Five minutes with Ben Greenman
The New Yorker editor exposes the true benefits of Hebrew School--it's the perfect thing to rebel against
How many kids do you have and what are their names and ages?
Daniel is 9, and Jake is 6.
Did you use disposable or cloth diapers?
I think we did disposable. I preferred not to have to deal with it at all, but let's say disposable.
Did you do sleep training?
We did a little. You mean where you Ferberize them and don't go in there? Yeah, I don't know if we were that strict about it. Our intentions were better than the reality.
Is it cruel?
No, I don't think it's cruel. I mean, life is cruel.
Which parenting books are on your shelf?
None anymore. We got rid of them all, but we had some baby books, like the What to Expect one. My wife found she was always sort of trying to strike the balance between the ones that were informative and the ones that produced anxiety. The ones with a lot of information had too much information.
Do you consider yourself (or your wife) a stereotypical Jewish parent?
No, well, she's half. It's her mom, and so, no I would say neither of us are. Not in the sense of over-lording--is that the stereotype? Over-monitoring? Take a sweater? Not really.
Do you plan to send your kids to Hebrew School?
Yes, the older one does already. I don't necessarily believe, but I found when I was a kid and I went, it was useful because then you have something to challenge. I felt like it was a good idea to have something to push against if you wanted to.
Does your son like Hebrew School so far?
Yeah, he does like it. I think he likes the learning and he likes the ideas. I mean it's another language, first of all. And it's basically a lot of the kids from his public school. He had reservations at first because he didn't really know what it would be--if he was supposed to grow sidelocks. I think that's what he thought at some level. We would see the Orthodox guys walking around in Borough Park and he would worry, uh oh, is that what's happening? Am I being sold into that culture? But then he got there and it was just kids from school, and he was learning stuff and singing songs and he was fine with it. He also says he doesn't believe in God, but I guess he works it out.
Is there any Jewish thing that your family did when you were a kid that you don't want to do with your kids?
No, I don't think so. In between 13 and parenting, I was not very observant. Although I always thought I would lean back in that direction when I had kids. My mom's family was a little more observant than my dad's. We were raised in a conservative synagogue. My brothers and I all got bar mitzvahed. That's sort of the model, I guess. I want them to get a certain level of education and training, and then ideally reject it.
How many preschools did you apply to?
Zero. They just went to the one in the neighborhood. One of the reasons that I live where I live is because I like the public schools in Brooklyn and I would like to not have to worry about any of that kind of stuff.
What's the most expensive thing you ever bought for your kid?
It's hard to say. They seem satisfied by lots of little things. We'll be walking and they'll see something in a gumball machine and they'll be excited by that. I don't think they know the difference between that and a Rolex. It wouldn't make any difference to them. It's just something new. I'm sure if I went home and I looked, there's nonsense that I've gotten for them, stupid toys that I thought were interesting, but honestly they would probably be more for me because I thought they were funny.
Do you have any idea what's in kishke?
It's like the junk drawer. They just put a bunch of stuff in there and hope for the best. I think what's in there is you don't want to know. It's better for everyone that way.
Are you a kveller?
Yeah, I guess, in the sense that when they do things that are good, it's better than when they do things that are bad. But, the semi-serious answer, I won't get too serious about it--I think it's better if they like the things they do than if I do. Obviously, kids have to learn to transfer parental pride to become self-confident. But I try, like if they bring home a drawing and if they say "Do you like it?" (and they're always bad, kid drawings are always bad), rather than say, "Oh that's the best building I ever saw anybody draw," I would say to them, "Do you like it?" Because who cares if I like it? That's the lesson to learn in the end--whether or not an audience likes it, they should decide if they like it. If they think they did a good drawing, great, and their idea of that will change. I guess I want to start to push that back into their own hands. So, I would say yes and no.
--Interview by Molly Tolsky
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker as well as the author of several books of fiction, including Please Step Back, What He's Poised to Do, and his latest collecetion, Celebrity Chekhov. Visit his website at www.BenGreenman.com.