On a Friday night at my shul, the children gathered to hear the rabbi tell an after-dinner story. His engaging style had them riveted to the tale of a bubbe who teaches her little grandson all about how faith and song magically hid her in the shtetl from the Cossacks.
Part of me settled comfortably into the warmth and familiarity of the story — but part of me felt disconnected. My husband and I were expecting our first child, and I had just started to think of my own parents as a bubbe and a zaide. My parents, though, had never been to a shtetl; they were born in North America in the 1940s. Looking at the very young children around the rabbi and doing some quick arithmetic, I was sure that none of them had grandparents born in the shtetl either.
When I was a child, I got the idea from many books and school and summer camp programs that most Jewish grandparents came from the shtetl. My father even joked that when I was born, he was surprised that his parents, born in North America, didn’t develop Yiddish accents like his own grandparents and all the bubbes and zaides he knew as a child.
For a while I thought I was unusual, having four North American-born grandparents (though children of immigrants all). But this was more common than I thought. I estimate that in my day-school kindergarten class 28 years ago, only a slim majority of the grandparents came from Eastern Europe.
The generation that came from the shtetl made groundbreaking contributions to the labor movement, lifted their children into the educated middle class, and struggled to maintain faith when faced with modernity. Because of this important and identity-shaping role, I was willing to overlook the fact that the stories of my childhood reflected the experiences of my parents’ generation more accurately than mine.
But now, for my daughter’s sake and to honor my parents — who were also part of an identity-shaping generation — I cannot help but ask: Where is the Jewish children’s book called “Bubbe and Zaide were Hippies”?
The most meaningful experience of faith for today’s bubbes and zaidies is unlikely to be being saved from physical attack; it is more likely to be the first time they prayed outside at sunrise following an all-night Shavuot study session. How lovely the illustration of this could be: Zaide, 30 years younger, in his in jeans and rainbow-colored tallit, the sun rising in soft watercolors. Maybe the most meaningful Jewish moment for Bubbe was when she first saw the Torah up close, for her first aliyah, which she had as an adult.
Their sense of community with other Jews was forged not in landsmanschaften but in havurah-based potluck Shabbat dinners. These settings and situations can exude warmth and evoke the transformative power of spirituality and community as effectively as stories from Eastern Europe — and perhaps do a better job because they are closer to the real life experiences of today’s children.
Our children can be inspired by stories about young Jewish men and women, now in their 60s, who left their quiet lives to register voters in Mississippi and Alabama, and how these experiences shaped their Jewish identities. Given that Joachim Prinz, a founding chairman of the March on Washington as well as a president of the American Jewish Congress, was a zaide 10 times over when he died 20 years ago, these stories are long overdue.
The distance in time from my great-grandparents’ arrival in North America to my parents’ birth in the 1940s is the less than the time from 1940s to the present. True, the Jewish experience changed radically from the early 1900s to the mid-1940s — but it has changed equally radically since then. While for European immigrants one could either be a modern “freethinker” or a religious Jew, it was the spiritual struggle of the next two generations that tried to define how one could be both.
Hearing stories about the shtetl teaches our children about an important time in Jewish history and about the strength and value of faith. It is through the stories of their modern grandparents, however, that our children will gain a framework for maintaining that faith in the nuanced world of today’s Judaism.
Aurora Mendelsohn lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters.