Halloween Lessons


Halloween celebrations and trick-or-treating: just clean fun or forbidden anti-Jewish activities? Like most issues in the Jewish community, it depends on who you ask. And not surprisingly, a Jewish school’s stand on Halloween observance may not be shared by the students or their parents.

Dr. George Lebovitz, headmaster of Kadima Hebrew Academy, a Conservative day school in Woodland Hills, felt so strongly about the issue that he sent home a full-page description of the Jewish attitude toward Halloween, together with a photocopy of the World Book Encyclopedia entry detailing the origins of Halloween as an ancient sacrificial festival. The Druids lit huge bonfires and burned crops, animals and possibly humans as sacrifices. Eventually, the medieval church transformed Halloween into a Christian holiday.

Lebovitz prefaced his handout with the school’s policy, “Kadima does not demand or require any practices of you at home,” but went on to take a strong stand against Halloween observance, noting that the Torah warns us not to imitate religious practices of other people. “We want to teach our children to give and not take,” he emphasized.

Lebovitz concedes, however, that “a lot, though not most” of his students will be trick-or-treating this year. Richard Posalski, father of a fourth grader at Kadima, received the handout, but still plans to take his daughter trick-or-treating Saturday night. “It’s fun!” Posalski says with a smile.

“My kids go to shul pretty regularly and go trick-or-treating too. It could be thought of as inconsistent, but without giving up your Jewish identity, there are certain concessions you make living in a non-Jewish environment. I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, just inconsistent.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Ronald, director of education at Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Woodland Hills, says that his school doesn’t deal with Halloween at all, although he personally believes that “Halloween has no place in a Jewish setting.”

“Living in a secular society,” Ronald says, “I don’t think it’s the end of the world if kids do some trick-or-treating and dress up in costumes. I’d rather see them dress up on Purim. Our position is no position one way or the other.”

Over the hill at another Reform religious school — Temple Akiba in Culver City — Miriam Hamrell, director of religious education, initially takes a strong stand against Halloween celebration. “We don’t celebrate it at all here in school,” she says emphatically. She stresses that the school has no Halloween decorations and does not allow costumes. She says the school discourages trick-or-treating, noting that it has become a safety issue.

“But,” Hamrell says, “we let the children do whatever is their family tradition.” She pauses and adds, “You don’t want the child to feel out of place if everyone else is going. You don’t want a kid to feel like an oddball.” Hamrell assumes that most Temple Akiba children will be out in a costume on Halloween eve.

Rifke Lewis, a Temple Akiba parent, has a different take. “I am opposed to trick-or-treating because it’s insensitive, it is rude and it teaches wrong values,” Lewis says. “It says you have a right to demand a treat or else you will trick. You have a right to beg for what you don’t need. You have a right to interrupt people. When I had babies it was infuriating. They’d just about fall asleep, then the doorbell would ring.”

But even some of David Miller’s third- and fourth-grade students from the Orthodox Harkham Hebrew Hillel Academy in Beverly Hills will be out ringing doorbells after Shabbat ends Halloween eve. Miller notes that every year the school’s educational director, Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, makes a statement condemning Halloween observance. Still a small percentage of students will go trick-or-treating, but will discard the non-kosher goodies.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy traditionally sponsors a movie night on Halloween, to provide a “kosher” and safe alternative to trick-or-treating. Miller believes that, especially because of the religious underpinnings on Halloween, Jews should treat it as just a night like any other. His kids stay home. When his elementary school-age son and daughter were asked if they minded not trick-or-treating, they answered with a resounding “No!”

But what happens in families where the children and parents are at odds over Halloween observances? Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president and director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism and author of “The Art of Jewish Living,” states that each family must make a decision about what to do and how to deal with the subject. He, for example, allows his children to trick-or-treat, though not on Shabbat.

Families, Wolfson states, are often called upon to negotiate the dual identities we have as Jews and as Americans. He says that if a family has little traditional observance at home, when the children are faced with Halloween or Christmas, the parents will lose the battle with the kids. “But if a home is filled with Shabbat every week, and Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, and Pesach, and Purim, and Chanukah, and you don’t allow your kids to go trick-or-treating, then they’re not so bereft.”

