Ruth Nemzoff, author and resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, teaches an innovative four-session course through Brookline Adult Education later this month. She aims to bridge the gap between non-Jewish grandparents and their practicing grandchildren—and to get people talking and sharing.

In session one, grandparents explore how to pass down what’s meaningful to them while honoring the choices their kids have made. In session two, they delve into Jewish holidays: what they are, what their purpose is, how they’re similar to and different from more well-known holidays. (“December doesn’t have to be a competition,” she says.) Session three focuses on Jewish lifecycle events and helps grandparents figure out how to be participants in their grandchildren’s celebrations. Session four is about Jews in the modern world.

Ruth Nemzoff (Courtesy photo)
Ruth Nemzoff (Courtesy photo)

“It will discuss anti-Semitism but also touch upon social justice, why Israel is meaningful to many Jews, and Jewish movements and diversity. While session one is about how Jews view the world, session four discusses how the world views Jews and how to navigate that,” Nemzoff says.

We chatted about her new class, launching Oct. 22.

You say, “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Jewish grandparent.” What does that mean?

There are lots of people out there who are grandparents of children who are being brought up Jewish. And that may mean somebody who was brought up in another religion. It may be somebody who was brought up in no religion. It may mean somebody who is Jewish but sees themselves as culturally Jewish, and their children are being brought up with a much more observant religious focus. Those are the three groups of people I think would be interested in this class. What we’re doing is trying to demystify Judaism. The first session is really about: What do they want to pass on to their children? Their grandchildren? They may be from another religion or another background. What are the things they want to pass on, and how can they do it even if their child is being raised Jewish?

Which Jewish holidays will you focus on?

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’ll touch on Passover, obviously, so people have some idea what their kids are doing and why. And with this, there are extra readings and activities, which are not necessarily religious, but a way they can interact [with their grandchildren]. We’re not trying to convert anyone; we’re just trying to say, “Hey, what is this? Is this a fun holiday? Or, what is the meaning of all this and why do it?”

What are some examples of this?

We want to teach our grandchildren to be good people. I think we all pretty much want that. Also, what are the things we do around the holidays that are meaningful? Often it’s being with family. I know I always say, “How do you ever remember your great aunts if you don’t have Rosh Hashanah?” But, of course, if you have Christmas, you can remember your great aunts, too. I think it’s really about that legacy. How can we pass that on?

Tell us about the rest of the classes.

The third class is going to be about lifecycle events and what they are. I’m talking about brit milah, which can be very troublesome to people who aren’t from circumcised societies. What do we do? What is becoming bar mitzvah and what are the ceremonies around that? And for weddings, what is a chuppah?

And then the last class is a very important one. It’s about anti-Semitism in Israel. It came to me when a friend of mine from a very prominent family called me up after Charlottesville and said, “Oh my God, I suddenly realized!” She’s having Jewish grandchildren; she was just happy they were going to have a religion, she loved the guy, everything was terrific, she loved the family and her daughter was pregnant. But she said, “Oh my goodness, I realized my grandchild is going to be Jewish, and this anti-Semitism affects me.”

That was a startling experience for me to realize that people whose children are being raised Jewish become part of our people in terms of the vulnerability to hatred. I thought it was extremely important to discuss, and I thought it was important to discuss also: What is this relationship to Israel?

How did you come up with this idea? What made you really want to reach people this way?

I’ve been involved in interfaith work to demystify Judaism and help those making Jewish choices because now, really, everyone is a Jew by choice in America because we can choose to practice in any way we want. We know there are lots of Jews who identify as Jews but nothing else. I feel strongly that this is the wave of the future, that if we really believe in multiculturalism, then we need to learn about other cultures and understand them because every culture has something worthwhile. This is our future. We need to embrace people, and we need to also hear what their concerns are.

Find more information about Ruth Nemzoff’s class, “My Grandkids Are Jewish: The Basics of Judaism,” here.