The Jewish Grandmother

Jewish society has always been a patriarchal society, and therefore the traditional Jewish sources (i.e., rabbinic sources) contain little about grandmothers. Instead, family letters, memoirs and legal documents shed light on grandmothers. In recent times, some people have recorded grandmothers' oral traditions - their home remedies, tales, and songs.

On the occasion of the publication of Dr. Michele Klein's A Time to be Born, a fascinating and important work about Jewish birth customs, presents this audio webcast interview with the author. Dr. Klein shares with us her research on the Jewish grandmother.


You can download the free RealPlayer from Real Networks in order to hear the interview.

Part 1: The Grandmother in Biblical and Talmudic Sources, and Witchcraft too
Part 2: Glückel of Hameln (17th century)
Part 3: Interviews with Jewish Women from Various Ethnic Backgrounds

The Desire to Become a Grandmother

Grandparenting is a stage in the human life cycle which cannot be reached by willing it; the older generation is dependent on the younger's desire and fertility. Furthermore, unlike other Jewish lifecycle transitions, becoming a grandparent has no ritual.

The biblical book of Ruth tells how Naomi became a grandmother. Her husband and sons had died, but she cunningly arranged for one of her husband's relatives, Boaz, to marry Ruth, her daughter-in-law. The couple provided a grandchild who gave Naomi new life and sustained her in old age.[1]

The Talmud, too, notes a woman's need for a child "as a staff for my hand and a hoe for my grave;" a son, or a son's son, would support her in old age and bury her. The Talmud teaches that one gains the merit of having grandchildren if one marries off one's children when they are young.[2] It is hardly surprising therefore that Jews have included fertility motifs in many aspects of the wedding celebration; some wedding contracts and songs include the blessing "May you live to see your children's children" (Psalm 128:5).

Honor and Reverence

"Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12) is one of the Ten Commandments. It is clear that the Bible places utmost importance on reverence for parents, as the punishment for insulting them is quite severe (death). These biblical injunctions continue to apply when parents become grandparents.[3]

As young married couples traditionally lived with the husband's parents, a grandmother often remained in the same house with her son until she died. When this arrangement proved difficult, she moved in with a daughter. In the Middle Ages, when an adult son bequeathed property to his children, he sometimes stipulated that Grandmother had the right to live on the premises. In one case, a scholar refused to remarry when his wife died, out of consideration for his mother and daughter. In another, a grandmother who lived with her married daughter in a town on the Euphrates complained to her son in Egypt that she did not feel at home there and wanted to return to her son's house. According to a Jewish proverb, "the sons of sons are like sons, the sons of daughters are not."[4]

Some four centuries later, Gluckel of Hameln (1646-1724) wrote that when her parents married, they took her maternal grandmother to live with them. Her father gave Grandma the position of honor at the head of the table until she died. He treated her with respect, as if she were his own mother. Grandma lived with Gluckel's family for seventeen years, with every comfort and with great honor and respect. When Gluckel herself was sixty-nine, already twice widowed and in strained circumstances, she had difficulty coping with the high stairs in her lodgings. One of her sons-in-law insisted she move into his house, to a ground floor room. At first she refused, as she did not want to burden any of her children, but soon accepted gratefully. Gluckel was overwhelmed by the honor that her daughter paid her, always serving her first with the best morsels.[5]

"...Do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes... And make them known to your children and to your children's children" (Deuteronomy 4:9). Gluckel of Hameln and many other Jewish grandmothers after her wrote their memoirs to tell their children and grandchildren about their family and heritage.

Naming Baby After Grandma

During the period of the Second Temple, Jews began to name their children after grandparents, partly because it was difficult to maintain genealogies in the Diaspora, and partly under the influence of local non-Jewish practices, especially Greek and Egyptian. The Talmud relates that one does not name a child after a relative who was wicked, but instead after a living or deceased person who sets a fine example. A further consideration was that the Angel of Death, who was prone to make mistakes, might neglect a person who had the same name as one already dead.

