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.

Martin Finkelstein with his twins, Juliette Finkelstein-Hynes (left) and Harrison Finkelstein-Hynes, in 2003. Photo courtesy of Martin Finkelstein

Uh, Papa, we have big news … we’re straight

do my most important parenting in the car — often not by choice. Living in Los Angeles, the car is simply the best place to talk.

The snack-covered leather seats of my black Honda Civic have been the scenes of multiple conversations with my twin children that I’ll remember forever. Like when my daughter, Juliette, then age 3, announced to my brother, as we picked him up from the airport, that she recently made a poo poo on the potty and demanded some sort of payment — or at least recognition from her uncle.

Or a year later, when that same daughter decided she wanted to convert and announced that she would like to be Christian because they celebrate “Eastern” and “Eastern” has better candy than Passover! I still remember her words ringing in my ears: “Eastern is better than Passover!” I tried my hardest to defend my position, but when it comes to candy … “Eastern” sort of wins.

And that was the easy stuff. These sun-scorched seats also witnessed some tougher conversations, like when Juliette asked, through tears: “Why does our teacher keep saying that we are adopted when we are not? I tell her every day I’m not adopted! I have two dads and they had a surrogate in order to bring me and my brother into this world.”

Never in my wildest dreams, though, did I imagine that it would be in this same car that my children — both of them — would come out to me! We were on Olympic Boulevard on the way to the Fish Grill, and they were 9 or 10 at the time.

How can this be happening, I thought? It took me until I was 21 to have enough courage to come out to my parents. I planned and rehearsed it for years. I was already a college graduate, and yet my kids are doing it before middle school (and on the way to the Fish Grill).

Truth be told, I never dreamed that this conversation would happen in the first place. As a gay dad, I was not prepared. Sitting behind the steering wheel, I started to understand how my parents must have felt. No one teaches you how to be a good audience when your kids give you life-changing news.

Plus, what are the chances that two kids with gay dads would feel the need to come out to their parents? I always swore that I would never let my son and daughter go through what I did: the secrets, the fear, the confusion, the feeling of letting down the rest of the family. I came out before “Will & Grace,” and doing that in the Reagan years was not easy or fun. 

So you can imagine how fast my heart began beating after Juliette, speaking for both herself and her brother, Harrison, apologized for their sexual orientation. In the backseat of our Honda Civic. On the way to Fish Grill. At age 9.

“Papa, you know Harry and me are straight … right?” 


I tried not to crash the car. Looking back in the rearview mirror, I tried to see her eyes. Could this really be happening? My thoughts were going a mile a minute: How does she even know? She’s so young. Why is her brother not saying anything?

Neither of them could look at me. I could see they felt bad, like they let us down. As parents, we could not care less, but the more I told them that it was OK, the sadder they seemed and the more they felt they needed to explain.

Finally, I said the words that every child wants to hear, the ones that I’ve learned are so important to hear any day and every day. (I heard similar words when I came out at 21.)

“Daddy and Papa love you guys no matter what.”

This is sort of the Golden Rule of fatherhood, right? All the rest is commentary.

We continued: “We never assumed you would be gay just because we are. Nor do we care. We just want you to be happy.”

Just make sure your Auntie Vera in Boca doesn’t find out that you’re straight!  

Martin Finkelstein is executive director of advertising at the Jewish Journal and the father of two teenagers, Juliette and Harrison.

Dan Freedman and his wife, Karen Macarah, with their children and stepchildren: In front, from left: Sam Macarah, 13; Lexi Freedman, 11; Cate Freedman, 8. In back, Abby Macarah, 12; Jake Freedman, 14. Photo courtesy of Dan Freedman

Dad steps into unexpected role after tragedy strikes

Nothing can prepare you for fatherhood. Sure, Amazon has an endless supply of books, and there are a million websites dedicated to the topic. Beyond all that, there is no shortage of friends and neighbors willing to lend an opinion.

And yet, despite all that, little could prepare me for the three versions of fatherhood I experienced before my first child became a teenager.

I went from your typical dad with two kids, to a single dad with three, to a stepdad with a blended family of five in a dizzying period of my life that challenged me in ways I never could have imagined, but ultimately shaped me to become a better, more patient man, and hopefully, a better, more patient dad.

But, as we dads know, when you first hold that baby, or when you first wake up to a plaintive wail, or when you play your first game of catch, there is no preparing for that.

Dads are, by and large, the butt of the joke, the bumbling father who can barely make it out the door with his briefcase and coffee, struggling to get to the recital without embarrassing his daughter or angering his wife. We try and we fail.  I was — and am — no different. 

During my first six years of parenthood, I had an amazing wife who booked the doctors’ appointments, enrolled in all the right classes, made sure our kids had sufficient “tummy time” and knew just when to start potty training.  It was as if she had memorized the entire “What to Expect” canon. Sure, she had her moments of insecurity and failure, but those paled compared with my daily entreaty: “Please don’t let me screw up.”

In hindsight, those were the easy years. I was the classic suburban dad — more useful on weekends, trying to be present during the week. I was never where I was supposed to be, whether at the office or at home, but I was muddling through, and my wife loved me enough to want a third child. So we decided to forgo the man-to-man defense; we were prepared to play zone with three kids.

But then, one day I woke up and found myself a single father of three. The painful details are not important, but 21 hours after our third child was born, my wife died. In an instant, it became a three-on-one fastbreak. This, I hadn’t signed up for.

I learned early on that life isn’t fair. But in my sadness, I was not afforded the opportunity to lament this injustice, or wallow in self-pity. I had a 6-year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn. They needed their dad — not some shell of a man but someone who was present, available and accountable.

I was lucky. I had two sisters who were there at the drop of a hat; friends who could be counted on for any need; a temple community that rallied to the cause; a mother-in-law reeling in grief but up to the task; a father who lent a shoulder more times than can be counted; colleagues who acted like family; and a nanny who took on extra responsibility without gripe or groan. It was never “Why me?”; it was always “Why not me?” Add to that my preternatural son who internalized the loss of his mother and quickly moved into “this is my new reality” mode. My girls were too young to understand. In my darkest moments, I thought how much worse this would have been had it happened 10 years later.

The gravity of it all hit home a few weeks on when my son was home sick. I saw him on the couch, and I knew what he needed more than anything in the world — his mom’s cuddle. No matter what I did, I wasn’t her. But I adjusted; I adapted; and most important, I grew — as a father and as a man. I took on the dual role of father and mother and did what I could to provide my kids with what they needed. I failed. A lot. But I tried. And I was present.

My wife had instilled in me the importance of “being there,” and I made sure that I was. Some things, such as work and friendships, suffered — but people gave latitude, and I took full advantage.

Fast forward a few years, and I became a stepdad. Now I was really in the fire. I had met a wonderful woman with two kids; it was a package deal, and I was up for the challenge, or so I thought. To be candid, being a single dad of three was considerably easier than being a stepdad to two. The learning curve was — and remains — steep.

Stepdads are a dime a dozen; being one doesn’t make me special. What makes our situation unusual is that even though all five kids live with us, my stepkids still have two biological parents, and my kids have one. As stepparents, we try to fill the void, but you are, at best, a reasonable facsimile. That’s OK, but it means I retain the vestiges of being a single dad.

When my kids wake in the middle of the night, they come to my side of the bed. When it’s time for their annual physicals, I make the appointments and take them. When they give their biography presentation at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, they want me there. None of this is an indictment or even a judgment on my new wife — she is a terrific stepmom. It is just our reality. As a parent — as a father — you give your kids what they need, and my kids need me. And that couldn’t make me happier.

All of my three phases of fatherhood have been different, and yet all quite similar. The journey has been fraught, and it certainly hasn’t been what I envisioned when my first wife looked at me at the top of the Target escalator and said: “Let’s have a baby.”

Every dad celebrating Father’s Day has his own story, some more harrowing than others. But whether we are single dads, stepdads or just plain, ol’ garden-variety dads, we all have the same goals: provide for our kids, be there when they need us, guide them on their way and hope like hell they take care of us in old age.

Happy Father’s Day to all.

Dan Freedman runs business affairs for the independent film company Good Universe. In his free time, he writes a blog about his first love, baseball. When not trying to keep up with his five kids and their activities, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Karen.

Photo from Pexels

Mother’s Day

We wrote essays and memorized poems about the saintliness of mothers, their selflessness, their sacrifices. Every Mother’s Day in elementary and middle school, we stood up and read to the class a new ode to the person who had given up her youth and good health, her freedom and grand ambitions — her self, really, though in those days women had no “self” outside of motherhood — to give us life and make sure we kept eating and breathing. Thank you, Mother, for relinquishing body and soul.

It made sense in a devastating, heartbreaking way, especially if you were a girl, meaning that your very existence was a detriment to any mother’s value, and more so if you were one of a number of girls, each birth another nail in the poor woman’s coffin, and now she was going to have to love and care for you, anyway, make sure you looked good and behaved well so you, too, could wear a crown of flowers one day in your mid- to late teens, become a wife and, nine months later, a mother.

And if you were a boy? There was a story we read every year, about a son who, in a rage and very self-servingly, beats his mother to death and buries her in a ditch. For reasons that escape me now, he has occasion to dig her up later, long teeth and hair and smooth, fleshless bones, only to find that her heart is still beating with, yes, love for the murderous son. I may be wrong, but I could swear there was even something about the mother being worried that the son was tired and thirsty from the physical exertion of burying and exhuming her.

This was motherhood as martyrdom — which, we know, is always a privilege, more so if the suffering is greater — something that you earned through sacrifice and devotion, that you aspired to knowing how you would end up. Because of how you ended up.

“I was 15 years old when I gave birth to my first child,” my own grandmother once said. “I went home with that baby and didn’t emerge again until I was an old woman with 10 children.”

She wasn’t lying, not even exaggerating. To her eternal credit, she also raised a great many orphans and abandoned children, cared for the poor and the sick of all ages, fed and clothed and counseled every stranger who knocked on her door. Later, as an “old woman,” she even found time to buy and sell land, make a good bit of money on her own, jetting between Tehran and Tel Aviv, New York and Los Angeles. Hers was a meaningful and memorable life, the kind of existence that creates lasting good. I know this. I hope she knew this.

We do, in fact, turn our backs on life as we knew it once we become parents.

But after the day I heard her speak of her — stolen? squandered? perhaps the word is “surrendered” — youth, I’ve never been able to think of her without a quiver of heartache. I keep seeing her as a teenage mother, the girl in those black-and-white pictures in the homes of her children, white skin and dark eyes and that pomegranate-red lipstick so favored by’50s movie stars. I see her turn her back on me and walk through a door. I see the door close.

It wouldn’t be much to celebrate, this Sisyphean practice we mothers engage in, one generation after another, often without question. Forget those of us in the First World who marry late and hire Third World help and have access to health care and technology; we couldn’t fathom the hardships the majority of mothers suffer every day just to keep their children alive. And yet, even we know this is as hard a job as any. I certainly don’t begrudge us the odes or Hallmark cards on Mother’s Day — celebrated this year on May 14 — or any other. But I also know they don’t tell the whole story, and that’s a crime — it perpetuates a sense of victimhood on the part of many mothers and guilt on the part of their children, especially their daughters.

We do, in fact, turn our backs on life as we knew it once we become parents. In many ways, more than any of us would be able to imagine ahead of time, we do surrender our old selves at the door, forfeit the big wide world and the possibilities it may offer, in favor of a small house with walls and a roof.

But these walls we surround ourselves with are covered with vines of Poet’s Jasmine that bloom, delicate as a breath, every morning, releasing into the universe the everlasting scent of youth and beauty and hope. And this roof we capitulate to opens up every night to reveal a flood of stars. And whether we have one or a dozen children, whether they’re our own or others’, sick or healthy, obedient or not, this house they pull us into is called Joy.

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

10 signs you’re an ‘older’ Jewish mom

The average age of childbearing in the United States is 26. For Jews, it’s a few years higher. Some of us Jewish moms, however, had our children significantly later than that. Here are 10 things that only “older” Jewish moms will recognize.

1. There’s an even chance your child sports an old-fashioned Jewish name like Ada, Jack, Abe or Lily.

Being older means there’s less chance all of our grandparents are alive (never mind great-grandparents), making it much more likely you chose a name that sounds like it came out of the Lower East Side instead of a modern baby naming book.

2. In Mommy and Me classes, you schmooze with the grandmothers as much as the other moms.

And kvetched together about the havoc that sitting on the floor wreaks on your back…

3. When it comes time to choose bar and bat mitzvah invitations, you go for paper over evites.

For some of us “older” moms, it just doesn’t seem formal unless it’s mailed in a bonded envelope.

4. You love the vintage toy selection from Fisher Price. 

You don’t buy old-fashioned toy record players and jack-in-the-boxes to be ironic; you remember playing with them when you were a kid, too.

5. You still send out Rosh Hashanah cards with pictures of your kids inside.

Printed on paper. With a stamp and everything.

6. When your daughter goes to an ‘80s theme party, you lend her plastic bangles you still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere. 

And show her the correct way to wear leg warmers, too.

7. You still haven’t quite recovered from seeing the words “geriatric pregnancy” written in your medical chart.

Used to denote any mom-to-be over 35, the term “geriatric” is startling ever greater numbers of us older moms each year.

8. Sometimes you take a nap at naptime, too. 

OK, maybe more than sometimes…

9. You order your child’s class pictures each year — and still print out pictures. 

At times, your kids roll your eyes when you say there’s nothing like a real photo you can hold.

10. You wish you had the energy you did 20 years ago to keep up with your toddler. 

Sometimes you mourn a little that you didn’t “settle down” earlier. Then you look at your child’s smile, feel a little flutter in your heart, and think that if things had worked out differently when you were young, you wouldn’t have this exact same wonderful, enchanting child. And suddenly, you think you wouldn’t change a thing.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. has worked as a professor of International Relations, a trade analyst for the US Government and in public affairs. She lives with her family in Chicago.

Charges dropped against Maryland ‘free range’ parents

Charges against Maryland parents who allowed their children to walk home from a park alone have been dropped by Child Protective Services.

