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Jewish Journal

Do you know your family story?

by Rob Eshman

March 21, 2013 | 2:28 pm

Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Bruce Feiler mentions Passover only in passing in his new book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” but in some ways, the book is all about Passover.

Feiler spent a year researching what makes some families more resilient, more cohesive and happier than others. 

And he learned that there actually is one common thread, one way, in which all happy families are alike: They share their family story.

“After a while, a surprising theme emerged,” he wrote in a New York Times essay about his book. “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

You see where this is heading?

Researchers, Feiler reported, have actually compiled mountains of data on this subject, even to the point of recording and transcribing the conversations of dozens of family dinners.

Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush developed a test that asked children to answer 20 questions about their family story. For example: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know the story of something terrible that happened to your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

They called their measure, the “Do You Know?” scale.

“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned,” Feiler wrote. “The ‘Do You Know?’ scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

Families that share their history drew closer together. They were better prepared to weather hard times. Even tragedies could be incorporated in a narrative that included many ups and downs over the generations.

“Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively,” Feiler wrote. “But talking doesn’t mean simply ‘talking through problems,’ as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. …”

Passover isn’t the story of one family; it’s the story of our family. It’s the shared narrative of our suffering and salvation, our exodus and deliverance, our slavery and our freedom, which we tell over and over and over “in every generation.”

The PR people for Feiler’s book sent me a blurb that promised “never-before-seen best practices” for creating a happier family.

Haven’t they ever seen a seder?

Using a story not just to create a cohesive family, but a happier one — Jews have been doing just that for thousands of years.

And just as it works in nuclear families, sharing a common story binds and strengthens groups of families and individuals.

In his book, Feiler mentions Passover in passing, counting it among the holiday celebrations that his parents and in-laws divvied up: Thanksgiving, July 4, Passover…

But Passover is unique. It’s not just another time for the family to sit and talk. 

“And you shall tell your children on that day…” the haggadah instructs us.

Passover is the power of narrative enshrined as a holiday. At what other festivity do you sit around a table and eat and read and discuss the history of the holiday you’re celebrating?

It would be like marking July 4 by sitting around a dinner table drinking ale, eating chowder and reading the Federalist Papers — which, to me, by the way, sounds awesome.

The entire Passover story, told in the haggadah (which translates, literally, as “the telling”), is a series of “Do You Knows?” Do You Know you were once slaves in Egypt? Do You Know what happened at the Red Sea? Do You Know what it means that you too were once strangers? Do You Know what it means to fight for freedom? Do You Know what it means to remember?

“Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves,” Feiler wrote.

Passover takes that idea a step further: You are not just part of your immediate family story, you are part of a People’s story, which is part of humanity’s story.

“The bottom line,” Feiler writes, “if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Read that paragraph again. Substitute the word “family” with “People.”

And have a very happy Passover.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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