We cannot know, however, if girls were named after grandmothers, in the way that boys were named after grandfathers until early modern times. It then became customary among Ashkenazi Jews to name a baby after a relative who had passed away, and not after one who was still alive, to honor his or her memory. In contrast, Sephardic, North African and Oriental Jews have named their children after living relatives. When family names are passed on from generation to generation, parents foster a sense of family continuity and tradition. When a baby girl is named after a well-loved grandmother, she might grow up identifying to some extent with her ancestor, proud to continue in family footsteps.[6]

Grandmothers Help With Childbirth and Childcare

In late antiquity grandmothers employed magical methods in the hope of preserving life. Those who could not conceive, feared death in childbirth, or worried over a sick child, turned to older, experienced women in the family for advice and not to male doctors. Grandmothers attempted "tried and proved" methods, folk remedies which they stirred in their cooking pots, or gleaned from the environment, to save their loved ones from death. Thus Abbaye (278-338), who headed a rabbinic academy in Babylon, esteemed the expert knowledge of his elderly foster-mother, quoting her advice in the Talmud - advice of a clearly magical nature.[7]

Today the Musee Alsacien in Strasbourg displays a forty-five centimeter knife that a Jewish grandmother used to trace protective, anti-demonic circles around the bed of her daughter or daughter-in-law where she lay after giving birth. The knife has a wooden handle and an iron blade engraved with "You shall not let live a sorceress" (Exodus 22:17) as well as eighteen circles, representing hai, "life." It dates from the late eighteenth century, although the custom of drawing a protective, anti-demonic circle stems from antiquity.[8]

Jews of Iraqi Kurdistan have a favorite tale about a grandmother who was a skilled midwife. One dark and stormy night, Grandmother was called out to deliver a baby. Her heart pounded in fear when she found she had been led to a cavern full of demons with horns, mewing like cats; her fear increased when a demon with the longest horns warned her that if the newborn is male, he would reward her with everything she desires, but God forbid if she delivered a female! Fortunately, the newborn was male, the demons were overjoyed and, as she never charged for a good deed, she chose some garlic as her reward. Back home, she threw the garlic outside her door before she sank into bed. Her grandchild woke her in the morning exclaiming "Where did you get so much gold, Grandma?" The garlic had turned to gold. She gave it all to her grandchildren. When telling this tale, the story-teller might show a little golden garlic, as proof that this tale was about his or her very own grandmother.[9]

Grandmother Devoted To Helping Those In Need

Many Jewish grandmothers have helped to raise their grandchildren, particularly when the children's mother had died or was out at work. Many grandmothers have devoted their last years to helping the poor and sick. One of the modern trend-setters for social work was the wife of Israel's first Chief Rabbi, Sarah Herzog. She was convinced that Jewish women should give of themselves to help others. She cared for her own parents in their old age, and brought her mother to live with her when her father died. She looked after her husband's sister, too, in her old age, shared every Sabbath meal with her widowed daughter-in-law and with her grandchildren, and never turned away the poor and needy who constantly knocked on her door. She became president of Emunah, Israel's National Religious Women's Organization, whose main activities have been to establish pre-school care, immigrant absorption, and vocational training. She also served as president of the Ezrat Nashim hospital in Jerusalem, a psychiatric hospital which started as a one-room shelter in the Old City in the previous century but which, under her guidance, became the leading psychiatric establishment in the Middle East. One hour before she died, in 1979, she wrote her last cheque for a poor girl so that she could get married.[10]

Annoying Grandmothers

Jews have found interesting ways of dealing with tensions that arise in multi-generational homes. On the one hand, Jewish law demands that one honor and revere Grandmother; on the other hand, she can sometimes be annoying. A folktale popular in Sephardic communities tells of surging tensions between a woman and her mother-in-law (the grandmother-to-be) when it is time for the younger woman to give birth. The young husband is in a difficult position. In the Castillian and later Moroccan versions of this tale, the husband sides with his mother and brutally kills his wife. In East Mediterranean versions, the angry husband swears to take revenge on his mother. In a nineteenth century telling from Salonika, the wife's fate remains ambiguous; good omens accompanying the birth of the son diffuse the tension and render the women's fate unimportant.[11]

Jewish women have often relieved the tensions in their lives by singing as they rocked their babies, ground the grain, or scrubbed the laundry. Jewish mothers in Bombay sang of their hope that grandmother would calm the baby.[12]