It is the second neglect case filed against Jewish Silver Spring residents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who are known as “free-range” parents for their style of parenting, which believes in giving children more freedom to make choices without parents hovering nearby. The charges were dropped earlier this month, the Meitivs told local media on Tuesday.

The couple’s children, ages 10 and 6, were picked up in April by police a few blocks from their Silver Spring home. They were walking home from playing in a local park and taken to Child Protective Services, where they were held for several hours and not permitted to call their parents.

In December, the Meitivs were slapped with neglect charges when police found their children alone in a park near their home. Those charges also were dropped.

Danielle Meitiv told the Washington Post she is concerned about how Child Protective Services will deal with the family in the future.

“I feel like we won’t know for sure if real progress has been made until our kids go for a walk and come home safely without being bothered,” she said.

Forget annoying helicopter parents. Helicopter kids are way worse.

There are parents who hover over their kids like a helicopter. And there are parents who generally leave their kids to their own devices. Each side insists their way is the right way. I’m not here to judge other parenting styles, though I assume, as is often the case, that the best way is a healthy mixture of both — allowing your kids some independence, coupled with giving them the security of boundaries and a loving home base. But what do I know? Figure it out yourself, and I’m sure you’ll let me know when you do. Because every parent seems to be a maven in all things parenting.

But I’m here to talk about something entirely different from helicopter parents: helicopter kids. When I take my kids to the park, I struggle to shake them off of me like a ragdoll in the jaws of a tenacious pit bull. They’re clingy, they check in constantly, and they compete for my attention — when all I really want is for them to get the hell away from me. “Go on the slide. Go bounce a ball. Go keep that homeless guy company who’s talking to himself and could probably use a conversation partner.” 

I pick up my kids from preschool and look around the playground. There are kids on slides, kids in three-wheelers, and kids chasing each other. My kids? My daughter, Sydney — almost 5 — is getting her hair braided in the lap of her cute young teacher with the pink highlights; my son, Asher, 3, is helping to clean and rake the sandbox with his teacher. This is a playground filled with kids — why are they hanging out with the teachers?

My kids are well-liked by their peers. They’re socially adept and smart. But given the choice of chasing a kid up a hill or sitting with my wife and me on a park bench, they choose us, even when their friends are begging them to play. They might occasionally run off with another kid for a few minutes, but they’re not gone for long. There is an ongoing societal debate about kids watching TV — should they, shouldn’t they, should TV time be limited? We don’t have that issue. My kids have never sat through a whole movie. We throw on “Annie,” sneak away, and 20 minutes later they come running down the hall to our bedroom and climb into our bed. I beg them to go away. I insist. “You’ve never gotten past the first act. Keep watching. Annie gets out of the orphanage. It’s not always a hard-knock life for her!” But they don’t care. I plop them down in their room to play with each other. They come back to ours. No matter what I do, they always come back. 

“I love you guys, but leave me alone,” I beg. They play for a few minutes, which quickly turns into a wrestling match, or a tug-of-war over a toy. And then they’re back again, running to us for help, one or both of them in tears. I say, “Solve it yourself. You don’t need us.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, they have managed to worm their way back to us.

I’m flattered that my kids like their parents so much. And I know it won’t be long before they want nothing to do with us. I know this, and yet I feel like if these nerds don’t start making friends they’re not going to have anyone to hang out with when it comes time for them to hate us. They’ll just be angry, and stuck at home, locked in their room listening to whatever version of The Smiths is around for sad teenagers.

At birthday parties, they take a long time to warm up. They spend most of the party with each other, and within inches of my legs. At one party in the park last week, a parent, Monique, walked over and gave me a kiss hello. “Have you seen Dash?” she asked. I looked around for her son. He was climbing a tree, albeit not very well. What he lacks in coordination he makes up for in confidence. I pointed in his direction. Monique looked to my kids. “They’re always on top of you,” she said. She wasn’t criticizing. She was just pointing out the anomaly. “It’s good they think you’re so fun.” She thinks I’m a clown, perpetually happy and silly. She doesn’t know the side of me who broods, and worries, and gets frustrated with my kids. She’s never heard my daughter yell out, “You’re a bad daddy!” So I went along with the ruse. “I wish I wasn’t so awesome,” I said with a wink. She playfully hit me on the arm and then took off after her kid.

A week later, I was picking up the kids from school, and my wife called to tell me she was going out with her sister for the night. I saw Monique on the playground and made impromptu plans with her and her husband to take the kids out for pizza and ice cream. Dash jumped into my car and asked if he could ride with us. There wasn’t enough room, so I asked Asher if he wanted to ride with Dash’s baby brother. He ran right over to their car and hopped in. He doesn’t know Monique well but I assume he must have sensed that she’s Argentine and was all over that like blanco en el arroz

Meanwhile, in my car, Sydney and Dash were sitting in their car seats talking to each other. I leaned my head back to talk to them, but they weren’t that interested in what I had to say. There was a moment where I wasn’t even sure what they were talking about — and I was actively trying to eavesdrop. Dash has a slight speech impediment and he’s a little hard to understand — at least to me. Sydney didn’t seem to notice. She laughed at his joke, but I didn’t get it. What was the joke? I asked them to explain it to me, but they just giggled. I felt left out.

We parked on Larchmont Boulevard and headed toward Village Pizzeria. The kids ran ahead of me. They ducked into a store, but I was distracted by a text message and wasn’t sure which one. Monique and Asher came up behind me. “Did you see where the kids went?” I asked. Monique pointed to a little boutique. I walked in. A woman with a sourpuss face was speaking on the phone. She was indifferent to the two kids standing at the jewelry case. I walked over to them, as I overheard Sydney tell Dash she liked the gold necklace with the long charm hanging from it. Dash waved his hand over all of the jewelry — “I’m going to buy you all of them.” Sydney laughed. I defensively said, “Sydney, you don’t need a man to get you anything. You’ll buy your own jewelry.” She looked at me, confused. So did Dash. Then they ran off to the pizza place without me. 

I heard Asher chasing after them — “Wait for me!” And even though I was only a few paces behind, something in me ached as my helicopter kids stopped hovering and learned how to fly.

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and two kids. You can see more of his work on his website, sethmenachem.com.

Back to school parenting lessons

The back-to-school season is, for all intents and purposes, a period of pure parental mayhem. From tracking down the coolest Batman or Barbie backpack on the block to searching out that elusive five-subject, wide-ruled, perforated spiral notebook that our child needs for Hebrew class, our to-do lists seem endless.

Still for many modern parents, the stress of preparing our kids for their return to academia pales in comparison to the pressure we endure once they actually get there. After all, in our achievement-obsessed society, it often feels that our parental efficacy is directly correlated with our children’s standardized test scores. It’s no wonder that the thought of homework, report cards and parent-teacher conferences has our stomach turning somersaults.

And if all this academic pressure is tough on us as parents, it’s wreaking absolute havoc on our kids. Research reveals all kinds of worrisome trends showing up en masse in 21st-century schoolchildren — from anxiety and depression, to psychosomatic illness, to drug and alcohol consumption. 

One of the most marvelous aspects of the Jewish tradition is its ability to guide, protect and strengthen us at times when we need it most. As if our forefathers could see eons into the future — knowing their descendants would one day be faced with back-to-school stress of biblical proportions — they’ve sent sage advice our way. The following nuggets of ancient Jewish wisdom promise to keep your family sane, happy and healthy this back-to-school season, and for many years to come.

Study for its own sake

The Mishnah states that Torah should be studied lishmah, or for its own sake. In other words, we shouldn’t learn Torah with ulterior motives (i.e. getting on God’s A-list or wowing others with our biblical mastery). Rather, we should release ourselves to the beauty and majesty of the text — enjoying it in its own right. In doing so, it is believed, we achieve a divine level of existence.

By the same token, we should not present the act of learning to our children as a means to an end (i.e. you study science so you can ace the exam so you can get into a really good college one day). Instead, we must help them recognize and embrace the inherent magic, excitement and privilege of discovering the world around them.

“We live in a goal-oriented society. The value of activities is measured in the results achieved. We study to pass tests. We attend classes to earn a degree. Thus, for most of us, the Jewish value of learning for its own sake is often regarded as a quaint but antiquated tradition,” writes Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “It is time for Jews to reappropriate the value of Torah lishmah not only for our personal growth but for the healing that it can bring.”

This is not to suggest, of course, that we should place no focus on scholastic performance. We should do all we can to help our children realize their potential — academically and otherwise. But we should be careful not to depict education simply as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

There’s a beautiful Jewish custom of drizzling honey on the letters the first time a child learns the Alef Bet. The purpose of the honey is not to disguise the work that inevitably lies ahead but to serve as a reminder to savor its sweetness. Similarly, by following up the nightly homework drill with a family nature hike together — or setting aside an hour one evening to cuddle up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn for some family DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time — we can recapture the inherent yumminess of learning without undermining the importance of schoolwork.

And on the seventh day, God rested

Let’s face it. Try as we might to reduce our kids’ academic stress, we can’t do away with it completely. School is, after all, hard work by design. While studying is enlightening and empowering, it can also be demanding and rigorous. And that’s exactly the way it should be. Judaism places great value on work, diligence and, of course, on study.

But our religion also believes in downtime. “Six days shall you labor and do all your work,” reads the book of Exodus, “and the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God [on which] you shall not do any work.” 

Our kids spend their school weeks in constant motion, shlepping from classes to baseball practice to violin lessons to Hebrew school. They desperately need a time to recharge and refuel. And in Shabbat, they have it. But Shabbat is more than just a weekly chill session for our kids. In the Sabbath rituals, our children find the consistency and predictability they need to thrive despite a frenetically paced life. They find the spirituality and hope that will keep them emotionally healthy in an unpredictable world.

‘Educate a child according to his way’

In modern-day America, cramming kids into societally constructed Harvard-bound boxes has become parental sport. But the reality is that not every child is hardwired to go to Harvard.

The wise King Solomon recognizes this truth in the book of Proverbs when he teaches us that we must “educate a child according to his way.” Notice, he doesn’t say anything about our way, or the school system’s way, or the college entrance board’s way. He says, simply, the child’s way.

On one level, these words entail a basic acceptance of our child’s academic realities — coming to terms with the fact that our son may have certain learning challenges that require a unique educational approach, or that our daughter is going to be — despite tutoring sessions galore — an average math student.

But the commandment of educating a child according to his way also requires us to go a step further by recognizing and nurturing our children’s unique sets of gifts and talents — regardless of whether they’re considered gifts and talents by modern societal standards. In his “Book of Jewish Values,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin shares his take on Solomon’s words. “As a parent you are obligated to be conscious of your child’s special intellectual and artistic abilities and interests. Yet I’ve met parents who have definite views about precisely what sort of person their child should be, and who do not take into account the child’s personal interests. Such an attitude denies a child’s very individuality.” 

One of my favorite tools for illuminating children’s unique gifts is Howard Gardner’s highly acclaimed theory of multiple intelligences (1983, 1999) in which he delineates at least eight distinct types of intelligences of value to society that exist in human beings. Eight different realms in which to uncover the sparks of genius in our children.

Kids who are masters of puzzles and Legos, for example, exhibit what Gardner calls “spatial intelligence,” while children who love reading and telling stories possess “linguistic intelligence.” Bug-loving kids tend to exhibit “naturalistic intelligence,” while children who get a kick out of strategy games often have “logical/mathematical intelligence.” Children with natural leadership skills have “interpersonal intelligence,” while introspective, spiritual children have “intrapersonal intelligence.” Kids with “bodily/kinesthetic intelligence” are agile and physically coordinated, while those with “musical intelligence” have a knack for singing and playing instruments.

And if you’re especially lucky on your parenting journey, you’ll get to know a child with “menschlich intelligence” — a spark of God-given sweetness and compassion that far transcends the 99th percentile on the California Achievement Test.

But even if you conclude that your child is not a budding Albert Einstein, you’re in good company. At the end of the day, most of our kids are, well, regular kids — good at some things, not so good at others. And counting on us to love and support them in all their wonderfully regular-kid glory.


Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book — “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” — was released by Broadway Books in 2008. Her website is sharonestroff.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.com, a website devoted to pluralistic Jewish information and engagement. 

My son wears dresses, and I have no problem with it

Every morning my four-year-old daughter, Sydney, drags a chair into her closet and plucks a dress off of the rack.  I try to lean her in other directions—“Why don’t we try shorts today?”—but Sydney’s stubborn.  And I think she deserves the freedom to choose what she wants to wear. 

My son, Asher, is two.  I grab shorts and a T-shirt out of the drawer and dress him, because he still has trouble dressing himself.  But he figured out how to undress himself—and pretty often that means he’s ripping off his clothing and screaming “dress” over and over again.  He climbs on to the chair in the closet and tugs at one of Sydney’s dresses—“This one.”

So most days my son is dressed like Sofia the First, or some Disney princess, or—my favorite—rocking a multi-colored Ralph Lauren spaghetti strap sundress.  Taking all social mores out of it, he looks good in dresses.  And on an 80-degree summer day in LA, it’s probably the most practical choice.

It used to embarrass me slightly when he wore a dress in public.  And it wasn’t because I cared about people who thought it was weird that my son was wearing a dress.  It was because I cared that they thought I had chosen to put him in a dress.  As if there was an agenda on my part to use my son as a way to break societal norms, or as my friend’s mom said to me—a religious Sephardic Jew—“You wanted another daughter?”  This was at a birthday party for my friend’s daughter and before I left my house I had tried to convince Asher to change into “boy clothes.”  I knew that if he showed up in a dress, it would be an endless series of questions and judgments, and I just didn’t feel like dealing with it.  But Asher was stronger than ever that morning.  He had a huge tantrum as I tried to force his legs into a pair of shorts.  His nose was running into his mouth as he cried and protested and I suddenly realized I was fighting for something I didn’t even believe in.  I was making my kid feel badly for something he shouldn’t be ashamed of.  And I stopped.  And I gave him a hug and I apologized.  And then I put back on the purple princess dress with his sister’s sparkly Tom’s shoes.  We went to the party, and, as I figured, some of the Israelis laughed and made comments.  One said to me, “Do you think this is funny?  There are kids here.  You want them to see this?”  Another said, “You want him to be gay?”  And I stayed calm.  And I explained to them the best I could that there is no correlation between kids cross-dressing and being gay.  And if he is gay, it’s not because of anything I did.  It’s because he’s gay.  And maybe it’s a stage.  And maybe it’s not.  But either way, I don’t want him to ever feel like he wasn’t able to express himself because his parents didn’t support him.  And some understood.  And some, trapped by religion or ignorance, gave us the stank face.

