"... and you shall teach them diligently to your children" - A Jewish view of nurture

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’, p142

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 . . .

Further reading

  • 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).
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