August 17, 2019

The tyranny of the normal

I grew up on 1950s television, and all I wanted in the world was to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to come home each evening in his neatly pressed suit, hang his fedora near the door and greet my mom, perpetually cheerful in her high heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about football games, fixing cars and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother who wore a letterman’s jacket and who would teach me the manly arts.

I wanted to live in a family that never argued — where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad’s good-humored wisdom and mom’s freshly baked cookies. That was normal. Why couldn’t my family be normal, too? 

My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie (and doesn’t to this day). And mom never wore heels. We were loud and emotional. We loved intensely and we argued constantly. We had no time for football — the Vietnam War was fought over our table. The prom? We were too busy debating civil rights, the counterculture, the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel’s survival. 

We weren’t normal … and that hurt. I was sold an image of normal, a map for the right kind of life. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me, and each deviation brought pangs of shame. So I hid and split myself into two selves: inside/outside — a Jewish inner self and an outer American normal self. 

As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery — the Cleavers were in black and white, emotionally colorless. My family was glorious, Jewish Technicolor! I came to love it. And my friends loved it. All of the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood began showing up at our home on Friday nights to share challah and the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table. 

Who sells us this map called “normal”? Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Who produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes?

We have pictures in our wallets of our kids. And on the back of each photo, we etch a map for their life. When the kid doesn’t keep to the map, we scream at the teachers, we shlep the kid to therapy, we demand the doctor prescribe medication. We turn on ourselves, and soon, we turn on the kid. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse: It’s called disappointment.

All Jewish kids get A’s, right? They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn’t conform to our normal? Can we see the kid as he is, as she is, and appreciate a child’s unique gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?

One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how put together we all appear on the outside, on the inside, everyone has burdens. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map. 

No matter how good we look on the outside, no one’s life is normal, not television normal. And no one’s life is perfect. We hide, we escape, we deny. Or worse, we cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us. That’s the problem.

But God gives second chances. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for addiction. There are new career opportunities. We can love this kid. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what’s before us, and forgive. This is the most profound form of forgiveness — to release ourselves and those we love from the dominion of expectation, the tyranny of the normal.

Yom Kippur is the holiest night of the year, and these are its holiest words: 

Kol nidrei ve’esarey va’charamey, v’konamey v’cheenuyey, v’keenusey ushvu’ot.

All of the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill are cancelled. All of the maps that designate what’s normal are torn up. All of the expectations that we held up — for ourselves, for our children, for those we love — are relinquished. 

V’nislach l’chol adat bnai yisrael.

We are released. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and those we love. We will not let someone’s idea of the normal torture and twist and steal away our life. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide. We are released to write our own map, to seek our own way. Now, we are finally free. 

Vayomer Adonai, salachti kid’varecha.

This holiday, we will stand before family, friends and associates, and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, as they will stand before us. But before we can muster the courage to turn to anyone else in contrition, we must forgive ourselves. Before we can be open and ready to offer reconciliation to another, we must find release ourselves.

That is the sacred gift and task of these highest holidays. Shanah tovah. For a new year of blessing.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.