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Jewish Journal

Roots and Wings

by Jane Ulman

March 16, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Conventional wisdom tells parents that the two lasting legacies we can give our children are roots and wings.

"And orthodontia," a friend of mine adds.

Three weeks after having his braces removed, my son Zack is leaving for Israel for three months, armed with a mouthful of gleaming, straight teeth and roots he can knowledgeably trace back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

British Air is supplying the wings to get Zack and 17 other teenagers participating in an exchange program to Israel. The program, sponsored by Milken Community High School in Los Angeles and Tichon Chadash High School in Tel Aviv, is part of the larger Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership 2000, now in its second year, which pairs groups of American and Israeli 10th graders.

Zack also has his own wings, the ones he was born with, the ones that my husband, Larry, and I have resisted the urge to clip.

Zack has always been fiercely independent, making separation anxiety a nonissue as he smoothly transitioned from daycare to preschool to day school, from overnights with friends to overnight camp -- and now -- to overseas.

"Are you nervous?" someone asks Zack.

"Nope," he answers.

More to the point, he's ecstatic about being reunited with his Israeli "sibling," Ya'ir Cohen, who spent three months living with our family this past fall. Zack and Ya'ir refer to each other as brothers. They also refer to each other, respectively and affectionately, as "falafel" and "hamburger."

At 16, Zack is virtually an adult. He has all the trappings -- a razor, a driver's license and a credit card. He also has an adult's height, confidence, and sense of adventure.

"If I had wings and I could fly, I know where I would go," he sang earlier in the day as he packed, having memorized the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow."

"He's grown," I say to my husband, as I watch Zack chatting with his friends at the airport. "There's not much more we can do."

I think about what we have done, we baby boomers who have raised child-rearing to a Ph.D. equivalency course. The problem is not that this vital task of parenting comes without instructors or instruction books. Rather, in the last 20 years, it has come with too many -- from Dr. Spock to Dr. Brazelton, from "Games Babies Play" to "Wonderful Ways to Love a Teen," from hot lines to help lines to online advice sites.

While I might argue that the most useful child-rearing book is Richard Ferber's "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems," Judaism would argue that it's the Torah. After all, Deuteronomy 6:7 states, "And you shall teach them [words of Torah] diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when sitting in your house, when walking on the way, when lying down and when rising up."

Judaism, interestingly enough, does not command us to love our children, or even like them. But it does command us to teach them Torah, to instill in them the commandments and values and teachings that form our spiritual foundation and identity.

Proverbs 22:6 reaffirms this: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it."

Have we trained him, I wonder, to make his bed and to not leave his socks scattered about Ya'ir's house in inside-out balls? To say please and thank you? To not lose his new -- and not inexpensive -- retainers?

More important, and more likely what Proverbs 22:6 means, will he use good judgment? Will he act like a mensch? Will he be a worthy representative of our family? Of Milken Community High School? Of Jewish America?

"What if he goes to Israel and wants to stay there?" someone recently asked me.

It's a question I don't want to answer, a possibility I don't want to ponder. On one hand, I hope he eventually settles in Southern California. On the other, it is not my decision. Children, after all, are gifts to us, not possessions.

For even these few months, I can't imagine life on a daily basis without Zack. Who will help me when I have a computer problem, or willingly drive to Ralphs when I'm out of milk? Who will amuse me with a witty remark or astute observation about human life? Or tell me, in true teenage fashion, he's omniscient and omnipotent?

Life is full of separations and geographical chasms. This is true for contemporary families, who move, on average, every seven years. This is historically true for Jews, who wandered for 2,000 years without a homeland. And this is painfully true for parents whose children grow up.

But now we have a homeland, where, for the next three months, Zack can extend his roots deeper into his heritage and test his wings for strength.

"It's a mitzvah to send our children to the land of Israel," Rabbi Eddie Harwitz, Milken's dean of student affairs, tells us.

He has gathered all the families together in a large and uneven circle in the middle of Bradley International Terminal. Competing with the departure announcements on the loudspeaker, he recites a prayer for the students' safe journey to Israel.

And, I add to myself, for their safe journey to adulthood.


Jane Ulman writes a bimonthly column for The Jewish Journal. She lives in Encino with her husband and four sons.

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