Big Mac Lessons

Last week, I was walking down Pico Boulevard with my 4-year-old son when we passed a McDonalds restaurant. Enticed by the aroma of frying food and seeing a bag of french fries boldly displayed on a banner outside, my son led me toward the entrance.

When I explained that McDonalds is not a kosher restaurant and that, as a Jewish boy, he could not eat there, he remonstrated and began an argument. Our very one-sided discussion continued for a few minutes before I put an end to it with a firm and final “no.”

Exasperated and seeing no other way to get into that restaurant, he finally exploded: “I don’t want to be Jewish anymore! I want french fries!”

The outburst startled me — not because I thought he meant it or even appreciated what he was saying, but because I had heard almost identical words repeated to me recently by two friends, parents of teen-age children who live in Israel and Australia. Both of these friends, who had raised their children in traditional homes, had recently been overwhelmed by the recalcitrance of children who had rejected their parents’ lifestyle.

I have never contemplated the prospect of my own children turning against Judaism in this way. But as I stood before McDonalds, I was suddenly chilled by a vision of my own teen-age son, 14 years hence, informing me that he no longer had any use for Judaism or the Jewish identity my wife and I had tried so hard to instill in him.

The anguish of having a child reject the teachings and practices with which they are raised, troubles hundreds of thousands of parents from all cultures and backgrounds every day.

Our society, with its emphasis on personal choice and individual freedom, offers attractions that are not easily dismissed, and insulating our children from some of the more insidious elements grows increasingly difficult. It is telling that no one can drive through the streets of Los Angeles (or Tel Aviv, for that matter) and not be accosted by the symbols of a society that elevates sex and celebrity as totems of personal fulfillment. And no child can watch evening television for even a few hours without being exposed to some form of violence or sexual innuendo. This poses as serious a threat to Modern Orthodox Jews as it does to all other streams of Judaism.

When I think back to my own childhood, living in a secular society in Australia, I can recall times when very little my grandparents, who were the religious ones in my family, either did or believed in, that touched me.

Indeed, in my teen-age years, I came to view Judaism as something you learned rather than practiced. Despite attending an Orthodox Jewish day school and regular synagogue every Saturday, I still found more interest in the songs of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones than anything my grandfather sang on Shabbat. When my grandfather died, I wanted to abandon synagogue attendance altogether and pleaded with my parents to let me join a non-Jewish football club that played its games on Saturdays.

With hindsight, I realize that I, too, stood perilously close to the edge of assimilation. What would it have taken to convince me that the constraints of my parents’ and grandparents’ religious practices were out of step with modern life? Just a little push perhaps, either from a peer group who felt that my idiosyncratic Jewishness was just uncool or the demands of a career that precluded Shabbat observance.

The fact that I clung to my Jewish identity and then bolstered it with a trip to Israel in my early 20s now seems more of an accident than an act of destiny. As I reflect on the past, I have come to realize that despite the best education and Jewish affiliations, nothing can guarantee Jewish continuity if there is no passion for Judaism in the home.

It almost seems axiomatic that children will not develop a sense of belonging or a dedication merely by taking classes. It cannot be developed by simply joining Jewish clubs or even by mandatory attendance at synagogue. That sense of obligation and love must be nurtured in the home, where every child can learn a respect for both the wisdom of Judaism and the many traditions it holds sacred. It requires a decision to place children in peer groups where one’s Jewishness is valued and not merely tolerated.

In accomplishing this, there can be no substitute for a parent’s personal commitment to the vehicles of Jewish life and traditions. Given the increasing pressures of the secular world to conform, this takes hard work and self-sacrifice. But even more important than this, it takes the unrelenting courage to say no when every other person around us is saying yes.

Avi Davis is the president of the Israel Development Group and the literary editor of the Jewish Spectator.