I read something on the wall of a parenting education center that disturbed me. It said that, according to the “Active Parenting” model, a parent’s job is “to protect and prepare children to survive and thrive in the kind of society in which they will live.”
At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why this seeming truism didn’t sit well with me. Of course parents are responsible for the safety of their children, and raising a kid who thrives in society should make any parent proud. But, as I pondered the quote longer, I realized that it was the concept of “thriving in the kind of society in which they will live,” that, as a Jew, even a secular one, felt inaccessible to me.
Perhaps that’s because, as a Jew, I have always felt slightly removed from the society in which I live.
In high school, I didn’t quite understand why I wasn’t as attractive as the other girls. My hair, even with ample “product,” was much too frizzy and my nose was too long among the white Protestant faces at my rural, Southern high school. It was only when I visited Brandeis that I began to see myself as part of a type; my olive skin seemed pale and my wavy/curly/frizzy dark brown hair seemed tame in comparison with some of the Mediterranean faces there.
But it wasn’t just looks that made me feel separate from my peers. As the daughter of a Reform rabbi, I spent my Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and Sundays at temple, re-learning, year-after-year, the stories of oppression that Jews faced in the societies in which they lived. When Jews did assimilate with their captors, as in the story of Hanukkah, they were regarded as the enemies of our heroes, the Maccabees. In Europe, assimilation and wealth provided no protection from the cattle cars. “The Greeks tried, the Romans tried, the Germans tried to destroy us,” reads our version of Chad Gadya. In return, the Torah teaches us that we are to be a “light unto the nations,” not to emulate unethical behavior, but to model observance of a higher law.
In practice, being the only Jew in a school full of Southern Baptists often meant that I was a corrupting force. In my household, we swore, argued loudly, and learned about sex at a young age. These practices were anathema among my neighbors. So, naturally, at the age of 5, I called them f*cking a**holes. Over the years, I taught friends that Santa did not exist, but that alcohol and the clitoris did. I shared my first beer with a woman who became a coke addict. I debated the question of faith with a good Christian who became goth. I probably had more boyfriends than my looks deserved because I talked dirty (though my actions didn’t match my mouth—I was a rabbi’s daughter, after all).
Needless to say, I did not feel as though it were my obligation to obey the conventions of polite society. Quite the opposite—my mother homeschooled me and my siblings because she worried that school would socialize us, turn us into drones, stamp our spirit, bore us, and generally leave us as lifeless as “the masses,” who were, in the words of her father, “asses.” Since leaving home, I no longer share this view that “the masses are asses,” even if a residual sense of non-belonging still leaves me wondering what it means to be a Jewish parent in America.
As the mother of an 18-month-old, I question whether I want my own daughter to thrive in the society in which she lives. To “thrive,” members of society must accept and master its social conventions. But as a Jew, is it my obligation to teach my daughter to learn and emulate the rules of society so well that she thrives, or to be the one who challenges the system, who instead models “the better way” for society?
Since high school, I have only rarely attended services because A) I can’t help but feel as though all rabbis but my dad are doing it incorrectly and B) Services are really f*cking boring. You know they say the same prayers every week and tell the same stories every year, right? It can be fun to say the prayers along with the community, as if attending the concert of a popular band and everyone knows the lyrics. But the lyrics have started to fade with my long absence.
Still, the words of one important prayer, whose name escapes me, has been returning to my mind in fragments: “Teach them faithfully to your children. Bind them as a sign upon your hands. Let them be a symbol for your eyes. Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Be mindful of all my mitzvot and do them.”
When I was a frequent attendee of temple, I was always so proud of myself that I had memorized both the Hebrew and English versions of this prayer. Now I am grateful that the words are still present, for they give me a partial answer to a question that lingers when I think about my daughter’s relationship to society.
What does it mean to be a Jewish parent? Does it mean teaching my daughter to perform good deeds, to question and not emulate society, to risk failing to thrive, as the Jews did on Masada, in a quest to avoid captivity? Or, for us pagan Jews who eat bacon crusted shrimp covered in cheese, will it mean just being a little raunchier than our neighbors?