Friday, April 22, 2011

Finding Joy in Passover and Parenthood

As I'm sure you know, we Jews have been celebrating Passover this week. This year, I attended and conducted FIVE Passover Seders; two were the 'normal' ones on the first two nights of Passover, and three were 'demonstration' Seders for non-Jewish groups.

On the second night of Passover, we held a a wonderful community event at which almost 100 people came to Temple Beit Torah to celebrate the Festival of Freedom together; some were members of our congregation, and others were non-members from the community who came either as guests of our members or because they'd heard our Seder was open to the public.

As I was circulating during the meal at our community Seder and fielding questions, one from a woman present – not a member of Beit Torah – floored me. She asked, “How many years does Jewish identity remain strong when parents take ‘time off’ from ‘doing’ Judaism, for example making a Seder?”

My answer reflected my incredulity at having been asked such a question: “Why would one want to take any years off from doing Judaism, in particular Passover?” I further expressed that while to be sure exhausting (when making one for about 100 people), the reward for celebrating Passover is the great joy in having a part in the ongoing narrative of freedom that Passover celebrates. Unspoken was my sadness that someone would find it burdensome rather than joyful and ultimately energizing.

Later in self-reflection, I thought a bit more about the question and my thoughts took me back to my years teaching Philosophy at the Air Force Academy. It’s no secret that the vast majority of young people who attend USAFA do so with the ambition of ending up in an Air Force cockpit as a pilot. During their busy four years (that’s an understatement) at the Academy, to everything which they must do, they apply the ‘cockpit test’: How well must I master this that it will help, or at least not hinder me in my goal of getting into a cockpit? The course that I taught, Ethics and War, apparently scored low; I saw little of the vaunted USAFA excellence in the way my students prepared the readings for my class. Rather, I saw a minimalism as many of my cadets cynically worked just as hard as they thought they had to, in order to pass the class with a ‘C’ and stay off academic probation, which status would interfere with their social lives. But many of the cadets miscalculate, get a lower grade than they’d expected, and find themselves on academic probation anyway as well as missing out on the enrichment they may/would have received had they applied themselves to the class with the Air Force Core Value of ‘Excellence in all we do.’

What does this have to do with the question I was asked last night at the Seder? It's the essential cynicism of the inquiry, which reminds me of the unfortunate cynicism I found when teaching at USAFA. The attitude expressed represents a cynicism about Jewish life that only contributes to the weakening of Jewish identity. If that’s your attitude toward Jewish observance – I really don’t want to do it, but I’ll do it as much as I think I have to in order to keep my kids thinking of themselves as Jewish – you’ve probably already lost the game. Jews and Judaism will survive, but your kids will probably be on its margins, or completely outside. We parents teach our children volumes by our enthusiasm – or lack thereof – for the things we do in life.

It’s hard to feel we’re ‘forcing’ our kids to do something that they complain about. Just because I’m a rabbi, doesn’t mean my kids are always enthusiastic about Jewish observance. But Clara and I make them do it anyway. At the community Seder I received a reward, or at least a confirmation that some of my enthusiasm has indeed rubbed off on my kids. I was doing one more demonstration Seder the night after (on the third night of Passover) at a church. Mentioning it to my kids, I told them they were exempt; after three nights in a row they could stay home and ‘chill.’ But they wanted to attend with me.

So my kids' appreciation of our traditions does not come from my being a rabbi; it comes from them observing that I derive authenitc joy from engaging in Jewish observance, even when it isn't convenient and requires a lot of work. It is the antidote of the attitude of the parent who want to know how much Judaism they have to 'do' to make sure their kids will respond positively to it. The answer is: your kids aren't stupid; when you're too tired, busy, or unmoved to want to do it, they get that.

Dennis Prager, one of my favorite commentators on contemporary life, loves to talk about happiness as an obligation. Even if you don't feel happy, you have an obligation for the sake of those close to you to act happy. And - surprise, surprise! - when you act happy you often end of being happy!

I think that Jewish observance for parents, who wish to be role-models for their kids, is analagous. If you don't feel that is brings you joy and moves you, try acting as if it does. At the very least, you'll teach your kids an important lesson about commitment, but then again, you just may end up moved and joyful.