Kadima Hebrew Academy’s Dr. Lebovitz says that nixing Halloween celebrations can give parents the opportunity to address the issue of peer pressure and not going along with the crowd. However, the bottom line, Lebovitz feels, is being able to tell one’s children “No.”

“In many cases the children rule the home which shouldn’t be the case,” Lebovitz says. “[In the case of trick-or-treating] you’re going and demanding something, and if they don’t give you something, there are dire consequences. That’s not the Jewish way. In Judaism, anything that is tainted with religious practices from another religion we go out of our way to avoid. To say Halloween has no religious overtones is absurd. If a parent can’t say no to this, what are they going to say no to?”

Parenting by Example


I remember how amazed I was by the story. Tom and Pauline Nichter and their 11-year-old son, Jason, were on the nightly news, speaking with reporters from the police station. They had found a lost wallet on the street; it contained more than $2,000 in cash, a credit card, a passport and a plane ticket.

What made the story so memorable was not that they had turned it all over to the police (who did manage to find its rightful owner), but that Tom and Pauline were both homeless at the time — out of work and living in their car.

I watched the Nichters being interviewed as the police looked on with wonderment and respect. When asked why they did it, Tom said: “Of course, it was tempting to keep the money. But I kept thinking, ‘What if this is all the money this person has in the world, and, by keeping it, I end up putting him where I am today?’ And I just couldn’t have lived with myself after that.”

Pauline just laughed and said: “It’s my mother’s fault. I looked at that lost wallet and kept hearing my mother’s voice in my head saying, ‘Pauline, do the right thing…Pauline, do the right thing,’ and I couldn’t not do the right thing.”

But what I remember most from that news story was the look on the face of Jason. Here he was, living in his parents’ car, enduring one of the most emotionally destructive experiences that can happen to a child, and he was standing there in the police station, beaming with pride.

What could be a more powerful parenting lesson in what it means to “do the right thing” than to experience all the attention, adulation and respect that his parents received from the police, media and community for their act of tzedakah? Knowing that they did the right thing in spite of their current state of despair and homelessness made the lesson all the more powerful for any of us watching that night, and surely for Jason as well.

Teaching ethics and values to our children is, without question, one of the most difficult and challenging tasks that every parent must face. Yet this week’s Torah portion gives us a simple, straightforward answer to that dilemma when, in Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy, it teaches: “If you see your neighbor’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your neighbor. If he does not live near you or you don’t know who he is, you shall bring it home and keep it with you until your neighbor claims it.”

Hidden within this text is perhaps the most important parenting lesson that Jewish tradition can teach. It is simply this: “Be the kind of adult you want your children to grow up to be.” Act as you would want your children to act in all things. Accept the reality that you are always the primary moral role model for your children, whether you want to be or not. James Baldwin captured this fundamental reality of parenting when he wrote, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

When a friend leaves his or her sunglasses at your house, call and return them immediately, and your children will see and learn. When a child in your carpool leaves a book or pencil or sweater in the back seat of your car, call his or her parents that evening and return the item to the family; your children will see and learn.

That same Torah paragraph ends with these words: “You must not remain indifferent.” That is the real parenting challenge — to demonstrate by our actions and our lives that we are not indifferent to the lives of others. That is a lesson worth learning.


Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Here and Now


When my mother discovered that she had left her hearing aid back in her apartment, on the 28th floor of the Northshore Towers in Queens, N.Y., I thought for sure that meant we would miss the bus into Manhattan and, as a result, could forget about seeing “The Lion King.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. But, of course, it did. She went back up the elevator, and that’s when my panic began.

I had been on the edge throughout much of my week’s visit to New York. Finally, I was seeing what before I could only imagine. Throughout the year, I visit my parents’ progress via phone. Long-distance caring is difficult for both of us, but it has its advantages. For my parents, keeping their lives off limits means that they are still in charge. For me, it means that I’m still their child. But then when we’re together in close-up, every concern is magnified.

