Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Parenting by the Book

I have two friends who I look up to as mothers. They have kids who are older than mine and kids the same ages as mine. They are very well connected to their older children, and their younger children are well behaved and good, respectable people. Their kids are by no means "easy" kids -- there are challenges, to be sure.

But recently I found out something these two mothers have in common.

Neither one has ever read a book on parenting.

I've given up on parenting books myself. I've also stopped watching shows like Supernanny and the like. My husband and I never had the stick-to-it-iveness to stay with the programs those parenting books and shows required. (There would be no poster board schedule in our living room, a la Supernanny, that's for sure!) The books seemed to require even more, not to mention a level of consistency that mere mortals are incapable of living up to. Life's hardly consistent anyway.

The pressure I was putting on myself (and my husband) to live up to the standards and procedures and routines required by these books just wasn't healthy for anyone in the family.

I try to keep an old teaching by my rabbi in mind when dealing with my children, though.

The verse is a famous one, Leviticus 19:18: "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"/
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹך

My rabbi taught that a legitimate reading of this verse is that you should love your neighbor because he is yourself. There is no difference between us and the other. Recognize and value the common denominator of humanity. Within my children is the holy spak of the divine, and it's my job to shepherd that child so that the spark is honored and is encouraged into full life. If I can just keep that at the front of my mind...maybe there should be a book about that!

On Death

Last week a friend was reminiscing about her sixth grade science teacher, who had recently died. "We used to incubate eggs and have all kinds of birds -- chickens, ducks, geese -- running around the classroom at the end of the year. Sometimes they didn't survive, but it was a good life lesson. You can't have life without death. It's two sides of the same coin."

At the risk of revealing something intensely personal (but, hey, it's anonymous, so who cares?) I have a huge problem with mortality. Not just my own mortality, as many folk do, but death in all its forms. Especially the deaths of my own parents, who, thank God, are still alive and doing fairly well in their early 60s.

The older I get (I'm mid 30s) the more people I run into my age who have one or more parents who have died. And the older I get, the more deaths I hear about are in my parents age range. In not too many years, my parents' deaths would not even be thought of as "dying young." My grandparents all died in their 60s or early 70s.

I know that my refusal to accept the imminent mortality of my parents is stupid. I will have to deal with it some day, but until that day comes, it is really so awful to live in denial?

I have even had this awful thought: I hope I die first...before my parents, before my husband, before my children -- so that I don't have to deal with their deaths.

How terrible of me, to want to consign everyone else in my family to that kind of pain just do I don't get a well-needed reality check.

How, though, to imagine a world without my parents in it? I admit, I have an especially good relationship with my parents. I have absolutely no complaints and no regrets about our relationship. It really is all good.

It sounds stupid to say it out loud, but my parents were the first people I ever met. They have always just...been there. The world as I conceive it did not always include my husband or my boys. It always included my parents. True, for a time in my life, it always included my grandparents as well, and I "dealt" with their deaths (or I haven't and I'm in denial there, too), but my own parents...that's just different.

As I'm doing more and more in my life, I'm looking to my Judaism to find some sort of answer here.

Here's a quote from aish.com and "The Jewish Way of Death"


Death is the crisis of life. How a man handles death indicates a great deal about how he approaches life. As there is a Jewish way of life, there is a Jewish way of death.
First reaction -- at least they admit that it's a crisis!

Second reaction -- uh oh. If how I handle death indicated how I handle life, I'm screwed. What does my complete incapability of dealing with death say about the way I view life and live life? I feel as though I live a fairly full life. I love many people, and I feel loved.

Third reaction -- so, tell me about the Jewish way of death!

Unfortunately, this is where the aish.com article is completely unhelpful. It's all about prohibitions against cremation, preparing the body for burial and the funeral service. Definitely not the kinds of details I want to contemplate at this point in time. There's nothing about the Jewish view, the philosophy if you will, about death.

