Family Matters: So Happy Together—and Wherever
Vacations that include children and grandchildren have become a tradition for many, creating treasured memories across the generations.
When I was a child, our family’s summer vacation consisted of two weeks in August when we piled into a hack and headed north from Brooklyn to a kosher hotel nestled in the foothills of the Catskills.
It was, of course, an intergenerational excursion that included grandparents, parents and children. A swimming pool beckoned, teenagers lobbed balls on the tennis court, counselors ran a day camp, men played chess and pinochle, women got together for canasta and mahjong, smiling contentedly as cards were shuffled and tiles clicked.
There were evening performances by comedians who told jokes peppered with Yiddish, wandering cantors and singers whose renditions of “Eli Eli” or “My Yiddishe Mama” brought tears to the eyes. After sundown each Friday, an evening prayer service was held in the casino, which had morphed magically into a synagogue.
Those Catskill summer days were a family getaway permeated with Judaism, a simple vacation for simpler times.
Today, few such hotels remain. Yet families, many scattered across vast distances, still crave the togetherness of time and shared experience, of generational interchange, of affirmation of Jewish values in different venues. Journeys extend beyond the Catskills into New England, north to Canada, westward to the United States national parks and then on to California or even farther afield to England, Italy, Greece and Israel. Such cravings can be satisfied without sacrificing adventure. Vacations jointly experienced by grandchildren and grandparents are alive and ongoing. As many families have discovered, all that is required is careful planning, some flexibility and occasional flashes of improvisation.
My son, Harry, and his wife, Alison, live in New York. However, my far-flung daughters—Davida and her husband, Brian, who live in Cleveland and Jeanie and her husband, Clive, in London—come with their families at least twice a year to spend time with us in New York and with each other. More infrequently, my husband, Sheldon, and I vacation with one or another set of grandchildren, once setting up camp on the Connecticut shore and, on another occasion, driving through Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Camping with the extended family is hard work but exciting. My Midwestern grandchildren—Ruthy, 11, Saul, 8, and Ilan, 5—loved carrying poles, hammering in pegs and hoisting the tent.
There is something magical about covering a rough-hewn picnic table with a white plastic cloth and transforming it into a Shabbat table, blessing candles in the gathering darkness with halla on a paper plate, Kiddush wine in disposable cups and our voices rising in traditional prayers in the untraditional setting.
One evening we sang “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob,” and irrepressible Saul, then 6, added, “And your tent is pretty good, too, Grandpa, even though it sags in the middle.”
In her never-ending quest to excavate the secrets of my childhood, Ruthy asked if my own parents ever camped out over a Shabbat. I shook my head and told her about the vacation Shabbats of my childhood in a Catskill hotel, when my mother and grandmother, dressed in summer finery, lit candles in the dining room.
“I’ll bet they did not have to worry about the wind blowing their candles out,” Ruthy said, shielding the flames with her hands. I smiled, knowing she will remember the story of that dining room aglow with Shabbat lights even as she recalls the warmth of the flames against her fingers and the sounds of my voice and her mother’s reciting the Sabbath blessing.
Two years ago, in Ireland with our London-based grandkids, Gila, 11, Sammy, 9, and Lily, 7, we traversed fog-dark roads and stopped the car to allow flocks of sheep to continue their odysseys barnward. We searched for a small synagogue in Cork only to discover it was locked and, we thought, might not be in use.
“I guess Jews move around a lot so they have to leave their synagogues,” Gila observed. I realized then that despite our disappointment, a lesson in Jewish history had been learned.
We had better luck in wales, where the solarium of Cardiff Castle boasts a hand-painted mural with the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with Jezebel told in Hebrew calligraphy. Sammy read it aloud, enjoying the interest and admiration of other tourists in our group.
Our grandchildren will perhaps remember our journey to Scotland best for a futile search for a kosher restaurant, culminating in a visit to a supermarket and an impromptu picnic with fresh fruit and vegetables, a loaf of dark Scottish bread and hard- boiled eggs purchased at a kiosk.