Don’t get me wrong. The recent weeks had been good; my mother was sleeping again, bowling, taking bridge lessons and exercising, after months of sleepless nights with confounding ailments. My father, prodded by doses of gingko biloba, is more than ever himself, with an extraordinary clarity of mind and spirit. They feel confident enough to plan a trip some time soon.

Nevertheless, having aging parents is hard no matter how healthy they may be. Hard, and scary. My brother and I stay up all night, talking about the practicalities — insurance, long-term care, the will — but, in truth, we’re both beset by the twin fears of loneliness and responsibility. At this point in my life, there is no continent too far away, no psychological space too distant. My parents are in the center of my consciousness always, even though they’re on their own.

Which is why this last trip was so good but also so tough. I am on notice that whatever comes next, it will not be in my control.

So, here we are in New York. Anne and Jack are independent, strong and competent, and relatively young. But I feel choked. How long until the next stage begins?

Thank goodness, they have each other and their own full lives. My mother told me a year ago what she thinks of my continual second-guessing of her doctors. And when I told my father that he was not alone, he said, “Very nice.” They want to be looked in on periodically. I want to see them in action. But neither of us want to live next door.

Avoiding me is one reason they moved to Queens in the first place. When my parents first announced that they were moving from a spacious Long Island split-level home to a Queens high-rise, I was sure they were eternally doomed to the smell of fried fish wafting from their neighbors’ kitchens. No matter how my parents emphasized the health club, the indoor and outdoor swimming pools, the tennis court, the movie theater and restaurant, all I could see was the loss of privacy, and how much like every other aging parent mine really are.

In the elevator last week, I saw fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, just like me and mine. One day, a man broke the news to his son (who was about my age) that his wife needed dialysis. From the 28th floor to the lobby, the two wept. Sure, there were others, the stockbrokers, the younger families, the hard-bodies with their gym bags, but the women in walkers who were still out getting their daily exercise impressed me. Their incapacity did not mean dependency.

As it turns out, life in the Northshore Towers has nothing to do with invasions of privacy, and no fried fish ever. It’s about security and community, something most of us need.

Seeing my parents so competently ride the wave of aging provides some distance to my dread; it lets me go on pretending that we are as we’ve always been. Forever, my father will teach my daughter, Samantha, how to bowl. Forever, my mother and I will go shopping. Forever, we’ll have our family night at the movies with a side trip to the Northshore Library.

“I think a lot about quality of life,” my mother says one day, out of the blue. “What is perfect? This is pretty good.”

Samantha and I are in the lobby, waiting for my mother to return. The minutes creep by. The bus will come any moment. I should have returned to the apartment for the hearing aid myself, I think nervously as I pace about the lobby. I start imagining all the things that could happen from the elevator to her apartment and back, distracting her along the way. The phone could ring, she could stop to make my father a sandwich, or she could cut up some extra fruit for the ride into the city. Where is she, already?

Finally, she’s here. We easily catch the bus. Once in the city, we all come alive. My mother, who had hobbled around the Getty Museum only last spring, suddenly can walk New York with ease. “The Lion King” is great. We meander around the jewelry and diamond exchange like we own the place. We share a knish and a baked apple. I lose my anxiety in the here and now.


Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her class “Writing from Heart and Soul” begins on Sept. 12 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com.

Grandkids Inc.


Grandkids Inc.

Until children reach a certain age, parents seethem simply as beloved offspring. Flesh of their flesh. Withbittersweet nostalgia, they remember all, from the Gerber days tograduation day.

But then it happens: the transformation.

Suddenly, when your parents look at you, theydon’t see the adorable tot who couldn’t say “spaghetti.” Or the boywho learned to bike in the driveway. Or the young man who pinned acorsage on his prom date by the front door.

Now, they see Grandkids Inc. A factory notproducing to capacity. They’re no longer just Mom and Dad. You’re asubsidiary, and they’re co-presidents of the parent company.

They’ve invested big in this enterprise. Andthey’ve been patient, knowing there would be years of huge expensewith no output.

But the time has come. They want results.

“Nanny and Max” by Scott Prior. Painting from “The Artof Motherhood”

Hey, they’re not asking for much — just oneproduct. And they don’t need you to fill a warehouse. Two or threewill do just fine. But, make no mistake, they want ’em.

