My 17-year-old son returned from his five-week trip to Israel as a Bronfman Youth Fellow a little taller, a little tanner, and a whole lot angrier. At me.
Prior to his trip, I conducted an interview with him as part of Kveller’s “Why Be Jewish?” series, where his anger first started to show.
“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… I just feel hypocrisy in our Jewish life, because we do what you want… 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.”
But that was nothing compared to how incensed he was when he returned. My son told me that he felt like he was the most ignorant of Judaism on the entire trip, that everyone else knew more than he did. When he started listing some of the things he’d learned and I admitted that I was familiar with the concepts and practices, he demanded to know why I hadn’t taught them to him.
I didn’t defend myself. I admitted that I hadn’t taught him absolutely everything that would make it possible for him to go out into the world without a single self-doubt about anything. I did, however, qualify that I didn’t believe such a thing was achievable. I also challenged his memory of events about exactly who hadn’t wanted a bar mitzvah (no, let me clarify that, who hadn’t wanted to study for a bar mitzvah).
But mostly, I let him talk. It’s been nearly a month since he came back, and he’s still talking. I see that as a good thing. Perhaps, unlike my son, I actually expected him to return from Israel with more questions than answers—not exclusively due to my lacking in the Jewish parenting department, but because that’s the whole point of a trip like this, one outside of your comfort zone.
My son is 17. Seventeen-year-olds think they know everything. Seventeen-year-olds know nothing. (Neither, for the record, do almost 47-year-olds… There, now you know how old I am.) Seventeen-year-olds need to be reminded of that. A lot. As a way to keep them from becoming even more insufferable and/or newly holier-than-thou than they already are.
My son came back from Israel questioning not only his Jewish identity, but his African-American one, as well. He even compared it to Jacob wrestling with the Angel.
These are all good things.
I realize that makes me sound like a bit of a sadist, feeling happy about my son’s inner turmoil. Happy isn’t exactly the right word.
At 17, he was bound to be wrestling with all sorts of issues. Self-doubt and dramatic search for identity is a given at this age, as is the trying on and discarding of various personas and observances (he even addressed this in his Bronfman blog). It’s a huge part of growing up. If I’m happy about anything, it’s that the issues he’s chosen to tackle are meaningful, rather than superficial, or just plain stupid (we were all 17 once, we remember…). That they are exactly the kinds of issues that lead to growing up. Hopefully into a righteous young man.
Recently, he and his paternal grandmother had a talk about her Christian faith, and how she’s still struggling to make sense of it, even into her eighth decade. She doesn’t have all the answers, either. (I wonder if she blames her mother, too?)
I don’t mind facing my son’s blame, because he’s right. Our Jewish observance is spotty and inconsistent. There are practices I am aware of that we don’t follow, and thus he’s remained ignorant of them. But I chose what works for me. Just like someday I expect him to do the same for his life. That’s one thing I hope I have taught him. Thinking for yourself and making your own decisions; not making choices based on the opinions (good and bad) of others. I want all of my children to go through life acting, not reacting, heeding their inner voices, instead of being swayed by others.
On a related note, when my mother heard some of my son’s on-going harangues against me, she stepped in to admonish, “Don’t blame her, blame me. I’m the one who didn’t teach her about Judaism, so that she couldn’t teach you.” My mother hesitated, then added, “Actually, it’s the Soviet Union’s fault. Blame the Soviet Union.”
So there you have it, the l’dor va’dor of blame.
And still, I don’t feel guilty. Every child (especially every teen) has a handy memorized litany of things their parents did wrong (you know you do…). I can’t shake the feeling that if he weren’t accusing me of this, it would be of something else. And I can’t help feeling happy that my main failing as a parent (so far) has led to his wrestling with angels.