One more time with nachas — gift that keeps on giving

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives.

Anyone who has planned a bar mitzvah can easily recall the stress of preparing for that milestone, not only for the boy who is constantly reminded to practice his parsha, but also for the mom who is usually behind the scenes, negotiating with the caterer, revising guest lists and hoping the balloons don’t drop too early in the evening. As a mom who has gone through her own case of pre- and post-bar mitzvah stress disorder three times, I hope to offer some comfort and reassurance that after all these efforts and antacids, the bar mitzvah anniversaries are a piece of cake.

That’s right, I said anniversaries. Don’t panic: These do not involve any ostentatious table centerpieces, party favors or the cha-cha slide. They only require an annual reprisal of the role of Torah reader, while the parents sit back and kvell. It only took a small bit of encouragement by my husband to convince each of our sons to agree to do this. Why not get our money’s worth out of all those lessons, after all? For us, this practice has made the original bar mitzvah an unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

Our sons are now 16, 18 and 20, and watching them step up to the bimah for their annual readings has given us major infusions of good old-fashioned Yiddishe nachas. Each year, we watch them stand a little taller, more confident in who they are, more firmly rooted as young men in the Jewish community. We are awed by their continued growth physically, spiritually and emotionally. And frankly, some years we are simply relieved that we have survived another year of their adolescence.

In our experience, the minute a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he grows faster than bamboo. The growth seems unstoppable, even frightening. This makes the first anniversary, at 14, the most physically striking. Each boy required a much larger suit and impossibly larger shoes. Their faces were also losing any residual boyish plumpness. And none of us worried about a potentially embarrassing high note cracking through the baritone that had in one year settled in for the long run.

More than that, these anniversaries allow us to sit back and mark our sons’ personal achievements, as we quietly reflect on their singular paths to adulthood. While we have sent them to Orthodox Jewish schools for their entire lives, they have each made it clear that they are individuals and will make their own choices about the way in which they will manifest Jewish values in their own lives. Like all kids, they’re a little bit like Frank Sinatra, insisting they do it “my way.”

And like nearly all parents, we’ve endured the confusion, commotion and occasional turbulence of the teen years. We’ve worried about them, argued with them, lost sleep over them. We easily remember our own teen years and the aggravation we caused our parents, although our kids don’t seem to believe us when we tell them that we were once teenagers, too. (How could anyone remember such ancient history, like before the Internet was invented?) Despite their skepticism, we really do understand that they need to carve their own paths in life. Our job is to keep loving them, encouraging them and even disciplining them, while praying that they will find a comfortable and purposeful place in the world. We pray that they will hold our values dear, even if their adolescent psyches are wired to fight us from time to time.

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives. We do not alone take credit for this. Each has benefited from caring, committed and wise teachers who have helped them see the enduring truth of Judaism in a way that kids sometimes need to get from someone not named “Mom” or “Dad.”

Too often, the bar or bat mitzvah seems an end point or culmination of Jewish education. This is a profound loss, because teens absolutely must find ways to feel independent and distinct from their parents. Too often, they can get in trouble during that search, and this is exactly the time when they need to have their essential Jewish values anchored in place through ongoing involvement with Jewish education, values and community life.

We know we’ve been blessed with kids who have chosen to make Jewish values their own. In fact, because my husband and I came to Jewish observance only as young adults, our kids are light years ahead of us in Jewish knowledge. (Sometimes, I need to ask for translations during dinner discussions. Alas, my public high school didn’t offer Aramaic as a foreign language.) And I know our special anniversary “celebrations” won’t last forever, since kids have this maddening habit of growing up and moving away. So I have to savor these opportunities while I can, watching my young men stand up and lead the congregation, while I sit back and smile in gratitude and wonder.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” Read more of her work at


Lonnie was a matchmaker’s client from hell.

No bachelor was more adroit at saying "No, thanks" when told, "Have I got a girl for you." The 38-year-old Orthodox man still lived at home, waiting for a "woman of valor" to take him away. The community obliged, offering him a shortlist of nice Jewish girls.

Without so much as a shared cup of coffee, Lonnie stamped each "Return to Sender." Roxanne had hair like Medusa. Barb’s voice was mousy. Ellen was damaged goods. And Ruth. A fine specimen now — but look at her mother.

To be sure, Lonnie was ill-prepared for a contemporary professional woman, one who shaves her legs while tuned to "Sex in the City." "I don’t understand," he once shuddered, "how a man could marry someone who would kiss him before the wedding."

Large Jewish cities are replete with secular Lonnies. A few play for time and win the princess of their dreams. Others hold out indefinitely, collecting invitations addressed "and guest." The rest of us swallow hard and broaden our notion of "good enough." We stop weeding out; we start weeding in.

"Thou shalt not settle" keeps singles single, argued psychologist Judith Sills in her book "How to Stop Looking for Someone Perfect and Find Someone to Love." A die-hard bachelor will step into a roomful of eligible women and, in a blink, judge that 90 percent don’t make the cut. Instead, wrote Sills, he should see 90 percent as prospects.