Fortunately, the pressure’s off while brother orsister subsidiaries are producing. That’s because this is veryspecial merchandise.

Assembly is required. And it takes even longerthan most train sets. It doesn’t use batteries, but you’ll needhundreds for the accessories. And the maintenance requirements areunbelievable — not just applying some oil every six months.

When a new unit comes off the line, that’s whenthe heads of the (grand)parent company get most involved. Spendingtime with the newbie is Priority 1. They can’t get enough.

This bought me a lot of time. The other two subswent into production in the early 1990s. Apparently, both were on aschedule of accelerated output. Together, they popped out six littleguys in five years. For a while, I thought they were trying to fielda company softball team.

These were the boon years. Milk and honey.Precious goods falling off the line like manna from heaven. A periodof miraculous growth, like Japan in the ’50s and ’60s.

Curiously, our family’s bull market coincided withWall Street’s, but I’m not sure which came first. Kind of achicken-and-egg thing.

Yes, it’s been a period of champagne, cigars andvery small shoes. A nonstop celebration. With so many tykes takingtheir first steps, uttering their first words and throwing theirfirst crayons in the dishwasher, not a minute was left for, say,pressuring the third sub about kick-starting his own assemblyline.

But my window of pressure-free time is running outfaster than napkins at a watermelon-eating contest.

The other two subs have reached quota. And thelatest additions to Family Corp. are rapidly approaching 12 months ofage. That means the end of the One-Year Baby Buffer, awell-established principle of grandparent science. For the first yearafter the birth of a grandchild, the newborn’s uncles and aunts areshielded from pressure to contribute additional grandchildren. It’ssafer to walk past a lion that’s been recently fed.

When I talk about family pressure, I really meanMom (and her accomplished mentor, Grandma). In our corporate family,areas of responsibility were divided between the two top executives.Dad was the CEO-PS (Chief Executive Officer of Practical Stuff). Thisincluded lawn care and auto maintenance. Mom was the CEO-EE (ChiefExecutive Officer of Everything Else). This included everythingelse.

So, Mom’s department naturally covers themonitoring of my prospects for a merger. All information is carefullyprocessed. Like cyborgs from “The Terminator,” she automaticallyscans and analyzes incoming data. But Mom doesn’t care about the waragainst the machines. Her decision parameters are aimed at maximizingthe likelihood of future grandchildren. Action options decreasingthat probability are strongly discouraged.

I can tell the Baby Buffer is almost over. Thephone numbers are starting up again — mostly daughters of Mom’sfriends and co-workers. Any expenses incurred along these lines arewritten off as R&D.

Don’t get me wrong. So far, the barometer readsonly mild pressure. Plus, no matter what, there’s always a seat forme at the annual Thanksgiving board meeting. After all, unconditionallove is the company slogan. Still, I suspect only one thing will makethe big cheeses at Family Corp. feel they’ve met all long-termobjectives: when their youngest sub finds a suitable merger partnerand finally snaps into production.

Stephen A. Simon writes for Washington JewishWeek.

Three Stories


My son, Jason,called the other day and jokingly said that I didn’t keep myword.

“About what?” I asked. “I have never broken apromise to you.”

“When I was 7,” he said, “you gave a radio headsetto someone, and when I asked you to buy me a set, you told me, ‘Yes– but not until you are 12.’ Well, Mom, I never got it.”

I laughed, “Put that on my tombstone.”

My memory, which has been on delete for severalyears, had absolutely no recollection of the headset or the promise.But I never doubted his recollection of the unkept promise. He wasraised to tell the truth.

I dubbed Jason the family historian when he wasyoung. Every family has one. He was the type of child who set therecord straight, no matter the situation. I remember telling ArthurSchlesinger Jr. how Jason’s middle name, Kenneth, was in memory ofRobert Kennedy, who had been killed only a few months before my son’sbirth. Jason interrupted and corrected me when I exaggerated adetail.

When you have a historian for a son, it’s a goodidea to solidly secure yourself with him; that way, the accounts ofthose times when you behaved badly aren’t so painful. There is noharsher history than the one recorded through a child’s eyes: Aguilty parent does not play well over time. A responsible, lovingparent does.

