According to Yiddish legend, a family of birds was threatened
by a flood. Food was scarce and the rains were heavy. The only
escape from their nest was to fly over the rising waters to dry
land. The mother was anxious about her young for they were barely
hatched and so the father undertook to carry each fledgling on
his back to safety. Halfway across, he said to the first one,
‘When I am old will you care for me as I care for you now?’ ‘Oh,
yes! of course, father!’ Doubting the little one’s sincerity,
he dropped him into the torrent below. Halfway across with his
second baby, he asked again, ‘When I am old, will you care for
me as I care for you now?’ ‘Oh, yes! of course, father!’ He too
fell to his death. Halfway across with the third he asked, ‘When
I am old will you care for me as I care for you now?’ ‘I can’t
promise father . . . but I do know that when I have young of my
own I will care for them as you care for me now’. His father carried
him safely to dry land — to new life.
It is one of life’s little mercies that few of us will ever have
to choose between saving our parents and saving our children.
Clearly this legend is not concerned with the practical realities
of such a dilemma but with reaffirming the love of children and
the love of tradition and the love of tomorrow.
There are some truisms which are actually true! Much has been
made of the fact that the first biblical command is p’ru ur’vu
(increase and multiply!) and clearly traditional Jewish families
are large — and undivided! A great deal of rabbinic attention
has also been devoted to kibbud av v’eym: ‘Honour your father
and mother’ is the first as it were ‘social’ commandment in the
Ten Sayings. Unfashionable though it may seem today, kibbud av
v’eym makes the relationship between parents and children a fun-
damentally inequitable one: it provides a structure and a direction
which the parents need for nurturing and the children for being
nurtured. We also recognise here that God is speaking to us as
a child not as a parent; that we are all the life-long sons and
daughters of our mothers and fathers and the eternal child of
the Almighty. It is the most basic, primal human condition.
As to why there is no reciprocal command — ‘Honour your son and
your daughter’ — there is a straightforward and largely uncontested
reply: by and large, Jewish parents have positive feelings for
their offspring — perhaps because of the p’ru ur’vu principle
— but filial piety does not come naturally. It must be commanded
by the Holy One and reinforced by the pressures of law and lore.
That father bird certainly knew what was what
It is no overstatement that Jewish children begin to enter the
tradition at birth; some would say even in the womb there is an
atmosphere which initiates and transmits. Interestingly, rehem
(womb) is at the root of rahamim which is translated as compassion
or mercy: the womb therefore is a holy habitat, a caring condition,
a merciful environment — it accepts, it sustains, it promotes.
That is why I find the liturgical phrase ‘av rahamim’ so compelling:
as a name for God it is translated traditionally as ‘father of
mercy! compassion’ but of course really means womb-like father.
I find that both mind-blowing and heart- warming.
In one midrash, it is told that before we are born a light is
held behind our head and we can see from one end of the world
to the other and we are taught the entire Torah. But at the moment
of birth, an angel touches us on our lips — we are not able to
speak of what we know and by not sharing the Torah we forget it
ourselves. So the rest of our lives are spent trying to remember
what we once knew . . . and, in case you ever wondered, that is
why we have an impression between our top lip and our nose: it
is the mark made by the angel’s finger. . .
The love of Jewish parents for their children and the love of
Jewish living and learning are completely inseparable, almost
indistinguishable actually. It is never too early to learn and
never too late. One of the distinctive features of Jewish parenting
is that what parents want ‘Jewishly’ is precisely the same as
wanting them to wrap up warm in winter, have nice friends, not
catch the measles, be helpful and honest, get on well at school,
enjoy their holiday . . . In other words, wanting them to be conscious
and committed Jews is wanting the best for them.
Richard Israel, while his wife was in labour with their first
child, and he was banned from the delivery room, wrote a poignant
letter, To my (as yet) unborn child. He speaks of his desire for
his child to be happy and caring and then goes on:
I want you to be clearly and irrevocably Jewish. I do not
know if my way will be your way, but your way must be a real
way, and a serious way . . . Perhaps for you, being Jewish will
be an easy and relaxed thing, not the struggle and effort it
has been for me.. . Perhaps part of your struggle will be with
me . . .’ The Jewish Family Book, p4.
Jewish children learn to be Jewish from their parents in much
the same way as they learn to wrap up warm: they learn it with
hugs and words and smacks, at their mother’s breast and on their
father’s knee. There are certainly formal ways of transmitting
and creating Jewish insights — the ‘shiur’, study group, table
songs and discussions — but a great deal is communicated in haphazard
ways — on the toilet, at the kitchen sink, crossing the road.
