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Family Thoughts: My Father's 20th Yahrzeit and My Kids

Friends of mine who have known me for a long time know that my father passed away many years ago, and that inevitably it has shaped my character since.

What people might not recall if you're not part of the family is that my father died 20 years ago, in 1990. Given that this year is a milestone anniversary for his passing, I keep thinking about what I should do for it. In 2000, when Mom was still alive, my brothers and I paid for an "In Memoriam" listing in the New York paid obituaries section. We discussed doing the same thing again this time around, but with Mom gone, it seems less urgent. In some ways, we did it mostly for her.

(Aside: I suspect we'll take out an ad in 2017 when the tenth anniversary of my Mom's passing occurs, but that probably depends on whether or not newspapers are still around.)

On the Gregorian calendar, my father died on a November 2, but on the Hebrew calendar he died on 15 Cheshvan. The Hebrew calendar anniversary of a death is known as a yahrzeit, and because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, it doesn't usually fall on the same Gregorian date each year. As it so happens, this year it falls on October 23, which is this coming shabbat. It's customary to honor the deceased in some way at one's synagogue, and this year we're doing two things at Kadimah (other than my reciting Mourner's Kaddish, which a child always does on the yahrzeit of a parent).

First of all, we're sponsoring kiddush after the morning service. Kiddush, named for the blessing over wine done after the morning service, is a weekly event on shabbat where, after services, snack food is placed in front of the members of the community. We eat and socialize for up to an hour after services have ended. Sponsoring kiddush basically means we're paying for the food and the reason for the sponsorship will be announced at the shul.

The second thing we're doing is having me speak in the afternoon at shalosh seudos, or the third meal, which takes place between the afternoon and evening services at the shul. Often the speaker will talk about a subject related to the week's Torah portion, which is Vayera, the same portion it was the shabbat that my father died. I often use the story of Abraham arguing with Hashem about sparing Sodom and Gomorrah as a springboard to a discussion of how my father fought for justice his whole life. This year, though, I'm talking about something different.

My kids loom large in my thoughts for obvious reasons; even now, I'm thinking of how I kissed them goodbye as I left home this morning and told them to be good all day. I want to make sure to raise the kids with moral values steeped in Judaism, and to understand why I consider being Jewish an important part of my identity. My hope, of course, would be for the kids to grow up and continue practicing the way I do.

But I've started to think about the Jewish people I've known all my life. It's true I know a lot of people who grew up in either a secular home or a religious home and then stayed that way, but oddly, I also know a lot of people who grew up in a secular or religious home and eventually drifted in the other direction. I know I didn't grow up particularly religious, and I'm probably not living my own Jewish life exactly the way my parents would have expected or necessarily wanted.

So I've started to wonder: how do we make sure to inculcate in our children the values and practices we want them to have? What is it we have to do to make them adopt the same religious life we have as we grow older or, conversely, to maintain a secular outlook for those of us who prefer it?

I've pondered this for a long time, and I think I have an answer. Anyone who would like to hear my talk can come to Kadimah at 5:25 pm this shabbat; we'll daven Mincha, and then you'll get to hear what I have to say, in honor of my father. (And if you can't make it, don't worry; I'll follow up here eventually.)


Unlikely to be able to make it, but am very much looking forward to reading what you have to say on the topic, sir.
Sorry we can't be there, but please do post it.
It's a pretty interesting topic. My parents were totally secular when I was born, but have drifted back a little bit each year since, to the point where they're now firmly in the "conservative" category. My brother and sister both seem to be following in the footsteps that raised them, but I converted to Wicca nearly a decade ago. As far as I can tell, my parents didn't do anything different with me than with my brother and sister. It really just depends on the child in question, I suppose, and nothing (short of the brainwashing mentioned above) can change who a given child will turn out to be.

one of us will try to come to hear you...

but in the meantime:

>What is it we have to do to make them adopt the same religious life we have as we grow older

make: You'd need a serious commitment to long-term, hard-core abuse, leaving them unable to make any independent decision about anything. That approach has, I think, the best probability of "making" the kids adopt the same religious life as you're practising.

More usefully, you might want to bring up the kids to be knowledgeable about their range of options, and why you chose what you chose; and to see that you're happy in your choice. (Personally, we're doing a good job with our kids of the former, but maybe not so much of the latter.) The thought is that the goal perhaps shouldn't be to have them grow up doing what you do now, but to grow up able to choose what religious life (if any) is most true to who they are. Which is, after all, the freedom you had.

A rabbi once told me that my kids should go to Ortho day school because the purpose of education is not the famous "drawing out" but is, in his words, brainwashing. To tell them what is the right path and that any choice but that one is bad. I still wince when I remember his words.
I think, at its simplest,

1) they have to see you do it
2) it has to look like it helps

Neither of those things will guarantee faith, or lack thereof, but without those things I think kids are more likely to find whatever they grew up with unsatisfying and actively look around for other options.

I also think that 3) it's useful to provide multiple models you can live with of "doing it right", so that kids who are not much like their parents, and don't find the same things work for them, know there are options within the belief system that may fit better.

I can talk more about my childhood as the child of a theist and an atheist, if it's useful, but I'm not sure how much that mattered and how much is hardwired -- I decided I didn't believe in God at age 6, in response to a Torah story that outraged me. My mother, who was raised in a different religion in a different time by different parents, did exactly the same thing at the same age.

December 2016

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