Jewish Grandma Tells All

By Eleanor Jaffe

March 2002


I adore my little grandson Benjamin with all my heart. This is as natural to me as breathing, as soul-satisfying as ocean breezes on a summer’s day and as fulfilling as falling in love. Ben is our only grandchild so far, but both our daughter and recently our son have found Catholic mates, so what I learn through this grandparenting experience will provide valuable lessons in the future.

Ben is the 2-and-1/2-year-old son of our daughter and her Catholic-Columbian husband, so he receives legacies from two cultures and two religions. Where do I as his Jewish grandmother fit into this mélange? I approach my role with conviction and apprehensions.

My own sense of Jewish identity is strong. I have been a member of a Conservative temple for 30 years. For the past five years (since my daughter’s marriage), my husband and I have co-chaired our temple’s keruv (outreach to interfaith families) committee and are on the Combined Jewish Philanthropies advisory committee for outreach. I am not an “observant” Jew. I am passionate, however, about Jewish continuity. I hope that my children’s children will be a part of this stream. I am personally working hard, though, to develop an attitude about continuity that encompasses all our children, not just my own.

I acknowledge that I hope my grandchildren will identify as Jews. I also recognize that I am not the parent–my wishes are secondary. The parents’ decisions are what counts here; I am the support staff. I had my turn and I did the best job that I was able to do. Now it’s their turn.

Where does this leave me with little Ben and his parents? On tentative ground. I truly want my dear son-in-law to feel comfortable with us and our religious customs and practices. I am gratified to know that he values our family’s closeness and support, which he associates with our being Jewish. But I do not want to come on too strong about religion for fear that he will feel pressured or that his own beliefs and customs are undervalued. How do I find the right balance? How do we achieve a mutual honoring of traditions?

One of my most important goals in this process is to create and maintain a respectful, loving relationship with my adult children and their spouses. The last thing in the world I want to do is to alienate them, to win a small victory and lose their regard. When our daughter’s family recently moved to our city after five years of living abroad or elsewhere on the East Coast, I was surprised and delighted. I interpreted the move, on one level, as a vote of confidence in my husband and me. I want to live up to that vote by respecting their rights to raise their children as they decide. At the same time, I continue my Jewish traditions and include them whenever they are willing.

We share Shabbat dinner together about once a month. The men–Grandpa, Daddy and Ben–wear yarmulkes. The women–Grandma and Mommy–light candles (which Ben would like to blow out while singing “happy birthday to me”). Grandpa does the blessing over the wine and Daddy respectfully says the blessings over the hallah and distributes it to all of us. Before he begins to eat, Daddy discreetly crosses himself, as he does at all of his meals.

We also have Passover seders together when we are in the same continent, as well as Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah. Typically my daughter’s family does not attend temple services with us. Our two families will probably light Hanukkah candles and exchange gifts on three nights. This past year, in addition, my husband and I were guests at a combined Hanukkah-Christmas Eve dinner that included my daughter’s family and our visiting son and his Catholic bride. Blended and together.

My daughter has recently been saying, quoting a friend of hers, “A mother doesn’t realize how strong her opinions and words are and how they influence decisions.” Then she looks at me. I am left with the feeling that I am a powerful force in her life and my opinions really matter. We are a Jewish mother-grandmother and a Jewish daughter-mother feeling each other’s strengths, learning each other’s boundaries and still talking about a beloved little boy and his soon-to-be-born baby sister.


About Eleanor Jaffe

Eleanor Jaffe recently retired from a professional career that included clinical social work, guidance counseling in the public schools, and English teaching. She is a wife of 37 years, mother of two, grandmother of Benjamin.