Plenty of people are supportive.  They’ll see my kids—Sydney with her long dirty blonde hair, and Asher with his short dark hair, and say, “I love your daughter’s pixie cut.”  When I tell them he’s my son, they smile and say, “I love it.”  They also apologize for confusing his gender—but I tell them, “Don’t apologize.  He’s in a purple dress with sparkly shoes.  How would you know?”  I know there are parents who get worked up when you confuse their kids’ gender—but I’m not one of them.

A gay friend saw me with the kids at Jazz at LACMA on Friday night, and apropos of nothing said, “Just so you know I didn’t wear any dresses when I was younger,” which is essentially saying, “Don’t worry.  Your kid’s not gay like me.”  This openly gay, married man was trying to make me feel better about a problem that didn’t exist.  If my son is gay, so be it.  Maybe he is.  Maybe he’s not.  Maybe he’ll be a cross dresser.  Maybe not.  I have no control over any of it.  All I can do is be supportive.  The saddest thing about the exchange was learning how my friend felt about being gay. As if it were a curse—and not the awesome, endless dude party it really is.  Then again, he’s married now.  He probably forgot.

I get home before my wife most nights, so I was taking the kids out to walk our dog.  They were dressing up in different outfits—my daughter treating Asher like her doll, as she tried various dresses, shoes, and headbands on him.  And then Sydney told me she wanted me to wear a dress, too—“Oh my god—it will be so funny.”  I said, “No,” but she kept begging.  I said, “People will laugh at me.”  She said, “If they do, I’ll tell them to go away.”  And I couldn’t argue with that, as I squeezed myself into Carrie’s most flexible dress.  We walked the dog on our block, and the pleasure my kids took in seeing their dad go out of his comfort zone, trumped the humiliation I felt.  Carrie pulled up to the house, and I saw her slacked jaw from the end of the street.  She laughed.  She took a picture.  And she told me I better not rip her dress.  And then we all went for a pizza.

This article was originally published on xojane.

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Bonding at Baby U

For new parents, having their first child can be scary, stressful and utterly stupefying. 

Westside Jewish Community Center hopes it will be a little less so thanks to Jewish Baby University, a five-week class designed to prepare people for what parenthood is really like.

The program, which launched this spring and begins its second session July 28, is open to anyone expecting his or her first child. It incorporates Jewish themes and teaches parents how to plan, in both a practical and spiritual function, for their incoming son or daughter. 

“The class is attractive to people who have a Jewish background but need a reminder and to those who really don’t know where to start,” said Lauren Friedman, program coordinator of the Westside JCC. “This is their starting point into Jewish life.”

Jewish Baby University is based on existing programs at Jewish community centers in Phoenix and Denver and funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation. It’s taught by Rabbi Dalia Samansky, a mother of two from Woodland Hills, who focuses on pastoral work and assists with baby naming ceremonies in Los Angeles. 

“As a young mom, it’s a great class to teach,” she said. “[Being Jewish] and parenting are both such sacred journeys in and of themselves.”

Each class incorporates a new theme and features a guest speaker. In terms of Judaism itself, attendees learn about rituals surrounding childbirth, as well as how to create a Jewish home and find a Jewish community in Los Angeles. Although religious practices are discussed, the class is suitable for Jews from all different backgrounds, Friedman said. “It’s more cultural and traditional. We have couples from all the denominations, so we don’t want to impose anything on them.”

Expecting parents find out about financial planning, medical practices involved in pregnancy and birth, and how to adapt emotionally and mentally to being a parent. Speakers in the inaugural session included Dr. Andrew Shpall, a mohel; Yana Katzap-Nackman, a doula; Debra Markovic from JKidLA, a resource of Jewish educational opportunities from BJE-Builders of Jewish Education; and Dan Feinberg, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo Advisors.

Richard Weintraub, a psychologist, visited the class on the last day to talk about how parents can focus on the present and stay calm about the pregnancy. He described how babies, even before they are born, understand when their mothers are at peace or anxious. Weintraub also stressed the importance of physical contact between parents and children. 

For the first session of Jewish Baby University, which took place from April 14 to May 24 and ended with a Shabbat dinner, seven couples signed up. One of the students was Genevieve Goldstone, a Jew by Choice who said the class made her feel more secure about the prospect of raising a Jewish child. 

“The class validated my knowledge and allowed me and my husband to have some more directed conversations about our practice so that we could be more on the same page going into parenthood,” she said.

Beth Cohan, another participant, said the class was an opportunity to meet other couples who were having their first child. But it was more than that.

“[My husband and I] came from similar backgrounds, but we were interested in figuring out which traditions we’d like to bring into our home,” she said.

It’s especially important to decide upon these traditions before the baby is born, Samansky said, because “a lot of what you do in the beginning becomes habitual. Humans crave routine and normalcy, and to make something like this part of your life and to make decisions ahead of time makes it easier on the family.”

Jewish Baby University was designed by the Westside JCC not only to educate expecting parents, but to connect them and provide a social outlet. Because many of the couples are transplants to Los Angeles, they are still looking for a community and friends, Samansky said. 

Johanna Schmidt, who moved to Santa Monica with her husband shortly before joining the class, said, “One of our goals in taking the class was to meet other couples. We’ve done that, so we’re really happy.”

Now that the first session has ended, looking back, Friedman said that it was successful. “We’ve had such great response from the couples. We’re building something that will feed into all the other JCC programs.”

After reviewing evaluations from the initial group, Friedman and Samansky are going to change and update the course as needed. The next session also will be five weeks long and cost $200, just like the original. 

Other options for expecting Jewish parents do exist — Cedars-Sinai has single-day, three-hour workshops — but Friedman believes that the comprehensiveness of Jewish Baby University is “filling a really important void.”

Parenting: The Torah of motherhood

My road from twice-a-year Jew to Torah-study groupie took 40 years. With the heady days of the High Holy Days, Sukkot and Simchat Torah still fresh in my mind, it’s worth examining how I got here. 

During my youth, my family and I attended synagogue only during the High Holy Days. Even then, like most adolescents, no matter the Jewish preschool, Jewish summer camp, bat mitzvah or confirmation, the rabbi’s sermon was my cue to flee the sanctuary with my sister to find the other kids in the parking lot tearing into a purloined challah snatched from the synagogue kitchen.  

As I got older, I began to appreciate the meditative, communal experience. After every High Holy Days season, the spiritual renewal that filled me had me vowing I’d be back the very next Shabbat. But, inevitably, by the next week the excuses came readily — “I’m too tired,” “We’re out of town” or “I’ll go next week” — until the weeks piled up and the High Holy Days were back again.

So what happened to make me a Torah- study groupie? Eleven and a half years ago I became a parent, which means I am now the mother of a middle-schooler, and I need as much help as I can get. As kids get older, the problems get thornier. I pine for inspiration and guidance, for clues to being a better parent than I often feel equipped to be. When a friend gushed about Torah study, calling it her weekly “vitamin,” I decided I had nothing to lose. And while I have dog-eared my share of parenting books, ranging from sleep training to sibling rivalry, I have found that the biggest questions are answered in The Great Big Parenting Book — Torah. 

It’s a best-seller, but it’s not an easy read. It doesn’t give away its wisdom to those hoping for a quick skim. For example, during the High Holy Days, we read one of the Torah’s grimmest parenting stories — the Binding of Isaac. Those are pretty words for a nightmarish chapter — a father leading his son up a mountain, tying him to a rock and preparing to sacrifice him with a blade through the sternum. What parenting advice could I hope to get from that catastrophe?

At my synagogue, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who is also a mother, gleaned something positive out of this horror story. “God stopped Abraham,” she said, “before he hurt Isaac. Sometimes we need a voice from God to stop us from hurting our kids.” 

To the sanctuary full of well-meaning parents, she wasn’t talking about physical hurt. My mind catalogued those moments when I wished I could take back certain words I’d uttered. Greeting my sixth-grader after school with, “How much homework do you have?” instead of “Hi, kiddo, it’s great to see you.” Nagging my second-grader to finish his homework instead of paying attention to the imaginary world he is creating with Legos. Sharing with my friends stories I considered “cute” but that would embarrass my kids. Telling my children in any given moment what they are doing wrong instead of what they are doing right. These are the times I need an inner voice counseling restraint, an angel on my shoulder advising, “Don’t criticize. Don’t pile on the stress. Bite your tongue.” I know my sons would appreciate it if I were to bite my tongue during baseball games, instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the bleachers. (Restraint is so hard!) I resolved to try harder.

With the new school year well under way, there’s another kind of hurt I am even more troubled by — the pain inflicted by their peers, the slights, ribbing and put-downs that can penetrate guileless thin skin, or even thicker skin. My son’s friends engage in banter that tiptoes along the line of insults, jokes that cut, a contest of one-upmanship, which my son frequently reports in dejected tones. One boy gets made fun of for the color Gatorade he drinks or for wearing glasses. Another is ridiculed for liking the Clippers or for the color of his shorts. They toss the word gay around as pejorative. Did I mention that these are their friends? I struggle with how to handle this not-quite-bullying-but-hurts-just-the-same comments. I need ancient wisdom to tell me how to be a loving guide through pre-adolescence and beyond, to salve the injury of having your feelings hurt by those you know best. 

I think back to the story of Isaac’s near-catastrophe and find two more clues. First, God didn’t intervene until the harm was imminent and irreparable. By the time God stepped in, things looked pretty bleak for Isaac. Barring Isaac pulling some sort of superhero moves, bursting through his restraints like the Hulk, kicking Abraham’s weapon down the mountain and shouting, “What the hell was that, Dad?” God had to intervene. But only at the last possible moment.

Great. I need to wait until there’s a metaphorical knife at my kid’s chest before stepping in? That seems too much. But since my Jewish mother’s instinct is to jump in at the slightest hint of a problem, it’s good to set a high bar. Usually I’m ready to call in the cavalry when he’s over it. It’s not easy to see that kid struggling on the rock, but if my kid can get out of the mess on his own, I have to let him. 

Second, I think about what to do with hurt feelings that linger. I imagine what a modern therapist might tell Isaac to make sense of what happened: “What Abraham did had nothing to do with how he feels about you. He loves you! He had his own issues.” I can tell my son the same truth, that when people say mean things, it usually means they are suffering. It has nothing to do with him. I can show him his power, praise his good heart and instill in him the self-reliance to tell his friends to knock it off, to stand up for himself or to walk away. And the choice is his. 

A of couple months into the school year, the reports of meanness are getting farther apart. I’m quite sure that, as usual, his bruises hurt me longer and deeper than they bother him. I need to remember that he is more resilient than I am. Like Isaac getting up off that rock, brushing himself off and walking down the mountain, he is moving on with the rest of his story. 

I may not have appreciated what Judaism had to offer when I was a child and all I wanted was for the services to be over, but I am grateful to have kept the connection to my family’s faith all these years. It’s there for me now when I need it. Every week, I’ll be back in Torah study with the group of intelligent, curious souls, mining more of our ancient stories for modern parenting gold.

Laura Diamond is the editor of the anthology “Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood” and is working on her first novel. She is a member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

High Holy Days: Father and son

On these High Holy Days, there will be empty seats in our synagogues. This is a letter found on one of those seats …

Dear Dad,

This year, I’m not coming to shul for the holidays. I know this will hurt you, and you’ll be angry, but perhaps you’ll hear me out.

I have always loved the synagogue. I like the rabbis and the cantors, and the sanctuary is familiar to me, but I just can’t go back. Something is missing; the service feels passive and almost perfunctory. I don’t feel like I belong anymore. When I was young, I appreciated seeing my friends from school, but when I left home for college I met new people who seemed to care about praying. There was singing and dancing, Dad. And then I came back to be with you and Mom, and found nothing in the services that moved me. 

I’m of a generation that expects excellence. I search all over town for the most authentic Indian food, the most authentic clothing, and strive for the most authentic experiences. I think the same should apply to my Judaism as well. I want to experience the presence of God as I pray. I don’t feel the presence of God in your synagogue. You and your generation created a glorious cultural, humanistic, ethical Judaism. But you left God out. I want God back in my life. And I believe somehow that God wants me back. 

I feel that I’ve spiritually outgrown the pageantry of services at the shul. The truth is, I care more about substance than loyalty. Please understand, Dad, this isn’t petulant adolescent rebellion. I’m searching for something … a treasure you told me many times is waiting for me in the Jewish tradition. 

You taught me that the 613th mitzvah commands every Jew to write a sefer Torah. Even if our ancestors bequeathed Torah to us, every Jew has to write his or her own. So Dad, I’m taking you seriously. I’m beginning my own Torah, in my own voice. A few of us are gathering in someone’s apartment for our own services. We won’t wear suits and ties. It won’t be polished and professional. But it will be ours. Please understand I’m doing this because I love you and what you taught me. I will always be,

Your son.

An e-mail sent immediately after the holiday:

Dear Son,

One of the joys of my life is to gather our family together on these holidays. As the years go on, I become more aware of how precious these moments are. Time is an unyielding centrifugal force. As you move into your own life, I miss you, and I cherish the moments we can be together. I look around the synagogue and see the empty seats of old friends who are gone now, and I feel the need to gather us all in together. 

There was a time when I, too, checked out of shul. The issue then wasn’t spiritual, it was political. The country was burning up. We were fighting a war that was deeply misguided. We watched the rise of black power, of feminism and environmentalism; we experienced a sexual revolution. We declared ourselves a counterculture and challenged every authority. We sought liberation. To all this, the synagogue had little to say. The cantor grew a mustache and sang Simon & Garfunkel melodies. But there was nothing in Judaism to answer our yearning. So we left.

