A new approach to Jewish mothering

My teenage son would not be excited about my writing this at his desk, or my being in his room at all. But he started high school last week and I can’t believe it.

Ours is not an empty nest, but I know how soon it will become one, and I just wanted to sit with his stuff around me. I’m lying about that last part. There is no way I could long for my son’s “stuff” because it’s everywhere: the sneakers, the headphones, the endless stream of water glasses he fills to the top with ice, sips and abandons.

No, I am sitting in his room because I am hoping to be inspired. I am sitting in the exact spot where my desk used to be before we ripped out my office to put in his private lair — I mean bedroom. I did a lot of writing in this small corner of our house over the past decade, including a book about the need for laughter in marriage.

Dumb, dumb, shortsighted, dumb.

It’s not that we don’t need to laugh in marriage; we most definitely do, but a mere few years later I see now I was focused on the wrong family dynamic. The relationship you really need to pull out the clown car for is the one with your teenager.

I first heard the phrase “family dynamic” in a therapist’s office in Connecticut, circa 1975. I remember all four members of my family squeezing onto a couch across from an ancient-looking woman, probably 40, dressed in soft separates and nodding a lot. We had just moved from New York City, a decision only my father was happy about. I was still young enough to roll with it, but my mother, a native New Yorker like the one Donna Summer was singing about in her top-40 hit, was eating scrambled rage and toast for breakfast, and my sister was in the middle of her 13th year, already hit by the hormonal wrecking ball of being a teenager.

That was, I have no doubt now, the straw that broke the Klein camel’s back.

To date, our family dynamic is healthy enough without an outside ringleader, mostly because we find laughing together as therapeutic as my mother found spending her Saturdays at Loehmann’s. The unit is fine, but as the school year kicks off, I’m the one who’s feeling meshugge. Not just because I can’t stop the march of time, but also because I can’t seem to find the line between concerned parent and overbearing Jewish mother, a cliché I am deathly afraid of becoming. If you’ve seen any Woody Allen movie made before he married his girlfriend’s daughter, you would be too. He always features at least one loud, nagging, unattractive Jewish mother who is eating something greasy while telling her children to “stand up straight,” “do something about the pimples” and “marry rich.” In fact, I go out of my way to behave quite the opposite as a mother: I proudly aspire to be  “underbearing,”

The boys are back in school this week, which means I am privy to a lot more parenting conversations that I often feel I have to slowly back away from for fear of exposing my laissez-faire style.

“What do you mean you don’t read your son’s texts after he goes to bed?” one of the moms I know from temple asked me recently.

“I mean I don’t read my son’s texts when he goes to bed.”

“But … but … ” she looked at me like there was a burning bush in my house that I was ignoring.

“I’m not going to walk in his room and grab his phone after he’s asleep,” I added.

“Walk in his room? You let him keep his phone in his room at night?” another one chimed in.  “Haven’t you seen ‘Screenagers’ ”?

“Um … no. And yes. He keeps it in a charger by his window.”

“I’ll bet he does,” the first one said.

“What kind of a Jewish mother are you?” No. 2 added, tossing her highlighted hair back and laughing.

“A lame one, I guess,” I said, half-jokingly while heading to my car, breaking a non-peri-menopausal sweat.

Will my fear of becoming a Jewish cliché be my son’s undoing? Leaving him vulnerable to cyberpredators? To a debilitating lack of sleep as he scrolls endlessly in the wee hours of the night? To a stream of naked selfies from girls that he forwards to his friends — and then gets caught and arrested for trafficking in child porn?

I suddenly found myself looking back fondly to a simpler time when being a Jewish mother meant worrying that your precious child was going to get sick from snot-nosed kids on the bus, or that he didn’t get enough lox on his bagel. Or praying to God silently — sometimes not so silently — for him to find a nice Jewish girl to marry.

That’s how I ended up at his desk, you know, to write, of course. And, perhaps, to take a more “CSI: Teenager” approach to my Jewish mothering.

Peers give Orthodox teens lesson in drug use and abuse

“We were a group of kids who were dying inside, but we didn’t know it. We just thought we were a lost cause.”

