6.12.11

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach Wins Hyperbole Award: Claims that if Leaders Had Listened to Einstein the Jewish People May Have Perished



I am a fan of Rabbi Boteach’s books and essays and seeing that he had a piece up on the Algemeiner website on one of my favorite topics (the Yakov and Esav story) I stopped to read.

But when I got to this line of Boteach, I nearly fell out of my chair. He writes:

“Had the leaders of the Allies taken the advice of Einstein or Gandhi, the Nazis would have taken over the entire world, and the Jewish people may have ceased to exist.”

What???

Reb Shmuely points to the fact that Einstein was a pacifist and that after the war he had regrets about helping to develop atomic bombs.

What Reb Shmuely doesn’t say is that when Einstein realized the dangers posed by the Nazi regime, he sought to warn the U.S. of the Nazi’s plans to build an atomic bomb and he spoke out against pacifism.

In a letter to the American League in 1937, Einstein wrote:

“It must be said that, of late, pacifists have harmed rather than helped the cause of democracy. This is especially obvious in England, where the pacifist influence has dangerously delayed the rearmament which has become necessary because of the military preparations in Fascist countries.”

In Einstein’s words in a letter to a Japanese friend after the war, he wrote:

"I didn't write that I was an absolute pacifist but that I have always been a convinced pacifist. That means there are circumstances in which in my opinion it is necessary to use force."
"Such a case would be when I face an opponent whose unconditional aim is to destroy me and my people."

Paterson New Jersey's Great Falls -- a breathtaking waterfall surrounded by post-industrial decay!

With a warm December day (thanks global scorching!) I suggested to the familia that we take the dog for a walk to a new park. Having exhausted most of the wooded areas nearby, I consulted Reb Google and then rallied the troops into the car to a destination in Paterson, NJ -- a spot a mere 17 minutes from Montclair. After driving through an old factory district (with a beautiful brick something or other that has been converted into a Burger King), we arrived at the Great Falls District. At first glance, it was a busy urban highway overpass running over a river. A very brown river.We drove over the bridge, made a right, and parked by an abandoned high school football stadium. A few locals were smoking blunts in the lot. We walked down a cement trail (plenty of broken glass unfortunately) that lead to a small steel bridge. Then our mouths fell open. We turned to see a magnificent waterfall -- and a rainbow to boot. Ladies and Gents....New Jersey!



17.11.11

Cowboys and Momma's Boys




My latest rant on football culture and parshat toldot is now running on the front page of New Jersey Jewish News (thanks again Andrew!)

I reflect on the atrocities that occurred in connection to the Penn State football program and the wider culture that values loyalty and competition above all.

6.9.11

A little instrumental tune I wrote called "there's three things (i like to do)"


video

Ten Years Ago: 9/11, Corned Beef Sandwiches and the Red Cross

I wrote this piece a week after 9/11. Hard to believe that we are approaching the tenth anniversary. But it has, indeed, been a decade -- My daughter, born in January of 2001, is now a fifth grader. The day still haunts me, this city, and beyond. My heart is with all the families who are headed to memorials this week. 



