Does it take a special gift to be a Jewish father?
Father’s Day is coming, Yom HaDad, and while we are unwrapping the heartfelt gifts made by
our school-age children, or opening the card or tie from our wives, it’s a good time to think about what it means to be a Jewish father.
I mean a real Jewish mensch dad. Not a Coen brothers black comedy “Serious Man” Jewish dad, or a Krusty the clown Jewish caricature rabbi dad on “The Simpsons,” but a real life, change-the-diaper to off-to-college kind of Jewish dad. What does it mean to be one of those?
A Jewish dad, an abba, being a fraternal member of an order that has survived by questioning everything, turns the gift ritual around and asks: What gifts have I given?
According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a), “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first-born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade.” Others say: “teaching him how to swim,” as well.
For a daughter, modern obligations for most Jews include most of the above, minus the “redeeming,” and a simchat bat, or baby naming, instead of a brit. And don’t forget the Code of Jewish Law’s “A father must provide his daughter with appropriate clothing and a dowry.”
For a Jewish man contemplating fatherhood, or already there, this is a daunting gift list.
So, considering my three sons, and taking the Talmud as a Jewish father’s gift list, I am going to review past purchases to see how I have done. Have there been any bargains or returns? Besides my eternal wisdom that black cherry soda goes great with latkes, what Jewish gifts have I given?
Gift No. 1: the brit. There was a shaky moment of indecision when the mohel asked me, “Would you like to perform the mitzvah yourself?”
Now there’s a gift.
At the time, I was working extensively with creating the paper mechanical workings of children’s pop-up books. It was exacting work, requiring dexterity with very sharp cutting blades. In a morning full of great expectations and Jewish life-cycle buzz, I remember thinking: How hard could this be?
Fortunately, I listened to a still small voice that said something like, “Get real. Set up a college fund instead.”
Gift No. 2: the redeeming. Our firstborn was one half of a duo of fraternal twins. He is proudly six minutes older than his brother. At the pidyon ha’ben, the redemption of the firstborn, I get asked another question, this time by the rabbi: “Which do you prefer, to give me your firstborn or to redeem him?”
Though asked rhetorically, I briefly considered the proposition, and then handed over five silver dollars. One month in, I was a much-invested Jewish dad.
Gift No. 3: teaching him Torah. Here’s where the long journey into the heart of abba-ness begins. Sending our kids to preschool at the local JCC was the first step. We still use the menorahs they made from large metal hex nuts.
Later we decided to send our sons to an after-school Hebrew program at a nearby synagogue. The gift included occasional chats with the principal on their progress and “exuberance,” as well as occasional “groan and moan” commentary from my kids.
But they learned, and all three had bar mitzvahs in a smaller, minyan setting, where things like the importance of showing up, listening and leading are much more pronounced.
They graduated to a unique citywide Los Angeles Hebrew high school program where students examine Jewish values, study Jewish stereotypes in the media, and are encouraged to learn and lead services; all gifts with a lifetime guarantee.
Gift No. 4: finding him a wife. For anyone who has helped someone find a wife or husband, this is a true gift. Though I don’t plan on finding any of my sons a wife, I have supplied a certain amount of commentary on what religion that wife should be.
What’s my argument? Basically that sharing my life with a Jewish woman has brought compassion and a sense of “shalom bayit,” peacefulness, into my life.
For my kids, only time will tell if this is a gift that will keep on giving.
Gift No. 5: teaching him a trade. Colleges, trade schools and the armed services already do much of the work here. That leaves the Jewish dad with giving his children, I think, the greater gift: teaching them once a week not to punch the clock.
Call the gift “applied slackeristics.” On Shabbat, our kids saw us stop for a day, not answer the phone, and just hang out. The “trade” here is learning to leave time not just for the sayings of the fathers but the mothers, daughters and sons, too.
As for that last item — teaching them how to swim — a JCC swimming instructor performed those duties.
As for me, the Jewish dad, swimming against the cultural tide — I’m still taking lessons.