When I first started exploring Jewish learning and observance in my late teens, all of my family and friends thought I had lost my mind. But there was one person who was especially opposed to my newfound interest–my father.
Oh, he wanted me to be Jewish all right (from the youngest age, my sisters and I understood intermarrying would leave my pork-eating parents sitting shiva for us); I just was not allowed to be too Jewish. So when I began observing Shabbos every week during my senior year of high school, replete with unscrewing the light bulb in the fridge and taping lights around the house (so I wouldn’t be left in the dark–literally), good old dad would follow my trail and screw-in and un-tape. No daughter of his would become one of them.
My father had treated “ultra” Hasidim from some of the most extreme sects when he was training to be a doctor in Manhattan and was convinced that I was on a similar path. “You’re becoming a zealot,” he would tell me over and over again, even though I was making small changes at a responsible rate and I had no intention of ever leading an extreme life.
Finally, one day, I turned the tables on him. “If you think I’m ruining my life and the life of your unborn grandchildren, then save me from this awful cult,” I threatened. “But you didn’t even show up to Hebrew school,” I continued. (My father and his friends had such an aversion to Hebrew School they would stand outside for two hours each week in the freezing cold Philadelphia winters huddled under the dryer exhaust pipes of the nearby row houses.) “And you never bothered to learn at any other point. So you have no right to an opinion. Learn what I learn, meet who I meet, spend Shabbos where I spend Shabbos, and THEN you can argue from the inside out why it’s so bad.”
My father hemmed and hawed at first, but then realized that his feisty 16-year-old daughter had a point.
So out of spite, he learned. And tried out Shabbos. And met other religious Jews. After several months of exploration, at almost 50 years old, he approached me one day and gave me one of the biggest shocks of my life. “It was under my nose my all along, Allison, and I mocked it and judged it. It’s time to play catch up.” And catch up he did. He started learning every night after work. A few years later, he semi-retired from his successful medical practice to learn half the day. A few years after that he fully retired to learn even more. My whole family became observant one by one, and then all made aliyah to Israel.
Someone recently accused me of “brainwashing” my children because I’m raising them in an Orthodox household. “What options do they have?” she wanted to know. Ironically, I found that my parents, raising me without much Jewish education or observance, were the ones who left me with fewer options than I wanted when my existential searching began at 8 years old (after a classmate of mine was murdered by her father and life stopped making sense).
While my kids are raised with observance, faith, and Jewish education, my husband and I still expose them to the larger world. We teach them to respect other people and we’ve never made our love contingent on how religious they end up. Obviously, like all parents, we have certain values which we hope they’ll be committed to when they go off on their own. But we believe that our children, like all people, are endowed with free will, and while we’ll do our best to make Jewish observance and Torah study meaningful, relevant, and not shy away from the tension and difficulties that exist within it, ultimately it is our job to educate and it is their job to choose.