B*Mitzvah Project

For Teens: How You Can Interview Your Grandparents

Interviewing your grandparent might be a brand-new and fun experience for you both. The conversation, if you develop it thoughtfully, may coax forgotten memories from your grandparent’s past, give you some new insights into their life, and perhaps bring the two of you even closer to each other.

Stories from the past are integral to Jewish tradition. For example, the Torah says that each generation should tell the story of our ancestors’ flight from Egyptian slavery: “And you shall tell your children” (v’higaditah l’vincha, Exodus 13:8). You can see this mitzvah (commandment) in action at the Passover seder when children ask questions, and adults respond with the story of the Exodus. You can adopt the same approach of asking probing questions to start meaningful conversations with your grandparent. Below are ideas to get you underway.

Just start.

Plan a time that works best for you and your grandparent to sit down and have a conversation about your family history. You can do this in person when you are together or after a meal, or on FaceTime, Zoom, or another platform that works for you both. Ask your grandparent if it is okay for other family members to listen to your conversation. (Make sure anyone else understands they are just observing and can’t interrupt or ask a question.)

Record the interview.

With your grandparent’s permission, use a smartphone voice recorder or audio app in a quiet room. Decide where you will save the recording, for example, on your phone, as a computer file, or in an app like BublUp.

Consider offering your grandparent pen and paper too so they can make notes about any part of the conversation they’d like to keep.

Tailor your questions to your grandparent’s life.

Try to ask questions that you know reflect your grandparent’s life. Use what you already know about them to craft your questions. For example, you might ask what daily life was like when they were young, the kind of parents they think they were, times they volunteered, experiences that show resilience, or the charities they like to support.

You might also ask about the most important decisions or challenges in their life.

Seek to understand how people and events made them feel, and the lessons they gleaned from them. For example, you might ask about their first bosses and jobs as they began their career. Ask about any funny stories they remember when they were your age or who their favorite teacher or mentors were and why they named those people.

You might even ask, what advice would you give your teenage self, looking back now on your life?

Keep in mind that your grandparent might expand on the answers and perhaps go off on tangents. Think about whether you’re okay with that or would prefer them to answer specific questions only.

Click HERE for StoryCorps ideas for interview questions. 

If you are preparing to become B-Mitzvah, consider asking your grandparent if they had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and what it was like. For example, many girls did not read from the Torah or lead prayers; rather, they read a Jewish poem, story, or piece of Jewish text or gave a d’var Torah — a short speech or reflection based on Jewish text. With your grandparent’s permission, you might include details of their experience in your own B-Mitzvah speech.

Use visual cues.

When your grandparent looks at old photo albums, home movies, or meaningful objects, they may be able to remember more stories.

“Bring or ask about whatever makes you curious,” says Dr. Meryl Ain, the author of The Living Memories Project: Legacies that Last and its companion journal. Ain also recommends inviting the person you are interviewing to bring items they want to talk about. Ask not only about what these things are and how they were used, but what they mean to the person and the emotions they evoke, said Ain, who gave this example: “What feelings do you have when you light your grandmother’s candlesticks?”

Listen actively.

Active listening means paying close attention to what the speaker is saying, rather than waiting for your chance to speak or worrying about what you are going to say.

The writer and entrepreneur Marla Schuchman offers tips for becoming an active listener, including resisting the urge to interrupt or check your phone, and getting comfortable with stretches of silence. “Long pauses give the other person time to fill in the blanks, share with you more information, and process out loud the emotions inside,” Schuchman says.

Treat the interview time as sacred — with the goal of remaining fully present in the moment.

Respect each other’s boundaries.

Not everyone will want to share everything — past traumas or love affairs, for example, may be off limits — and it’s important to respect the boundaries your grandparent has set.

Consider preparing for the interview by asking a parent for suggestions of topics to discuss or avoid. Set a time frame, perhaps 30–45 minutes. Let your grandparent know that they don’t have to answer every question and can take a break at any time. Be sure to thank them for sharing their memories. Regardless of what the interview yields, showing the person that you care about their life and stories is an expression of love.

Ask about their elders.

Your grandparent may be one of the last living connections to other family members who have died — so don’t forget to ask about their own parents and grandparents. “You can also try to construct a family tree and ask for help,” Ain said. “Genealogy is a wonderful way to learn about your family roots.”

The Nobel prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer reminds us how important family stories are. “When a day passes it is no longer there,” says one of his characters in his charming book Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, Sus. “What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. Today we live, but tomorrow will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”

Rabbi Daniel Cohen is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom, Stamford CT. He is the author of What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy.

With gratitude to teen reviewers Dylan Dickson and Annelia Ritter.

Photographic Credits
Banner, preteen with grandparent, teen with cell phone, and teen writing in notebook courtesy of Pexels

B-Mitzvah by Debby Weiss
Old photos in box courtesy of Unsplash