We all know career bachelors — Singles Weekend regulars who insist they’re ready and willing to stand beneath the chuppah — with the right goddess. All they have to show for their "efforts" are more tick marks on their wall and more candles on their cake.

Fact is, men are drawn to beauty; we all have our standards. But some men’s standards are unforgivingly narrow — unless she has the face of a Victoria’s Secret model or is as endowed as the state of Texas.

Occasionally, when discussing the meat market with buddies, I’ll suggest a charming woman of our acquaintance. They’ll wince and, with a sheepish "I don’t think so," explain why she won’t do.

Their reasons range from the ridiculous to the sub-lame:

1. Her hair is too curly/short/frizzy/red. Men will turn down a prospect if her dead protein is the wrong shape, length, texture or hue. This from guys with male-pattern baldness.

2. Her accent/voice/laugh/sneeze makes me barf. "I’m sorry," confides a New Yawker, "but I can’t marry a woman who drawls." Hey, Yank: The war is over.

I can understand balking at a disagreeable voice. Once, I heard a shrill-voiced woman choosing eyeglasses with her husband. "Marge Simpson," I thought, "he must really love her." When she turned, I beheld a drop-dead beauty. Suddenly I was listening to a sultry voice-over for Chanel.

Guys: Give Ms. Shrill a chance. If she’s right for you, it won’t matter if she laughs like Elmer Fudd.

3. She’s two years older than I. Secure, are we?

4. She’s two inches taller than I. Secure, are we?

5. She’s eight inches shorter. Who’s being small?

6. She’s damaged goods. When I was single, a nebbishy roommate of 40 declined a date with a two-time divorcée. "Two-time loser," he explained. She’s unworthy of a no-time loser?

7. She’s fat. If there’s one trait that single men won’t abide, it’s excess avoirdupois. Even I plead guilty. "It’s not unfair," we explain. "She can choose to lose."

If only we could lose our punishing attitude.

Dennis Prager has met a Lonnie or two. As a rabbinic student in the ’70s, the Los Angeles-based talk-show host was often a guest for Friday night dinner. One night, young Dennis sat beside an Orthodox bachelor. Like Lonnie, this guest was a rare bird: over 30, but still single.

Not shy, Prager asked, "So why haven’t you married?"

"I haven’t met the woman of my dreams," the man of God replied.

"And who might she be?" pressed the cocky youth.

"A Playboy bunny who studies Talmud."

I shouldn’t be too hard on these guys. In my second singlehood, two names were floated my way: Myrna was too chubby; Helen too plain. One is now married with three beautiful children. The other, I hear, still lives not far from Lonnie.

Lonnie, are you still at home?

Technical writer Paul Franklin Stregevsky writes personal essays about family
life, relationships and values. His essays about encounters with strangers can
be found at

5 Steps to Choosing a Camp

Sure, there’s going to be bugs. And food that’s fun to make fun of. And a couple of bouts of homesickness. But camping, the experts agree, is good for children. “It’s a great equalizer,” says Arthur Pinchev, director of youth and family programming at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, “It’s one place where kids can really be kids,” away from the pressures of school and family life.

But camps themselves are not created equal, and the challenge for parents lies in finding the camp experience that’s right for their own child. Here’s five steps the experts recommend:

1.Decide: Is your child ready? The usual age for sleepaway camp is about 8, when the child is preparing to enter the third grade, though some kids take far longer to accept the notion of leaving home. Pinchev feels it’s simple to know when a youngster is ready: “You ask the child, or the child will tell you.” Take into account your child’s personality and past experiences, says Mark Miller of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps. A kid who makes friends easily, likes getting involved with activities, and has spent holiday weekends at Grandma’s house will probably not have trouble. A loner can adjust nicely so long as he (or she) accepts boundaries and nonparental authority figures.

2.Make sure it’s accredited. Every camp on your list should be accredited by the American Camping Association. This national body, to which all of Southern California’s leading Jewish camps belong, sets strict standards of health and safety.

3. History and traditions: look into them. Think about what sorts of activities are important to you and your child, then make sure the camp has the same emphasis. Some camps reflect the outlook of a particular movement within Judaism. Even among day camps, there are major differences. Gan Alonim, a day camp sponsored by the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, schedules no trips to the beach or Disneyland. Instead, Gan Alonim campers spend their days entirely on the bucolic campsite in Simi Valley. Camp Ramah emphasizes Jewish study as well as Jewish fun. Several Ramah camps are proud of their nature trails and ropes courses. The day camps run through the Jewish Centers Association are experimenting with special interest sessions, such as sports clinics. JCA campers can also opt for the “town and country” program, which serves as a low-key introduction to sleepaway camping by combining day camp with a shortened stay at JCA Shalom.

4. Talk to the camp. Share with the camp staff any difficulty your child may be having, or any home circumstances (such as a pending divorce) that may create emotional stress. The current philosophy is that parents and camp directors form an important partnership on the child’s behalf. But staffers know that some parents help fuel their child’s adjustment problems by conveying the “fact” that homesickness is the norm.

5.Check it out … now! Parents should be looking into camps the summer before their child will be packing his duffel bag. By late autumn 2000, Southern California’s most popular camps will probably have few spaces left for the summer of 2001.