This, from jewishencyclopedia.com, is detailed, perhaps too much so, and still not very helpful:

The ancient Hebrews expected to "be gathered to [or sleep with] their fathers" when death befell them (Gen. xxv. 8, xlvii. 30), and feared only the idea of going down to Sheol mourning (ib. xxxvii. 35). To sleep and be at rest was the desire of the distressed (Job iii. 13-22). To die "in a good old age" was regarded as a blessing (Gen. xv. 15, xxv.8); to be cut off from the land of the living in the noontide of life was dreaded and looked upon as a misfortune (Isa. xxxviii. 10). Only occasionally the stings of death and the stroke of Sheol became terrors, from which the Lord was petitioned to redeem man (Hosea xiii. 14; Ps. xvi. 10, xlix. 16 [15], lxxxvi. 13). Nowhere, however, in the Bible is death regarded as a real evil, except from the point of view that man, being of divine origin, should have had, like any other heavenly being, access to the tree of life and have lived forever (Gen. iii. 22). Accordingly, the eschatological view found expression in such phrases as that "the death will be swallowed up forever" and "the dead shall rise again" (compare Isa. xxv. 8, xxvi. 19).


Would imortality be so awful? I like to think I could appreciate life even if it lasted forever. Why, then, would God not create humans to be immortal? Even if you accepted the idea that the sin of Adam and Chava created death for humans, it was part of God's plan, this mortality thing.

I'm not dumb or obtuse. I know what the obvious lessons of a mortal life are. Appreciation for living. A limited amount of time to do good in the world. Valuing those around us and living life carefully. If only my heart could just understand all these benefits.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Someone at Salon Agrees, Anyway

Over at (Salon) there seems to be lots of agreement with my opinion about creative writing, below (Thoughts on a Massacre)

NBC was Right

I know I began my last post by decrying the media. I stand behind what I said, but the beating NBC and other media outlets have taken the past two days over showing the killer's manifesto is ridiculous.

I had a three hour drive yesterday and spent the time switching between talk radio outlets, including Air America (Ed Schultz) and the local right-wing station. I didn't hear talk show host or caller come out in favor of NBC's decision to make the manifesto public. Not one.

Is it just me?

I heard two assertions over and over again.

Argument 1: The tape has no news value.

First, since when did our definition of "news" in this country get so strict? How much time did all of the networks devote to Anna Nicole Smith these past months? Who's her baby's daddy?? We have to know! It's news. And this isn't?

Even without the hyperbole, it's difficult for me to see how this killer's manifesto isn't news. Certainly the fact that it was sent at all is newsworthy and perhaps important to the investigation. What was the killer doing between shootings? Running errands, apparently. No one is questioning whether NBC should have kept the package a secret. It's obviously "news" that Cho sent the package and NBC received it.

So what of the contents?

Several talkies and their callers suggested that NBC could have summarized the contents of the package without showing the photos or the videos. But NBC knows this about news: a picture is worth a 1,000 words, and a video of the killer speaking is worth a thousand times that. Would it have served the story to simply describe Cho posing like a thug with his guns and hammers? Would that have conveyed the truth of the matter? Would the public have been able to really understand what was being described? Those pictures are chilling -- I can't imagine any description that can convey the viesceral reaction so many of us had to them.

It's also inconceivable to me that the contents of Cho's package could have been kept secret forever. News agencies leak. Law enforcment agencies leak. No matter how hard NBC and the FBI and local police tried to keep the contents of the package under wraps, it would have gotten out. Better to have it presented as part of a newsbroadcast than to appear as a vial e-mail or on YouTube.

Lastly, part of the "news" formula is "why," and the American public is always desperate to know "why" after a tragedy like this. Who better to answer the question of "why" than the killer himself. It's certainly more palatable to me than the hundres of psychiatrists and psychologists who were trotted before the camera Monday and Tuesday to speculate on "why."

Argument 2: It was insensitive to the families of the victims

I don't usually think of myself as a callous person, but I don't see how releasing the manifesto is insensitive to the victims and their families. Releasing security camera video of the shootings themselves would have been insensitive, as were some of the pictures of people being carried out of the building, that I can see.

One talk show caller said airing the manifesto was insensitive because it gave the killer a platform. Did it really? He's dead, and everyone know's he was deeply disturbied and crazy in the deepest sense of the word. How is this a platform? Someone compared it to the manifesto of the Unabomber, but that was different. The Unabomber was still on the loose when his ramblings were published. (Unabomber Manifesto on Wiki).



