What is nachas?

The traditional wish that Jews offer fellow Jews is “May you have nachas from your children.” Nachas is understood to be pride and joy. And for most Jews, pride and joy from their children is the greatest blessing in life.

Let me give an example.

Having been in public life for more than four decades, I am regularly stopped by strangers. Most simply say, “I just want to say hello,” or, “I really enjoy your show,” or “Can I get a picture with you?” Occasionally, the individual will speak a little about one of the issues of the day, or his or her life. And, here’s the point: If the person mentions what college his or her child attends (or attended), I am certain that I am talking to a Jew.

In 40 years, I don’t recall one non-Jewish stranger ever telling me (without my first asking) what college his or her child attends. In fact, whereas Jewish audiences laugh heartily  when I mention this experience, non-Jewish audiences are stone silent. They don’t understand what I’m talking about.

This difference is very significant. Having been raised to believe that one’s greatest goal and one’s happiness are largely dependent on nachas from children, I assumed that this is how everyone thinks.

It’s not.

True, some ethnic groups besides Jews think this way. But most non-ethnic Americans — that is, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (and Catholics) — do not. It is probably safe to say that America was founded and had its culture shaped by people who did not regard pride and joy from their children as the most important thing in life.

A non-Jew (WASP) man who has worked for me for more than a decade has a son who attended Harvard University and Stanford Medical School. I have never heard the father volunteer this to anyone.

So, which culture has it right?

As hard as it is to rethink something deeply entrenched in one’s psyche, I think American culture has had the healthier attitude. And I think in part it is because, over the generations, we have redefined the original meaning of nachas. More on that later.

Here are my reasons.

First, preoccupation with nachas easily renders the child a means rather than an end: Your purpose, my son or daughter, is to bring me nachas through your achievements. A very successful Jew whom I know well told me that his life changed when he took a psychology course as an undergraduate at an Ivy League college. He realized that he was, in his words, “a nachas machine.” That realization, fair or not (I think it was fair), shaped his life emotionally and psychologically.

Think about it. It may sound great to have nachas from your child as your greatest wish. But it may not sound as great to your child. The purpose of one’s life has to be something beyond being a source of nachas to one’s parents.

But nachas should not be entirely discounted either. Seeking to earn a parent’s pride is often the greatest spur in life to achieving something with one’s life. 

Second, if nachas from children is the greatest thing in life, what is the goal or purpose of those who cannot have children? Is theirs a pointless life?

Whenever I think about this issue, I think of George Washington. He had no children. Was his life devoid of purpose — or of nachas, for that matter? Or Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rabbi, the head of Chabad? He, too, had no children. 

And what about those who, through no fault of their own, were not blessed with an achieving child? Are their lives pointless?

Third, the drive for nachas too often becomes a person’s way of establishing his or her own self-worth. In many cases, the drive is not even really for nachas; it is for prestige. “I am the father (or mother) of a Yale grad, of a lawyer, of a doctor.” Sometimes, listening to parents at a dinner conversation, I feel as if I am witnessing a sort of duel — who can outshoot whom in listing the accomplishments of their children?

Fourth, when nachas is essentially synonymous with the prestige of the university one’s child attended and the job he/she now holds, the most important accomplishments of life — such as moral character and the making of one’s own family — are rendered secondary in importance. Here’s a good way to help ascertain whether nachas means character or prestige: How angry and disappointed would you be if your child cheated on one test, thanks to which he/she got into Harvard?

Fifth, the truth is that what college your child attends says little about you and, other than having the brain matter and the self-discipline to study hard, it doesn’t tell much about your child, either. There are wonderful people who attend prestigious colleges, and there are at least as many conceited fools — who will awaken one day to learn that few people (besides their parents) give a hoot what college they attended.

Perhaps, as I noted earlier, at least part of the problem lies in our having mistranslated nachas. The word actually means “rest,” not “pride and joy.” And in that sense, we should all wish for nachas. Having peace from our children — knowing they are taking care of themselves, living a moral and responsible life that includes, hopefully, taking care of their own family, and having a peaceful relationship with us — that is worth hoping for.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).