I recently attended a bar mitzvah of a child whoseparents are divorced. A month ago, the young man decided not to splithis time between his parents, as the court decided he should do, andto move in permanently with his mother. His father, a physicist,threatened retaliation. At the ceremony, each parent stood, facingthe boy as they made speeches, telling him how proud they were ofhim.

The father, after presenting his son with thetallit, which three generations of his family had worn at their barmitzvahs, told his son how each boy who wore this tallit found a wayto split from his father, and that he was now part of this history.When the boy made his speech, he thanked his parents and, looking athis father, said: “I hope things work out OK between us.”

I was so moved by this kid. The father lays downthe tallit gauntlet, the symbol of his challenge to his son’smanhood. But the father poses as the main obstacle. What kind of afuture is he thinking about? But the son is clear-headed: he onlywants a straight, loving relationship with his father.

I once asked the director of a nursing home in LosAngeles why children did not visit their parents. He told me thatonly a small percentage of patients had no visitors, but that he wasnot sympathetic to them.

He said that they had had a cruel history withtheir children. “Many of them were so embittered with their own livesthat they took it out on their children,” he said, “and now theirchildren want nothing to do with them. They had only unhappymemories. So what do you expect?” he asked.

What do you expect, indeed. Every day for eightyears at P.S. 133 in Queens, we recited: “Train up a child in the wayhe should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” My sonwas raised to be honest. But suppose he was raised to be a liar? Hecould either be this pathetic person who continues to lie and use hishistory as an excuse, or he can break with his history and then raisehis children in the way they should go.

If you’re lucky to get old, there comes a timewhen you sift through your history and separate the meaningful fromthe inconsequential, the effective from the destructive. What remainsis the significant, the joyful. Best to decide early in life how youwant your history to read or face late in life that you can breakwith history only by understanding the past — hopefully, before yousuffer from its consequences. Tombstones record who you were inrelation to others. I’ve never seen one that read, “Mother, Wife,Daughter and Writer.”

Columnist Linda Feldman is the co-author of”Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom” (Simon& Schuster).


Easing the Pain


Ethan Gura doesn’t remember his sister. Still, he cannot forgether. He can’t forget that Rebecca Alexandra Gura died in 1991 after afour and a half year battle with leukemia. She was then six yearsold. He was three.

Now, at age 9, Ethan is a veteran of various therapies, alldesigned to help him deal with his anger and sense of loss. We mightwonder why someone who faced bereavement so young would continue todwell on it. But Ethan’s earliest recollections are of his parentsleaving him with a babysitter so they could spend hours by hissister’s hospital bed. Their grief is still fresh in his mind, as isthe fact that “they didn’t have time to spend with me.” And he can’tshake the fear that someone else in the family — his parents,himself — might get sick and die. His anxieties have affected hisschoolwork, as well as his interaction with others.

This past summer, the family rabbi suggested a new possibility forEthan: a support group run through the Children’s Bereavement Programof Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles.

The Big Brothers organization, which has been in the L.A. areasince 1915, has traditionally focused on the children of singleparent families. But since 1994, it has been reaching out to Jewishyoungsters who have suffered the death of a loved one. Under thedirection of Julie Gould, a licensed clinical social worker, thesekids come together for eight weeks of intensive sessions in whichthey use art, games, and storytelling to get a handle on theirfeelings.

The groups are limited to Jewish children because a discussion ofJewish burial and mourning customs is part of the mix. The mainthrust of the group is not to endorse the Jewish way in death andmourning (to borrow the title from Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s classic bookon the subject). Rather it is to help children lessen their ownfeeling of isolation by showing them that others, too, are strugglingto cope with similar emotions. Another key goal is to give childrenthe tools to move beyond their loss.

