I recently found this essay I had started writing a couple of years ago in response to an editor’s early reading of my manuscript (then entitled The Adulterer’s Notebook) Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage. “I think,” she had begun, “you need to talk more about being a parent.” Really??? My reaction now is the same as it was then: but the book is about the intimate inner life of a woman in her forties; the kids certainly are not at the forefront of that carefully carved out space–right??? They do seem to be at the forefront of just about everything else though, and so, I share this hopefully humorous essay with you, dear reader, that I started oh so long ago, and finished rather recently…
“Why should I make my bed,” my oldest son asks, “when you don’t even follow the laws of the Torah?” The kid’s got a point, though recognizing hypocrisy, whether relevant or not, certainly won’t keep the house tidy. Of course, I can only blame myself for his pre-teen challenge; he hadn’t asked to go to Jewish Day School, he had been sent. I had hoped our children’s foray into the world of the observant would fill them with a rich sense of cultural and religious pride, as well as successfully ameliorate our family’s fundamental, not to mention historical, and—at this point—habitual, inability to even light Shabbat candles on Friday nights. Unfortunately, the reality fell somewhat short of the expectation, as my sons left their two years as Jewish Day School students, with its daily T’fillah, its kosher kitchen, its partial emersion Hebrew, essentially as skeptics who questioned why such a just and forgiving G-d would have unceremoniously and without consult, sentenced them to while away their childhoods in our lax non-observant traiffe-ridden home.
In fact much of what the boys took away from this experience proved counter to what I had hoped: “We learn the importance of diversity and giving to the poor in our homogenous expensive private school,” my youngest son proudly explained, when asked about how his private school education differed from his public school one, “AND,” he had continued excitedly, “there are so many Jewish holidays right at the beginning of the school year—most of them my parents have never even heard of—that we get to go to school for only a handful of days before it is time for Thanksgiving break!”
Of course the boys’ congenital contrarianism couldn’t be fully sublimated into the rigors of daily prayer and davening. Our middle son, especially, never met an assignment he couldn’t subvert, a rule he couldn’t rewrite, a fact I was painstakingly made aware of at my first parent-teacher conference. “The directions clearly state to find one path for the apple to reach the honey,” Jared’s nonplussed second grade teacher told me disapprovingly as she showed me the offending Rosh Hashanah maze. “Your son,” she spit out, as though my progeny were venom, “thought it would be clever to figure out three possible paths.”
She then treated me to an example of what I have since coined–to describe the degree to which my middle son could just not be bothered–“Jared’s red rule.” “This week we have spent completing various activities designed to reinforce the students’ understanding of the adjective. And Jared, it seems, thinks this joke-worthy,” she complained, producing her piece-de-resistance, a packet of no less than eight pages of adjective work sheets, the last four of which had the word “red” scribbled in as the answer for each of the 20 or so questions per page. It seemed “red baby,” “red house,” “red mountain,” and “red siren wail,” were not adequate demonstrations of adjective proficiency.
Where had I gone wrong? I wondered, shaking my head, as I shamefully left the school building, stunned with the knowledge that not only was our home a kasher-free zone, but I had parented a child who could at once condemn his parents’ non-observance and flout his disregard for his teacher’s directions through assignment non-compliance. Of course, I was to blame. I would be better, I vowed; I would light candles, attend services, scrub our home before Passover, clear every last bit of shrimp from the fridge. I did wonder, however, whether the freezer was exempt from such a harsh directive…
“Dammit,” I exclaimed, “do as I say not as I do, just won’t cut it with these boys.” I wanted more for them; I wanted their take-away from their childhood to resonate with purpose and personal identity. And then it hit me—unlikely as the sight of a burning bush in the wilderness—so much of who they are, who they are becoming, is what has happened while I wasn’t even trying (and thank goodness for that, because not trying is my parenting strong suit). For example, my boys’ absolute reverence for books rivals only, well, my own. Every one of them is not only a voracious reader, but a book collector, a book-by-the-bed stacker, a bookstore prowler, a family-reading-party regular, a true believer in the transformative power of the printed word. I taught them that, not by intention but by example.
Just a couple of months ago, my oldest son, now 14, texted me from a library used book sale. “Look, just look, what I got for only three dollars!” The attached picture showed no less than eight gently loved books, including James Patterson, Harper Lee, and Erica Jong (Fear of Flying??? OK…we will have to have a discussion about that one) “Dad,” his text continued, “said not to buy so many, but I knew you would get it…”
And I think, well, they really are their mother’s sons, these independent, outspoken, funny, well-read boys, and I only hope, expect actually, that they will find something bigger than themselves—perhaps even a rule or two by which to live, or the clever antics of a lovable character (even one who may be a bit hypocritical) to whom to relate—between the dusty covers of a well-loved, heartily devoured book…maybe even one recommended by their mom.