Torah Sociology: Religious Zionist Grandparents

You have to be 'young' - at heart, at least - in order to enjoy 'being old' as a dati lemi grandparent.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen,

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The end of the summer, and the Tishrei holidays, are a very busy time for younger dati leumi (Religious Zionist) grandparents (55-75 years old). We get drafted for emergency child care because both parents are working and there is no school or day camp for the kids. We use vacation time to take the kids to museums, movies or amusement centers in order to enrich both their education and our relationship with them. We also try to orchestrate an extended family vacation, either squeezing everyone into overcrowded tzimmers, or camping out on a humid beach.

And just when we are catching our breath as the children are returning to school, the Tishrei holidays come upon us, including chol moed the intermediate days of Sukkot. This means that Grandma is (smiling) in the kitchen cooking and catering close to twenty elaborate meals to more to more than ten relatives at each meal. The service at grandma's holiday hotel usually includes linens, showers, and laundry.

And finally our struggling young couples probably need extra financial assistance around holiday time. So the three months of Av,Elul, and Tishrei have the elements of one long celebration.   As the aphorism says, you are super happy when the grandchildren come, and also (somewhat) relieved when they leave.

In brief, you have to be 'young' in order to enjoy 'being old' as a dati leumi grandparent. Finally, many younger dati leumi grandparents are trying to keep up with marathon grandparenting at the same time that they are still strenuously running in their other marathon, making a living at work.

So what does this semi-frantic dati leumi grandparenting tell us about where our dati leumi community is at, and where it is going? I believe the picture described above contains three important and positive messages. One, it shows the importance and priority that the dati leumi community gives to family life. For older couples, their multi-generational family is the focus and corner stone of their social relationships.

Two, most important, we are creating a 'unique' model of multi-generational extended family life. Our extended family is different from that of our parents (the generation born between the 1920-40's), and is different from the multi-generational family of secular, or ultra-orthodox society. I am not arguing that our model is better or worse, just that it is different, and that it reflects the particular character of the present dati leumi social world.

Three, our multi-generational families perform important social functions. They are the 'social glue' that keeps our very diverse dati leumi community together as a distinct social group. Every extended dati leumi family that I know houses, and provides 'refuge' for, a wide spectrum of religious and social attitudes and behaviors.

Also, our extended families are the primary educational vehicle for passing our religious and nationalistic values from one generation to another, and for instilling a sense of vibrancy and life into these values.

We can better understand the character of our present dati leumi extended family by comparing it with that of our parents, and that of the secular and ultra orthodox communities.

It is historically important to note that many of our parents grew up without grandparents because their grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust.

Compared with our parents,  today, as grandparents, we tend to be more affluent, financially secure and mobile, have larger families and larger houses, are better secularly educated, and are more involved in our careers (particularly women).  

We have more to give our children, and in certain circumstances our children instinctively expect more from us.  Our giving is sometimes stressful because of competing demands from work, and because of the number of children (and their families) for which we still feel responsible. Finally, our bi generational relationships can sometimes be tense, because our dati leumi society has not yet developed clear norms of intergenerational give and take.

Compared with secular society, our multi-generational families are larger, get married earlier, suffer from fewer divorces, and benefit from the cohesion created by mutual, family religious celebrations. Compared to the dati leumi community, ultra-orthodox extended families are larger, poorer, less mobile, less bothered by work-family role conflict, have more solidified norms of intergenerational exchange, and are much more uniform in character. 

In summary, this generation's pro-active grandparenting is creating bountiful, colorful, 3-4 generation extended families, whose members are fully involved in all corners of Israeli society. These extended families constitute the strong infrastructure of dati leumi society. They constitute the 'big tent' that allows a socially diverse membership to continue to feel included in the dati leumi community.

They are the educational vehicle that allows our religious and nationalist way of life to be creatively passed from one generation to another. They are the main social instrument that allows us to build and maintain a way of life that is both based on the Torah, and relevantly interacts with modern society.