One of my own personal campaigns is to "de-monster-fy" evil. One of the greatest disservices we do as humans is to label other humans who perpetrate terrible acts as "inhuman." We call them monsters. We say their acts were inhuman. We separate them from our very own species. We insist that they are not us. When you watch Cho's video, you remember that he, indeed, is us. He was a human being, a kid really. He was not an alien dropped onto this planet to commit horrible crimes. He was not a monster. He was a severely troubled kid who did a vile, disgusting thing. Make no mistake -- I am not excusing one single moment of his crime. But turning him into a monster serves no real purpose, except to exonerate ourselves, because we are not monsters. It's not an easy thing to face, that another human being perpetrated such a crime, but we need to face it, and the insight Cho himself provided into his self is important to that end.

Personally, I am glad that I saw the photos and watched the snippets of video on the news. Those photos hammered home how easy it is for teenagers and college kids to hide entire lives from their peers, their professors, and their families. Other VA Tech students said the background in the pictures was clearly that of a dorm room. Those photos and those videos were shot within feet of other VA Tech students, and no one suspected. How easy is it, in our digital society, to hide entire lives? You don't need a photo lab to process pictures. You can e-mail video around the world in a second and burn DVDs on a laptop. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris hid their lives in similar ways -- writing anonymous screeds on the Internet and taking digital photos of themselves in tough guy poses.

If nothing else, maybe those photos and videos will scare us all a little more, and right now, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Or maybe it will get us all to pay a little closer attention to the world around us, especially if we share part of our world with young adults.

Who knows? Maybe the release of these tapes and photos and the "manifesto" will prevent another tragedy. Isn't that worth it?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thoughts on a Massacre

It's times like these when I deplore the media. Yes, they do us a great service in bringing us important news about tragedies such as the VA Tech massacre. But then the real news stops, but the media coverage goes on.

Random thoughts:

These kids at VA Tech are so camera-ready, so willing to talk to reporters and be interviewed in the minutes and hours following tragedy. It's not a surprise, really. They've grown up in front of the camera in a way previous generations didn't. Camcorders recorded their births, their first steps, their birthday parties, their entire lives. Reality TV encourages the "confessional," speech, the pouring out of emotion while looking directly into the camera's eye.

I'm very sick of the argument that if more people carried guns this would have been prevented. You can't possible know that, so don't get all self-righteous about your political position on guns on the back of a tragedy like this. There's no guarantee that a person with a gun would have been in a position to kill the shooter, and there's no guarantee that he or she would have been able to do it, physically or mentally.

The recent media coverage is focusing on Cho's creative writing assignments. The insinuation is that the content of his assignments should have been a red flag that he was a mass murderer waiting to happen. Shall we lock up Stephen King? What about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez? Their new movie, Grindhouse, has all kinds of inventive violence and blatant disregard for life. Yes, obviously, in hindsight Cho's writings were the product of a disturbed and dangerous mind, but the insinuation that something should have been done earlier based on these works is grasping at straws.

Lots of talk in the past two days about whether or not college campuses are "safe." First, anyone who wants to perpetrate this kind of crime can do so today if they wanted, at virtually any high school or college. VA Tech less safe than it was on Monday? Is any campus more safe? If you haven't been to a college campus recently, I encourage you to visit one. You can probably walk into any building and any classroom at virtually any time of day. Libraries are usually open until midnight or later, and students and professors often spend late nights working alone in old buildings with little security.

May God comfort those who lost loved ones, friends, students, teachers, and colleagues. Is

Monday, April 16, 2007

Yom HaShoah Reflection

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, the day we as Jews set aside to remember the Holocaust of WWII and the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. Our JCC held a wonderful program for families that included a special presentation by a survivor directed at kids between the ages of 9 and 12 (where most of my kids fall) and memorial service that included readings by the children and the lighting of 6 memorial candles. I'm sure many synagogues and JCCs across the country had similar programs today. Like many other times in Judaism, there is something special added to the day just knowing that millions of other Jews are right there along with you, if not in your own physical space, in your spiritual space.