Years later, I realized that my generation asked all the right questions. But we didn’t have the resources to find the answers. For a very simple reason — we were only talking to ourselves. Like you, we believed we were the first to challenge what is, in the name of what ought to be. Like you, we believed that our parents were hopelessly lost and only we possessed the courage to find truth. I don’t mean to belittle your search. It’s just now I can see this process at work. To find God, Abraham left his father’s house. Just what I did to my father … and now you to me.

About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply. 

My generation didn’t banish God. After the Holocaust, it was impossible to talk about God. Jews have always felt the presence of God in history — that’s what the Bible is all about. But after the Holocaust, how could one even entertain such an idea? So we did something else. We stopped talking about God, and we acted in God’s image. We did what God needed done in the world. God creates, so we created schools and synagogues, the State of Israel. God redeems, so we rescued Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia. God demands justice, so we fought for civil rights for black people and for gay people, equality for women, dignity for working people and support for the poor. God didn’t speak in the Holocaust, so we were God’s response. God was in our hands.

It saddens me that you do not feel that this place is your home, and that you don’t sense God in the synagogue. I look at the thriving life of this community, and I do feel God is close. Remember that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. There is no Judaism without Jews. And there are no Jews without community. And there is no community without institutions. So be very careful before you dismiss or deride or destroy institutions. They were not easy to create. They are not easy to sustain. If your prayer group grows into something, you’ll surely find this out. 

I wish you a year of blessings, 

Your father.

E-mail response posted at 2:30 a.m. that night:

Dear Dad,

Thank you for the seriousness of your response. 

I am not ungrateful for the institutions your generation built. But you went well beyond protecting these institutions. You got so involved in them you forgot their higher purpose. For me, sitting in a folding chair in a basement praying with real feeling is better than sitting quietly in a cold cathedral. 

In reality, much of your Judaism is about defense. Like the fighters of Masada pitted against an intractable foe, your generation’s sense of purpose is derived from some ever-present, impending crisis — anti-Semitism, Jewish survival, the survival of Israel. 

Deep down, it’s all motivated by fear. And a commitment rooted in fear is bound to bear bad fruit. Out of fear, you pushed away those who intermarried. Out of fear, you pushed away those who questioned Israel. And out of fear, you pushed away Jews who don’t agree with you. Fear is no basis for a Jewish life. Ultimately, that fear will dominate your inner life and choke it to death. Dad, I want a Jewish life based on love, spirit and joy, and not fear. 

You battled anti-Semitism so I would never know that hatred. I’m grateful to feel so much at home in America. And I know there are still people who hate us. But while you were so engaged in fighting those who hate us, we assimilated so much hate of our own. Just listen to the way Jews talk about immigrants, or Muslims. Listen to the way we talk about each other. The hate that crept into our communal vocabulary is more vicious and more destructive today than the hate we face from anti-Semites!

You battled for Jewish survival. You identified intermarriage as a communal catastrophe. I get that. We’re a small people, and getting smaller. But I also know lots of good Jews who fell in love with partners who weren’t Jewish. It wasn’t a gesture of rejection — they still want to be Jewish. They’re all are looking for a way into our community, some as converts, others as seekers. If we keep talking about intermarriage as a catastrophe, they will always be intruders — unwelcome and rejected. Is that what you want? Perhaps we’d get farther with an open door and a word of welcome, no?

When it comes to Israel … Dad, you and I are really going to disagree. You taught me the importance of Israel, how it’s our refuge and homeland. So I chose to go to Israel when I was in college. The Israel I found wasn’t what I had expected to find. When we talk about Israel here in America, it’s always in the high-pitched tone of crisis. There is always an imminent threat, a looming disaster. It’s always about the conflict, the desperate struggle for Israel’s survival. That’s a part of life in Israel, but it isn’t everything. What I loved in Israel had nothing to do with crisis and conflict and struggle. That’s not how I engage Israel … because Dad, that’s not how Israelis engage Israel. What I loved was the life of Israel: Jews creating new Jewish art and music. It was about the Jewish life that thrives there despite the conflict. 

You taught me to be a critical thinker — except when it comes to Israel. I feel constrained never to criticize or object to what Israel does, and if I ever questioned Israeli policy I would be immediately labeled a communal traitor. 

Your generation is concerned with Israel’s existence. My generation is concerned with Israel’s character. Grandpa called himself a Labor Zionist. You call yourself an American Zionist. I’m a Critical Zionist. I love Israel. And I will demand that it live up to my Jewish values … the ones you taught me. I love Israel enough that when it falls short of our values, I’m going to speak out. I’ll support Israel, Dad, by supporting those in Israel who work for an Israel I can be proud of. 

I just hope the fear within you doesn’t keep you from remembering that I am and always will be,

Your son. 

E-mail posted the day before Yom Kippur: 

Dear Son,

The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi says that there are two kinds of Jews — Pesach Jews and Purim Jews. Pesach Jews hear the biblical commandment, “Remember you were a slave in Egypt.” Because we were slaves, we bear a special sensitivity to the rights of human beings. Purim Jews embrace a different biblical commandment: Remember Amalek. Remember there is evil in the world, and remember that you were the object of that evil. The Pesach Jew is the bearer of Jewish conscience and lives by the rule: don’t be brutal. The Purim Jew is the bearer of Jewish resilience and lives by the rule: don’t be naïve. 

You, my son, are a wonderful Pesach Jew. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that you are so adept at finding our flaws and failures. I’m proud of your Jewish conscience. 

I, on the other hand, am a Purim Jew. Perhaps it comes with being a father. The Jewish People is my family. And like any father, I have a keen instinctual sense for the dangers that affect my family. 

When you demand a more ethical Jewish community, I’m proud of you. You’re certainly right that hate has infected us, especially in the ways we speak to one another. But at the same time, I don’t see that our fight against anti-Semitism is over, nor do I see that our continuing vigilance is wasted. I wish you were right, but we’re not done yet with anti-Semitism.

We are not as far apart on Israel as you think. I appreciate your stance as a “Critical Zionist.” You have a right to criticize. It’s the question of the tone you choose when you criticize. When we criticize someone we love, we use a special tone. We don’t want to hurt the other. We want to inspire the other to grow. You want to protest the policies and practices of Israel, that’s fine. But do it with humility, care and love. 

You’re not worried about Israel’s existence. I am. Israel, thank God, is strong, but far from invulnerable. Iran is building a nuclear weapon, and once again the destiny of the Jewish people rests in the hands of others. In the meantime, the world is convincing itself that the creation of Israel was a mistake. Israel is currently engaged in an ideological war for its own legitimacy. That legitimacy has to be earned. I think you and I would agree on this: Israel’s policies are politically sustainable only if they are morally defensible. So I offer you this deal: When you perceive that Israeli policies violate our values, speak up. Your critical voice is welcome. But when Israel acts with reasonable morality and the world unjustly accuses it, you become Israel’s character witness. When double standards and ridiculously biased judgments are cast upon Israel, you must stand up and say: This is not an evil nation. This is a nation striving toward a moral ideal. Do we have a deal? 

You’re right about the destructive effects of fear. The problem is, there are real enemies out there, there is real evil in the world. And we have to fight it. I promise you that I will not let fear separate us. We need to learn from one another, you and me, your generation and mine. We are a people strong enough to accommodate a vigorous debate. We are a people wise enough to learn from one another. I know that your group is meeting on Yom Kippur. Come be with us for Neilah. When the gates close, I don’t want them to close us off from one another. Bring your friends, too, we have plenty of lox. 


Text message sent immediately:

Is there really room for us? 

Text message sent in reply:

There is always room for you.

Text message sent in reply:

Then, deal. We’ll be there. Shanah Tovah, Dad. I love you.

Text message sent in reply:

I love you, too. 

This is an edited version of a sermon delivered during the High Holy Days two years ago by Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Zvi Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom (vbs.org), a Conservative synagogue in Encino.

Kidsave changes lives for orphaned children, adoptive parents

Santiago Brown calls himself a “cashew.” It’s his way of combining the words “Catholic” and “Jew,” to refer to his unusual religious background. He lived in Colombia in a Catholic orphanage until being adopted into a Jewish family a year ago, at the age of 12. His mother, Lori Brown, a graphic artist and Nashuva member, says Santiago has Jewish music on his iPod and tells his friends, “It’s awesome to be Jewish.”

Brown first connected with Santiago through the organization Kidsave and its Summer Miracles program. Kidsave founders Terry Baugh, in Washington, D.C., and Randi Thompson, working in Los Angeles, were inspired to start the nonprofit after making visits to foreign orphanages where they witnessed children who were often left alone for hours without personal attention or mental stimulation. Kidsave, which has offices in Bogota, Colombia, and Moscow, is designed to find families for these children, as well as mentors and other sources of support.

Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program brings Colombian children from group homes and foster homes to the United States for four weeks during the summer. The children stay with “host-advocates” who care for the children while they are here, and who take it upon themselves to help find permanent homes for the kids.

Summer Miracles focuses on older children, usually between the ages of 8 and 11, who are often overlooked in the adoption process. Selected children must be legally and emotionally ready for adoption and typically are not more than two years behind academically in their home countries.

“I think there is a niche for these children,” says Sari Weiner, who adopted a child through Kidsave’s domestic hosting program, Weekend Miracles. As an older parent, Weiner did not want to adopt an infant, believing she would be too elderly by the time her child was grown. Other families may not have the energy for younger children or may want an older sibling for their other children.

Once chosen for the program, the children are brought from foster homes and group homes all over Colombia to the country’s capital, Bogota, for two weeks of training, psychological counseling and workshops. They are taught guest etiquette, some English and a bit about U.S. culture.

Estefany, left, and Johana participate in the three-legged race with Kidsave’s Bob Holman.

Host-advocates also complete role-playing workshops before the children arrive to prepare them for how to deal with situations that may arise. Rhona Rosenblatt, who has helped a child get adopted through a hosting program before and is hosting again this summer, jokes, “All the kids are doing great. The adults are constantly checking on them, being paranoid, but they are always fine.”

It costs a total of about $7,500 to bring a child to the United States through Summer Miracles, according to Thompson. Of that amount, host-advocates contribute a hosting fee of $1,250 and an application fee of $275. Host-advocates generally raise money through grass-roots organizing, while Kidsave itself receives grants and large donations.

Once the children are here, the host-advocates’ job is to spread the word about Kidsave and attend weekly events to introduce their visiting children to families. Susan Baskin, who is currently two weeks away from adopting the child she hosted last summer, mentioned Kidsave in her profile in The Jewish Journal’s “My Single Peeps” column. Brown, Santiago’s mother, has used Facebook, word of mouth and even a blurb on the Nashuva Web site to spread information about Kidsave. Brown says she brings up the organization in conversation whenever possible. Once, a teller at the bank who saw Santiago ended up mentioning Kidsave to a friend, and that friend is now in the process of adopting a child of her own.

Kidsave does not facilitate adoptions. Families who wish to adopt Colombian children after their summer visit must go through the normal international adoption process. Lauren Reicher-Gordon, the vice president of Kidsave and director of Family Visit Programs, said, “We are the yentas, the matchmakers.”

However, their success rate is noteworthy. Eighty percent of children from Summer Miracles are now adopted or in the process of being adopted, according to Reicher-Gordon. She attributes the high rate to the time families spend getting to know the kids.

Baskin agrees. Before hearing about Kidsave, she had attempted adoption on her own but was turned off by the lack of information about and time with the prospective children. “As a single woman, I felt I might not have the financial and emotional resources if the match was not good,” Baskin said. Kidsave motivated her to try adoption again because it gave her time to get to know her prospective child and a realistic idea of what it would be like to be a parent. Baskin hosted Johana in the summer of 2011 and will be leaving to pick up her new daughter in Colombia in two weeks.

The risk of any hosting program, of course, is that children’s hopes will be crushed if the adoption does not work out. Marcia Jindal, director of the intercountry adoption program at Vista Del Mar, has worked with Kidsave for seven years, doing home assessments before the children arrive, training the families, providing support and resources while the children are here, and conducting post-placement studies on children who have been adopted.

Jindal says there are pros and cons to every program. In her experience, she said, “The biggest negative that families find in these hosting programs is they feel it’s unfair to get the child’s hopes up. But there’s no way to prevent that, unfortunately.” Even if the families have the intention of adopting, the home countries of the children could at any time revoke permission to adopt. Additionally, a sudden family illness or financial problem could prevent the adoption from going through.

Valentina enthusiastically tosses a bean bag.

Reicher-Gordon says Kidsave has specific instructions for hosting families about how to approach the issue of adoption while the children are visiting. “It is not discussed when the kids are here. They are told they are learning English and having a cultural experience. … We know that kids are hopeful [for adoption], but it is not in the best interest of the children to tell them that before they leave.”

It is, nevertheless, a challenging issue to navigate. Baskin described taking Johana, who was crying and clinging to her, to the airport at the end of her visit. “I wished I could say I was going to adopt her. But all I could say was, ‘I will see you again.’ ”

Jindal stresses, however, that there are more positives than negatives to a program like this one. “Any way that we can get the word out there that children are waiting for permanency is good.” Vulnerable older children do need to be connected with families before they age out of the foster care system, and she says Kidsave does a very good job of matching children with families. “The families are really committed to advocating for the children.”

At the most recent Summer Miracles event, it appeared the hosting families cared deeply about their Kidsave children.

Baskin still remembers the expression on Johana’s face when she walked in the sand and splashed in the ocean for the first time a year ago.

Brown is hosting two more boys this summer, a second boy named Santiago — this one is 11 — and Julian, 12. The visiting Santiago recently learned to ride a bike for the first time.

“My heart is filled with joy and love,” Brown said. “They just need homes; they’re good boys. … The magic in them is amazing.”

Learn to listen to your own kid, not the voices in your head

There is some unwritten statute of limitations on how long one can whine about a crappy childhood, a negligent parent, a few too many chicken pot pies, summers with the grandparents, days spent on Greyhound buses and with dubious caregivers and creepy neighbors. There is just a moment in an adult’s life when the complaining and sad-sacking about how our parents got divorced, or lost custody, or bailed, or otherwise stank up the joint is just kind of pathetic. Let’s face it, that moment had come and gone for me.

