Interview with a Wise Woman: Jane Isay


Author of Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today, Jane Isay was transformed by the births of her four grandchildren and has run groups offering a warm place to discuss grandparenting in the time of Covid. Though it’s been a tough year for everyone, Isay believes the experience offers gifts in the form of second chances, rejuvenation, and the comfort of being a link to the past and the future. In addition to having precious time “to dawdle” that wasn’t possible with their own children, grandparents are “the hinges of history,” writes Isay, a longtime editor, and essayist. She implores grandparents not to grasp for perfection but to enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.  As she writes, “the love in the eyes of a grandchild makes us young again.”

Susie Seligson spoke with Isay recently about grandparenting in the time of Covid and immersing herself in what she calls “the global Days of Awe.”

What are some lessons pandemic life has taught us?

It’s all about family. I’ve run a webinar for grandparents through the Rowe Center and when we began it was mostly about grief because grandparents couldn’t be with their grandkids. Then it was about adjustment — how people found ways to Facetime or Zoom. In the last six months the main issue has been readjustment. What I’ve learned from all of this is humans adjust. The anthropologist Ian Tattersall said the secret sauce of human evolution is adaptability. But overall the whole notion of family has become more important during Covid. My 13-year-old granddaughter said during captivity she learned, “my family is more important than my friends.” A lot has fallen away but family has become much more crucial.

How would you describe the kind of limbo we find ourselves in today?

This is a time of great anxiety. Our anxiety level is through the roof; we are, as a New York Times article described it, languishing. We’re in a depressing time because we all thought our lives would soon continue as before. We’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty, partly because the science changes and partly because we were misled. And we can’t plan. As you know, Man plans, God laughs.

In light of the difficulty of the times, do the High Holy Days hold special meaning for you this year?

For me, the first prayer of Rosh Hashanah, the selichot, has always been very moving because it says, we’re still here. The first thing we need to do is to remember how lucky we are to be alive. And when you think of the history of the Jews, and the birth of the state of Israel, this is an affirmation. All the rest is a footnote.

How do our grandchildren inspire us?

They give us hope, and the only thing that’s really important is that we love them. The wonderful thing about children is they don’t have many expectations. If you’re on the phone or on the screen with them, if you send them letters, their constancy is much greater than we expect. When a grandma hasn’t seen a four-year-old for a year, he runs up to the car and says, Mimi I love you! Our love is manna for them. And we have technologies that help us. There are as many easy ways of expressing our love for those children as there are stars in the sky.

How do you think the pandemic has changed children?

The kids have been in a cauldron, and they are going to be different. Last year I talked to the renowned psychologist Marshall Duke, who is wiser than all when it comes to family. I called him and asked, “what do you think?”  He said kids are going to be more resilient than their parents’ generation. And at Pesach when I asked my 16-year-old grandson what he’d learned he said, “I learned you can get through hard times.” So we will grow. We can’t stop growing.

Do you see any silver linings in this time of pandemic?

No more high heels! The gifts are more intimacy, less time commuting, more sleep for teenagers, more conversation, and maybe, I pray, a change in the social order. I am a follower of the prophetic mission of Judaism: better health care, less poverty, less social disparities. I like to consider Covid as a very long Days of Awe. We’ve had to examine everything. When we come out of it, let our examination and our repentance change how we are in the world.

What are your hopes for the coming year?

This is the seventh year, the year of Shmitah. The Torah orders a realignment of wealth and power. The earth goes back to our Maker, and debts are forgiven. So here are my hopes for the coming year: May our souls turn to those in need. May we channel our gratitude into generosity. May we model our deepest values to our children and grandchildren. May justice and kindness sweeten this year—for all people.

Susan Seligson is an award-winning journalist who haswritten for many national and international publications. Among her publishedbooks areGoing with the Grain (Simon & Schuster) and four children’s books publishedby Little, Brown. She is theproud, irrepressibly goofy step-grandmother of Sophia.