At the end of his eight-week program, Ethan seemed eager to sharewith me what his bereavement group was like. He joined in willingly,because “I had so many feelings I couldn’t get out. I didn’t want tobe sad all the time.” But how did he feel about being grouped withchildren who ranged in age from six to 12? On a school playground,kids of different ages don’t normally mingle in friendly fashion. Butwithin the group Ethan found a common bond: “They all had somethingthat was sad and different about them . . . they had the samesadness.” This despite the fact that their losses were not identical.Two children had lost parents; one was mourning a dead grandfather.Ethan matter-of-factly explained that one girl’s mother had died fromtaking drugs; one boy’s best friend had succumbed to a brain tumor.

Ethan remembers art projects , journal writing, and “coolactivities.” A particular favorite was “jumping on bubble paper toget out our anger.” He also discovered that writing was a therapeuticway to soothe turbulent emotions. At one session, the kids learnedthat death comes in many forms. That day “I drew a picture aboutthings people could die from,” including drugs, guns, and carcrashes, “like Princess Diana.”

A highlight of the eight weeks is the Cloud Trip, which starts aswhat therapists call a “guided imagery exercise.” The kids lie on thefloor, close their eyes, and go on an imaginary journey with theirloved one. They ride in a vehicle of their own choosing (Ethan pickeda motor scooter), and travel through a fantasy environment which maybe their personal interpretation of Heaven. They enjoy one another’scompany in these magical surroundings, then quietly say good-bye.Next the children separate, and on huge sheets of paper, draw thescenarios they’ve envisioned. At length, they re-assemble to sharethe fruits of their imaginings.

When I talked to Ethan, he seemed serene in his acceptance of whathad happened to his sister. He calmly explained how he used to fearthat his mother would suffer Rebecca’s fate, but that now heunderstands better how such things work. He’s planning to tell hisyounger brother about Rebecca, but sagely notes that Alexander, atthree, is still too young to comprehend that death is a part of life.Maybe when he’s four or five. . . .

I doubt (as do Ethan’s parents) that the Jewish Big Brothersprogram will wipe away all of his anxieties. There is, for one thing,no money budgeted to follow up on a child’s progress six months afterhis group has held its celebratory last-session pizza party. But itseems clear that Big Brothers has given Ethan a soothing newperspective on something that (in the words of his father Dennis)”he’ll be processing till he’s an adult.”

Bereavement is very much in the news as I write this, and thebroad consensus is that the stiff-upper-lip approach to loss is nothealthy for anyone. It’s encouraging that the Jewish traditionsanctions the sharing of sorrow: Rabbi Lamm’s “The Jewish Way ofDeath and Mourning” in fact makes clear that Judaism encourages openexpressions of grief, within the context of the ancient rituals. ButLamm’s book, like most others which discuss death from a Jewishperspective, is no help to a child who’s looking for ways to copewith an adult-sized sorrow. I’m glad that Jewish Big Brothers hasstepped forward to help children like Ethan acknowledge their painand move on.

Beverly Gray writes about education from Santa Monica.

All rights reserved by author.

Make the Time Count


Child rearing, it turns out, is a relativelyshort-term project. The truth is that we don’t have them for verylong. Eighteen years, that’s all. Eighteen years, from birth untilthey move away to Stanford. If your child is 5, you’ve got 13 yearsleft. If your child is 8, you’ve got 10 years. If your child is 11,you’ve got only seven years — just a few years to put them to bedwith a story and a song, to make them breakfast, to stick artwork upon the fridge.

It’s also a very few years to teach values, toshape character, to instill a way of life. If it takes a lifetime tocreate a masterpiece of art or music, how do we shape the characterof our children in just a few years? We used to hope that they’dlearn by example — watch us and model their behavior after ours.That’s difficult these days. We can’t assume that by living a certainset of values, our kids will model their values after our own. Theoutside culture produces too much static interference. The mediaculture is powerful, intrusive and pernicious. For every parentalwarning to think carefully and to act reflectively, there’s a Nike adadmonishing, “Just Do It!”

It takes more than modeling to teach valuesbecause the values that we think we are modeling, the values we thinkwe are living, aren’t always visible to our kids. When we write acheck to a charity that we deem important, how do our kids know? Whenwe go to a meeting of the community, leaving them at home with thesitter, how are they to know?

To raise kids with strong values, we must be muchmore affirmative in our efforts. We must know our own values. And wemust work — consciously and creatively — to make our values visibleto our kids.

