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Grandparenting for the High Holidays

As the Jewish grandmother of nine, my plate is overflowing with pride and joy. Yet whenever the High Holy Days approach, my heart is distressed. As an only child, from a traditional, kosher home, with two of my four children married to partners of a different faith, I still deal with “Jewish guilt.” I’m from the generation where “Jewish guilt” was part of being Jewish. It was our families’ way of getting their point across. Comedians have had great success with this concept. Though the guilt has gone from stage ten to stage two or three, it may never go away completely. Maybe reaching my seventies has helped though, as I do believe I’ve finally rearranged my priorities.

More than 16 years ago our oldest son married a lovely, beautiful, and caring woman who chose Judaism. They have two sons, 14 and 16 years of age. Our youngest son also married a lovely, beautiful, caring woman who did not wish to choose Judaism, but promised to raise their children as Jews. They have three children, two boys, ages 7 and 11, both with special needs, and a darling 4-year-old daughter.

Our oldest son and his family live near us. Our youngest son and his family live in California. Neither family is into practicing Judaism in a major way. Our oldest son and his family are affiliated with a Humanistic Jewish Congregation. Their younger son became Bar Mitzvah (assumed the responsibilities and privileges of an adult Jew) last year. Our youngest son’s family is unaffiliated, but practices “culinary Judaism.” You know, honey cake on Rosh Hashanah, latkes (fried potato pancakes) at Hanukkah and a seder (ritual meal) at Passover.

I used to send cards, books and holiday packages to our younger son and his family, hoping they would include some Jewish traditions at the holidays. I believe this only antagonized them. Early in their marriage I purchased tickets for them to attend services at a large and quite affluent congregation. My daughter-in-law’s comment was, “I felt like I was in Neiman Marcus.”

Now, I don’t send packages, New Year cards, or even call anymore before or during the High Holidays. I have found that less is better. I do receive a call at High Holiday time. The phone call may arrive a day or two late, but at least it comes.

In the early years of their marriage, when the High Holidays were near, I would ask my oldest son, “Are you coming with us to services?” ” Will you join us for lunch or break-fast after services?” “Would you like us to meet you for the children’s services?” Not a good way to endear ourselves to them. I stopped asking or expecting anything. Now, should an opportunity arrive when we can be together, I only try to say positive things, no negatives.

As my grandchildren grew older and I grew wiser, several High Holiday traditions have evolved. My mother, of blessed memory, always bought new clothes for me to wear on Rosh Hashanah. I’ve tried passing this tradition down by sending each grandchild a check with a note a week or two before school begins in the fall. They may not buy clothing, but they have purchased books, a box of sweets, new software for their computer or an additional video game. It helps us communicate on their level. When they call or write to thank me, it provides an opportunity for me to speak with them about the upcoming High Holidays. “I’m so glad you bought that,” I say. “It’s always nice to begin the school year with something new. I bought myself something, too: it’s a new outfit for the Jewish New Year.”

There are traditions which our forefathers handed down, and then there are new traditions we can establish to make the Jewish New Year special. Several weeks before the High Holidays arrive, I send each family a jar of honey, a project that benefits my temple sisterhood.

A tradition I’ve continued since our children attended college has been to send tins of home-made strudel and honey cake at the High Holidays. Today, all four of my children’s families receive a tin of holiday goodies for a sweet year.

There’s nothing like sharing a holiday meal together as a family. I’ve negotiated time and dress code for my children, whether they are visiting or live near. Now whichever family members happen to be in town we look forward to being together for lunch after Rosh Hashanah services. I usually include friends without families nearby, and I’ve served the same menu for years. My children would get upset if I changed it.

When my children arrive at my home for lunch, I never ask if they’ve been to services. I only welcome them with love and understanding. If the couple is happy, the children are well cared for, and everyone is healthy, what more can a grandmother ask for? I wish you a L’Shana Tova, a happy, healthy new year.

Zell Schulman

Zell Schulman is the author of several cookbooks, including Passover Seders Made Simple (Hungry Minds, 2001, $16.95).