Then I had a child myself, and twinges of pain in that amputated leg known as my relationship with my mother started to send fiery jolts into my nervous system. I thought I would get a do-over (as opposed to my childhood, which was a do-under), but instead I got something unexpected: When my son was around 18 months old, I started to freak out. Whatever it is that made her look at the job of motherhood the way an angry teenager views a Friday night shift behind the Frialator, whatever she had, maybe I caught it. 

This is the day, I would think, driving my toddler to day care, or swinging him at the park, or slipping a Grover T-shirt over his giant, blond head, this is the day it happens. This is the day I start to suck at this. This is the day I start to hate it. This is the day of reckoning, when I realize that I’ve been judging my mom for not enjoying my company or any part of raising me, but I’m no better. And this is the day the symptoms start manifesting in me. This is the day I realize that while I see other mothers having moments of both great struggle and magical, indescribable delight, I will only experience the former, because there are just some bullets you can’t dodge.

When I started to panic about my ability to be a parent, it wasn’t about physically being there or providing, it was about something else; it was about the ineffable ability to enjoy my child, because as sure as I won’t forget the phone number of Haystack Pizza down the street, or the smell of the back of a city bus during Indian summer, or the look of abject boredom on my mom’s face across the dinner table, I also won’t forget the feeling of being a tedious wretch, a burden that was ruining everything.

Here’s where having an OK childhood rescues you. Most new moms, I gather, realize early on that the venture isn’t wholly exalted.

They catch on to the reality that normal might mean 17 thrilling, awe-inspiring minutes in a 12-hour day of parenting. Kids can be annoying, they can dawdle, they can cry uncontrollably at what to us is nothing (the green cup is dirty, here’s the yellow one; see you in 27 minutes when you have come back from the brink of insanity). They can be scary, flying off couches and spiking high fevers. They can be, as a matter of course, a bit dull, unless watching the same video of a garbage truck dumping a bin of trash into its hopper repeatedly on YouTube is somehow gratifying for you.

It was about a month into my panic when I turned the ship around. And by the ship I mean my Honda. My son, on the way to day care, uncharacteristically moaned from his car seat, “Don’t want to go to school.”

We pulled over into the parking lot of an Albertsons. I stared back at him.

“Want to ride train,” he said. A tear fell onto his puffy coat.

That was the moment, wedged between a meth-head blasting classical music from his station wagon and a Mini-Cooper glinting in the sun, that I became not a women running from a fear that she will fail at parenting, but a woman running toward one simple day at the mall with her baby. And off we went to the indoor mall in Sherman Oaks with the Ladybug train that runs past the chain stores all day long. Phoning day care to say we wouldn’t make it, cancelling any plans I had for that day, I knew that nothing could make me happier, and in knowing that, I was at least partially free.

If I love being with this boy, even just to share a Wetzel and ride a rickety indoor train for hours, if I love this more than anything else I could possibly imagine doing today, then I can stop worrying. If I had been playing tag with the bogeyman that was “turning into my mother,” this was one very small, yet somehow enormous, “NOT IT.”

No one in my family is sentimental, and I think that’s OK. I don’t have a baby book for my son, I didn’t keep track of when he got his first tooth or tricycle.

That’s why lately, pregnant with my second boy, when I have syrupy thoughts about the baby I can only just now feel moving and kicking, it’s like a million cars turning around in a million parking lots. I love you already, I think, as I rub my hand over my stomach. Sappy. However, when I find myself thinking that this little being is good company already, and enjoying him even now, before he is born, I feel myself turning and turning in the right direction.

In a way, it’s not about my own mother anymore. I may not honor her, specifically, but as I think about that commandment I think the best I can do is to honor motherhood in general, and I can only do that by letting myself get better at it as I go. It’s on me now, as it has been for a very long time.

It’s on me to know that sometimes it’s OK to be less than thrilled with the minutiae of motherhood, the ordering of diaper cream online, the scraping of uneaten carrots from an Elmo plate. It’s OK.

As long as there are days, and they will come when I can’t predict them, when my main function in this life is not to drive my babies forward, but to turn them around. If I can find supreme usefulness in sitting on a train to nowhere, just staring at my baby as he stares into the world, just taking him in and letting the smell of his hair and the feel of his chubby hands fall into the pages of the baby book in my mind, I am not just avoiding becoming my mother, I am getting to stop at all the stations she missed. “All aboard,” says my son to the mall conductor. All aboard.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Opinion: Chewable Xanax and the shoe debacle

I had to look inside myself, which was kind of like looking into my high school locker: moldy half-eaten sandwich, a few loose Starburst candies, heaps of notebooks and burrito-stained gym clothes obscuring the few things of value. Sure, there’s a book of Sylvia Plath poems and a valid bus pass, but good luck finding them while avoiding that festering tuna salad from yesteryear. 

When I looked inside myself, it took a second to clear out the debris. Also, I usually forget the combination to the stupid lock.

All of this inner turmoil was catalyzed by one simple moment, just picking up my 2-year-old from day care. He went to put on his shoes and socks, struggled mightily, finally succeeded, after which he looked at me, paused for a beat and started bawling. He lunged at me for a hug and I knelt down to look him in the eye.

“I’m scared,” he said, sobbing. Me, too, dude. If I wanted to see someone overreact to one of life’s challenges, I could just look in a mirror.

My child, facing a difficult task, got through it only to melt down completely. It’s happening, I thought. This kid needs chewable Xanax.

Hoping his day care teacher didn’t notice, but knowing she had, I grabbed his coat and hustled him out of there.

Driving home, I was baffled. I mean, you would think irrational crying jags related to under-achieving would be right up my dark alley, but this one had me stumped. I knew he put on his socks and shoes after naptime every single day, but I was uncharacteristically early that day, and I happened to be there. Had I thrown off his game? Did he have performance anxiety doing this important task in front of Mom? Have I already passed along some deep, depressing cultural pressure to earn love through accomplishment?  

The day after the shoe debacle, the day care lady snagged me as I turned to exit.

“We have to talk about what happened with the shoes,” she whispered gently. I knew she was right.

According to her, the problem wasn’t in his skill level, but in his confidence. “You need to tell him that you know he can do it. He doesn’t think you believe in him. You don’t trust him, so he doesn’t trust himself.”

That’s when I looked into the rusty old locker of my soul and realized; she is right. I wanted to think it was some Montessori mumbo-jumbo, but I knew it was the truth.

When I saw his little hands struggling with the heels of his tiny socks, it looked so impossible, getting them up, closing the Velcro on his sneakers, the whole thing just looked too hard, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to jump in and help him. The truth is, I didn’t think he could do it, and he sensed that, and he got scared and wept.

“But, you won’t pass the bar,” said my mom to my brother, moments after he announced he would be applying to law school.

He passed the bar on the first try and has been a lawyer for years, but you see how this runs in my family, runs like a kid with inside-out socks.

Since the day care talking-to, I have kept a watchful eye on myself. I convince myself to believe he can hold onto the swing chains without falling, no matter how high I push him. I convince myself that I believe he can spear pieces of broccoli with his fork, or hang up his coat, or turn pages of a book.

Fear of those you love failing isn’t mean or belittling or dismissive; it’s a protective mechanism. That doesn’t make it right. If I don’t have confidence in the little things now, I could project the idea that I don’t trust him to tackle big things later. So, I guess I have to trust myself to at least fake trusting him. Locker closed.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Chasing parental boredom while catching some foreign films

I was in seventh grade when my dad took me to see a Turkish movie exploring the lives of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of a coup d’etat.

Why did he take a kid to see the movie “Yol”? To teach me a valuable lesson about suffering? To expand my world-view beyond Brandeis Hillel Day School and ballet class and working weekends at my mom’s coffee shop? No. My dad wanted to see the movie.

And if I wanted to hang out with my dad, that was the deal. Yol.

Not only did I see that movie — which consisted mainly of tight shots of tortured souls walking up hills into wind — but also a multitude of other age-inappropriate films, thanks to my Pops and his bi-weekly Sunday visits during which he dragged me to everything from documentaries about coal mining and obscure folk singers to lengthy Swedish films. At the time, I really cared more about Swedish fish.

Now that I am a parent, I realize that my dad was onto something, and I’m looking for ways to emulate him.

My dad’s concept was to choose an activity that he loved and bring me along, thus he would never be bored or resentful that he was doing something lame like hanging out watching me try on clothes at Wet Seal. If he could convince me to share his love of art house films, he could kill two birds with one long, boring cinematic achievement: He could spend time with his kid while enjoying a favorite pastime.

You might think, wow, what a selfish dude.

Maybe his daughter was exposed to things that were adult and therefore disturbing. Or maybe his daughter was bored. Or maybe he should have sucked it up and gone to the mall, or perhaps to see “Footloose,” which involves teens in perhaps emotional prisons, but not actual prisoners.

To that I say, yes, it was uncomfortable watching some of the films, and confounding at times. On the other hand, I loved hanging out with my dad on Sundays, and I didn’t really care what movie we saw. Maybe, to his credit, because he was doing exactly what he wanted to do, he exuded a certain happiness and calm. And kids read that kind of vibe. So, I never got the feeling my dad didn’t want to hang out with me.

There should be a word for that in Turkish.

As the mother of a 2-year-old, I thought it was a stroke of genius when I saw a father at a skateboard park with his toddler. This little girl was an incredible skateboarder, shredding, as one might say, on a giant half-pipe. When I spoke to the dad while marveling at his girl, he told me they go there four afternoons a week. This guy, I realized, had found his Yol, an activity that wouldn’t suck the life out of him, something that might somehow enrich his daughter’s life (while maybe jacking up her shins or teeth) and one that he could do without too much personal sacrifice. Sure, this guy could have sat through an endless series of tea parties, but he would have hated that, so he taught his daughter to skate and now he has a skate partner for life. Or at least until she is old enough to decide whether to resent him.

So I continue searching for my Yol.

Loving my child is no problem. However, filling toy dumpsters with torn-up bits of paper towel before dumping them over into a plastic garbage truck is more depressing than an Ingmar Bergman film festival (yes, my dad took me to one, so I know). At this point, the things my boy likes to do — play with trucks, fill pails with sand and water to make sand castles, your basic hide-and-seek — well, those are wrenchingly, painfully dull.

Turns out, the word Yol is actually Turkish for “the way,” and I need to find mine. Hopefully, it won’t be headed uphill into the wind.

I can’t be the badly dressed mom at pickup time

Today, I stopped home to change my outfit before picking up my kid from day care.

What, because you never know who might snap a photo as I lure my child into his car seat with the whispered promise of a Grover juice box? No one cares. Except now that I’m a parent, I care deeply about lots of things that are totally meaningless. For example, what I wear when I fetch my kid.

It’s not that I want to impress the other moms, or the woman who runs the place, or her assistant. It’s that on some level, I need to impress them.

Or at least that describes the urgency with which I want to stroll in wearing skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled brown suede boots with a casual but clearly expensive T-shirt.

It was one thing for me to show up places with a guacamole stain on my sleeve when I was only representing myself. Maybe it was even cute, not Zoey Deschanel in a romantic comedy cute, but I like to think it was close. Now that I’m a mom, for some reason it seems important to look important, or at least like I don’t eat in my car and buy accessories at Claire’s.

Yep, get ready, because this is one of those mom moments triggered by one of those daughter moments. Get cozy, it’s blame mom time!

It may not surprise you that keeping up appearances wasn’t exactly a thing to my mom, and bless her heart for being all free-spirited, but her free-spiritedness cost me big time.

My mom wore what she wanted, regardless of the setting. Graduation from Confirmation class at Temple Sherith-Israel, the other moms wore knit separates and wrap dresses, my mom wore something with a batik feel, something Mrs. Roper might have sold at a yard sale after placing it in her “too loud” pile. My mom never shaved her armpits, but always wore sleeveless. Granted, it was San Francisco and the hippie thing was arguably fashionable, but not at Hebrew school.

Part of me wished she would see that, and bend to the obvious notion that all kids want to fit in, and by extension, they would like their parents to blend.

Blending is an important skill I had to teach myself, the way I taught myself table manners and cursive, because counterculture childhoods kind of skip those stops on the growing-up train.

Looks matter. And by that I mean the sideways looks you get when your mom is sporting an exotic beetle-sized amethyst brooch to the dentist’s office.

What never fails to surprise me is the pressure I put on myself not to make a single mistake my mom made.

No epiphany about perfectionism or how shallow wardrobe is as an assessment of a person’s character is going to stop me from being aware of my wardrobe choices from now until I’m dropping my son off at his college dorm room (or visiting him in prison; I don’t want to jinx anything). I can’t hide how deeply I want to do better than my own mother, because I’ll be wearing it.

Ironically, I’ll be wearing wrinkle-free and appropriate clothing as I make a bevy of other untold errors in judgment that my son will go out of his way to avoid when it’s his turn. That’s how it is. We over-correct. In doing so, we make all sorts of other gaffes. There’s a closet full of ways to under-achieve, so grab whatever is on the rack. There’s something to fit everyone.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

You, with a kid

I’ll never forget asking my therapist the following question when I found out I was pregnant: “Who am I going to be?”

“You,” she answered. “With a kid.”

That was comforting that day, on that couch, staring at those Matisse prints, being that person who was terrified of mom jeans and my life thrown into a bouncy house to sprain its ankle and barf.

Now, that’s not so comforting.

In fact, there are days I don’t want to be just me, with a kid. I want to be a version of me that knows how to cook, so I won’t be defrosting gluten-free microwaveable burritos and calling it dinner. That’s right, preservatives and cost overruns, my friends. I’m not proud. But I had a baby, and I didn’t become that lady who subscribes to Real Simple, and I don’t understand what it means to “blanch” or even “julienne” a vegetable.

What’s more, I also didn’t become a fun, wildly animated lady. I’m still the pretty serious, reading a book on the history of fonts, inhibited, never even sings karaoke kind of lady. The woman who swings her child upside down over a sandcastle as she does a perfect Cookie Monster voice? I didn’t become her, and now sometimes I want to.

I’ve seen progress, which I’ll get to.