My friend Lisa and her husband, Robert, proud grandparents of eight, have opted to take one grandchild at a time on a special vacation. After Rebecca, their eldest granddaughter, celebrated her bat mitzva, they flew with her to Amsterdam. Together they walked the cobblestoned streets, traversed the canals and stood in the room where Anne Frank had written her haunting diary. The pictures of movie stars that Anne had taped to the walls of her tiny attic bedroom were not unlike those Rebecca had tacked to her own bulletin board. When she commented on this, Lisa told her that as a teenager she had taped to the wall over her own bed the same picture of Clark Gable that Anne had selected.
“Anne Frank would have been like your age, Grandma,” Rebecca said, gripping Lisa’s hand and then kissing it, newly aware of the vulnerability and the era of Jewish life that had darkened her grandparents’ childhood.
My college roommate betsy, has traveled to Israel with her grandchildren. She remembers their amazement when, as they stood on Masada at sunset, she told them how her family had sat beside their radio and counted the votes as the newborn United Nations debated the creation of Israel. “The radio?” her grandson Seth, 10, asked incredulously, and my friend nodded and smiled. She had given her grandchild not only the gift of a moment in Jewish history, but a picture of family, years distant, when radio dominated households and events came alive in the flow of a disembodied voice.
Trips to Israel are popular grandparent-grandchild vacations. Many are offered by synagogues and day schools. Bar and bat mizvas are often celebrated at the Kotel, witnessed by a full contingent of grandparents, while Passover is a meaningful time to go to the Promised Land.
But then, an intergenerational celebration of Passover is, of course, mandatory for many. Seders are observed at the home of one or another set of grandparents, or at the home of one or another adult child with grandparents as guests and air mattresses in readiness for a denizen of cousins.
My neighbor Doris, who hosts her children and grandchildren, always invites her older, out-of-town granddaughters to arrive a few days before Pesah to help with preparations. She is stoically indifferent to protestations that they will miss school.
“I remember helping my Bubba make Passover,” she said, “and I want them to learn from me the way I learned from her. Will they remember geometry the way they’ll remember how beaten egg whites stand like mountains of snow?”
My family has gathered for Passover in a variety of locales. One year, we celebrated the Seders in Davida’s Cleveland home and during the intermediary days traveled to the Canadian Niagara Falls, carrying Passover food in coolers. My grandchildren still laugh at the memory of how, in my eagerness to find a hot meal, I approached a bearded man in a long black coat and a black hat, a fellow passenger on the Maid of the Mist whom I assumed to be a Hasid. I asked him where I could find a restaurant that was kosher for Passover. He smiled politely and replied, “But, madame, I am Amish.”
More recently, we rented a house in Scottsdale, Arizona, where, with careful planning, our family converged. It was a hectic time, Seders celebrated out-of-doors on a veranda that accommodated all 20 of us, an infant asleep on my shoulder as a chorus of grandchildren chanted the Four Questions. Among the most moving prayers in the Jewish liturgy is the one in which we ask to be granted the privilege of seeing our children’s children. Seated outdoors, surrounded by children and their children, I felt the beauty of that blessing granted.
We return again this Passover, to that same Arizona house, and this year I will hold my infant twin grandsons, Koby and Alon, on my lap as their older cousins lift their voices in song.
Although traveling with children is fun, staying put in a hotel has its advantages. A family we know goes to a small hotel in New Hampshire each summer. They proudly report that it has neither air-conditioning nor television, no entertainment is offered, there is no swimming pool and meals are served family style.
There is, however, a broad lawn with weather-beaten Adirondack chairs, a lakefront with a beach (no lifeguard present so a resident grandfather has that role) and several battered canoes and rowboats furnished with life jackets. In that rustic setting, grandparents, parents and children interact. Hesitantly, Sheldon and I joined Davida, Brian and their children at the hotel one year and marveled at the tranquillity of the experience.