Begin with this assignment: What do you want yourchild to take to college? No, not the Toyota or the computer, butwhat values, what commitments, what ethics? Make a list of the 10values you want your child to have. Post the list on yourrefrigerator door. Ask yourself each day how these values have foundtheir way into your child’s life.

Qualities of character are communicated byimmersing children in an environment rich with symbols, rituals andstories. Because children need to see and to hear and to touch ourvalues, the Torah teaches: U’k’tavtem al mezuzot beitecha — “Writethem on the door posts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). Read yourhome. Read the values that are visible in your home. Do you have atzedakah box? Do you have Shabbat candles? Does your home — thevisible and the tangible environment in which you bring up yourchildren — bespeak your deepest passions and purposes? Are thererituals in your life, rituals that communicate your ethics? Do youshare stories at bedtime, at holiday times, at special moments? Arethese stories that help kids find their place in a greater story,stories that give kids courage to face life?

We have them for so little time. Make the timecount. The greatest gift we give our kids is a sense of life’spurpose and meaning, the values we uphold, the commitments we fightfor, the passions that make life worthwhile. The Rabbis warned us:”Hazman katzar, vi’hamalachah miruba’at.”

The time is short, and the task substantial. Starttoday.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.


 

A Warning to Revolutionaries


Once, I was a revolutionary. I belonged to the generation of long hair and crazy ideas. We did more than invent rock music and protest an unjust war. We believed that we could create a new society, populated by new people — people freed of the prejudices and life-choking rigidities of the past. We believed that we could change the world, and bring greening to America.

America did change. But our dream went unfulfilled.

My parents, in their youth, were also revolutionaries. They left their families to build the new State of Israel. Anu banu artza livnot uli’heebanot ba: “We have come to the land,” goes the old song, “to build it, and in turn, to be built by it.” The Zionist revolution offered the dream of the New Jew — released from the poison of galut, free, strong, proud, self-reliant, embracing the best of ancient Judaism, but with backs strong and faces tanned from rigorous work on the Land. The State of Israel miraculously exists today. But where is this greater Zionist vision?

Bamidbar, the Torah’s fourth book, is about why revolutions fail. It is a warning to revolutionaries, a rebuke to those romantics who still believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free human beings from their chains. It is a response to those who foresee that, out of the apocalypse, the New Man, the New Woman, the New American, the New Jew will emerge. Here, Bamidbar offers, is the ideal case study: The people Israel freed from Egyptian slavery with signs and wonders. Those who stood in the presence of God on the quaking, flaming Sinai. The people who heard Truth from the mouth of God. And, still, they are unchanged, unrepentant, chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. Offered the gift of true freedom, they clamor for meat. God offers them the Promised Land, and all they do is scheme to

Dear Deborah


Family events do not necessarily create closeness. Painting “Tompkins Square Park” by Morris Shulman, from “The Jews in America,” 1994

One Big, Happy…

Dear Deborah,

I have always had the fantasy of having a big family. I complained bitterly to my parents about being a single child, with no relatives in the same city. Now, I am married to a man who has three children and who is tied to his parents and huge, extended family. Every week, there is at least one wedding, bris, bar mitzvah or holiday gathering. Every time I turn around, there are family expectations, craziness, chaos — and I can’t be me.

For example, last Labor Day, we were put in charge of hosting the family’s annual picnic at the park. Because I was a relative newcomer to the family, I didn’t know about everyone’s tastes and made what I considered to be a beautiful, gourmet spread. Things weren’t as perfect as I thought — the food was “too gourmet” for the kids and in-laws, and they complained. Instead of thinking, “Too bad, I did my best,” or “I’ll have to learn about their tastes,” I took it personally, felt like a failure and let it affect my mood long after they had moved on.

My friends and parents say that it’s my problem and that I need to loosen up and get used to being in a large family. My father teases me about getting what I asked for.

I really love my husband and am learning to love his children — although I must admit that I cherish our time alone (his ex has the kids about two-thirds of the time) — but he becomes a different person with a different personality around his big family, and I lose myself; I hate who I am and how I feel so lost. He is too busy for me and seems annoyed by what he sees as my dependency.