(And by the way, “progress” is just the kind of buzzword therapists love. It’s their catnip. It sounds very self-reflective, but not grandiose.)

The rush of love for your kid, not to mention the constant exposure to other parents to whom you can’t help but compare yourself, can make you feel like a real bummer, like you aren’t doing it right or aren’t doing enough, or having enough fun, or serving enough kale. If you can’t cook or maybe teach the essentials of good pitching technique or tutor in algebra or even play a decent game of hide and seek, you might be hard on yourself, as I can be, because I just want to be good, like a kid just wants to be good. I just want to be ebullient and have a minor in childhood development and maybe another in the art of drawing with sidewalk chalk. Is that too much to ask?

I am who I was before, and I wasn’t exactly making balloon animals and singing songs that require accompanying hand gestures.

What my therapist didn’t mention, because her purpose in that moment was to stop me from panicking about changing, is that what I used to be wasn’t all that glamorous, and that maybe a few changes would do me good.

My son loves rocks, loves trucks, loves being outdoors, loves watching motorcycles whiz by. I don’t inherently enjoy any of these things. The progress is that I’m starting to get it. A pile of rocks has its charm.

Last night, my son stopped his tricycle on the sidewalk and spread himself out on a bed of rocks, staring up at the sky. He motioned to me, and I spread myself out on the pile of rocks right next to him, and we both looked up, saying, “Sky. Trees. Airplane. Birds.” And I genuinely enjoyed the feeling of those rocks against my back, the setting sun on my face. There are times I see a motorcycle and genuinely find myself thinking, “Those are cool.”

Who is this? Did I change a little? Open myself to the little wonders a toddler digs because I want to love him the right way, and to do so I have to get dirty? Am I making the slowest, most imperceptible progress toward being one of the moms I admire? Have I become so lame at expressing myself I just ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to point toward some conclusion? I am still who I was, because I was always decent at experimenting, failing, trying again.

Looking up at the birds, that sounds idyllic and all for most people, but it was just never my thing. Now that my son is my thing, so are his birds and his rocks. I’m just me, with a kid, and grass stains on my heels.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

Single mom by choice

Thirty-two: That was the deadline, and Danit was sticking to it. That was the age, she’d decided, when she would finally heed her maternal impulse – husband or not.

Danit (not her real name) had always known motherhood was her calling. For years, she worked at her mother’s day care center in Israel, relishing the chance to surround herself with children. But after a long-term relationship ended in a failed marriage, she found herself in her early 30s, alone and facing some grim truths. Her dream of a fairy tale family was slipping further and further out of reach.

So before her divorce was even finalized, Danit visited a sperm bank for a donor and got pregnant.

“I had told my husband ahead of time, ‘If it doesn’t work out between us, I’m having a child by myself,’ ” Danit said in Hebrew at her Encino home recently, as her son, now 9 months old, toddled around the room practicing his first words.

Like a growing number of women her age, Danit, 33, had come to a crossroads. She could either continue waiting for Prince Charming to show up at her doorstep or she could satisfy her craving for a child on her own, before her natural fertility began to plunge. Each year, Option B wins out for tens of thousands of older, successful single women who face an unpleasant reality: The search for a soul mate might not come with an expiration date, but the ability to bear a healthy baby does.

The number of single mothers by choice has spiked in recent years, and plenty of Jewish women are joining the ranks. According to U.S. census data, about 50,000 single women older than 30 choose to have children each year, author and advocate Mikki Morrissette estimates. And single women make up about 30 percent of the clients at California Cryobank, one of the largest sperm donor banks in the world. A spokesperson for the bank, headquartered in Los Angeles, said this segment of its clientele is expected to grow the most over the next decade.

Why are so many women choosing to give birth on their own? For some, the choice is a result of having put off marriage to pursue higher education and high-profile careers, thereby reducing the pool of eligible partners. But for others, it’s just how the cards played out — and they don’t want to miss out on fulfilling a lifelong desire just because they haven’t met Mr. Right.

“Many women had always envisioned motherhood being part of their lives, but they’ve reached the deadline they had set for finding a partner to share that with,” said Morrissette, author of “Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide” and moderator of the online forum ChoiceMoms.org, which attracts about 4,000 visitors per month.

Morrissette gave birth to her daughter 11 years ago, at 37, using a known sperm donor. She had a second child, a son, using the same donor at 41. Most single mothers by choice are in their 30s or early 40s when they decide to become pregnant, she said. The typical woman is highly educated and successful in her career. And unlike many women rendered single by divorce or unplanned pregnancies, they often have already planned ahead financially to ensure they can rear their children in a stable and nurturing home.

That doesn’t mean they don’t encounter challenges along the way, like any other parent.

“My friends with kids would say things like, ‘It’s really hard — make sure you know what you’re getting into,’ ” said Lori Gottlieb, author of last year’s New York Times best seller “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” and a West Los Angeles Jewish single mother by choice. “I didn’t realize that I was going to need help if I was also going to keep working.”

Gottlieb, who went public with her decision to be a single mom in a provocative 2008 essay in The Atlantic, said she could hear her biological clock ticking before she had her son using an anonymous sperm donor at age 38. Now 44, she relies on school and baby-sitters to care for her 5-year-old so she can work during the week. Evenings and weekends, she said, are “our time.”

“We have our little traditions and rituals and inside jokes and games that we play. We have a personality to our family that’s fun and quirky,” Gottlieb said. “If someone walked into our house and didn’t know there wasn’t a husband here, I don’t think they would know the difference.”

Becoming a single mother is not an easy choice, Morrissette said — the journey is often fraught with emotional hurdles. There are the basic concerns: Am I strong enough to handle single motherhood? Is it fair to the child? Some women wrestle with grief, as they mourn the loss of the husband-and-kids dream. And for many single women, who have been self-sufficient for so long, a big struggle is learning to welcome a support network into their lives —– and accepting that it’s OK to admit they can’t do it all on their own. 

Gottlieb has had the advantage of a “warm and welcoming” Jewish community at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, she said, and she has often brought her son to the synagogue’s Tot Shabbat programs.

Single motherhood by choice is “becoming much more socially accepted and practiced,” said Elaine Gordon, a Santa Monica psychologist specializing in fertility and child development. Film and TV now regularly spotlight less-conventional family models, and off the set, more women are finding strong family support for their decision — a surprise for some.

Danit, the Encino mother, worried for weeks over how to break the news to her conservative-minded father back in Israel. One night at 1:30 a.m., when she was three months pregnant, she worked up the courage to call him. His response sent a wave of relief over her: “I’m so happy for you,” he said.

But the single-mom life isn’t for everyone, Gottlieb cautioned. High stamina is a must, and women should be prepared to spend almost every waking minute on the go. “This is certainly not the way we planned to do it all along, and it’s not ideal,” she said. “That’s not to say we’re not completely ecstatic about our children, but being a single mom was never our dream.”

In fact, many say they are still on the hunt for a husband — when they can find time between feedings, diaper changes and play dates.

Danit, who has had to cut back her schedule as a reflexologist to take care of her son, still hopes she’ll find a permanent partner who will recite the Friday night Shabbat blessings typically reserved for the father. She’s not worried about shopping for a mate while saddled with the “baggage” of a child; now, she said, she can appraise a date more calmly, her judgment unclouded by the pressure she’d felt to hurry toward ema-hood.

“Don’t pass up having children,” is her advice. “It’s the greatest experience of your life,” she said, watching her son with a smile. “Despite all the hardship, there are no words to describe the joy.” 

Give Parenting Book’s Author a Time-Out

The exasperating thing about parenting books is that most of us cherry-pick our own issues and then put the books on a shelf, never to be looked at again. With few exceptions (“The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel and “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman), they are crashing bores to read.

Most of them are redundant and often present solutions that are impractical or unrealistic. For the most part, I found “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child” by Betsy Brown Braun (HarperCollins, $15.99) to be in that category.

In fairness to the author, she acknowledges and even recommends that you use the book for the purposes of your own particular needs, and she gets major “props” from me for that. In the first chapter, “How to Use This Book,” Braun generously exonerates the reader (and we all know who we are) who finds it impossible to read these things cover to cover. Instead, she suggests that we “begin with the chapter whose subject matter interests you the most, or one that screams, ‘My child needs me to know this right now!’ ”

However, in her introduction, she makes a case for the proposition that a child’s obnoxious behavior now may be an asset later in life. This was presented in a much more lyrical and interesting manner by Mogel in her discussion of the role of yetzer hara (evil inclination) in the development of middot (good character traits) in children and adults, pointing out that all human curiosity, ambition and sparkle depend on it.

For parents who are clinging to the flotsam of hope that their outward-appearing sociopathic 7-year-old might turn out to be a systems analyst instead of John Wayne Gacy, Mogel’s fascinating chapter devoted to this topic offers so much more than the passing paragraph offered by “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” That’s pretty much the problem with the entire book: tired topics done better by others.

Another maddening thing about these kinds of books is that they’re contradictory. Braun’s book states, “Working with hundreds of families, I have seen that the children who go through their growing years with the least sense of entitlement also have specific character traits such as independence and self-reliance.” Although certain kinds of “entitlement” can assuredly be a handicap toward hard work, as discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” it can also be an asset.

“[M]iddle-class children learn a sense of entitlement,” Gladwell writes. “That word, of course, has negative connotations these days. But [Annette] Lareau means it in the best sense of the term: ‘They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention. … Even in fourth grade, middle-class children appeared to be acting on their own behalf to gain advantages.’” In other words, without being bratty or obnoxious, these kids learned how to be proactive and resourceful when faced with obstacles. Those are valuable tools and things not to be discouraged in a child.

Many parenting books give you a “script” of things to say to your child for every situation. They don’t work. I’ve found that even small children recognize that Mommy or Daddy is talking funny, and the older child will downright mock you.

The most interesting thing in this book is the way Braun frames the evolutionary reasons for our problems with our kids: The fact that in ancient cultures, everyone in the family worked. Children felt essential and contributed to the success of the families’ survival. Today, the child is catered to and, as such, is almost a small deity in our midst. All roads lead to his or her nourishment and happiness.

Finally, Braun presents the “52 Cures for Affluenza.” I must say that even though, again, not particularly enlightening, it’s almost worth the price of admission.

Laraine Newman is a founding member of The Groundings and an original cast member of “Saturday Night Live.” She is the mother of two daughters, 15 and 18 years old.

Q&A with Betsy Brown Braun — Hollywood’s go-to parenting guru

Betsy Brown Braun has become known as a parenting guru to the Hollywood elite and beyond. In fact, this child development specialist and mother of 30-year-old triplets earned her credibility serving as site director of Stephen S. Wise Temple’s preschool and founding director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s early childhood center, as well as teaching her own parenting classes. On Nov. 16, she’ll discuss her new how-to tome, “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents” (HarperCollins, $15.95), on “The Today Show” at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Library.

Jewish Journal: U.S. News & World Report dubbed your book a ‘handy parent cheat sheet … when the kids whine, say this. When they throw food, say that.’ How did you come up with the premise?

Betsy Brown Braun: I’d met so many parents who are talented career people, but can be humbled to their knees by a 4-year-old. They’d say, ‘Betsy, what do I say? What do I do? Help!’—so I offer actual scripts that can be a starting point for parents.

JJ: One of your suggestions for dealing with a child who won’t come to the dinner table is to tell him that unless he comes ‘right now,’ he won’t be having dinner—ouch! That won’t go over well with my relatives who are children of Holocaust survivors.

BBB: That’s why I offer several approaches to the same behavior. Your choice may be to say, ‘If you don’t come to the table immediately, you’re going to be eating alone in the kitchen, or eating later, away from the family.’

JJ: Food can be a very loaded issue for parents. That’s like the definition of the Jewish mother.

BBB: I think the Jewish mother thing is a stereotype, but parents do freak out about picky eaters—and it’s no coincidence that picky eating often comes at the age when children are learning to assert themselves. It’s, ‘I’m not going to eat even that delicious chocolate éclair because it feels much better to say, “No.”’ The best thing to get a child to eat is to stop talking about it. Sit down at the table and talk about squirrels, because when it crosses the line to a control issue, you’re going to have trouble. 

JJ: What differences do you see in ways parents raise their kids now as opposed to when you were raising your triplets? 

BBB: I see people tackling parenting in the same way that they would a career—they read every book and end up micromanaging everything. You would plotz—parents come to me and say, ‘Just tell me what’s the best nursery school that will get him into the best elementary school that will get him into the best college’—and the rest is obvious.

JJ: But if you’re not doing those kinds of things, you can feel like you’re a not-good-enough mommy.

BBB: Parents need to develop what I call a ‘Teflon coating,’ meaning: don’t absorb what your friends are doing. Just because your friend is putting her 18-month-old in a soccer skills class doesn’t mean it’s right for you. How about just playing in the dirt or throwing rocks?

Then there is the danger of giving your child too much.

I teach a class called ‘Affluenza: The Perils of Overprivilege,’ which I’ve changed to ‘Gimme, Gimme Gimme’ in light of the economic downturn—but it’s not so much about ‘stuff’ as about how we interact with our kids. Parents need to build lessons that help children learn how to tolerate frustration, disappointment and to delay gratification, and in doing so, cultivate gratitude and the importance of longing.

JJ: What’s one key thing you recommend for dealing with difficult issues, such as death and divorce?

BBB: Forget euphemisms. I think parents don’t keep in mind that children take things very literally, so when you say Grandpa’s in a better place, they’re like, ‘Well, where? I wanna go see him,’ and ‘why did he leave me to go there?’

JJ: When a client is powerful in Hollywood, is it a role reversal for you to be telling them what to do?

BBB: I’m careful. I don’t say, ‘You’ve got to do this. I say, ‘I think such-and-such will really help.’ For example, the head of a major agency once came to me because one of his children was having separation issues. I knew that a breakthrough was going to come when the dad drove the child to school, because kids have a harder time separating sometimes from mommy than from daddy. So I said, ‘You have to drive your son to school every day for three weeks, and he said, ‘I can’t do that!’ And I said, ‘Here’s the deal. You can do this or that, but this is liable to work and that isn’t.’ So he drove the kid.

