Originally created 03/15/97

Preserving Judaism

Jewish mamas and papas who wonder how to raise kids Jewish enough to have Jewish grandchildren will find an ally in Joel Grishaver.

Teacher, cartoonist and author of about 50 books on Jewish life, including Talmud with Training Wheels, an Absolute Beginner's Guide, Mr. Grishaver is the guest speaker this weekend for Adas Yeshurun Synagogue's Series of the Mind seminar.

Mr. Grishaver is creative chairman of Alef Design Group and Torah Aura Productions in California. He makes about 30 weekend appearances a year.

He says that parents can enhance the likelihood that their children will remain Jewish by "touching all four bases" of Jewish identity: national, communal, familial and personal.

National Judaism, first base, is part of every Jew's identity and "is hard to get rid of," he said.

Second base is the Little House on the Prairie connection, the community. "This is the example I always use - Little House with its picnics after church, the cross-parenting by friendly adults, the multigenerational gatherings."

Next, Judaism has to be part of the family's traditions, part of the rhythm of life, to be passed on naturally.

The last is the connection with the inner person. In his book 40 Things You Can Do To Save the Jewish People, he says filtering out religion from Jewish life is tantamount to putting the culture on autopilot. Secular Jews are much harder to sustain, he said. "It doesn't last. Fundamentalism survives."

Many in his audiences are learning or relearning Judaism for themselves.

"Many in synagogues aren't Jews by origin," he said.

Some are there by marriage; about 40 percent of Jews are intermarried. About 25 percent to 30 percent are Jews by choice. "But, in this day and age, all Jews are Jews by choice," he said.

He acknowledges his own parents' skill at raising Jewish children. "In hindsight, despite all the things I yelled at them when I was a teen-ager, they have now evolved into a world class set of parents," he wrote in 40 Things.

"There was nothing subtle about what they did. There was no question that I was going to Jewish youth camp or the synagogue," he said.

The only problem with parents who were amateur rabbis was that he had to be at the synagogue an hour before and an hour after services, he said.

Mr. Grishaver, raised in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Boston, went to California for rabbinical school. He eventually dropped out.

"There are four or five reasons but two will do.

"The first reason - some people have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. I have a predisposition to pomposity. The combination of my predisposition with being a rabbi would have made me a less tolerable person than I am.

"The second reason is that I thought that the Jewish people needed significant teachers who weren't rabbis."

Like a good rabbi, Mr. Grishaver teaches with stories, drawn from his observations of Jewish life. The heroes of his stories are often ordinary people who manage to hold to their way of life with ingenuity and tenacity, such as a woman from the Carolinas. He heard about her while visiting with a rabbi and the president of the local synagogue.

They told him about a boy, age 9, and a girl, 12, who were going to pizza parties at a church. There was no trouble until they were told that anyone who did not confess Jesus would go to hell. Terrified, the children converted.

"The boy said later, it didn't count. He had crossed his fingers. The girl said, `I'm not a Jew. I told you before I didn't want to be a Jew.'

"The rabbi asked what he should tell her. `Tell her she's a Jew,"' said Mr. Grishaver.

"`But you don't understand. Her mother's not a Jew,"' they told him.

The girl is a Jew, he said.

"`But you don't understand. The man her mother's married to now is not a Jew."'

The mother had been driving her children 30 to 40 miles to a synagogue to keep a promise made years before to a man who had left her and the children without a word. "Astounding!" said Mr. Grishaver.

The seminar opened Friday night and will continue today, with sessions at 9:30 a.m. on "70 Faces of Torah" and 8 p.m. on "Postcards from the Yukon of Jewish Life." On Sunday, Mr. Grishaver speaks at 10 a.m. on "What Does Judaism Say About Randy's Navel Piercing?"

The synagogue is at 935 Johns Road, and the sessions are free.


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