Raising Children

What’s the Jewish way to raise children? Simple: just teach them Torah, model your values and encourage them to be like their ancestors. Right?

Right and wrong. True, as Jews we are all about education. But what kind of education? What kind of children are we aiming to raise? And how can we appropriately meet the needs of all different types of children? This week’s parasha, Bo, mentions three times questions asked by children and the answers offered by parents regarding the Exodus from Egypt and the Passover ritual. These passages (along with one other in Deuteronomy) become the textual source for the well-known section of the haggadah called “the four sons.” In this brief section we read of four different types of children: wise, wicked, simple and unable even to ask a question.

Passover is still two months away, but the challenge of the four sons is ever present. Why does the haggadah speak of distinctly different types of youngsters?

Some scholars have explained that it is a lesson in pedagogy — instructions to teachers for how to answer various nuances within queries. Others have seen it as representing different religious or theological attitudes. But there is a message in the text of the four sons that is even more direct.

It is a lesson in being a parent.

Once a year, at the seder, we tell the story of our people. Over the course of the evening, we take the time to share our history, our values, our beliefs with our children.

Every single day, parents tell their story to their kids. They teach, they share, they model their history and values and beliefs. That’s what we call “parenting.”

The haggadah says: Tell the story, but know your listener. If he’s wise (you’ll know from his questions) explain things one way. If he’s simple, say it another.

This wisdom expands far beyond the retelling of the Exodus story. It reaches right into us, into how we tell our story. We might want to convey parts of our spirit, our knowledge, our guidance to our kids, but each child hears it differently; each person begins and continues life with a unique disposition. Sometimes they just can’t hear it the way you’re saying it. So what’s a parent to do?

In recent years, researchers in special education have promoted what’s been hailed as a revolutionary concept: meet the child where he is. Don’t expect him to hear and heed you. Rather, you find out his place and meet him there. Instead of trying to get the child to see what you see, look through his lens, or listen first and then tell.

Using this approach, many parents and educators have made remarkable progress with children even with profound developmental disabilities — all because they learned to try seeing the world from the child’s point of view, then figure out what works. That same approach is exactly what the Torah and the haggadah lay out for us. What’s the Jewish way to raise children? Start by learning about who exactly it is you’re raising.

Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands and instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Downhill Doubts

My father has disowned me. We did not get into a fight about the family business — there is no family business. I did not marry out of the faith, and I have no children about whose upbringing we can disagree. The source of our irreconcilable differences is that we went skiing together last year, and he is convinced that I cannot be his natural child.

His theory, which is a little complicated, goes like this: Jews have been enormously successful in myriad activities during the past 4,000 or so years, among them arts, science, finance and, lest we forget, religion. We have been far less successful in the field of navigation and exploration. It took Moses 40 years to get from Egypt across the Sinai, about a three-week walk if you know where you’re going. We did somehow manage to get just about everywhere in the world, but it’s not clear as to whether our ancestors wound up in, say, Spain as a result of a well-considered expedition to spread the word, or if they just made a wrong turn at the Gaza Strip and refused to stop at a gas station to get directions until they hit the Prado.

The theory continues that only a handful of Jews turned right and headed for Northern Europe. As a result, there are no Svens or Larses in our mishpocheh, only Arnies and Murrays.

When I was growing up, the chosen destination for winter holidays was Miami or Maui, not Aspen or Gstaad. Maybe our family just never got the word that it was okay to go outside and play in the snow, but now that I’ve become a somewhat adventurous skier, my father says the three most dangerous words in the English language are “Follow me, Dad.” His reasoning is that it’s crazy for Jews to be skiing in the trees. By that logic, if I ski in the trees, I must be either crazy or not Jewish and therefore not his son. Ergo, I am disowned.

I knew we were in foreign territory on my first ski trip to Deer Valley, Utah. After a rough day on the bunny hill, I returned to the Stein Ericksen Lodge and found the bar packed at 3 p.m. (It turns out that Stein is the first name of Mr. Ericksen, a famous Norwegian Olympian. I thought there was a Jewish partner in the hotel with top billing.) At one table of raccoon-eyed apres skiers was a blond couple wearing white sweaters with a little blue snowflake pattern. These people drink in the afternoon and never spill anything on themselves. In my family, a white sweater is a blank canvas on which one invariably spills his Bloody Mary.

There are many famous Jewish athletes, but every time one comes to prominence, every time Shawn Green comes to bat, we whisper with pride, “Did you know he’s Jewish?” Then we answer back, “Really?” with a prideful little nod of the head, a raised eyebrow, awestruck that the shtetl could ever produce such a lean, limber specimen, as if to say, “Our boy’s pretty good, huh?” Yet, for all the Sandy Koufaxes and Lenny Krayzelburgs, you never hear about great Jewish Winter Olympians.

My mother explained the dearth of famous Jewish skiers by saying, “It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s too fast, it goes down a hill, you could fall and hurt yourself.” After a moment she added, “And those clothes make you look fat.”

