Barbara Sofer

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Happy Grandparents' Day

By Barbara Sofer

December 6, 2019

The principal asks the assembled elementary school kids what's special about today. The kids already know it's Rosh Hodesh Kislev – the beginning of the Hebrew month that brings in Hanukkah.

"Don't you dare say Black Friday," she warns, eliciting a laugh. Then she explains about the unusual "kaf-tet b'November," a rare naming in Hebrew of an Israeli celebration marking a non-Hebrew date: the 29th of November.

That's when the United Nations General Assembly voted in Resolution 181, calling for the partition of the British-ruled Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The resolution was approved on November 29, 1947, with 33 votes in favor, 13 against, 10 abstentions and one absent. A triumph for Zionism.

That particular 29th of November took place before I was born, but a number of the others who are in the auditorium remember the all-night celebrations, the champagne in cafés in Tel Aviv, the congratulatory bonfires in the north of Israel. We older folk are present in numbers in the school audience because today is also Grandparents' Day in the Yachad School in the city of Modi'in.

The principal talks about that, too, remarking on how great it is to have so many grandparents present.

"When I was young," she says. "few of us in Israel had full sets of grandparents."

She doesn't have to say why. There were pioneer immigrants who left parents behind. Grandparents perished in the Shoah, in the Farhud in Iraq, in the Orphan's Decree in Yemen. And, on a more optimistic note, since the late 1970s life expectancy for Israelis has risen by 8.7 years for men and 8.9 years for women, so we're living longer than generations past.

A recent TV series on Kan 11 called 80 Plus Four (based on a British series) was a surprise hit. Each week, kids from a nursery school joined residents in the sheltered living home Bayit Bakfar north of Netanya for activities and discussions.

On the show, geriatric rehabilitation physician Dr. Yoram Maaravi encouraged the use of the Hebrew word for old folks, "zekaynim," which he insists is an honorific, not pejorative, term. Maaravi eschews euphemisms like "golden-agers," "third-agers" and "seniors."

The joint activities at Bayit Bakfar yielded both emotional and physical positive results. Even the grip of the oldies got stronger! A Knesset session about the TV show, with recommendations for more intergenerational programs, was broadcast on Facebook Live.

YACHAD'S INTERGENERATIONAL Grandparents' Day was planned long before the Knesset discussion. We paternal grandparents happily accepted our third-grader granddaughter Ariel's invitation to take part. So did her maternal grandparents. That makes four North American-born Israelis doting on our obviously gifted and gorgeous Sabra granddaughter, just as the other grandparents are doting on their gifted and gorgeous grandchildren.

The day begins with prayer. Yachad is one of those new-fangled schools started by our children's generation – parents who have rejected the separation of state schools and state religious schools. Children come from diverse backgrounds, and the hope is that Jewish tradition will be perpetuated and that their children will grow up open to dialogue. Such schools weren't an option when our Sabra offspring were growing up. Today there's a waiting list for admission.

The backdrop to the prayers is a quote from the Mishna in Sanhedrin: Not one of you is identical to the other, hence everyone has to say the world was created for me. Another bulletin board features the Israeli flag and symbol and says "Israel is a place, a way of life, a dream, a hope." A third wall exhibits pictures from Ethiopia marking the Sigd.

Religiously observant, I'm curious about the prayers, since many of the children come from homes where they don't often attend synagogue. The school Rosh Hodesh service includes a charming musical Hallel and a Torah reading led by older children. On one hand, the service is shorter than it would have been in my children's elementary school; but on the other hand, it involves children from different streams of Judaism. I'm moved when the whole crowd sings "Ki lekah tov natati lachem," "I have given you a good portion," referring to the Torah.

After a communal breakfast where the grandparents show their old-fashioned survival habits of scrambling and reserving seats, we break into different classrooms. The teacher thanks us for coming, but truth be told, none of us grandparents lives more than an hour from Modi'in – a luxury of grandparenting in such a small country. One girl's babushka and dedushka are still in Russia, so our in-laws take her under their wide wings.

Together with Ariel, my husband and I read and talk about a story about a boy who was sad that his family couldn't afford a Hanukkah menorah. His friends had brass and even silver hanukkiot, but his father was a modest stonecutter. Then the father brings home a hanukkiah made of stone. "Back in Yemen, we would make Hanukkah menorahs of stone," said his father. "What a privilege we have to make one from the stones of the hills of Jerusalem."

Then we all answer questions about "back then" and now: playing indoors or outside, about after-school activities, about Purim costumes. We talk to Ariel about our former big backyards and long, freezing winters with nearby ice-skating ponds. Outside, the winter sun is shining and it's 24º centigrade.

A grandmother from Yemen says that on Purim they dressed up as old people. That draws a laugh. A Persia-born grandfather recalls how the pranksters in school added their teacher's shoes to the heating fire and the teacher couldn't go home. Gasps. A grandmother who made aliyah when she was small speaks of sleeping in cramped quarters. She and her siblings shared a room with Grandma and Grandpa, who sometimes needed to go to sleep before they'd finished their homework. We're an ingathering of nations, but the grandkids all look pretty much the same.

The joint arts and crafts project is for each family to make a memo board. This requires threading string through punched holes of thick cardboard and making X's with the string that will hold photos and notes. Grandpa Yaakov shows Ariel how to make a scout-worthy square knot. I demonstrate one of my minimal skills: twisting together unraveling string so that the thread goes through the narrow holes. Ariel decides on the design, colors the background in vibrant shades and pulls the string through.

And I'm thinking, that's what this Grandparents' Day is all about: stringing together the generations, making strong ties, ensuring that the chain doesn't unravel, and empowering the Israeli grandchildren who will pull it through their own way. A triumph for Zionism.

And, as the stonecutter said, "What a privilege."

Time to eat. Good news: falafel is still an intergenerational favorite.

 

 

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