Becoming a (Jewish) Grandparent
Four months ago, our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild. We are very much involved with her, even though her parents live in Seattle, 2300 miles away from us. The birth of our first grandchild has had a profound impact on my wife and me, as it has on all our friends who are recent grandparents. In fact, grandparenting has an impact on just about everyone. As the Book of Proverbs verse 17.6 puts it, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged.”
Our granddaughter’s birth touches my Jewish faith. In the first place, Judaism has, miraculously, survived over 3000 years. Her birth helps to ensure that it will continue to flourish for the next generation. While there is no tradition of a formal ceremony welcoming a female into Judaism, our son, who is studying to become a cantor, led a moving, private ceremony. He welcomed her into “the covenant of life” (bivrit hachayim). Her parents recited the scheheyanu and a prayer that she should be a “loyal member of the Jewish community.” He named her Mira, bat Rivka v’Aharon, and prayed that she should be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. He prayed that “God will reach out to her in tenderness and give her peace.”
The world changes, and Judaism has had to change in new contexts. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the rabbis had to reinvent Judaism. In my own lifetime, Jewish life has changed drastically, a result of the horrific experience of the Holocaust, the establishment and flourishing of the state of Israel and the accomplishments of North American Judaism. I was born in 1941, 77 years ago. If my granddaughter lives for 80 or 90 years (even longer given improved medical knowledge), then she will die around 2110. Taken together, my life and hers add up to 150-160 years. In Russia, where my grandparents were born, nearly all Jews lived in closed religious communities—ghettos—most of them in extreme poverty, subject to pogroms. Social and economic opportunities could be found only in a few large cities. Czar Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861. Who could have imagined two world wars, the internet, computers, cell phones? Equally so, it is nearly impossible to envision the world 80-90 years from now. My granddaughter will live to experience this nearly unimaginable future.
Her birth has made me a more spiritual person. Of course, conception, birth and early childhood are a result of millennia of evolutionary trial and error. All mammals go through the same process of birth, breast milk as the best way of nourishment, preparing for adulthood. Scientists increasingly understand how the DNA in the initial cell is able to program an entire lifespan. Nonetheless, the fact that a minuscule egg, smaller than the width of a hair, fertilized by a far tinier sperm, can create a child with ten little toes and, at four months, an angelic smile, is to me a miracle.
In the course of the past four months, my wife and I learned from a three-hour grandparenting class in a Seattle hospital, as well as from our own observations, that birth is still a risky endeavor. Before modern medicine, 1 percent of births ended in the death of the mother, as is still the case in the poorest countries of the world. Our daughter had to have a C-section, which would not have been possible 180 years ago. Birth is also an incredible burden on the parents, who can become utterly exhausted. The newborn baby, who has been living upside down in utter darkness for nine months, initially has no idea what to make of this new world that she has entered, and only knows that she is hungry. Her stomach is so small that she must eat every two hours. The mother must wake up every two or three hours to feed her. Since the milk only comes in several days after birth, the baby may even feel that she is starving (babies lose about 10 percent of their weight in the first week after birth). The baby’s only means of expressing her needs is to cry. Grandparents like us need to support the parents as much as possible.
At four months our granddaughter looks at me with a wide-eyed curiosity. Every waking moment of the day she tries to understand what life means and her place in it. How will her life be impacted by her genetic past, including mine and that of my wife? I dream that she might love mathematics, science, literature, engineering or music, that she might become a businessperson, an innovator, a scholar, find love and community, be strong and kind, or warm and determined. What kind of a Jew will she become? I want to live long enough to observe her growth and, even in a small way, influence the person that she becomes.
I learned in a much deeper way than in the past that the human species is unique. The period of learning and adolescence of human children is far longer than all mammals. This long process enables the transmission of social knowledge, which is the reason for our species’ success. Grandparents like me play a role in this process. With one known exception, only humans have grandparents who care for offspring (a recent study reported by The New York Times asserts that orcas in the Pacific Northwest also have caring grandparents!). Grandparents help to provide social capital, the transmission of learned knowledge, to a new generation. In the past, even though infant mortality was high, many adults lived into their 60s. A new generation was born at the latest every 20 years. Many grandparents were as young as 40. There could even have been great-grandparents.
Some anthropologists believe that grandmothers especially have contributed to building social capital. The “grandmother hypothesis” argues that the extended post-reproductive lifespan for females is unique to humans. As mothers pass menopause, the energy previously devoted to giving birth can be spent helping their offspring in their reproductive efforts. My wife is part of this process. She intuitively feels incredibly close to our granddaughter and will do anything to help her to thrive. Aunts, sisters, other relatives and friends have also contributed to the process of bringing up children. In the past grandfathers likely came into play as children grew older, when they taught rules, beliefs, culture and ways of finding food through hunting, gathering and agriculture.
In today’s mobile world, many grandparents play little or no role in connection with the newborn. The loss of nearby, caring grandparents places deep burdens on parents. We have been lucky to overcome the challenges of distance and money and to help our daughter, her husband and their newborn to build a life together.