I don’t know what it is that says to a button-down businessman, “You’d look good in a red-and-yellow one-piece and a blue hat.” Perhaps it’s the thought that if he falls down and can’t move, people will be able to find him. No one looks good in these clumsy outfits, with the possible exception of Robert Redford, who, I should point out, is not even remotely Jewish.

Then there are the boots. You tighten these eight-pound molded plastic monsters until only the big toe can move one millimeter. Occasionally I hear someone on a chairlift tell me about how comfortable his boots are since he got the ergonomic foot beds. No, Bally loafers are comfortable. Ski boots are anti-Semitic.

Skiing does not come naturally to most people. We struggle with the rhythm of off-weighting, keeping our balance forward, planting the pole, initializing the turns, visualizing the fall line (why do they insist on calling it that?). It could be reasonably asked why people want to subject themselves to this torture test in the first place. Once I reasonably mastered the groomed slopes, I took on the bumps. Again, why? I ask myself that question at the end of every mogul run. I think the answer may lie in the importance of my burgeoning relationships with my chiropractor and my masseuse. For a lot of people, skiing is like taking the very long way, the scenic route, from your condo to the bar.

Maybe there aren’t enough Jews in Canada or enough ice in Tel Aviv to field a hockey team. And with our considerable investment in cosmetic dentistry, we are often precluded from participating in any sport where getting your teeth knocked down your throat is the goal of the opposing team. I tried to talk some friends into forming a luge team, but it holds little appeal for our people. Any sport in which you travel at speeds of more than 90 miles per hour and lead with your genitals is not going to gather a minyan. There are no guys named Arnie or Murray on the luge, and there never will be.

Potent Portraits

Jill Poyourow’s preoccupation with portraits began amid the savory smell of soup in her grandmother’s kitchen. There hung an intriguing photograph of her grandma’s grandfather, who had cared for her from infancy after her own mother abandoned her to come to America. The 1910 picture revealed a devout-looking man with a long, flowing white beard, seated with his right hand resting on an open book. In the shadows, Poyourow could barely make out his worn shoes.

“Despite [his] shabby clothing, his kind eyes infused this picture with a kind of magic,” recalls the 40-year-old Los Angeles painter. “Over the years, he became godlike to me.”

So when Poyourow grew up and became an artist, it was no wonder she turned to photographs from her own family albums for inspiration. Her work includes nostalgic, embroidered copies of mother-and-baby snapshots; there is also a painted-on photograph, “The Bundt/Sisters Piece” (1991), in which the artist has playfully embellished a photo of her five aunts, wearing sensible 1930s dresses, with images of each matron’s bundt pan.

“Painting from images of deceased relatives, some of whom I never met, [has become] a form of ancestor worship,” she confides. “It is, in essence, a continual self-portrait using the biological ties of family.”

Poyourow (see sidebar below) is one of more than 20 artists whose work appears in the new Skirball show, “Revealing & Concealing: Portraits & Identity,” an exhibit that is essentially a portrait of the portrait. The pieces range from traditional commissioned likenesses to late 20th-century work; the show begins with a 1670 image of an assimilated Frankfurt “Court Jew,” artist unknown, wearing the elaborate wig and lavish lace of period gentiles. There is a moody self-portrait by the impoverished artist Lesser Ury, painted three years before his suicide in 1931, in which short, harsh brush strokes capture the artist’s psychic turmoil. There is a bourgeois image of German-Jewish life, from around the same period, by the prominent painter Max Liebermann; a portrait of Jewish baseball star Sandy Koufax by R.B. Kitaj; and “The Marx Brothers” from “Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century” by pop artist Andy Warhol.

“Revealing & Concealing” began, two years ago, when the museum’s fine arts curator, Barbara Gilbert, perused the Skirball’s collection and discovered a number of portraits of Jews painted during the past three centuries. A number of questions emerged: What insights can portraits offer beyond personal features? Can portraits reveal personality? Can they reveal facts about society, family or inbred cultural stereotypes?Since the Skirball’s focus is multicultural, Gilbert promptly put together an advisory committee, including representatives from L.A.’s African-American and Japanese-American museums; the resulting exhibition features artists as diverse as L.A. Jewish painter Ruth Weisberg to African-American Faith Ringgold to Tijuana-born painter Salomon Huerta, who grew up in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East L.A.

The identity issues explored are often complex. Chinese-born Hung Liu’s self-portrait is an enlarged “green card,” in which she has substituted “Fortune, Cookie,” for her own name – the sexual slang term for Chinese women and the stereotypical dessert served in Chinese-American restaurants. The piece is a metaphor for the artist’s sense of hovering between cultures, of feeling neither Chinese nor American.

Chicana artist Laura Alvarez, too, explores what she calls “living in the border”; while growing up in the U.S., she says, she spent summers with family in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and cleaned houses with her mother and grandmother back home in the States. Her double life, in turn, led to a watercolor series, “Double Agent Sirvienta,” which follows the adventures of a soap opera actress who always plays a maid but who is actually a spy on both sides of the border. It is, she says, “a way for me to see my position in the world as a heroine or protagonist.”

A different kind of double identity is proffered in Dennis Kardon’s “Traditional Instruction,” in which the artist appears as a bar mitzvah boy wearing a tallit and kippah, and clutching a paintbrush and palette. Standing in for his father is the French impressionist Manet, whose swirling cigar smoke hovers over a platter of lox.

