November 18, 1999
Becoming a Jewish Parent: How to Explore Spirituality
and Tradition with your Children
By Daniel Gordis
Harmony Books, $24
When my daughter was very young, a relative gave me a copy of a classic book, "To Raise a Jewish Child," by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. It was a well-meaning gift. The only problem: Though Donin was clearly a sensible man with much to say about Jewish values in the modern world, I could not connect emotionally with his message.
Donin's book (published in 1977) makes an interesting contrast to a brand-new work by Daniel Gordis, "Becoming a Jewish Parent." Both cover essentially the same terrain -- how parents can introduce their children to Jewish tradition -- but their manner makes all the difference. Like Donin, Gordis is both a rabbi and a professor. (Until his recent move to Israel, he headed the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.) Whereas Donin writes in the voice of a religious leader speaking to congregants, Gordis is able to communicate parent-to-parent. He understands that today's moms and dads often feel unsure of their own stance toward Judaism. He's aware that many Jewish parents lack basic Jewish knowledge. So in language that never condescends, using anecdotes that demonstrate his ease in the modern world, as well as the world of his ancestors, he sets about educating and inspiring his readers to raise genuinely Jewish kids. His point is that "you can become a great Jewish parent regardless of how you grew up. You don't have to be an expert about Judaism to help your kids come to love being Jewish. And no, you don't have to have all your ambivalence about Jewish life worked out before you get started."
Gordis's approach is to gently immerse young children in Judaism, giving them positive Jewish memories on which to build as they grow older. He uses holidays, life-cycle events, and even bedtime rituals as opportunities for parent and child to share Jewish experiences and discover a sense of God. But for him, Judaism shouldn't remain on the level of milk and cookies: He hopes that families who begin by building a backyard sukkah and creating Purim costumes will graduate to a more sophisticated approach toward Judaism as a religion and a culture. One of the book's most helpful aspects is the annotated bibliography that refers readers to other publications, as well as to pertinent web sites and CD-ROMs. Other tools provided by Gordis include a handy rundown of the whole span of Jewish history and a thorough discussion of the Jewish calendar, with suggestions for finding meaning even in such arcane customs as the counting of the Omer.
The book has its lapses. Though it tackles many timely issues (like the role of women within religious Judaism and the question of whether Jewish children should celebrate Halloween), one important topic gets sidestepped. In elucidating the Jewish life cycle, Gordis takes pains to describe the traditional wedding ceremony, for the benefit of a child attending such an event. But he never broaches the equally baffling sort of wedding ceremony jointly performed by a rabbi and a minister. Today's Jewish parents often find themselves faced with the need to explain intermarriage to their youngsters. Given Gordis's sensitivity and eloquence, it's too bad he dodged this challenge. Still, he has written a work that Jewish parents should welcome as an invaluable resource.