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Before my son, Sammy, left for overnight camp, my husband made him commit to writing us weekly. Sammy was not happy about being forced to communicate with us while he was enjoying his four weeks of freedom from parental oversight. About a week before camp, he complained to me before bed.
âDaddy says I have to write to you once a week. Iâm going to be too busy having fun! You know that. I told him you didn’t care if I write. I’ll write you one letter, but I don’t want to have to do it every week.”
âWe would love to hear from you while youâre away,â I said, âbut we also know that if we donât get a letter itâs because youâre having a great time.â
âThatâs what I told Daddy!â
âSammy, itâs up to you whether or not you write home. Neither Daddy nor I will be at camp to make you write. Weâd love to get an update on what youâre doing, but itâs your choice. Itâs not a big deal if you donât write.â
I donât like contradicting my husband and giving Sammy mixed messages, but as a former camper, I also know the reality of campâno news is usually good news. I was willing to suffer through a month of one-way communication.
But a few days after my conversation with Sammy, I changed my mind about him writing home. The catalyst for my change of heart was The Seesaw, the column about interfaith life in The Jewish Daily Forward.
As some Parenting Blog readers know, in addition to writing for InterfaithFamily, I am a contributor to The Seesaw. Shortly after my discussion with Sammy, I was asked to respond to a question submitted by a young woman raised in an interfaith home, who is now dating a Modern Orthodox man.
She said that her boyfriend asked her to dress modestly and participate in reciting blessings when they visit his mother. She goes along with his request even though it makes her uncomfortable. She asked, if she should continue to show respect to her boyfriendâs mother, or if she should âput her foot downâ before itâs too late.
I began my answer by reminding the questioner of the fifth commandment. I said, âThe Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesnât require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parentsâ choices.” I added that even though her boyfriend’s mother was not her mother, she still deserved deferential treatment. I also noted; that to get respect from others we need to show respect.
As I wrote my response to this young woman, I considered Cameronâs request that Sammy write weekly letters and my response to Sammy âputting his foot down.â I thought, âHow can I advise this woman to show respect for her boyfriendâs mother, and not ask my child to show respect to his father?â
I couldnât. So later that day, I spoke to Sammy. âYou know how I told you that it was your choice whether or not to write to us weekly as Daddy has asked you to do?â
“Yeah,” said Sammy.
âWell, I changed my mind. You do need to honor the commitment that you made to Daddy to write, and this is why: If you want Daddy to honor his commitments to you, such as taking you for your weekly father-son breakfast on Sundays or coming to school events, then you need to honor your commitments to him.
We respect the fact that you will be having fun and be busy doing things with other kids in your bunk during rest time. The letters you write do not have to be long and you can have fun with them, even be silly. But you have to write once a week as you promised Daddy. We work hard so that you can do fun things like camp. Writing to us shows us that you appreciate what we do to give you these kinds of experiences. Does that make sense?”
âYes,â said Sammy. Then in a perky voice, âMaybe Iâll write a silly letter like that one we read on that blog, you know, where the boy said he was using his toothbrush to dig for worms and using another kidâs to brush his teeth!â
âYou can be as creative as you like as long as you follow through on your commitment,â I said.
I didn’t consider what the letter writing debate was about until I began drafting my Seesaw response. Then I saw it for what it was â an opportunity to reinforce a core Jewish value.
In Deuteronomy 6:5-8, we are told to teach Godâs words diligently to our children, but often, imparting the lessons of the Torah to our children only happens in religious school classrooms. We think teaching Jewish values and ideas needs be explicitââThis is what the Torah says.â We forget, probably because we are caught up in our busyness, that there are opportunities in our daily lives to connect our actions and behaviors to Jewish teachings even in subtle ways.
The Seesaw question reminded me to be on the lookout for these opportunities. I donât expect to be present enough in every situation to seize each one of them, but hopefully Iâll be mindful enough to grab them more often.
And in case you’re wondering, Sammy has followed through on his promise. We’ve received two letters from camp.
In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity. Â A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos. Â Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.
The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale. Â As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noahâs ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoahâs palace. Â Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – heâs made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.
About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases. Â She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own. Â I figured there couldnât be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire. Â But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isnât all sunshine and roses. Â There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I donât feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.
Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesnât, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating momâs tree. Â And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament. Â Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husbandâs children. Â And thereâs bad stuff in these stories because thereâs bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.
Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people. Â I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I canât keep them from knowing hardship firsthand. Â But if I can give them tools to know that scary things donât need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job. Â When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people. Â If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, weâll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but weâll also need to talk about it for a while. Â And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.
In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that âThere are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what âbegatâ means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.â There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.
Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready. Â But for now, Â I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smithâs newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.
The Jewish calendar year is described as a spiral. Â While we may return to the same point every year, hopefully we’re a bit wiser, more compassionate and understanding. Â How do we reach higher every year? Â By learning of course.
We can learn the hard way…through life’s tests and challenges. Â We can also learn the more gentler way. Â We can take a class, or read a book or listen to a lecture online. Â There are awesome ways to learn Torah online. Â The Torah gives us our foundation for life. It is through the lessons of the Torah we learn how to be good humans.
By learning we can prepare ourselves for life’s tests (and they are ongoing!). We may get angry when something happens, but then a light goes on. Â We stop ourselves a few seconds later, take a breath, maybe even recite a little prayer.
I have much to learn about life, and one of my night time prayers is that I live up to my potential and fulfill my life’s mission. Â I hope by learning, I will gain clarity.
What do you do to learn? Â Are you a student for life?
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.