Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Getting Past Pediatric Judaism

 a month or two ago, I read an article by Anna Solomon. In it, she describes her discomfort with her own child's comfortable connection with Judaism:

I began to feel uneasy. It was a familiar unease, one I'd felt last Halloween when Sylvie, dressed as a ladybug, ran through the streets of Park Slope pumping her fist in the air and shouting, "Shabbat Shalom!" I'd felt it at her naming, when instead of fussing at the foot-dipping ritual we weren't entirely comfortable with ourselves, she giggled and cooed.

Sometimes I feel it when we make Shabbat at home, often with guests, who seem either amazed or bemused as Sylvie sings every word of the Hebrew blessings with us before exuberantly yanking the cover off the challah.

Why the discomfort? Solomon isn't sure. It might be simple embarrassment about her own lack of knowledge, or own religiosity. It might be a kind of jealousy—a yearning for the relationship with Judaism which she had as a child, but now only sees in her own daughter, not herself. But, in the end, she realizes that figuring out why she is uncomfortable when not be the most important thing. The most important thing might be becoming more comfortable, herself, and that probably means getting involved in Judaism, not just thinking about it:

What if we were to go as ourselves–-doubtful yet yearning, fearful yet proud – and try to see through Sylvie's eyes? Maybe we would rediscover, at the root of our ambivalence, a simple curiosity. We might remember how much we still don't know. We might even learn something, like the Jews at Mount Sinai, who accepted the Torah before they had a clue what it meant. "We will do," they said, and then, "we will understand."

It would be, as all parenting is, an interesting experiment. It would mean taking the radical step of worrying less about Sylvie and more about us.

I love that last sentence. I've often thought (and this isn't exactly an original thought) that if I could magically do one thing that would improve the religious lives of Jews, it would be to get them to focus less on their children, and more on themselves. So much of synagogue life is focused on the children. Religious school drives both membership (if and when people join) and programming (what we do, and when). Services are often structured around the needs of the children, not around spiritual needs of the parents. And so on. It creates a kind of “Pediatric Judaism” which gives the impression that Judaism, at its core, is really for kids. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Judaism is very much for adults. Of course, we have to make it available for the kids, as well. But, that's secondary. Judaism, at its best, is much too complicated for kids. It involves philosophy. Serious, inward inquiry. Self-sacrifice. Questioning and seeking, while acknowledging that the answers will probably never be found, at least not in final form. That's all hard stuff--not exactly kindergarten-level, you know? It's a well known irony that many Jewish families stop their synagogue involvement at exactly the moment when the kids begin to be able to appreciate Judaism on a more mature level. It's as if we get involved with a sport, and quit just as the training ends, and the season begins. It doesn't sound like much fun that way, and it's no surprise that people are often dissatisfied with their religious experience; they missed the good part.

So, if you're one of those Jewish parents (and, as usual, this probably applies to non-Jews, as well, but what do I know about that?) Who feels as if their own Jewish education was sorely lacking, you pretty much have two options. Repeat the patterns of the past—give your kids essentially the same Jewish education that you had, and probably watch them have the same, mostly unfulfilling, experience. Or, break the cycle. Attend a class. Download a podcast. Read a book. Do something to stimulate your own Jewish mind, and your own Jewish life. You may well find that it makes your Jewish life better, and your kids as well.

Pirke Avot teaches that if we study, then our children will grow up to study. If we only tell our children to study, then they'll grow up to tell their children to study, and no more. That was almost 2000 years ago. Some things don't change, I guess…

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