The late Moshe Yess was a secular country and rock musician from Montreal who found God and embraced Orthodox Judaism. He went on to write songs based on his new perspective on life. One of his most famous hits was the soulful “My Zayde,” in which he laments the vanishing of traditional European-born grandparents.
Yess nostalgically recalls how, “Zayde made us laugh, zayde made us sing and zayde made a Kiddush Friday night.” The lyrics continue to describe how after his grandfather’s death, “We just stopped being Jewish like my zayde was, and no one cared enough to shed a tear.” The song ends with the plea: “Who will be the zaydes of our children, who will be their zaydes, if not we?”
Composed over 30 years ago, “My Zayde” is still thought-provoking and the concern it expresses has only grown. There is, however, a related question that has become increasingly relevant in the last few decades: even if there are people who are ready and willing to be zaydes and bubbes, sabas and saftas and grandpas and grandmas, who will be their grandchildren?
This issue is not as germane in the Orthodox community, where the trend is to have large families, and whose adherents tend to get married relatively young. The same can’t be said for much of the rest of Canadian Jewry. One does not have to resort to studies and statistics to appreciate this reality. Many of you likely have your own anecdotal evidence of relatives and friends who are anxious to get to the next stage of life. I have been with some of my grandchildren when relatives, friends or complete strangers have been motivated to declare to me that they wish their children would make them grandparents.
I had teachers in elementary and high school who explained that Canadians used to have larger families back when we were an agrarian society and children were put to work on the farm. As the country changed, people started having fewer kids. Traditionally, Jews have not had such a utilitarian view: they see every child as a blessing, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust, when so many children were slaughtered.
What would it take for young people to have more children and make some aging Jewish parents very happy? Additional dating services might produce more matches and utilizing daycares can lessen the burden of taking care of little ones. But a change in attitude is most important. Some people view children as getting in the way of careers, prosperity and enjoying life to its fullest. While that may be true to some respect, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing – a healthy balance is possible.
As a lawyer, I closed many business deals, and as a parent and grandparent, I have changed countless diapers. As different as these activities are, both can bring a sense of satisfaction. The world of commerce may be more glamorous, but the feeling that comes from bonding with the face looking up at you from the change table is priceless. A lot of time and effort is invested in raising children. But it adds years to your life and life to your years to have descendants who visit and care about you.
I ended my last column with a personal story about crossing the border into the United States. More recently, we were coming back into Canada when the customs agent asked what the purpose of our trip had been. I explained that we were returning from visiting our new grandchild in New Jersey for the first time. “Then you mustn’t have anything to declare,” he responded. “From now on, all the giving is going to be one way.”
Obviously, I wasn’t going to argue with him. Otherwise, I would have had to declare the few trinkets we had purchased and enough nachas and joy to far exceed any import limits.