October 12, 2000
Daddy Track/We’re No Angels
What does it mean to be a Jewish father? If you're from a religious Jewish background, you know just what to do. You basically raise your child the way you were raised.
What if you aren't all that thrilled to be Jewish? You might say what my buddy said when his first son was born: "My wife and I haven't decided how much religion to inflict on the child." What if you're somewhere in between?
I'm struggling to figure out what being a Jewish dad today is all about. What do I want to show and tell my kids about being Jewish? What does being Jewish mean today? Something? Anything? Everything? Everybody talks about how the moms feel when their kids go off to preschool, the senior prom or the Navy. No one really asks dads, particularly Jewish dads, what it all means to them. Now I'm asking myself and others this.
What was it like when your son was circumcised? What were you thinking about? How did it feel when your daughter went to services for the first time? What about your child's first Chanukah, or Yom Kippur? What are you telling them about sex? Death? Israel? The Holocaust? When do you bring up these things?
This is a fascinating and complex time to be a Jewish anything, let alone a Jewish father. We live in a society where, practically unique in Jewish history, you can be Jewish and nobody really cares. You have total freedom to eat Jewish, look Jewish, dress Jewish, pray Jewish. You can wear a bekishe, streimel and tallis and walk down the streets to Sabbath services and no one looks twice at you. We've seldom been so free to be ourselves.
The flip side (some might say the downside) of freedom and tolerance is that Judaism actually becomes harder to sustain in the absence of true enemies. When it's this easy to be Jewish, it's equally easy not to be Jewish. Nothing keeps Jews from merging completely with the dominant society around us. Since that's the case, how much of Judaism do you follow, and how much of that do you pass on to your kids? Just how Jewish do you want your kids to be?
My wife is in early labor with our first child; we just returned from our last OB/GYN visit prior to the trip to the hospital. Soon, all the theoretical questions about raising a child Jewishly will become real for us. And we have no idea what we're going to do. We don't have a plan. These words are definitely a cry for help to all the other Jewish fathers. How'd you do it? What worked? Any regrets?
According to the Talmud, an angel teaches all of Judaism to the unborn child while it's still in the darkness of the womb. Just prior to birth, the angel touches the baby between the upper lip and the nose, causing the baby to forget everything that's been taught over the last nine months. (This explains, according to the Talmud, the little indentation we all have between the nose and the mouth. Of course, gentiles have that indentation as well. How'd they get it?)
I like the idea that my child, right now, knows 99.9 percent of Jewish law and history. (Every Dad wants to think his kid is smart.) I'm sad that he or she (we don't know yet) will have to start learning it all over again. To put it bluntly, I'm no angel. In fact, when it comes to transmitting Judaism, I'm almost as much in the dark as is our baby. I'm not the ideal transmitter of Jewish thought, values, and rules because I've never had a consistent approach to Judaism.
Briefly, my mother's grandparents were Chassidic Jews. Her parents were nonpracticing Orthodox. My father's father was president of his Conservative congregation; he and my grandmother cooked and served lobster in the garage. My parents brought up my sisters and me in a Reform temple; we were Bar and Bat Mitzvah and gone. When I was in college, I visited Israel and spent a year in a ba'al teshuva yeshiva, or school for confused American Jews, and am now somewhere between my mother's parents and grandparents in terms of observance. My wife? She's from China. She converted to Judaism. So neither of us has a clear path to follow, or to offer our offspring.
The point is that people aren't supposed to be angels. We filter Judaism through our own perceptions and we do the best we can. It's time for this Jewish Dad to find his voice.