I’ve tried to discuss this with him, but to no avail. He says pretty much the same thing as my parents and friends. I find myself getting “sick” a lot to avoid family functions. I know I need to learn that it’s not my problem, to not let their moods and criticisms spoil my time — but I don’t know how, and I am beginning to dread Labor Day. I fear blowing it again. Any suggestions?

Lost In Crowd

Dear Lost,

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family — in another city,” quipped George Burns. It sounds like you are still in shock from your own romantic notions about the big family thing, aren’t you? You are overwhelmed, uninformed and lack practical experience, yet it is time to stop whimpering and to roll up our sleeves here and dive into a crash course on Self-Micro-Management in Large Families.

First, call the kindest person in the family and tell them you need some help planning the Labor Day picnic menu. He or she will feel flattered, and you get to learn about the tastes of these pedestrian eaters. So stop trying so hard, and hit the deli. At these gatherings, instead of attempting to get along with the whole herd all at once, focus on activities with one or two of your stepchildren or, better yet, another family neophyte because, remember, they too might be frantically bailing water out of the same boat. Also, start inviting just one family member, or couple, at a time to socialize outside of these, uh, conventions.

You get the drift. It’s about building individual relationships so that you have some way to begin connecting the dots of your new leviathan of a family. Also, it sounds as if your husband may not be too sympathetic, having always been in his big family, to what it’s like to be bit player in a cast of thousands. So explain, without sniveling or expecting him to solve it. If he is not called upon to fix it, he might display some compassion.

Artist’s Way

Dear Deborah,

Why would a grown woman spend every evening drawing? My 29-year-old attorney daughter has never taken an art class in her life, because she couldn’t draw a straight line. Now, suddenly, she has an insatiable appetite for art classes and goes to classes most nights and weekends. My wife and I are concerned about these activities, especially since we invested at least $100,000 in her education.

We worry about her neglecting the duties of her job, and not engaging in the business of a social life and finding a husband. We don’t know what to do with her. She insists that her life is just fine, that she’s on track with promotions and friends. Any thoughts?

Concerned Parents

Dear Concerned Parents,

Why does she love these art classes so? Perhaps they are a much-needed contrast to her day job. Perhaps she always wanted to draw but lacked the confidence, and through these classes, she may have discovered a hidden talent. Who knows? Maybe the classes are her social life. Or perhaps she hates being a lawyer but doesn’t have the heart to squander your “investment.”

In any case, it’s not your call. She’s an adult, with an adult job, making her own decisions. As parents, just because you invested in your child — a human “commodity” — does not make her your own. You’ve expressed your concern. Now

Turn Off the TV


What’s the biggest problem facing today’s high school graduate? Separating fantasy from reality. And television is the culprit.

That’s the view of Steven Carr Reuben, the rabbi of Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades, who specializes in teaching parents how to raise ethical children and who travels the country, giving parenting workshops.

Cynical and shockproof, they’ve seen horrific behavior every day of their lives, he says. By immersing themselves in an imaginary world, they have become desensitized.

“By the time kids are 18 years old, they have vicariously experienced everything — death, destruction, exploitation, all the things that make television shows interesting,” he says. “This has to have an impact on their emotions. If psychology has taught us anything, it’s that emotions and our physical body can’t distinguish between what is real and what is vividly imagined.”

Personal responsibility, respect and civility all have declined in American society, he says. The Class of 1997 is graduating into a world where an attack ad has replaced belief in principle as the preferred strategy for winning a political campaign.

“Someone wrote a book several years ago, asking what ever happened to shame. I don’t know the answer. No one blushes anymore. Isn’t there anything to blush about?” Carr Reuben says.

At a recent workshop in Boston, several parents told Carr Reuben that they’re exhausted from frustration at seeing how cynical their children have become.

The problem isn’t what the entertainment industry has done to their children, says the rabbi. He believes the cause lies in the home, with Mom and Dad, who have become too passive.

“They have ultimate responsibility for their children,” he says. “So they need to exercise their control. They can turn the television off.”

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