There were hours spent quietly reading; one grandmother taught her granddaughter to knit; three generations played impromptu games of baseball, raced canoes across the lake or took long walks. And there was blueberry picking at a nearby farm and drives to picturesque Portsmouth. In the evenings, everyone hunched over a table and completed jigsaw puzzles or played wildly competitive games of Boggle, Scrabble or Monopoly. My grandchildren prefer Boggle and are never happier than when they manage a five-letter word their grandfather or I have missed.
Of course, even such idyllic vacations will have their sibling wars (“he cheated,” “she tattled”), but a true blessing of grandparenthood is the right to walk away and leave the parents to settle the score.
When we asked our grandchildren which of our vacations was their favorite, their response was uniform.
“The cruise!” they shouted, referring to a Caribbean cruise we hosted one winter for all our grandchildren in honor of their grandfather’s 70th birthday.
We made plans for the vacation without realizing we would be at sea on December 25th, Christmas Day. Hanukka had come and gone when we boarded a ship festooned with wreaths and mistletoe, decorated trees and Christmas lights strung across portholes and rails. A lonely electric menora blinked in a corner.
“It’s not even Hanukka,” Sammy said scornfully.
“This was some dumb idea,” my husband, ever the optimist, muttered. “They’re going to feel really out of it.”
However, all went well. the children went to day camp, and while they drew Christmas trees and strung colored popcorn, they also showed the arts-and-crafts counselor how to make dreidels out of clay and sang the dreidel song in the talent show (following three different renditions of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”) to great applause. The real problem arose on Christmas Eve, when a jolly Santa held court on deck and invited children to sit on his lap and receive a present.
“Can we sit on Santa’s lap?” Sammy asked.
“No. Of course not,” I responded, smiling my kind but firm grandmother smile.
“Because you’re Jewish.”
“I’m not going to get not Jewish if he gives me a present.”
“No.” My smile got thinner.
“But the presents are really good,” a granddaughter protested. “Look, that kid got Etch A Sketch and that one got Lego. The big Lego.”
“Well,” I was wavering. Before I could recover my resolve they were off and Sammy, star of his London day school, was sitting on Santa’s lap.
“And what do you want for Christmas, little boy?” Santa asked jovially.
“I don’t have Christmas. I’m Jewish. I have Hanukka,” Sammy replied, his voice loud and clear.
Santa swiftly recovered. “So what do you want for Hanukka?” he asked. “Etch A Sketch.”
The package was no sooner in Sammy’s hand when his cousins and siblings rushed forward. Each one perched on Santa’s lap, confided their Jewishness and darted off with a present—a bowling game, two dolls and a Lego set, the big Lego. All my trepidation about exposing them to a quintessentially Christian experience was for naught.
Some weeks ago, I overheard my grandchildren trading memories.
Remember when Grandma asked that Amish man about where to find a kosher restaurant?”
“Remember when Grandpa spilled the Kiddush wine all over the picnic table when we were camping?”
“Remember when we told Santa that we were Jewish?”
Giggling engulfed them, and I smiled, content in the knowledge that each vacation we share with our grandchildren provides them with a golden nugget of memory that will sustain them for years to come.
Taking the Grandkids
Getaways with the extended mishpocho can be a do-it-yourself affair, but there are also organized family vacations at Jewish camps and locales, with activities geared to participants of all ages.
- Camp Yavneh (617-559-8860; www.campyavneh. org): Offers a four-day family camp at the end of the summer in New Hampshire.
- New Jersey YMHA-YWHA Camps (973-575-3333; www.njycamps.org): Family camp weekends are held throughout the summer in Pennsylvania.
- Ramah (888-CAMP-RAMAH; www.ramah.org): Hosts a family camp weekend in May and a six-day special- needs family camp during the summer in California.