Updated: Feb 10, 2019
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As Jewish parents around the globe are busy convincing their children that lighting a menorah and eating fried doughnuts are more fun than lighting a Christmas tree and receiving presents from Santa, the grandparents of these children are busy buying (or mailing) 21st century Chanukah gelt (gift cards, Play Station cash) and gifts online.
Some of these gifts will be delivered in person (not UPS or FedEx) because the grandparents live close by or because Chanukah and Christmas fall during the school break and their children want to visit the warm, sunny community that serves as their retirement home. Lucky them.
But for an increasing number of Jewish grandparents, the traditional Chanukah they remember is not the holiday their grandchildren will celebrate in December. Intermarriage has changed the structure of many Jewish families, which, in turn, has affected how, or if, their grandchildren will celebrate Chanukah and what role, if any, their grandparents will play in the celebrations.
Intermarriage dates back to the biblical era (Ruth, Abraham and Joseph, etc.), but it wasn’t until the late 20th century that intermarriage became a serious Jewish concern.
In the ’60s, when I got married, all of my friends married someone Jewish. At that time, individuals who chose to marry somebody who wasn’t Jewish were likely to be shunned or marginalized by their communities, says Rabbi Adina Lewittes of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in New York City. I have heard stories that some parents who sat shiva when their children married non-Jews.
However, since the ’70s, the intermarriage rate has risen steadily and caused much concern about the future of Judaism, a concern discussed by rabbis in their High Holiday sermons, when they have large captive audiences.
Here are the facts: The 2013 Pew Research Center Report of Jewish Americans found that 44 percent of married Jews in the United States had a non-Jewish spouse; 83 percent with one Jewish parent had a non-Jewish spouse – very scary numbers.
More recently, in 2016, the Pew published A Closer Look at Jewish Identity in Israel and the U.S., which reported that only 19 percent of American Jews surveyed believed that observing Jewish law is essential to what being Jewish means to them; 62 percent believed that being Jewish is primarily about ancestry and culture.
On the other hand, American Jews believe strongly that leading an ethical and moral life (69 percent) and working for justice and equality (56 percent) are vital to being Jewish. That’s good news, don’t you think?
What do these statistics have to do with Jewish grandparenting? When I began to read and think about the relationship between Jewish grandparenting and intermarriage, I was certain that grandparents have serious problems coping with the issues created when their children intermarry – grandchildren not being raised Jewish or being raised with two religions or no religion at all.
I was wrong.
For the most part, the Jewish grandparents I interviewed rated intermarriage last on their “what I worry about when I think of my grandchildren” list. Instead, concerns like global warming, anti-Semitism and the “crazy world we live in” top their lists. Mine too.
This is not to say that Jewish grandparents don’t have to adjust when their grandchildren are being raised in a different religion. They do. Some Jewish grandparents I spoke with described worrying about their first Christmas dinner or first “trim the tree” experience. Just meeting your new non-Jewish machatunim can bring the bravest Jewish grandmother to her knees.
When adjusting to changes brought on by intermarriage, smart grandparents seek guidance from experts, rabbis who have counseled others and have plenty of expertise dealing with this situation; their friends who have already adjusted themselves.
Rabbi Stanley Miles, rabbi emeritus at Temple Shalom, himself the parent of two children who have non-Jewish spouses, has spent 40-plus years counseling parents and grandparents dealing with intermarriage. He urges them to support and respect their children’s, and grandparent’s, decisions.
Miles recognizes, as most rabbis do, that marriage between Jews and non-Jews makes things a little more challenging (decisions about Christmas and Chanukah, for example), but he believes that grandparents who want to inculcate Jewish values into the lives of their grandchildren can do so by maintaining – and sharing – their Jewish home, celebrations and traditions with their grandchildren, even when their daughter-in-law or son-in-law isn’t Jewish – as long as it’s done with the blessing and, hopefully, involvement of the parents.
He remains hopeful about the future of Judaism.
“I’m a Jew,” Miles said, “which means I have to be optimistic.”
He and his wife, Sheilah, love their son-in-law and daughter-in-law profoundly; in fact, when Miles led a mission to Israel, his son-in-law accompanied him and shared his room, which proved to be a meaningful experience to both of them.
Miles’ willingness to accept the changes that intermarriage brought to his previously 100 percent Jewish family serves as a role model for many families in Louisville.
Rabbi Robert Slosberg, of Adath Jeshurun, views intermarriage partly as a generational issue. The Millennial Generation is generally averse to commitment and joining; they tend avoid memberships, which may be difficult for parents and grandparents to accept.
He counsels unconditional love and reminds grandparents that the same grandchildren who once loved being only with them will seek their advice in the future when they are raising their own children. He believes that the most important things grandparents can do for their grandchildren are to create indelible memories for them and to make sure they know that they can always count on them.
I read recently an opinion piece written by a grandmother who was upset because her son was buying a Chanukah bush complete with ornaments for his living room. She bemoaned the “commercialization of Chanukah.” Ten years ago, I would have agreed with her. Today, I think I would say, “Who cares?”
As a grandmother, I have learned that my mother was right: People must change with the times, and intermarriage is but one of those changes. Imagine the outcry when Jewish rebels replaced animal sacrifice with prayer; the senior rabbis must have gone crazy.
Change is inevitable, but Judaism has survived (although animal sacrifice did not). This Chanukah, and throughout the year, try to roll with the punches, accept your grandchildren’s choices, and continue to believe in the miracle that took place in the Temple in Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago.