People didn’t often try to drown me as a child. Indeed, growing up two hours from the sea in God’s own county of Yorkshire — a cold, law-abiding place where antisemitism is illegal — any notion that swimming lessons might be related to my Jewishness seemed contrived. And this week, swimming in the summer heat of a suburban Tennessee pool, with my two blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughters, that relationship seems tenuous to the point of absurdity.
Yet it’s a traditional and explicit obligation of a Jewish father to teach his sons (and daughters) to swim. This probably started because most people lived near the water making swimming an important skill for families hoping to avoid accidental deaths. Plus, later in the history of Ashkenaz, it meant that any malicious attempt by vaguely-pogromic middle-Europeans to drown those children would have to be pretty determined in order to succeed.
But you realize how vitally important it really is, when you compare it to the other obligations a father has to his children — to find a spouse, teach Torah and teach a trade. Remember, it’s the Talmud saying this (Kiddushin 29a if you’re interested), so Torah stands for your child’s entire identity and spiritual heritage. The absolute significance of learning to swim is clear. It’s a vital part of life, love and livelihood.
The stakes are high when the danger of water is quite literally “in your face,” but the process of teaching how to manage it safely is a viscerally happy one. And, though there may be some toe-curling moments of suspense on the way to acquiring it, the payoff — a child who can swim — is deeply satisfying.
Teaching her to swim is also, crucially, a time where you get to know your child and her temperament intimately, through joy and fear. It’s not surprising that the Talmud would use it as a metaphor for Torah scholarship, but it’s also a good metaphor and practice for a father: being there to help his daughters as they deal with the pleasures of a new medium that, though buoyant, would kill them without a pause.