Grandparents learn strategies for interfaith grandkids

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Before transmitting Jewish heritage to their interfaith grandchildren, the grandparent needs to accept the interfaith marriage and the fact that the grandchildren are not their children, said Roseanne Levitt, director of San Francisco's Interfaith Connection.

"It is important to share your heritage," she said, "but not without the permission of your son or daughter."

Levitt addressed a group of about 10 grandparents at a recent program at San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, "Mingled Roots: How Do You Share Your Jewish Heritage with Grandchildren from an Interfaith Marriage?"

The program was based on Mingled Roots: A Guide for Jewish Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren, commissioned by B'nai B'rith Women, another sponsor of the meeting. The goal is to help grandparents pass their Jewish heritage on to their grandchildren without alienating their non-Jewish son- or daughter-in-law.

The book and program were "done to reach out to grandparents and through them, reach out to the large percentage of young kids not exposed to Judaism," said Emily Weigner, regional chair of B'nai B'rith Women.

"As a grandparent, you must respect your children's needs as parents," she said.

Levitt agreed. The main thing is to be open with your children, she said.

"It is common for grandparents to be afraid to ask their children about the rearing of their grandchild," she said, "because they are often afraid of interfering or getting an answer they might not want to hear."

Drawing on scenarios from the B'nai B'rith book, Weigner and Levitt offered a number of suggestions. To introduce one's Jewish family heritage to a grandchild of an interfaith marriage, Weigner suggested making a picture album, putting faces with history. If the grandchildren live nearby, include them in putting the album together.

A family tree is another way of presenting Jewish heritage and history to a grandchild. "Your history is one of the richest gifts you can give your grandchild," Weigner said.

Helen Ross of San Francisco passed her Jewish history on to her 20-year-old grandson by sharing her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. "He knows his roots," Ross said. "When he was a child, we took long walks and formed a relationship."

Ross said she gave her grandson a historical, rather than a religious, perspective. "I just gave him the background. He'll have to decide for himself if Judaism is for him. I'm not going to push."

Levitt said grandparents should figure out what technique works best for them. Some grandparents make calendars of Jewish holidays and important dates; some work on the project with the grandchildren, Weigner said. Others buy their grandchildren books about specific Jewish holiday and events. Before sending or giving the book, Weigner suggested reading it on tape. "That way," she said, "every time the grandchild wants to hear the story, they can have Grandma or Grandpa read it to them."

Teaching the grandchild Yiddish or Hebrew words and allowing them to understand what they mean and where they came from is another way of connecting a grandchild with Jewish heritage, Weigner said.

Levitt emphasized the importance of keeping "the lines of communication open. Don't try to do things covertly."

Invite your family to Chanukah celebrations with dreidels, latkes and chanukiot, Weigner said, but also be prepared to go to a family Christmas celebration if one is held.

Levitt and Weigner both warned against competing with Christmas. "Make sure the influence is a balanced one," Levitt said. "It is important not to portray Judaism as being better than the other religion in the child's life."

Food is another way of passing on Jewish roots. Including the grandchildren in the preparations of dishes for specific holidays will give them a warm memory of spending time with their grandparent and an understanding of their Jewish background, Weigner said. If the grandchild lives far away, she suggested sending hamantaschen on Purim or other treats on Chanukah, including the recipe and a little history about the food's connection to the holiday.

"It's one thing to say my grandmother used to make this, but if they have the recipe, then they will make it in their home," Weigner said.

Claudette Greenblat of Fairfax said she often has her three grandchildren of interfaith marriages help her prepare the annual seder. "They help me make the charoses," Greenblat said.

As the grandchild gets older, Weigner said the grandparent may want to discuss more complicated subjects such as anti-Semitism and why Jews believe in one God. She recommended watching Jewish-themed movies with one's grandchild, such as Crossing Delancey, Hester Street, Avalon, and Schindler's List.

"Having some information as to what it means to be Jewish can help grandchildren of interfaith marriages come to a complete realization of who they are," Weigner said.

Levitt, however, warned against forcing such topics.

"It must be a natural part of your relationship with your grandchild," he said.