Researcher Asks the Question: Ain’t Life Grandparents?


If you left the Nov. 17 event held by the National Council of Jewish Women Greater Philadelphia Section and called your grandparents (or grandchildren), then mission accomplished.

At its Opening Meeting and Luncheon, the NCJW welcomed sociologist Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen to talk about grandparents — a group she believes is severely under-researched.

“The national demographic surveys that have been done of the Jews — the last one done in 2002 — there isn’t even a question that says, ‘Are you a grandparent?’ ” Geffen said. “So it’s really an unstudied subject.”

Grandparents — as we all know — play a vital role in life. But what about Jewish grandparents specifically?

“The only place in the Jewish community where anything’s been done about it, anything serious, has to do with interfaith,” Geffen said, “because there’s some kind of gut feeling people have, which has nothing to with studies that have been done, that somehow Jewish grandparents can have an influence on their grandchildren who are the products of interfaith marriage and be the Jewish influence in their lives.”

Starting five years ago, Geffen decided to do her own qualitative research on the subject through 60 in-depth interviews with Jewish grandparents in many cities and across different traditions to ask them about their roles.

“I developed a questionnaire and as I kept doing interviews, I refined the questionnaire — you’d be surprised about what I didn’t think of in the beginning,” said Geffen, former dean for academic affairs at Gratz College and past president of Baltimore Hebrew University, where she is currently Professor Emerita of Sociology.

The first few questions are about names — what they, as grandparents, are called — and who gave them that name.

She added questions about what grandparents are called if they have more than one set of grandchildren after that was brought to her attention from multiple participants.

For Geffen, whose grandchildren call her “Safta,” she came to this area of research not just because it was unstudied but also because she tends to study “whatever stage I’m in.”

In the past, she has done research on Jewish women “on the way up,” and many articles about family and gender roles.

These questions also provided insight to the Jewish values and aspects of their relationship with their grandchildren. For instance, she asked the subjects in her study if they have ever helped with paying synagogue dues, sending their grandchild/grandchildren to Jewish summer camps or on Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips.

It was important for her to do this research because even the studies that have been done — of which, as she mentioned, there are not many — haven’t really been updated since.

In 1986, a book called The New American Grandparent was written by two sociologists who happen to be Jewish, which detailed the roles of American grandparents.

Geffen reached out to the authors to see what has changed since the book’s publication, and was told: “Nothing.”

During her nearly hour-long presentation, Geffen also detailed how relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren change with distance.

She also discussed the ways grandparents have changed their own lifestyles to better maintain a relationship with their grandchildren.

“How many grandparents have learned how to text?” she asked the crowd, many of whom nodded in the affirmative.

The role as a grandparent also combines elements of the grandparent’s American identity, she explained.

“This goes back to a fundamental point: whenever you’re doing anything about the American-Jewish community, you have to remember we are as American as we are Jewish, maybe even more so,” she said. “And therefore, if you look at Americanized grandparents of the same generation, there will be some similarities because it’s what’s American about us.”

However, as a grandparent, the Jewish aspect of their identity is also important and incredibly telling.

“The more that your Jewish identity is part of who you are, the more that will be a part of who you are as a grandparent as well,” she said.

Geffen had opened her presentation by asking the audience the same questions she first asks those that she asked in her study: what do your grandchildren call you, and where did it come from?

There were many “bubbys” — though Geffen said many of those she asked do not prefer to be called that because it sounds “old” — and “Mom-Moms” among the audience happily engaged with the discussion.

The role of distance also struck a chord with many attendees.

Kay Skloff, publicity chair of the NCJW Philadelphia section, said her relationship with her own grandchildren is different because of distance.

Her children live in Los Angeles and Clearwater, Fla., so she doesn’t get to see her grandchildren as often as she’d like.

“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot and they’ve missed out on a lot by not having grandparents around. We missed that connection,” she said.

Talking about the role of grandparenting is important, she added, and many in the audience could probably relate to it because it’s something they live with.

“I think it’s important because if you don’t have it, you don’t necessarily miss it, and I think that it’s something children should be aware of — making sure the grandparents are a part of their children’s lives,” she said.

“We do need that extra generation to carry on the legacy of the family.”

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