Even in Tragedy, A Little Humor

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

On the Thursday after the attacks, I went to serve as a volunteer chaplain at the Armory on Lexington Avenue, where the city had set up a center for families of the missing. Walking up the steps to the entrance, I couldn’t help but remember the last time that I was there. It was at a contemporary art show packed with sculptures made with sardine cans and inflatable cows, all being hawked by stylish gallery people from places like Helsinki or Zurich. Now the massive hall was occupied by folding table after folding table of police officers, assisting families as they completed a seven-page form and stapled on dental records.
Like the other clergy who were volunteering to staff the site, I felt overcome by the anguish I found there. I had sat with families in grief and loss when I worked in a Philadelphia Hospital as a chaplain, but the scene in the Armory was a thousand times more desperate. In the hospital we always had a body, sometimes a vital sign, doctors to explain the situation, information; here I spoke with family after family only to say, “We don’t know yet. You are doing everything you can. My heart is with you.” Some family members approached me to ask: “What happens if they don’t find any bodies?” Coming up with an answer felt unbearably grim.
After a few hours spent absorbing the tremendous tension and sorrow in the main hall, some of the chaplains were called downstairs to the basement, where the police were setting up more tables. Now would come the most difficult of tasks – bringing families in to see the list of confirmed dead. On a long wooden bench along the wall sat priests, ministers, and an Imam. I squeezed in next to a Catholic priest and a young Episcopalian minister with a “Hello, my name is Christopher” name tag, feeling like we had just been drafted for a dreadful and hopeless task. Then the Red Cross Spiritual Care Coordinator spoke. “OK, guys, listen up!” She was an amazingly energetic minister from California who conveyed a mix of pep and compassion: “I’m gonna make this brief because we don’t have much time before those families come in here and I’m assuming you all know what to do. I’ve seen this before. This is like what I saw in Oklahoma City—we need to be there and show God’s love—but I want to remind you that this is not a time to proselytize. This is ecumenical. No praying in the name of Jesus. Just be a spiritual presence. Show God’s love for them. Do what you do best. Remember, no praying in the name of Jesus!”
I raised my hand and she nodded at me. “Yes, Rabbi, what is it?”
“Is it all right if I pray in the name of Jesus?”
The laughter from the other clergy filled the room. This was the only joke I cracked the entire week, which, you might imagine, is an all-time low for a rabbi.
It is hard to relate anything other than grief in connection with this tragedy, but there were some precious moments when something else—some recognition of the shared sense of absurdity that this chaos has wrought—broke through.  
On Wednesday morning, the day before my experience at the Armory, I was among a group of rabbis who were down at the Chelsea Piers, which had been set up hastily as a triage area, but ended up serving as a spot for families to fill out the missing persons report. This was not my first visit to the Piers, either; I had once enjoyed the driving range with some old college friends on a summer night, smacking golf balls into a large net over the Hudson. Now I was organizing a clergy table with the help of a Catholic priest from 135th Street, Episcopalian ministers from the seminary two blocks away, a Buddhist teacher from the Upper West Side, and an Ethical Culture minister from Riverdale. We prayed silently with one another as we began our work.
Mainly, we escorted the families as they filed through to the tables to fill out the reports. We offered them water, directed them to the bathroom, and tried our best to speak with them in a calm, understanding way. Some of the ministers and priests were taking families over to get food that had been set out along one wall. One of the rabbis, David Sable, realized there was nothing kosher. He made a tactical decision to call Mendy’s Deli, home of classic pickles, pastrami, corned beef and tongue that some people insist is New York’s best. Soon after, a donated platter of cold cut sandwiches arrived, and much potato salad.
A few hours later, I was with a Jewish family as they looked for an uncle in a tireless search. After they filled out their forms, I told them that we had some kosher food, and asked if they wanted anything. They looked exhausted, and I guessed that they had not eaten since the attack. “No, thank you, we’re alright,” they responded. I pushed. “Do you like Mendy’s?” I asked. On hearing this, they brightened just a bit, and answered in that quintessentially Jewish way which answers a question with a question: “Mendy’s?” We laughed. 
I’ve never seen such comfort from a corned beef sandwich.  
Such life-affirming moments could not come close to consoling the thousands of families in enormous grief. But as all the solemn declarations about tragedy are being made, it should be remembered that even in tragedy, New Yorkers did not lose their sense of humor. 
In fact, New Yorkers retained their character. This city, which can harden even the most laid back soul, has always thrived on unexpected kindness, the quick joke from a stranger, and a shared sense that there is astounding beauty in a world that trucks along just a notch above chaos. So while the attacks have changed the lives of thousands, the subway map, and the skyline, I am proud to report that they haven’t drained the sweetness from the Big Apple. 

1.9.11

Ultimate Frisbee





The Telegraphic Agency just published my latest piece about my work. Click here to find out more :)

3.8.11

Nebulous Jewish Ideas Daily



"Today's rising Reconstructionist leaders, little concerned with Kaplan's ideas, seem driven instead by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment combined, however improbably, with "progressive" political activism."



