December 11, 2018

No Pork, Just a little: Reflections on our college road trip

My daughter Hana “suggested” last spring that we needed to take a college road trip so she could make an informed decision about where to apply to college. After delaying my decision on this for weeks, I finally gave in. Why do I always give in? That “informed decision” – including air fares, rental car, hotels, food, etc. – cost us over $2000, but who’s counting? Hana is “sixteen, going on seventeen” and you know the rest of the song—“Baby it’s time to think. Better beware. Be canny and careful. Baby you’re on the brink.” Being the concerned father that I am (that’s c-o-n-c-e-r-n-e-d, not overprotective in the least), how could I say no?

Fast-forward four months and there I was at LAX on Virgin America flight 108, strapping on my seatbelt and bracing myself for a college road trip that would take us from Washington, D.C. to Boston. I could feel my hair, at least what’s left of it, turning grey. But this trip was not just about checking out schools and making sure my daughter, my firstborn, my baby, would be safe, especially among those “eager young lads and rogues and cads” out there, but it was also about spending a week together and talking about how she envisioned life without her nudging, I mean loving, parents being around. Would she drink? Who would she date? Who would she not date? How many times per week would she call home? Okay, maybe I am a little overprotective.

I won’t bore you with my impressions of Johns Hopkins, Yale, MIT and Harvard, except to say that I saw a bunch of those eager young lads and cads and almost had a heart attack each time I saw the price tag for studying at these east coast institutions. “How can we afford $50,000 per year?” I thought. Suddenly, our community college looked very attractive. But before I could get the words out, Hana would say, “Don’t worry, Dad. This school has lots of endowments. It’ll be okay.” Peace filled my soul. I believed her, or at least I wanted to.

In Boston we visited Chinatown and had dim sum at the Emperor’s Garden. Some years ago we lived in the Boston area and this was our favorite Chinese restaurant. Time seemed to stop as I looked at my daughter over the table and reckoned with the fact that she was no longer a little girl. She was now 16 going on 17, and in need of a father who would soon let go. As the clanging dim sum carts stopped at our table, and Hana asked (or should I say cross-examined?) the Chinese waitresses to see which dumplings were free of pork and shellfish, I was struck by Hana’s focus and persistence.

Hana:     “Is there pork inside?”

Waitress:     “No.”

Hana:     “Are you sure there is no pork?”

Waitress:     “No pork, just a little.”

Hana:      “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Waitress:     “No pork, just a little.”

Hana:      “How about this one?”

Waitress:      “Little shrimp.”

Hana:      “No thank you.”

Waitress:      “Sure?”

Hana:      “Yes.”

The exchange was not new to me. As a Jewish family that loves to go out for Chinese food on Sundays in keeping with ancient Jewish tradition, we have found that dealing with ambiguity comes with the territory. Whether at the Emperor’s Garden in Boston or Sam Woo in Los Angeles, the questions and answers are always the same, and Hana knew the script well. What especially struck me here though was that Hana was the one querying and evaluating the ambiguity of the situation, not me. Faced with close encounters of the pork kind, she was now the one expressing concern about the “little surprises” in the dumplings. “You know, Dad,” she said, “Eating dim sum is like an exercise in being Jewish.” Wait a minute, pause, stop, rewind, what did she just say? Suddenly time started moving again and I saw a young woman speaking wisdom beyond her years. “You know, Dad, it helps define your personal boundaries.” My jaw dropped. “Personal boundaries?” The conversation that ensued would have made Maimonides smile.

It seems that I had a daughter who saw our dim sum expeditions not only as occasions to eat some of her favorite foods but also as real exercises in decision-making about what the Torah permits and forbids, and how much contact with the forbidden was too much contact for her, i.e. her personal boundaries. Being the very spiritual person I am, I added that eating dim sum also strengthens alliances between Chinese and Jews—after all, how could Jews survive without Chinese food? We reminisced about our trip to Amsterdam several years ago when we visited Anne Frank’s house and then went to Chinatown for lunch. After explaining to the Chinese waitress there that we were Jewish and avoided pork and shellfish, she pointed to the various dim sum dumplings on the cart and said with a smile, “This is for you….this is not for you…” Hana and I talked about how difficult it is sometimes to turn down 95% of the dumplings because we are the chosen people and how we hope it’s worth it.

Lunch at the Emperor’s Garden was a turning point for me as a father—a day permanently etched in my paternal memory. Seeing that Hana could navigate through the ambiguities of Chinese food somehow made me confident in my kishkas that she would be able to navigate through the ambiguities of life. She is 16 going on 17, but she has deep convictions about the clean and unclean. She has personal boundaries about how much contact with the forbidden is too much contact for her. She is willing to give up 95% of the dumplings to be a Jew faithful to Hashem. What father wouldn’t kvell?

Life is full of mysteries—like the connection between Torah and dim sum and how quickly a daughter grows up in one’s house. Hana and I have another year together before she leaves the nest and I will treasure each day. Am I ready to let go? Definitely—though Hana is not convinced yet. There will be tears, but I am ready. Thanks to our college road trip, I now know that Hana will be fine in this big world of ours—the real emperor’s garden—with all its opportunities, dangers and excitement. As a devoted father, I will just make sure that I drop in from time to time so we can do dim sum together, and of course I will let Hana do all the ordering.