It is the custom in our household as in many other Jewish households
to kiss the fingertips and touch the mezuzah on entering and leaving
the house. I warmly remember an isur shel ahavah — a chastisement
of love — from a cheeky and imperious toddler because, with armfuls
of shopping and rummaging for my keys, I had neglected to lift
her up to ‘kiss zuzah’. It is amazing how early children acquire
such reflexes, so early that they seem never to have been learned,
so early that children never remember learning them and cannot
conceive of a time when they did not know them. They are like
old Jewish melodies by anonymous composers which seem to go back
so far as to be described as ‘Mi Sinai’ — as though revealed and
transmitted from Sinai! Some Jewish responses — and the values
they symbolise and support — are so ‘old’ in a person’s life as
to seem instinctive, part of the collective memory of Sinai.
‘. . . what determines and keeps individual men and women
Jewish in all important aspects are the sets of childhood memories
that are absorbed in the family and within the home. When these
memories are positive and happy, loyalties are strong as is
the ambition to hand them on enriched by one’s own life experience’.
The Family in Judaism, Living Faiths: Marriage and the Family’,
An important effect of these memories is that children can come
to enjoy and honour the tradition precisely because, in so many
different ways, it enjoys and honours them. At the age of three,
they can begin to observe mitzvot and to accept responsibility
for their actions. Ideally, they feel that they are not just engaged
in time-filling kiddycraft activities but performing tasks which
grownups need them to do. That is why the children who have their
own farm or garden on a kibbutz will bring eggs and vegetables
to the kibbutz kitchen to be cooked for everyone. In Jewish homes
on Friday night when the father (usually) pronounces the priestly
blessing on his children, it is a way of saying, ‘We think you’re
a great kid!’ but it is something else as well; it follows the
candles and accompanies the kiddush and is as significant as both
for it communicates to the child that they are loved in the midst
of worshipping God. The idea of av harahamim could here be applied
to the human father and point to the importance of tenderness
in the nurturing roles of both parents. It is somehow easier today
for women to be ‘masculine’ than for men to be ‘feminine’: av
harahamim can redress this imbalance.
The ‘femininity’ of Jewish mothers is well documented perhaps
even exaggerated. Certainly, the Yiddishe Mama was and is cruelly
caricatured: for all her possessiveness and paranoia, she is a
caring, conscientious soul who does a great deal to connect her
children to Jewish rituals and ethics. It is possibly with the
too obsessive, too clinging, too suffocating mother in mind that
Erich Fromm wrote: ‘In erotic love, two people who were separate
become one. In motherly love, two people who were one become separate’.
He knows what many parents know, that you can have with your child
the most intense intimacy and that, paradoxically if you value
that intimacy you must be willing to give it to your child for
ever. . . and stand back. You begin by changing your child’s nappies
and you end up knocking on the door of their room before you enter.
The shift in intimacy and identity results in greater autonomy
for the emergent young person. At the age of twelve and thirteen
respectively, a girl and a boy become a woman and a man and must
accept the consequences of their actions, good or bad. In orthodox
communities, when a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah it is customary for
his father to recite the She’p’tarani: ‘Blessed are you who releases
(me/us) from the responsibility for this child’. What actually
follows is quite different for the parents will undoubtedly continue
to care and to nag! It is not about the parent’s abnegation of
responsibility for the son but about the young man’s acquisition
of responsibility for himself: the parent is not rejecting the
child; he is rejecting the child’s childhood and accepting the
new adult’s adulthood.
So it is that the effects of Jewish nurture are not immediate
. . . but may be eternal . . . My little girl was able to recite
perfectly the Hebrew blessing for bread when she was two. It was
charming — disarming even — and a warming, rewarding experience
for a Jewish parent. But of itself it doesn’t really matter an
Israeli fig if she can say it when she’s two; what’s important
is whether she’s still saying it when she’s twelve . . . or twenty-two
. . . and whether she’s teaching it to her children when they’re
two . . .
- Blu Greenberg, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household,
Simon and .Schuster 1983.
- Hugo Gryn, The Family in Judaism in John Prickett (Ed.) Living
Faiths: Marriage and the Family, Lutterworth Press 1985.
- Sharon Strassfeld and Kathy Green (Eds.), The Jewish Family
Book, Bantam Books 1981. (originally published in 1986).