With these words, Koby, a teenage yeshiva drug user, sets the level of earnestness and intensity on a new video that he and four of his friends produced under the auspices of Aleinu Family Resource Center, the Orthodox Davening Under the Influencearm of Jewish Family Service, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The video will be the centerpiece of “Davening Under the Influence,” a program of Aleinu workshops for parents and educators on Feb. 18 that will feature Dr. Joshua Lamm, medical director of an Orthodox adolescent addictions center in New York. The workshop will delve into parenting issues and is meant for all parents, not only parents of children who are already at risk.

Aleinu is focusing on drug use and high-risk behavior among teens this year through workshops and Shabbat of Awareness, which in the past has stirred community understanding on topics such as sexual abuse and Internet issues. Alcohol abuse also came up this year because of incidents involving 150 yeshiva kids who drank excessively this past Simchat Torah.

For many years, at-risk behavior and drug use among yeshiva high school students has been an open secret, but only in recent years have kids and their families had anywhere to turn.

While most of the efforts so far have focused on boys, the problem is prevalent among yeshiva girls as well.

Aish Tamid, an independent organization that runs classes, support services and social outlets for hundreds of teens, opened its doors about seven years ago under the leadership of Rabbi Avi Leibovic, an attorney and product of local yeshivas.

In the last few years, Aleinu has also ramped up its activity in this area. The organization holds seminars in local yeshiva high schools to talk to students and faculty about drug use. Fourteen middle and high schools have signed on to Aleinu’s mandatory drug policy, which outlines when and how yeshivas should refer a student for drug-use assessment, while remaining supportive and nonpunitive, and what paths of treatment, if any, might be recommended. Failure to comply with the recommendations — or distributing or selling drugs — could result in expulsion from school.

Last year, Aleinu started Issues Anonymous, where about 25 high school-age boys who have abused drugs or alcohol and are now committed to sobriety meet to support each other, hang out and work through the issues that led to their high-risk behavior.

As part of their healing process, the boys produced this video, which will be aired at the workshops Feb. 18 and will be available for other educational programs.

“This is not about placing blame…. This is about taking responsibility, to raise awareness in the Jewish community,” the boys begin in the video, each one adding another thought to the sentence. “We know that we can’t make this never happen again, but if we could just help prevent one beating, one less alcoholic binge, one more good day at school, one less drunk driver, one less overdose to prevent more cases of ending up here,” they say, as the scene flashes to a cemetery.

The video is dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Meir Mermelstein, a young man who died of a drug overdose.

“What they are saying is see us, look at us, interact with us, care about us — see what it is like to be on the inside of us,” said Aleinu director Debbie Fox.

It is a video that every parent should see, because the issues the boys bring up are hauntingly universal.

One boy speaks of never feeling satisfied with what he had, though his parents gave him everything. Another talks of something as simple as not being able to keep up during davening, of always feeling different. School was never fun, one boy says.

A third says he had a vibrant and close-knit extended family, but his parents were clueless. And yet another talks of never getting along with his parents, while another says his father beat him.

With remarkable candor and self-awareness — and with the blessings of their parents — five boys share how and why they descended into drug abuse.

One boy shared shots with every cousin and uncle at his bar mitzvah.

A 9-year-old was handed a joint on Simchat Torah. Jewish summer camp was a good place for another boy to get hooked. Many of these kids have become sophisticated at “pharming,” scavenging prescription drugs at home and at friends’ homes. They talk of praying and studying Torah while high.

“We have a lot of alcohol out in the open in my house — vodka, whiskey and scotch — because my parents never thought that would be me. They trusted me,” one says.

They urge parents to be vigilant about their kids’ behavior — if they are sleeping too much, locking themselves in their rooms or experiencing mood swings. Always know with whom your kids are hanging out, they warn.

They urge parents to talk nicely to their kids, to have real conversations and to be proud of even small accomplishments. And they urge kids who are struggling not to push away the help.

They have some harsh words for teachers and rabbis, as well.

“The rabbis never noticed when you were depressed or on drugs or using or suicidal, but they noticed when you weren’t wearing a kippah. Rabbis can’t help me now,” one of the boys says.

Fox says the video is being released in two versions — one for parents and one for rabbis. The one for parents does not include some of the harshest indictments of the rabbis, because Fox wanted the rabbis to be open to receiving the message without feeling they were under public attack.

A group of Los Angeles rabbis was overwhelmingly receptive to the video when it was shown at a luncheon a few weeks ago.