I was reading the JTA today and ran across a link to Jewish Ideas Daily with an article about one of my favorite topics, Mordecai Kaplan. I've never met Joseph Siev so I really can't tell what is behind his rant here, but it starts out in a good place and ends up with some truly outrageous accusations about me and my colleagues.


Here's the comment that I submitted.

As an RRC graduate (1997) I am proud to say that not only is Kaplan's vision of an Israel (and klal yisrael) centered Jewish civilizational approach still alive, but it is thriving. Our approach as reconstructionists is communitarian, it takes Jewish and secular law seriously (take a quick look at the groundbreaking work of the Center for Ethics at RRC) and it is having an impact far beyond any boundaries of the movement.

If you haven't met many Reconstructionist rabbis, here's a hint at what makes us a little different -- we are non-conformists to begin with and we are taught to challenge the status quo. Are some of my colleagues questioning Zionism? Absolutely. And it has become increasingly easy to point fingers at them and shry. But one could have also chosen to highlight my colleagues who have fully embraced the Zionist dream and have moved to Israel and are working on Kaplan's vision within the ultimate "normative" context. But the vast majority of us are in the place that Kaplan himself occupied -- critical thinking Zionists living outside of Israel. Kaplan was a Hebrew speaker and had the opportunity to travel to Israel, but he ultimately felt more comfortable on the Upper West Side. When I look around at my colleagues in the movement, I sense that the Israel-centered Jewish civilization still resonates with us, so we send our children to Zionist summer camps and Israel programs, we spend time studying in Israel or taking our sabbaticals there, we read the Israeli papers daily, and we debate one another about possible ways to keep Israel looking like the place we fell in love with at some point in our lives. But, for all sorts of reasons, we have not made the leap of packing up our bags and throwing ourselves into the ultimate normative Jewish civilization.

So we find ourselves working in America - many of us in chaplaincy (where we see the struggles that elderly Jews face in the health care system) and on university campuses (where we see the impact of declining investment in public education) and in communities across the U.S. (where we encounter an incredibly diverse group of congregants.) So, yeah, we adopt predominately Progressive views -- mainly because we still have faith that democracy and communitarianism can be forces for good.

You write:

"Today's rising Reconstructionist leaders, little concerned with Kaplan's ideas, seem driven instead by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment combined, however improbably, with "progressive" political activism."

This line is, uh.... a bit hyperbolic? I have spoken with over a hundred reconstructionist rabbis. They are not driven by nebulous notions of personal fulfillment (and if they were wouldn't that make them like all other humans?) but by a desire to serve something greater -- in this case the Jewish community and to quote Kaplan, the "power that makes for salvation." These rabbis mainly place their personal fulfillment as a distant second to their community's (and sometimes family's immediate needs) -- and do not receive the financial rewards or status points of others.

I am proud to be a part of such a community of rabbis. Does it drive me a little nuts that some of my colleagues have adopted anti-Zionsit positions? Absolutely. But anti-Zionism has been part of the Jewish community since Zionism was born. (hey, remember when the anti-Zionists were Orthodox and Chasidic rabbis? Oh wait, there still are Chasidic rabbis who are anti-Zionists? and they live in Israel? What????)

I'd rather be part of a movement that values open debate and critical thinking about Israel, about American politics, and about, well, just about everything. That's Kaplan's legacy. And it is one that I see my colleagues embracing and living out on a daily basis.

Am Yisrael Chai!

21.7.11

How Chelm’s Synagogue Became Reconstructionist


In ye olden times, one rifled through a dusty cardboard box, pulled out beige folders, and basked in the wonderment of a page of long lost prose. I jammed an old USB memory stick into my laptop today to find a text I had translated seven years ago and stumbled across this piece, a truly ridiculous story I once used to explain the origins of Reconstructionism to a group of second graders. After reading it, I thought that it should be launched out into the wider world. Enjoy.