When I was in Hebrew School, we weren’t privileged to hear may Shoah stories from survivors, even though more were alive at the time. It was the1970s, and all the survivors we knew were silent. There were men and women in my synagogue with numbers tattooed on their arms, but they certainly didn’t get up and speak about their experiences at a JCC event. The members of my family, thank God, mostly came to the States in the early 1900s during the Russian pogroms. Our connection with the Shoah are the uncles and brothers who fought in the US military against the Nazis. And they didn’t talk much either.

My introduction to the Shoah was the awful pictures in a Time-Life volume on WWII that I found in the “big kid” section of my elementary school library. I was fascinated by those pictures, and I remember looking at them again and again, trying to make real what I saw on the page. I’m not sure it ever really happened. Can anyone make something like that “real” unless they’ve experienced it? You can try to go deep, to really imagine yourself in such a place, imagine your family and friends in such a place, but then you open your eyes and you’re safe in your real life, and you know that there are no Nazis outside the door poised to make your worst nightmare into a reality. God willing it will never become a reality for any of us reading this.

Last year I saw a documentary on PBS called, “WWII: They Filmed it in Color.” The documentary included color footage taken by the American military as they liberated concentration camps. I couldn’t bear to watch it. There’s such a nice, comfortable distancing effect with black and white photographs. I know it is selfish of me to want to keep that distance, and I would be ashamed to admit such a thing to a person who lived through such tragedies, in full color. But am I the only one who worries about my personal state of mind, my own sanity even, when encountering the Shoah?

Perhaps there are others out there better equipped to deal with the inescapable realities of the Holocaust. I know there are. They are working hard to preserve the stories of the remaining survivors. They are running education programs for the next generations. They are supporting survivors in their efforts to age gracefully. They are fighting against current anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Perhaps they will excuse my absence from some of these noble works.

Before I became a parent I was much more willing to be an active participant in Shoah work. I read many memoirs, wrote papers about it in college, and encouraged myself to feel deeply. Having children of my own has created an entire new dimension to the Shoah that I didn’t anticipate before it occurred. The contemplation of evil as a non-mother has its limits. I was the potential victim. I could own that. Now my children would have been potential victims as well. Human beings (not monsters) did terrible vicious things to children, without remorse, and the parents were powerless to stop it. As a parent, I find those circumstances so unfathomable that I can’t even hold the thoughts in my head.

I am in such pain for the survivors who live with such memories. May they find peace. May we never forget, and may we never face such times again.

Would you shun him?


I heard an interesting story on NPR's "Morning Edition" this morning on the way to work. A Haredi man from B'nai Brak has joined the IDF, and has earned the scorn of his family and former neighbors and friends as a result.

You can hear the story here: NPR

So I'm listening to this story and I'm feeling anger rise against his family, against his mother and father and his 11 brothers and sisters. (One sister does have him for Shabbat on the sly, so she's somewhat excused.) How could they? This is their flesh and blood. This is their son. Is his choice really so awful that he should lose his entire family over it? His sister's shidduch almost fell apart because of his choice. A suitor was so concerned about his brother-in-law being in the IDF that he almost broke off the engagement.

This young man stands by his choice, but his grief at his ostracization was obvious and painful to listen to.

I could not stop asking, "How could they?"

And then I asked myself this: Ok, Chaya, you have children, what would one of them have to do to earn such a reaction from you? My first gut reaction was that nothing my sons could do would earn a shunning from me, but that's too pollyanna for real life. What if my sons turned their back on everything I value and believe in, turning to a life that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, support and justify?

It's so hard to imagine what that would look like. We're talking extremes here. Pedophilia. Murder. Blatant disregard for the sanctity of life.

If I'm honest with myself, and I try to be, even something like (God forbid) accepting Jesus as their personal savior would not lead to a complete shun from me or my husband. If we give our children the power to make their own decisions, then we have to live with those decisions. And let's face it, the power is already theirs. We're just kidding ourselves as parents if we think differently.

I suppose for this young man's family the line of "turning your back on what we value" is an easier line to draw. Does it have to be so inflexible, though? I understand that his family faces real-world consequences of they do not shun him, such as the possibility that none of their other children will find matches. But why doesn't this cause them to question and leave the system instead of shunning their son?

I am hopeful that this young Haredi man eventually reconciles with his family, that they come to realize that his choice to live a life differently from theirs does not mean there is no value to that life.

Note: the photo is a generic IDF photo, not the soldier in the story.