History (for instance memories of the creation of Israel, or Jewish life in Morocco, of World War 2 or the Shoah, of activism for Refuzniks, meeting great people of the Jewish 20th Century, etc.) Maimonides defines the commandment of teaching to one’s grandchildren the extension of the commandment of teaching to one’s children: כְּשֵׁם שֶׁחַיָּב אָדָם לְלַמֵּד אֶת בְּנוֹ כָּךְ הוּא חַיָּב לְלַמֵּד אֶת בֶּן בְּנוֹ, “Just like one is obligated in teaching their child, so is one obligated to teach their grandchildren” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 1:2). Grandparents also have time, especially if they’re retired, that they can give to their relationship with their grandchildren and their Jewish education. The organisation I work for, Moishe House, is also starting to integrate this vision in its fundraising strategy by creating relationships with grandparents who are excited about supporting their grandchildren’s Jewish involvement.
What can we wish in order to better capitalise on this educational resource? A mixed renewal of perspective, tools and programs is probably needed. The first (and probably most difficult on all levels) is to change mindsets of families first, and then institutions, on the Jewish lives and needs of mixed-heritage families. The taboo is difficult to lift, for reasons of affects and principles – that everyone is entitled to. If the path of openness is choses, some tools like the Grandparents Circle curriculum, created by the Jewish Grandparents Network can be useful. In terms of tools, platforms like BimBam can help grandparents learn with and teach their grandchildren. Organisations like PJ Library now enable parents and grandparents to receive each month for free bedtime stories they can read to children. Lastly, it would change the game if synagogues, JCC, museums etc. adapted their educational offer and schedules to include parent-children and grandparent-grandchildren options.
In Leviticus (19:32) is the beautiful commandment “מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם”, generally translated by “in front of an Ancient, you shall rise”. By the way, it is the wording used in the signs in Israeli buses, requesting passengers to give their seat. My uncle once invited me to translate the commandment fy “thanks to an Ancient, you shall rise”. He told me this is how he viewed his role of grandfather: helping his grandchildren rise. Rabbi Steinsaltz is often quoted saying a Jew is one whose grandchildren are Jewish. In my experience of French young adult, friend, teacher and sister, I want to add an alternative or supplement from the other side of the mirror: a Jew is one whose grandparents are Jewish. May all the grandparents who open their hearts and tables to children rich with multiple cultures, in order to allow them to live a joyful and meaningful Judaism, be celebrated !
Faustine Goldberg-Sigal is the International Director of Jewish Education of Moishe House. She sits and works from Paris. She is a Masters graduate of Sciences Po Paris and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as a former European Leadership fellow of the Pardes Institute.