How Chelm’s Synagogue Became Reconstructionist

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Chelm’s rabbi, Reb Dovid, was not a tall man. To reach the top row of his bookshelf, he had to stand on a crate, and on top of the crate he had to put another crate. One morning, as he was deep into his studies, he went reaching for a book on the top shelf to look up a word in his dictionary, and “Crash!” He flew off the crates and landed head first on the carpet! He was knocked out cold. He lay on the floor for nearly a minute. “Where am I?” he said as he got back on his feet. He didn’t recognize his own library. “Honey, what happened?” his wife, running in from the porch, called out. He looked at her up and down. “Who are you?” he said. The rabbi went into the cupboard and made a sandwich. He put a nice piece of cheese right on top of a piece of salami. The great Rabbi had forgotten the laws of keeping kosher. He took a bite without saying the brucha. He’d forgotten everything about his precious religion.

The town council met. “What are we going to do?” people shouted. The Mayor stood and spoke: “The rabbi remembers nothing! He is the only one who knows the laws and the stories that explain them--So we cannot continue with the religion of Judaism. We will have to create a new religion. Let us have a contest between the two smartest people in Chelm. They will create a new religion, and we will have a discussion and vote on it. I appoint Lev, the water carrier, and Shayna the dressmaker to bring us new religions by the next full moon!

As the moon grew from a tiny sliver to a bright, glowing light Lev the water carrier and Shayna the dressmaker thought about what the new religion would be based on. Who would they pray to? What would be the holidays? What would be the sacred places?

The full moon came and they were called to the town hall. The mayor rose, and announced: “Present us with our choice of religions!”

Lev began:

“We all need water to live. We must drink water, our bodies contain water, we use water to take a bath. So we should acknowledge the greatness of water. Every morning when we wake up, we should have a sacred holy act of taking a bath. Three times a day we shall drink a glass of water and say “Praised be water, the source of life”. Every time that it rains there should be a holiday. We will have a special ceremony when a child learns how to swim—then they will be called an adult. Any couple wishing to get married will simply take a bath together. The holiest place of all will be the ocean, which we will all visit every summer!”

The crowd applauded with delight. What a wonderful religion! Then Shayna got up and spoke:

“Why pray to water? Water can be muddy and yucky. It could have bugs in it. The ocean water smells like dead fish! Would you want to pray to something like that? We should pray to things that are beautiful and protect us. So I ask -- what makes us beautiful? What protects us? The answer is simple--clothing. Look at all the colors--the reds, and blues and yellows and greens. When we get dressed in the morning we should say “Thank you shirt for making the world look nice!” We should say “Thank you sweater for keeping me warm, thank you belt for holding up my pants, thank you shoes for protecting my feet.” Clothes are very special objects—look how we care for them and fold them and admire them. In the clothes religion, every year we will have a shopping holiday, when everyone will purchase a new outfit of clothing. We will have another holiday when people exchange gifts of clothing. And we will celebrate with a costume ball. When a person learns to sew, they will be called an adult. When a couple wants to be married, they will purchase matching outfits. The holiest place of all will be the pasture where the sheep graze, because that is where the wool comes from to make clothes!”

The people of Chelm began to argue? “Water or clothes? What is more important? Without water we’d only have juice or milk to drink!” they said, “Without clothes we’d be running around naked like animals!” They discussed the issue for hours and hours. The debate went on, and more questions arose, and the people could not make a decision. Finally, the Mayor arose to speak.

“Citizens of Chelm,” he said, “ I have come to a decision, we can not decide between water and clothing, but we can all agree that we like to come together and have a discussion. Therefore we will have a new religion called the discussion religion. Each full moon we will have a community discussion night. Everyday at breakfast people should discuss a matter of importance with their family members. When a child can lead a discussion, they will be called an adult, when a couple would like to be married, they should discuss it. The holy place will be any place you have a conversation!”

The people applauded. They took a vote and everyone voted ‘yes’ for the discussion religion.

Just then the rabbi ran in, waving matzahs in his hands. “What is going on Rabbi?”

