In the summer of 1999, I was a very exhausted new mom to a cranky and colicky baby girl, Hannah. I was also very socially isolated, having left an office job with great co-workers for an extended maternity leave during which I hadn’t found any mommy friends. Hannah’s father was put on mandatory overtime the week she was born, so I rarely saw him during the week. So mostly it was just Hannah, me, and our 100-pound dog.
I joined my temple’s social action committee because I figured it was time to start volunteering, and I was starved for human contact. One of the committee members, Jolene, had a teenage daughter. After one meeting she was clucking sympathetically at my sad stories of sleepless nights, colic, and nursing, and she shared with me a story about her teenage daughter that has stayed with me ever since.
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Jolene’s daughter was 16 and had her driver’s license (wait, she can drive? Doesn’t she need to be in a car seat?). Ever since her daughter was a child, the family had always celebrated Shabbat with Friday night dinners. But this year was different. She could DRIVE. She could go to Friday night football games at school and hang out with her friends. She was NOT going to Shabbat dinners with her family and her mother couldn’t make her! Jolene was giddy at her daughter’s rejection of Shabbat family dinners. I was very confused because Jolene and her family were very committed and active members of our small congregation, so this just didn’t add up.
Here’s how Jolene explained it to me: “She could be having sex. She could be drinking and doing drugs. She could be having sex, drinking, and doing drugs. Instead, in her mind, she’s staging her great teenage rebellion by boycotting Shabbat dinners. Am I thrilled? No. But given what she could be doing, this rebellion against Judaism is safe. She’s no harm to herself or anyone else. And I’m confident that at some point she’ll return.”
My daughter is now 16, and I watch WAY too much crime TV (“Law & Order SVU” and “Criminal Minds” are my current faves) so I am constantly thinking about all the things she could be doing that I don’t know about. Hannah could be drinking, drinking and driving, snorting, smoking, inhaling, or otherwise abusing illegal and legal drugs. Nothing like a friends’ Adderall prescription to help write a big paper or study for test. She could be having sex, running away, stealing the brand name clothes that I can’t afford to buy her. And I could be the clueless single mom talking to the detectives or the FBI.
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So what is an “acceptable” teenage rebellion? In light of what the possibilities are, skipping Shabbat dinners seems OK to me. Dating a non-Jewish guy/girl? Well, their father isn’t Jewish, so I’m silent on that one. Skipping the High Holy Days? Hannah’s brother, who became bar mitzvah during Sukkot of 2014, has already vocally claimed his agnosticism and that one of his first acts as a Jewish adult will be going to school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And he informed me he’ll be eating on Yom Kippur, too. Whatever. That’s between him and God.
If Hannah really wanted to stage a Jewish rebellion that would get my attention—she’d get a tattoo. A big garish one. Permanent. Ink. I really have an aversion to tattoos, so that is one rebellion against me and against Jewish tradition that would push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Honestly, though, I would be OK with a tattoo given the other possibilities are so much more awful.
I’m reminded of another story: When Hannah and Daniel were younger and attending day camp at the local JCC, there was a high school aged male counselor the kids adored. Andy was a rock star to the elementary aged kids he was responsible for. While on a Birthright trip to Israel he met up with one of the Israeli counselors who had worked at our JCC, and Boaz took Andy to Tel Aviv for a tattoo. And Andy came home with a verse from the Torah across his back—from shoulder to shoulder—inked with the flourishes and crowns we see in the Torah.
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A Jewish teen, getting a tattoo, in Israel! It was unheard of in our community. And yet…this was a safe rebellion, and in a way, by breaking with the tradition of “Jews don’t get tattoos,” that tattoo proclaimed Andy’s commitment to Judaism loud and clear.
That’s a rebellion I can live with.