You can’t be too involved in supporting your child

A while back, the president of my alma mater penned a scathing denunciation of pushy parents. Barnard College’s Judith R. Shapiro cited egregious examples — a mother who met with a dean to discuss her daughter’s research project and parents who don’t let their children get a word in edgewise on campus visits. Her op-ed joined in the media sport of haranguing “helicopter parents.”

While I saw Shapiro’s point, as a mother, I resented that she didn’t at the same time empathize with parents’ strong loving and protective feelings and our separation pangs as our fledglings go off to school. I wished she had addressed the well-meaning parent’s ever-present dilemma: How do you draw the line between supporting your child and inappropriately taking over?

Fortunately, there’s a huge body of psychological research to answer just this question, as I found when co-authoring, “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child” (Prometheus, 2008).

Thirty years of research, much of it conducted by my co-author, Clark University psychologist Wendy Grolnick, has found that the more parents are involved with their children — be they toddlers or teens — the better it is for their kids. In fact, you can’t be too involved with your child. A multitude of studies has found that the more support we give our children, the happier they are and the more they achieve. High parental involvement gives kids high self-esteem and helps them feel secure and solidly connected to us.

When Grolnick studied parents of elementary school children, for example, she found that the more involved mothers were with their children — that is, the more time they spent with their kids and the more they knew about what their children did, as well as their likes and dislikes — the better their children did on report cards and standardized achievement tests, and the fewer learning and behavior problems they had in school. The highly involved parents weren’t necessarily at home more than other parents, but when they were, they made sure to spend time with their children. They asked about their children’s school day, knew which subjects they enjoyed or didn’t and who their friends were.

There’s only one caveat to involvement: It’s wise to make sure you’re respecting your child’s autonomy at the same time.

But just how do you do that?

Let’s first define autonomy: Autonomy is the feeling of initiating an action. We want to solve our own problems whenever possible. That doesn’t mean doing whatever you want. Autonomy is simply a willingness to do something — the opposite of feeling controlled by someone else.

When children — in fact, all human beings — feel that what they do is self-initiated, they’re happier. And they perform better, because the enjoyment motivates them to study or practice more, building up their skills.

Think about your own experience. You might have to learn Excel for work, for example, but if you choose to learn it for tracking your family’s budget, you’re much more likely to enjoy it.

How can you make sure that your involvement isn’t intrusive or controlling?

Take your child’s point of view and acknowledge her feelings.

Say your 10-year-old isn’t doing his homework. You are thinking that studying will get him into a good college and a good job, but he’s reasoning, “It’s going to get dark soon. I want to have some fun now. I can do my homework later.”

You could take his point of view by trying to imagine, “If I were his age, what might I prefer doing right now — riding my bike outside or reading a chapter on coal production?” Then you can say, “I understand that it’s going to get dark soon. But tonight we’re going to Aunt Karen’s for dinner, so unfortunately, this is the only time to do your science homework.” What counts is acknowledging your child’s feelings. You want to convey “I’m with you.”

Support your child’s independent problem solving.

One of the best ways to support your child’s independent problem solving is to ask questions, as I did when my son, Zach, was making a pinhole camera for the middle school science fair. Instead of simply taking him to a store to get the cardboard box he needed, I asked him, “Where do you think we could find a big box?”

He looked befuddled. But after a minute he said, “I know — behind the store on Pico Boulevard where they sell refrigerators!”

“How could we make the pinhole?” I asked next — and so on.

Give your child choices.

Even a tiny degree of choice boosts a child’s feelings of autonomy. Sometimes it’s simply a question of your language. Studies have shown that words like have to, must, don’t and I want you to have a significant chilling effect on kids’ feelings of autonomy. Instead, you might try giving limits as information, including the reasoning behind the rule. So if your child is painting, you might say, “The materials need to be kept clean so you can keep using them for a long time,” or “To keep the paint clean, the brush needs to be washed before switching colors.” (I know this wording sounds awkward. But using the third person avoids phrases like, “I want you to” or “you must,” which can lead to a power struggle.)

As my own children have gotten older, I’ve found that phrases like “have you considered….?” or “do you think you might want to … ?” also do the trick.

Encouraging your child’s feelings of autonomy will help you stay involved without controlling him. That way you can stay close to your child without becoming one of those dreaded helicopter parents.

I wish my alma mater’s president had given at least a nod to the normal, strong and essentially healthy impulses to help our children when they fly from the nest, whether to preschool or to college. After all, the urge to protect is in our genes: Those hunter-gatherer kids whose parents watched over them best were the ones who survived. They became our ancestors, and we’re the modern recipients of their genes, hardwired to want our children to win whatever battles they may face.

Since our kids face an increasingly competitive world, it’s no wonder we get anxious and want to do all we can to support them.

Kathy Shenkin Seale, a writer living in Santa Monica, will discuss her book, “Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child,” at Village Books in Pacific Palisades on Sept. 4, 7:30 p.m.

‘Teenism’ gives young adults an undeserved rep

Teenagers. The word strikes fear into the hearts of most parents and adults. I bet you get shivers down your spine as you’re reading this. Though most teenagers are perceived as reckless, raucous, recalcitrant, rowdy and riotous, the truth is that for the most part, teenagers exercise a natural responsibility that is occasionally eclipsed by their more immature moments. It is because their wild outbursts draw more attention that they are blown out of proportion and overshadow the maturity that teenagers portray most of the time. While the adult perception of youthful rebellion may seem justified, it can be damaging and hurtful to those who pride themselves on being as mature as any adult.

Nowadays, biases against blacks or homosexuals are tiptoed around, while biases against teenagers are left unchecked, proliferating everywhere, because hardly anyone gets taken to court for discriminating against a teen. Since every adult has been a teen once in their lives, they believe they’ve had enough personal experience to speak about all teenagers, when really they are merely projecting their own past onto all teenagers. Parents who went wild in their youth will watch their children like a hawk, never trusting them, accusing them of being disrespectful not because of hard evidence, but because that’s how they were when they were young. Often young adults are given a blanket diagnosis of being stuck-up and caustic, anti-parent, anti-school, anti-everything. From parenting magazines to primetime television, teens are portrayed as a pack of self-centered ingrates who let their emotions run wild with abandon, and it’s time someone said something about it.

Are teenagers reckless? Of course. That is, some of the time. But in our modern world, applying ideas that are true “some of the time” to every case is no longer acceptable, even in as small a way as believing all teenagers are rebels.

Of course, other discriminations are much more pressing in nature. Racism has more dire consequences than believing that your teenager is hot-blooded, when he is not. But discriminations against teens still deserve attention because of the simple fact of how many people are being discriminated against. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 20.2 million people in America aged 15 to 19, and they are 7 percent of the population. So be careful what statements you make, or what biases you might allow yourself to believe. Your ideas about teens will reflect greatly in your treatment of them, and the consequences of this (whether good or bad) could be much more far-reaching than you realize.

Almost as much as people falsely believe teenagers are terrible, people falsely believe that adolescence (and especially childhood) is the best time of a person’s life, when worries are few and far between. But this just isn’t true. In 1998, about a third of all victims of violent crime were ages 12 to 19, and almost half of all victims of violence were under age 25 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice). In addition, one in eight teenagers suffers from depression, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. (And, sadly, the sixth leading cause of death for people aged 5 to 14). As Bill Watterson (of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame) once said: “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.”

Adolescents face almost all the same problems that adults do and engage in the same unhealthy quick fixes, but it is only young adults who must handle these things sans experience. Without the bedrock of age and wisdom to tread on, high schoolers are left to trail-blaze through their lives haplessly, like the first pioneers of the American West.

A massive leap has occurred in our modern world, far wider than generation gaps of old. The epidemic of multitaskism, the intensity of grade-amassing and the all-around increase in schoolwork has created a miasma of anxiety for the American student, making all previous generations of schooling look like cakewalks in comparison. Those who want to answer the clarion call of college must prepare themselves for an Olympic level of competitiveness. A few examples: Yale’s acceptance rate this year was 9 percent, down from 11 percent in 2006, while Stanford’s rate reached the lowest in it’s history at 9.5 percent. In addition, tuition for four-year colleges has gone up 35 percent in the past six years, making the fight for financial aid all the more arduous.

Obviously, there isn’t much we can do to alleviate this situation. It is the face of our modern reality, for better or for worse. But there is something that can be done.

As with a lot of things, the most helpful solution is a simple change of attitude. Life for teens will always be a little on the rough side, but perhaps treating them with less pigeon-holing and more empathy is all that’s need it to smooth it out.

Justin Morris is in the 10th grade at Shalhevet School and a columnist for the Boiling Point newspaper.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Heroic parents, we salute you!

Being a parent is a heroic act. Being a parent of a teenager sometimes makes us feel less than heroic. Indeed, we, as parents, often become an embarrassment.

Congratulations to those of us parents who “embarrass” our kids in a manner that shows how much we love them.

To parents who “embarrass” teenagers by actually walking into the home where your children’s friends are holding a party in order to meet the parents or supervisors, nice going! To parents who supervise use of the Internet, well done! To parents who demand a curfew, regular accountability for a child’s whereabouts, way to go! And to parents who say “No” when recognizing that a reasonable boundary needs to be set, you have engaged in a heroic act.

Yes, you will get the “eye roll”; yes, you will get the “I don’t believe you are actually doing this to me”; yes, your teen might be upset. But, in a private moment years hence, when reflecting on his or her teenage years, your child might say, “Well, yes, my parents embarrassed me at the time, but I certainly knew they cared about my well-being. My friends’ parents didn’t check up on them; they thought I was the lucky one.”

Each high school year brings its own special parenting challenges. Ninth grade is the big transition from middle to high school. It is the year when some teens believe that going to a raucous party is the high point of what it means to “really be in high school.” It is a time of increased independence, yet it is also a time that demands tremendous parental focus to help your kids navigate the transitions, the social pressures, the new academic challenges and the process of really becoming independent by solving their own problems with teachers and friends.

Tenth grade brings most teens into striking distance of the magical age of 16 — more universally understood as the “Age of the California Driver’s License.” It is the moment some of us provide our callow youth with 3,000 pounds of metal to maneuver on city streets. It is a time we learn the true meaning of prayer and hope. It is a time to balance our kids’ need for independence with close supervision and a recommitment to curfews and to saying “No.” (The “No” often deserves some careful parental reasoning to convince the child of its wisdom; and sometimes the answer is simply “No, because I said so” — and that is also OK.)

By 11th grade, something miraculous happens: Some of our children begin reading the newspaper, or take a serious interest in the world beyond. We now get two years while they are still at home to engage in fabulous discussions about life, politics, religion, values and so forth. For those parents who were especially blessed, this moment may have happened at an earlier age.

There are no absolutes in child rearing, just some general guesses and a vague sense that things are all right. Most of the time, they are. From a school perspective, the big discussion about college begins in earnest in 11th grade. This is fun, daunting and demands parental clarity and balance. The key is the right “fit” for your child. In other words, fit the college to the child, not the child to the college. The college guidance counselor now becomes a very good friend.

By 12th grade, we have arrived. But where? There is nervousness about college admissions; there are sometimes the beginnings of separation anxiety on the part of both parents and children. The child wants to leave home (but, deep down is not sure; having laundry done and meals prepared is starting to look really good).

For parents, feelings are mixed: We are proud of our newly independent kids and their achievements; we want them to go off to the world, yet there is the “tug of emotion.” Not to worry: while they are in college most of us are still paying the tuition, car insurance, plane fares home and cell phone bills. They are not really gone, just temporarily absent with constant reminders of their presence, monthly.

But, for now, we still have the entire year together. Be sure not to miss some form of “tuck-in time.” Debrief, ask about their days, their vision for their futures, their thoughts on life. This is a delicious time not to be wasted. And, by the way, as prom approaches, the children’s job is a final bonding moment; the parents’ job is safety. “After-Prom” parties, meaning high school seniors going to hotels or clubs after midnight, are generally a fabulous opportunity for parents to say “No.” Invite small get-togethers at your home for a few good friends and a great breakfast in the morning.

Without a doubt, parenting is an art. More precisely, it is a strategic art. Decisions you make today have great impact over time. The emotion or demands of the moment may engender immediate decisions that have negative results.

Let’s support each other in thinking long-term; let’s partner as a true “village” and send a solid message of love to our kids by setting clear boundaries, by saying “No” when called for and showing our children how much we really do care

Indeed, parenting is a heroic act — and I have loved (almost) every minute.

Bruce Powell is founding and current head of New Community Jewish High School. The youngest of his four children is still a teenager.

Program helps grandparents nurture interfaith grandkids

Bettina Kurowski is the chair of the 2008 fundraising campaign of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and active in her Conservative synagogue.

She’s also a grandmother of three young grandchildren. They give her great naches, or joy, she says, but she’s also worried — the children’s father is not Jewish, the kids are being raised in an interfaith home and Kurowski, for all her Jewish involvement, is not sure what role she should play in passing on the Jewish heritage that is so dear to her.

“My husband and I are the keepers of the Jewish tradition, the culture and values of Judaism — what it really means to be a Jew,” Kurowski said. “I took it upon myself to study how to be the best grandparent I could be while acknowledging the non-Jewish side of their family.”

“I didn’t want to give the children the sense that there’s something wrong with people who are not Jewish, but I still want to give them a sense of pride in being Jewish,” she added. “It’s a fine line.”

Looking around, Kurowski found few resources for grandparents like herself. She says she’s the only one in her circle of friends whose children intermarried, and she felt the need to share her concerns with others in her situation.

She got that chance last week when the Grandparents Circle held its first meeting at Valley Beth Shalom, Kurowski’s congregation in Encino.

The Grandparents Circle, which launched its pilot course on Jan. 8 in Los Angeles and will launch another in Atlanta on Jan. 29, is a new program created by the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) to help grandparents present their Jewish heritage to their grandchildren in intermarried households.

Grandparents meet in groups of 20 to 25 for five weeks of guided discussion, share their concerns and learn specific skills for passing on Jewish history and tradition without forcing it on the children.

“They want to pass on their Jewish identity and background, they want to share their history and who they are with their grandchildren, but it has to be done in a way that’s interesting to the grandchildren,” said Liz Marcovitz, a program officer at the institute. “You can’t just start talking about Judaism with no context.”

