Makes a nice sandwich (generation)

Illustrative: Multigenerational Passover seder. (iStock)
Illustrative: Multigenerational Passover seder. (iStock)

Remember that old commercial for Arnold’s Rye Bread? Deli owners were asked to use the rye with their cold cuts. One says in a thick New York accent: “It makes a nice sandwich… a nice sandwich.” I think of this commercial at every seder, as I did last week, when it’s time to eat the overly flavorful Korech or Hillel sandwich. It does not make a nice sandwich. At least not at my deli.

Here is a post-seder confession. I really, really don’t like charoset. I like it less when it’s mixed with romaine lettuce and shaved horseradish on crumbling, soggy matzah. As the charoset juice dribbles down my chin, I’m relieved I never ate this sandwich on a date.

But as I age, and at 51 I’m a card-carrying member of the sandwich generation, I’ve come to appreciate the symbolism of this spiritual food more. This sandwich — the sweet, broken bitterness of it — captures the complexity of my generation perfectly. And a week past the seder, I want to share this reflection on our vulnerability.

Every year at family gatherings, what’s sweet seems sweeter. What’s bitter stings more. Nothing is sweeter than watching children turn into incredible adults. I say this not only about my own children, but so many other children I know. It’s life’s greatest blessing.

But, like so many friends, I watch parents and older relatives struggle with aging and children struggling with adulting. Elderly parents who are the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family table have to, at some point, hand over family leadership. There’s something gorgeous about this transition when you can hand it down. There’s also something deeply painful about it. Parents and grandparents struggle to remain proudly independent physically, fiscally, emotionally, even as it becomes harder to do so. Children have to find their way in an increasingly complex universe.

Many close friends had their first seders without one or both parents. I could sense their pain. The cup of Elijah brims with spilt wine for the prophet who magically appears at all of our seders, but there’s also the spilled tears over the empty chair at the seder. This emptiness often follows months or years of caretaking, the slow and exhaustive end of a slow and exhaustive process. Every year, the sweet gets sweeter. The bitter stings more.

“Do not cast me off in the time of old age,” says Psalm 71:9; “forsake me not when my strength is spent.” We read this verse in the liturgy of Yom Kippur; it’s a healthy reminder of our familial and communal responsibilities. In the same chapter of Psalms, a reflection on aging, we ask again: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim Your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” It is a request to allow intergenerational continuity to track its natural course. Let us hand down what we know and what we love to those who will come after us before we go.

It’s all very well to talk about aging gracefully, as if it’s a choice. Most of us are probably not quite sure what that means or how to do it well, balancing elegance with good humor about a situation that can be humorless. As a community, we have a lot of investment in Generation Y. We have some important research on Baby Boomers — but like the sandwich we are, my generation seems to get less attention while being most pulled. Very few communal organizations devote serious resources to nourishing this population, our emerging matriarchs and patriarchs. We hear lots of sermons about nurturing the young and caring for the old, but few on the generation managing both — who are likely feeling they aren’t doing a great job on either.

Many carry the financial stress of supporting grown children post-recession and elderly parents. In 2013, Pew published findings on just how difficult this is: “Not only do many [in mid-life] provide care and financial support to their parents and their children, but nearly four-in-10 (38 percent) say both their grown children and their parents rely on them for emotional support.”

Who is taking care of the caregivers? When you order a sandwich, the bread that holds the sandwich together is secondary to what’s inside. And what or who is inside this sandwich may be a tired, neglected soul, trying to do the best for everyone at the expense of self-care. Many carry this burden alone, afraid to talk about it, holding it all together with the emotional equivalent of a thin condiment. In the spirit of the deli man, can we make a nicer sandwich? Can we bring more spiritual and emotional attention to the sandwich generation?

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. She is the author or eleven books; her forthcoming book is entitled Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet (Koren/OU, 2017). She previously served as scholar-in-residence at both The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow and is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education and the 2012 Bernie Reisman Award (Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University). You can subscribe to her blog, Weekly Jewish Wisdom at erica@ericabrown.com.
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