why be jewish

I Asked My Teen Why He’s Jewish And I Got More Than I Bargained For

teen boy

This article is part of our essay series, “Why Be Jewish?,” based off of “Why Be Jewish?”—a new book by the late Edgar M. Bronfman. Read the rest in the series here.

So here’s a fun, new parenting milestone!

When Kveller asked me to participate in their “Why Be Jewish?” series in support of Edgar Bronfman’s book of the same name, and suggested they were looking for something beyond the traditional blog post, I thought I had a terrific idea. My 16-year-old son will be spending this summer in Israel as a Bronfman Fellow. So wouldn’t it be super-duper keen if I interviewed him regarding his answer to the question posed by Bronfman’s book? (We love synergy!)

Now, those who read me regularly know that, despite a childhood speech delay and ongoing Auditory Processing issues, my son talks constantly. Anything that he thinks, he says. Sometimes, it’s before he thinks. He’s 16. It’s par for the course.

As a result, I assumed I knew pretty much where he stood on every single issue known to mankind. Especially 16-year-old mankind named Adam. As it turned out, though, this interview brought out concerns I had no idea he harbored.

It was not my most shining parenting moment. Which is why, naturally, I am sharing it with you now.

***

Alina: As your mother, how do you feel I’ve answered the question of “Why Be Jewish?” in either word or deed? (Be brutally honest, but remember who buys the food you eat in your massive teenage boy quantities.)

Adam: Being Jewish hasn’t really been a question of “why,” it is simply a statement of “is.” Being Jewish was obligatory and it was the reason why you came to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, and it is something that we just do. You have tried to show us how to be Jewish, but my upbringing, at least, has resulted in me not truly understanding how to be Jewish.

I feel that our Jewish observance is superficial and that we don’t try enough. You kind of do your own thing, and I don’t understand how it fits into the commonly accepted policies of Judaism. You never go to synagogue services unless there is an ulterior motive, and you didn’t even give me the option to have a bar mitzvah. We celebrate Shabbat with candles, challah, and grape juice, but we don’t truly observe the Sabbath, and we only do it when we’re not busy. You also serve us meat and milk. Other than my dairy allergy, I just feel hypocrisy in our Jewish life, because we do what you want.

I understand how embracing Judaism was a new idea after the Communist unpleasantness, and that you don’t know everything. That’s OK. I wish that I had a choice in deciding to be Jewish and how to live a Jewish life. I wanted to have a bar mitzvah, but I didn’t, and it bothers me to this day. I feel that my Jewish growth was inhibited, and I don’t feel the urge to live a particularly Jewish life. It’s not your fault, you tried your best. Like with Russian fluency, you tried, yet I’m still not fluent.

Alina: What is a Bronfman Fellow, why did you decide to apply, and what do you hope to get out of it? Do you feel you’ll get something there that you lack at home?

Adam: A Bronfman Fellow is a high school rising Senior who wants to learn about and challenge the meaning of being Jewish. To apply for the Fellowship, you have to write essays, obtain two letters of recommendations, and submit your grades. I wrote essays about international law, my challenges at dancing, my summer activities, and my Jewish identity. After I submitted my application, I advanced to the finalist stage. Then I had two interviews, where I talked about myself and my relationship to Judaism.

During the fellowship, there’s supposed to be text study, discussion, deep philosophical questions, and inner turmoil. During my interview, I was asked questions that were personal to my own experience, and the questions were thought-provoking. I remember talking about my issues with ethnic nationalism, museum education, and my problems with segregation and affinity groups.

I applied because I felt like my Jewish identity was lacking, and I wanted to take charge in finding my own Jewish fit. I relish the opportunity to try to figure out my own meaning of being Jewish, and I hope to be exposed to other Jewish lifestyles, which I have not seen at home.

Alina: In this totally private forum of many thousands of Jewish mothers (and fathers) from around the world, tell me what you wish I’d done differently in explaining/demonstrating “Why Be Jewish?” to you, and why.

Adam: I wish our Jewish observance were more consistent. When I was younger, we used to go to synagogue regularly and I went to Hebrew school. Then we kind of tried to stay relatively Jewish. Going to a de-facto Episcopalian school, I felt secure in our expression of Judaism.

I wish that you had at least given me an option to have a bar mitzvah and to continue my Jewish learning. Sometimes I feel that I don’t know enough to be a competent Jew.

***

Almost three years ago exactly, I wrote about how I felt I’d cheated my sons out of a Jewish education. At the time, my oldest son didn’t give any particular indication that he felt a lack, either regarding the bar mitzvah or anything else. I wonder if his insecurity in his Jewish identity has been festering since then, or if it’s something that came with maturity.

In any case, I’m thrilled that his upcoming summer in Israel as a Bronfman Fellow will give him a chance to work out some of those issues. And I am even more thrilled that he’ll be coming to terms with the sort of Jew he wants to be (and why) through having wrestled, Jacob-style, with the questions on his own. Maybe he can teach the rest of us. As my son explained above: The whole family has a lot to learn.


Read More:

Uncovering My Grandmother’s Traumatic Past

I’m Really Bad at Saying No And It’s Stressing Me Out

The 3 Reasons Why I’m Jewish


 

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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