The course is inspired by “Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do,” a 2007 JOI publication.

When Kurowski read the book last year, she and her husband donated the funds to build a curriculum around it. Her federation has earmarked funds to run the pilot course, and Kurowski says it hopes to expand the course to other synagogues in the Los Angeles area.

Marcovitz says the Jewish communities of Chicago and Hartford, Conn., among others, are interested.

Eventually, JOI plans to set up a national listserve for all such grandparents, whether they have taken the course or not.

Suzette Cohen is organizing the program in Atlanta. She notes that the city’s Jewish community, which has a 60 percent intermarriage rate, is in its sixth year of running the Mothers Circle, a JOI support group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children. Many of the Jewish parents of those intermarried couples have asked for a similar program for them.

“They often dance around the issue, afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing” and offending their child or the non-Jewish spouse, Cohen said.

The first Atlanta circle is already oversubscribed; a second group is filling quickly.

The gist of the book and the course is to teach by example: Invite the grandchildren to Passover seders in your home, show them photos of your family, light Shabbat candles and tell them why it’s important to you.

Build “layers of Jewish memories,” the book suggests, that will remain with the children as they grow to adulthood.

Grandparents are an often-overlooked influence on the lives of their grandchildren, said JOI’s associate director, Paul Golin. The institute’s extensive research on the adult children of intermarried couples found that one of the major influences on the religious identities of these young adults was their grandparents.

But it’s not a straight shot.

“It’s not about parenting, it’s about influence,” Golin said. “It happens holistically. If the grandparents are just who they are and have contact with the grandkids, they’ll have that influence. That’s why we say, just be the best Jew you can be. You don’t want to come across as a Hebrew school teacher.”

The Grandparents Circle is designed for Jewish grandparents whose intermarried children are open to it. If the grandchildren are being raised exclusively Christian, Golin notes, it is a much more delicate matter.

That’s the situation facing Rose Sowadsky, an Atlanta-area grandmother whose two grandchildren are being raised Methodist.

The children “are aware” she is Jewish — they were at her home Christmas Eve and saw she had no tree — but they have never asked her about it.

“They must have been well prompted at home,” she supposed.

Sowadsky does not expect to have any influence on her grandchildren’s religious upbringing, but she signed up for the Grandparents Circle for moral support.

“I want to see how others cope with it,” she said.

Many participants come to the group as couples, and many others are single women, usually widowed, like Sowadsky, or divorced.

Dr. Bob Licht, a semiretired Los Angeles dentist, is the lone single man in the group at Valley Beth Shalom. When his wife of 62 years died last summer, he felt he needed help passing on his Jewish heritage to his 4-year-old great-grandson.

The boy’s father, Licht’s grandson, is Jewish, but the boy’s mother is not. Licht said his children and grandchildren, including the boy’s father, received an appreciation and understanding of Judaism from him and his late wife.

Now that she is gone, Licht feels somewhat adrift. The boy had a brit milah, but Licht wants to make sure he continues on a Jewish path.

Helicopter parents: Jewish mothers go airborne

Consider this description from Wikipedia: “a person who pays extremely close attention” to her children and rushes “to prevent any harm from befalling them or letting them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children’s wishes.”

Consider further this description from collegeboard.com: “They are always on the lookout for threats to their children’s success and happiness. If a problem does surface, these parents are ready to swoop in and save the day.”

Definitions of a Jewish Mother, yes? Sorry, bubeleh. They’re definitions of “helicopter parent,” the phenomenon of hovering, overprotective, overinvested, and overbearing mothers and fathers. Apparently Jewish mothering is contagious: jumping gender and religion on a national scale. Suddenly we are all, as Woody Allen titled his short film in New York Stories, “Oedipus Wrecks.” And no one is giving credit where credit is a Jew.

To see just how closely a Helicopter Parent resembles a Jewish mother, one need only glance at collegeboard.com’s quiz “How Do You Know If You’re a Helicopter Parent?” While the term is often used in the context of parenting college-age children, the similarities are undeniable. Still, the Helicopters can only bob amateurishly in the mighty wake of the Jewish mother jet fighters.

You are in constant contact with your child

Jewish smothering has wrung its hands into the 21st century, where you can run, but you can’t hide. The AT & T network was nicknamed “Ma Bell” for a reason, and with satellite technology your mother knows she can hear you now. (Nu, so why aren’t you calling?) She can even buy you a ringtone from YentaTones, including “Ya Mother’s Cawling,” “My Son the Doctor,” and “Have I Got a Boy for You.”

University of Georgia professor Richard Mullendore dubs cellphones the “world’s longest umbilical cord.” But Nokia-wielding Helicopters are mere Johnny-come-latelies to long-settled Jewish mother territory. Indeed, as Allen, Phillip Roth and the APA know, Jewish mothers achieved wireless communication decades ago with the guilt-powered internal monologue.

You are in constant contact with school administration

A recent Doonesbury panel depicted a cellphone-brandishing MIT freshman telling the dean if he didn’t let her into the class she wanted, he’d have to speak to her father. While Helicopters specifically target college administrators, Jewish mothers have targeted the entire world — teachers, doctors, roommates, boy/girlfriends, spouses, bosses — no one is off limits. In Allen’s short film, his mother and aunt pay him a surprise visit at work — a WASPy Manhattan law firm. When an imposing white-haired partner comes to retrieve Allen, who has left an important meeting to head his mother off, she turns to her hearing-impaired sister and says of the boss in a voce not nearly sotto enough, “He’s the one with the mistress!”

You make your child’s academic decisions

Yes, Helicopters choose their children’s school and their courses, after which they may even maneuver their way to do the schoolwork itself. Meanwhile, Jewish mothers have mandated legal, medical, and other professional careers for generations of sons and now daughters, many of whom probably represent Helicopters in their grudge suits against schools or treat them for anxiety and depression when Junior gets a B. Even beyond the academy, Jewish mothers are notorious for deciding everything for their children: from when to wear a sweater to why they shouldn’t marry that no-goodnick.

While both Helicopters and Jewish Mothers dictate and interfere, their decision-making methods differ. Helicopters take direct action: the old nothing-gets-done-right-unless-I-do-it-myself approach. Jewish mothers, on the other hand, nudge until they get their children to do it. My son the doctor, as the ringtone trills, wasn’t always a doctor, but the Jewish mother knows she can do only so much on her own to make him one. To become Dr. Katz, he’s going to have to take his own MCATS. All she can do is provide a little motivation, i.e., alternating doses of praise and guilt.

You feel bad about yourself if your child does not do well

Helicopters derive vicarious pleasure from their children’s accomplishments and suffer pain from their “failures.” Data released by the Society for Research in Child Development indicates that in seeking self-worth through their children’s achievements — which means getting top grades and into certain colleges — Helicopters endure more anxiety, depression, and insecurity, and enjoy less contentment, than those on the ground.

Jewish Mothers, too, are utterly invested in their children’s advancement. For them, however, it is not the Ivy League or bust. Jewish mothers are less interested in prestige than they are in tikkun olam that happens to come with a house in the suburbs. Steven Spielberg’s mother, undoubtedly bursting with nachas, might still feel a pang of regret that her son was not, for example, Jonas Salk. Helicopters want their children to do well; Jewish Mothers want their children to do good.

Popular culture may have assimilated the bagel hamwich, Red State Yiddish, and the “Daily Show,” but it can never appropriate the Jewish mother. At the end of the day, both the Helicopters and Jewish mothers are fueled by love gone amok, but only the Jewish Mother answers to an authority higher than Air Traffic Control.

Ronda Fox is the proud mother of two teenage mensches who do their best to keep her grounded.

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.

Don’t hold your breath on plans for baby

Nothing is more exciting than finding out that you’re having a baby. The moment I found out I was expecting, I began making grand plans. I read the books, spoke to pregnant friends and questioned all the new mommies I knew. Then I made some big decisions.

Disposable diapers were clogging the landfills — I would use cloth. Baby foods had preservatives — I would puree my own. Cavities begin before teeth appear — no bottles in bed.

There would be no junk food, no TV, no yelling, no spanking, no spoiling, no bribing. I would provide only classical music and educational toys. I would never use food for reward or punishment. My baby would never use a pacifier or learn to suck his thumb. The list went on and on, and then our precious son was born.

Shortly after we came home, our son started an interesting habit. When upset, he would cry very hard, turn blue around the lips and make no sound. Then the bluish color would spread until he hysterically gasped for air and turned pink again. I got somewhat used to this routine until he progressed to the point of passing out.

“He’s a breath holder,” the pediatrician said calmly.

“The books said nothing about breath holders,” I wailed.

“It’s not very common, but it happens,” he said. “Don’t worry. He’ll start breathing again as soon as he passes out. Just don’t blow in his face.”


“They used to say that if you blow in the baby’s face, he’ll catch his breath,” the pediatrician said. “But it really doesn’t work; it just makes him madder.”

He paused right before administering the vaccination.

“When I give him his shot, he’ll probably start crying,” the pediatrician said as he stabbed the needle into my baby’s thigh.

Sure enough, the crying began, the lips went blue, the face grew ashen and my baby passed out. It happened again with another shot in the other thigh.

As I packed up the diaper bag, sniffling back my own tears, the pediatrician warned me: “Don’t let him manipulate you, or he’ll use breath-holding to get what wants. He’ll grow out of it eventually. See you next month.”

From that moment on, my grand promises were cast aside. Attempting to avoid crying and fainting episodes, I broke my own rules. I kept pacifiers everywhere and shoved one in his mouth at the smallest whimper. When he tired of pacifiers, I taught him how to suck his thumb. When he wanted up, I picked him up.

Diaper changing was a particularly tricky time. He’d be happy and bubbly for the first 30 seconds or so, but if it took any longer than that, he would become frustrated at being on his back and begin to cry. Since I could change disposable more quickly than cloth, I fired the diaper service. Once I had crossed the diaper line, it was easy to give in on anything.

I developed a do-what-works attitude. Why be so rigid? Jar food was just fine. In fact, he ate so much that I switched from organic to whatever was on sale. I used generic wipes on his tender tush.
One time, I found the dog licking his face after a messy spaghetti meal. My son loved it. From then on, I sat him on the kitchen floor and let the dog clean him up after he ate. A mother must find clever ways to make her job easier.

As the doctor predicted, the breath-holding eventually subsided. By the time my second son came along, my child-rearing methods had evolved considerably.

Potty training? M”&”Ms for a tinkle in the toilet. Television? How did we grow up without videos? Spanking? Watch your toddler dash into oncoming traffic and then tell me you never spank. Yelling? Ever seen a cheesecake after 10 minutes in the microwave? Bribery? Try taking two toddlers to the market and see how long it takes before you say: “If you’re good, mommy will buy you….”

That breath-holding baby is now 16 years old. A few thousand dollars in orthodontia fixed the overbite that the thumb caused. He regularly uses the potty without expecting M”&”Ms. The last time he had a shot, he hardly let out a peep.

The only time he holds his breath is when he’s swimming, and the bribery item of choice has progressed from cookies to car keys. He does, however, still eat his way through the grocery store.

So, have your baby, make your plans, set your limits, follow your rules. And when things don’t go the way you expected and the mess is just too big and you feel like crying until you pass out, do what I did — put the baby on the floor and let the dog clean up.

Online social scene clicks with younger set

OK, admit it. You’ve breathed a guilty sigh of relief that your kids are still too young to have been bitten by the MySpace bug. You’ve relished the reprieve (if only temporary) from the mounting worries of parents of virtual-social-networking-obsessed middle and high schoolers.

But just because your child is still a few years short of acne and raging hormones doesn’t mean he or she isn’t involved with online social networking. In fact, tens of millions of elementary-age kids (6-years-old and up) have posted personal pages on Web sites that are — for all intents and purposes — mini-MySpace.coms.

On the wildly popular ‘ target=’_blank’>Millsberry.com (as in General Mills cereals), kids create cartoon-like “buddies” and custom-built homes, and then meander around town socializing with Millsberry’s bottomless bowlful of citizens.

On ‘ target=’_blank’>ClubLego.com members build Lego self-representations and then schmooze to their heart’s content about the plastic interlocking cubes.

Inching closer to prime-time MySpace in terms of logistics and curb appeal, At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter

At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter

I was struggling to secure a tiny satin kippah with a granny-sized bobby pin when it hit me like a ton of Pampers: One day (assuming we both survive the main event at the bris), this 8-day-old baby will be standing on the bar mitzvah bimah wearing a really big satin kippah!
Determined not to let this postpartum hormonal surge detract from my newborn’s Judaic debut, I tacked on the teeny beanie with some double-sided tape and reassured myself that 13 was still a jillion years away.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn’t. In fact, by the time I’d made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We got our date, did you get yours?” panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. “The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away.”

And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.

As my son’s bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light — a disco ball light, to be exact — for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b’nai mitzvah circuit.

And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.

How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold ’em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?

The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life.”

But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out — “Samantha’s Candy Shoppe.” Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we’ll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.

The trouble is that — despite honest parental intentions — following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.

That said, I’m not suggesting we bail on our kids’ secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it’s clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it’s kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.

One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.

We added depth to my son’s fun — but admittedly uninspiring — Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp’s athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn’t suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.

To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child’s dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:

Theme: Sports

Tzedakah: Jewish National Fund Project Baseball (‘ target=’_blank’>www.specialolympics.org)

Theme: Books (e.g., Harry Potter, Nancy Drew)

Tzedakah: KOREH L.A. (‘ target=’_blank’>www.njcl.net); Jewish Braille Institute of America ‘ target=’_blank’>www.jfsla.org); Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles (‘ target=’_blank’>www.hazon.org); Tour de Cure for Diabetes (‘ target=’_blank’>www.livestrong.org).

Theme: Safari

Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (‘ target=’_blank’>www.treepeople.org); Los Angeles Zoo (‘ target=’_blank’>www.ecostation.org); Wildlife Conservation Society (‘ target=’_blank’>jfsla.org); MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (‘ target=’_blank’>www.projectchickensoup.org).

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.