November 16, 2018

Families, Then and Now

Joel Grishaver.

The Bible is rich in stories of passion, plagues, miracles and betrayals, but what about good parenting?

“In truth, there is no good fathering in the Bible,” said author and Jewish educator Joel Grishaver.

Grishaver, who was asked by the Skirball Cultural Center to create a Father’s Day workshop centered around the topic, said that in the Bible, “the focus is much more on husbands and wives, or the relationships among brothers. Childhood is not the focus. People go from birth to adulthood in one sentence.”

So, instead, Grishaver, the creative director of Torah Aura Productions and a popular speaker on the family-education circuit, has created “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages.” The June 15 workshop will be a lively and provocative mix of role-playing, art, debate, discussion of Jewish texts and, ultimately, an exploration of family issues closer to home.

Grishaver is an accessible and witty storyteller, adept at weaving traditional Jewish sources into contemporary discussions. In conversation, he illustrates points with references to everything from Rashi to Rod Serling, Moses to Robert Mapplethorpe. His facility with pop culture, combined with an unflagging enthusiasm for Torah study, makes him a provocative discussion leader for second-graders and seniors alike.

One segment of his Skirball workshop will be a “paper-tear midrash,” a concept first developed by Jo Milgrom. Grishaver presents a story, a midrash that may deal with anger and forgiveness, for example. After discussing any parallels to their own experience, family members then create their own visual midrash, using torn paper as the medium.

“Tearing the paper is a way to free people from the constraints of worrying about whether they can draw or not,” Grishaver said.

Another segment will be devoted to what he calls “biblio-drama,” a form of role-playing first developed by Peter Pitzele. To spark discussion, Grishaver will present several stories that highlight the emotions, ethical conflicts and risks faced by biblical parents. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved, for example, had to wrestle with the decision of whether or not to place their endangered male infant in a basket hidden among the reeds in order to save him. Later, an adult Moses faced the dilemma of whether to bring his family to Egypt or to send them home. Jethro was charged with the task of taking care of his own daughter as well as his grandchildren — Moses’ offspring.

“With biblio-drama, people voice the feelings of these characters in sort of a self-created midrash, and, obviously, several layers of thought and feeling emerge during discussion,” Grishaver said.

Another session of the two-hour workshop is “family beit din,” a sort of mock court in which family members are separated and placed into two or three groups that serve as tribunals for cases presented to them by Grishaver. The scenarios are thoroughly modern. The sources he cites are from centuries ago. The essential conflicts are timeless.

A case in point: Mom and Dad are divorced but have good custody arrangements. Both, however, want the child for an upcoming vacation that each is planning, respectively. The child is asked to choose between them. What to do?

A similar scenario was pondered by Jewish sages ages ago, Grishaver explained, in the form of this question: Mom and Dad both ask for a glass of water. Who should the child serve first?

“In the Talmud,” Grishaver said, “the conclusion is drawn that the child should serve Dad, since, anyway, it’s Mom’s obligation to serve Dad too. These were, after all, pre-feminist times.

“In the ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ it’s decided that the child should serve whomever s/he chooses. It’s the 16th-century commentator Marashal who comes up with a pretty enlightened response. The child should put the glass of water on the table and let the parents work it out between them. In essence, Marashal concludes that it’s an unfair question to ask kids. It’s the parents who should decide.”

The Father’s Day workshop dovetails with the publication of Grishaver’s most recent book, “The Bonding of Isaac,” a collection of short fiction and essays about gender’s connection to spirituality. He described the book’s central theme as an exploration “of the dysfunctional myth of the functional family.” Using Torah as his framework, he makes the case that conflict is organic to family units, not some aberrant sign of failure.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., on Sunday, June 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s free with museum admission and designed for participants 7 and up. Space is limited to 50 people. Advance registration is recommended. Call (310) 440-4647.

“The Bonding of Isaac” (Alef Design Group, $21.95) may be ordered by calling (800) 845-0662.