Albert J. Winn’s self-portraits are far bleaker, exploring his feelings of isolation as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS. In the black-and-white photograph “Not in the Family Picture,” the widely exhibited L.A. artist is, literally, not in the family picture; his face stares next to a photo of smiling relatives, excluding himself. In the second panel of Winn’s “Family Triptych,” the artist again stares at the camera, as does his mother, who is seated behind him and wears a defeated, wan expression.

For Gilbert, the goal of “Revealing & Concealing” is simple. “We hope visitors will walk away with a better understanding to the role of portraiture within Jewish art and various minority communities,” she says. “We hope they will gain a better understanding that identity itself is multifaceted and far transcends ethnicity or cultural background.”

For information, call (310)440-4500.

Sisters Recapture Their Heritage

Gloria Hernandez Trujillo, 51, grew up in what she thought was a traditional Catholic home in Monterey Park. Her mother sent the children to mass and catechism classes at Our Lady of Solitude church in East Los Angeles. Trujillo made her first communion at the age of 8, wearing the requisite white frilly dress. At 12, she was confirmed, like many of the Latino children in her Eastside neighborhood.

Trujillo, a tax administrator, still lives in her childhood home, but she now worships in a synagogue rather than a church. On Rosh Hashana last week, she attended Conservative services at UCLA. And on Yom Kippur, she will take a day off from work to engage in what has become a deeply significant personal ritual. In the modest house where she grew up Catholic, she will fast and pray from a siddur written in the medieval Spanish-Jewish language of Ladino. “I will think of my ancestors,” says Trujillo, whose forbears could not publicly observe Yom Kippur without fear of torture and death.

Eleven years ago, while researching her family tree, Trujillo learned that she is descended from Crypto-Jews, those forced to convert to Catholicism in 15th-century Spain and Portugal. Her forbears were among the secret Jews who fled the Inquisition to become the first settlers of the state of New Mexico. Today she is president of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, a scholarly group that gathers and exchanges information about Crypto-Jews.

Ask Trujillo if she was surprised to learn of her Jewish roots, and she shakes her head. “It makes sense,” she says. “In church, I never felt connected or comfortable. I never felt I belonged.”

Then there were the strange family stories her mother and aunts used to exchange around the kitchen table. They reminisced about Trujillo’s grandfather, born in Taos, N.M., who set foot in a church only once in his life, on his wedding day. Thereafter, he walked his wife to church but never crossed the threshold. Instead he said his prayers alone at home, in the basement. He always wore his hat indoors.

Trujillo’s grandmother, meanwhile, cleaned house every Friday morning and used different pots and pans for different dishes. When asked why, she would reply, simply, that her mother had done the same. Whenever a relative died, family members used to invert all the mirrors in the deceased’s house.

The stories so fascinated Trujillo that she decided to research her family tree 18 years ago. With her younger sister, Mona, she began perusing microfilm copies of birth and death certificates at historical archives in Colorado and New Mexico. It was during a visit to the New Mexico state archives in Santa Fe in 1987 that she learned the truth.

As Trujillo recalls, she was rattling off some of her forbears’ surnames when a distinguished-looking scholar suddenly looked up from his work. Dr. Stanley Hordes, New Mexico’s former state historian, urgently beckoned Trujillo into an adjoining room. “He said he was researching my mother’s line,” the tax administrator says, “and that there was strong evidence my family was Jewish.”

Four hundred years ago, Hordes told Trujillo, the Inquisition targeted her family and others for the crime of “Judaizing” (secretly practicing Judaism) in the Kingdom of Neuvo Leon in northeastern Mexico. They arrested the governor and burned most of his family at the stake. The remainder of the accused fled north to settle what would become the province of New Mexico in 1598. Their descendants passed down Jewish traditions, knowingly or unknowingly, throughout the generations.

Trujillo, transfixed, eagerly took in the news. “It was one of those moments when everything falls into place,” she says.

But her relatives did not believe the story; even Mona was initially skeptical. “The first words out of my mouth were: ‘That’s impossible! Latinos are Catholic’,” Mona says. Relatives were convinced, however, when the sisters discovered menorahs at a cousin’s home in Sacramento.

Mona, who had also felt like an outsider in church, soon joined Trujillo in an avid search for books on New Mexico, the Inquisition and Sephardic Jewry. The sisters visited Toledo, Spain, to search for records of a 17th-century ancestor who was imprisoned after Inquisitors learned he was circumcised.

Trujillo and her sister also began attending a Conservative synagogue in Alhambra and Introduction to Judaism classes at the home of Rabbi William Gordon. Trujillo underwent a “rite of return” ceremony two years ago, where she received her Hebrew name, Hannah Leah. Both sisters hope to formally convert back to Judaism.

As the holiest day of the Jewish year approached last week, Mona reflected that she has found her place in the world. “I know who I am and where I come from,” she says. “And if I have children, I will raise them Jewish. Part of my heritage was kept from me, because of the events of long ago. I have reclaimed my roots.”