Jews have also relieved tensions with humor. Whereas men of all nations have glorified their mothers in song and poetry, it is only Jews who have created a brand of affectionate, inoffensive humor about grandmothers. When Sephardic Jews in northern Morocco wanted to mock someone for picking the worst possible time to do something, they quoted a well-known Judeo-Spanish proverb; "There was no room at home; Grandma decided to give birth." Yiddish speakers also have a saying about Bubbe: "If Grandma had whiskers, she'd be Grandpa." American Jewish jokes stress a grandmother's overpowering love and pride; ask her how her grandchildren are when you meet her taking them out to the park, and (never mind the real kids) she will insist you admire her thick wad of photos.[13]

[1] Ruth 4:15. [back]
[2] B. Yevamot 65b; J. Kiddushin 1:7. The blessing to Ruth, Ruth 4:12, is often inscribed on wedding contracts and the blessing given to Rebekah, Genesis 24:60, said at traditional Jewish weddings when the groom lowers the veil over the bride's face, both express the hope that the couple will produce offspring.     [back]
[3] Leviticus 19:3, 20:9; Exodus 21:15, 17. [back]
[4] Goitein, S.D., A Mediterranean Society, (University of California, 1978) 227ff. [back]
[5] Abrahams, B. Z., The Life of Gluckel of Hameln, (London: Horovitz Publ. Co., 1962) 20-21, 175. [back]
[6] B. Yoma 38b; B. Hullin 47b. A thorough review of naming customs throughout Jewish history can be found in Lauterbach, J.Z., "The naming of children in Jewish folklore, ritual and practice," Studies in Jewish Law, Custom and Folklore, (New York: Ktav, 1970). See also Trachtenberg, J., Jewish Magic and Superstition, (New York: Atheneum, 1982) 78-79. [back]
[7] B. Shabbat 66b-67a, 134a. [back]
[8] Raphael, F., and R. Weyl, Juifs en Alsace (Toulouse: Collection France-Judaica, 1977) 235. For a similar custom among Moroccan Jews, where the father, not the grandmother, delineates the protective circle, see Klein, M., A Time To Be Born (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998) chap. 10 and 11. [back]
[9] Noy, D., ed., Folktales of Israel, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963) 24-27. A version in Ben-Amri, S., Ha-shed Tintal, (Herzlya: Published by the author, 1987) 91-8, is about a well-known midwife in Baghdad. For yet another version, see Brauer, E., The Jews of Kurdistan, ed. R. Patai, (Detroit: Wayne State Univ.Pr., 1993) 153-4. [back]
[10] Maizlish, S., The Rabbanit, (Jerusalem: Emunah, 1981). [back]
[11] Armistead, S.G and J.H. Silverman, eds., "Judeo-Spanish Ballad Chapbooks of Y.A. Yona", in Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews, (University of California, 1971) 1: 185ff. [back]
[12] Kehimkar, H.S., The History of the Bnei Israel of India, (Tel Aviv: Dayag, 1937) 120-122. See also Shiloah, A., Jewish Musical Traditions (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1992) 178ff. on Jewish women's songs expressing their emotions. [back]
[13] Bendelac, A, "Humor and Affectivity in Jaquetia, the Judeo-Spanish Language of Northern Morocco," Humor 1-2 (1988) 185. Ayalti, H.J.,ed., Yiddish Proverbs (New York: Schocken, 1976) 110-111, no. 450. See also Reik, T., Jewish Wit (New York: Gamut Press, 1962) 82-86. [back]
Photo 1: Five generations of the Kun family, 1908 (Beth-Hatefusoth Photo-Archive)
Photo 2: Anna Zonderman z"l, with her granddaughter Ariela Zonderman Perlmutter, 1983 (Beth-Hatefusoth Photo-Archive)
Michele Klein has a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of London. She researched and curated the Israeli Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora (Beth Hatefutsoth) exhibition, "Be Fruitful and Multiply," shown on America Online throughout 1996. She is the author of New Life: A Diary For Jewish Parents and A Time To Be Born. She resides with her husband and four children in Rehovot, Israel. Dr. Klein has interviewed Jewish grandmothers and expectant mothers in Israel.
Cutting the cloth: A Sephardi celebration of pregnancy   by Michele Klein

A Time to be Born by Michele Klein is available at the the


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