“I just got my memory back! I remember our religion!” he said, “ Tonight is Passover we must eat Matzah, and drink wine and eat horseradish, and charoset!

The Mayor delcared: “But Rabbi, we have already voted on a new religion! We cannot reverse our vote! It is against the by-laws of Chelm!”

The Rabbi thought, scratched his head, and then he declared: “I have a solution to the problem. Let us put the two religions together, we will have a discussion of Judaism, and we’ll have it at my house at the seder table!”

And so they all went to the Rabbi’s house for Passover and thus reconstructionism was born in Chelm.

19.7.11

Jewish Parenting....


Now that I've raised my first two children to young adulthood (and I think our third one is already more mature than I am) I am herby qualified to comment on the wonderful world of parenting. The good folks at the URJ, Union of Reform Judaism, asked me and my colleague Deborah Meyer to say a few words about teen boys and what is going on with them in a podcast. Here it is. Wendy Grinberg has done an excellent job with this series...and it is an honor to be alongside such folks as Wendy Mogel and Rabbi Sandy Sasso.

14.7.11

Mazel Tov!




Here's a photo of my sweetheart's book - just published. We went to New Orleans together after the storm, a trip that led to a play and then this collection of plays.

1.7.11

Most viewed!

Check this out -- an essay I penned some nine years ago is, thanks to the inactivists in San Fran, number one on the list of Most Viewed at NYU's Berman Jewish Policy Archive. Here's the post..


The Week's Most Viewed Publications
Posted At : May 16, 2011 2:25 PM | Posted By : Tara Bognar
Related Categories: bjpa
A bit of an international/historical angle this last week, along with some bonus reflections on the father/son dynamics of circumcision.

1. The Future of Foreskins (2002), Daniel S. Brenner
2. Evaluation of the Pardes Educators Alumni Support Project: Promoting Retention of Pardes Educator Program Alumni (2011), Ezra Kopelowitz, Stephen Markowitz
3. The International Migration Factor: Causes and Consequence (1977), Gaynor I. Jacobson
World Jewish Population, 2010 (2010) Sergio DellaPergola
4. Russian Jews in America: Status, Identity and Integration (2004), Sam Kliger
Comments (0) | Print | Send |

7.6.11

Jerusalem Post Dubs Lea Michele "Jewish Leader of the Future"

In what has to be an all-time low for Jewish list making, Lea Michele, the Glee star, has now been dubbed one of the ten most important people under 32 working in the "Jewish sphere." The Post expects these ten to rise to "powerful positions."

Michele, who in the photo in this post is obviously practicing her full prostration for Aleinu on Yom Kippur, is on a list with some very impressive people, including Google's Jared Cohen, the Jewish Agency's Haviv Rettig Gur, speechwriter Yael Wissner-Levy, and PresenTense's Ariel Beery. Nine deserving candidates and Lea Michele?

Let's take a close look at her credentials: Michele has a Jewish father and has claimed that she has a Jewish nose. Her work in the Jewish sphere? She plays a character who reinforces Jewish female stereotypes on Glee and she has been in Fiddler. Perhaps I am overlooking something?

It is great to expose folks to next generation leaders -- I'm all for it. But I'm not sure why any actors or actresses need to be on a list of Jewish leaders. But if you need to pick a Jewish actress so that perhaps TMZ will run your article or whatever, you might pick someone who actually considers herself Jewish, has some connection to Jewish ritual, plays interesting Jewish characters, and is (in my opinion) an actress who associates herself with good work on stage and on film. That would be Scarlett Johansson.

27.5.11

In Defense of Tiki Barber


Taking a break from the hectic pre-bar mitzvah planning checklist for my sons I checked in on my JTA feed and found the following story making today's news:

NEW YORK (JTA) -- The Anti-Defamation League slammed retired football player and former NBC broadcaster Tiki Barber for jokingly comparing himself to Anne Frank.

In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, the former New York Giants’ running back discussed living with his girlfriend in the attic of his Jewish agent, Mark Lepselter, to hide from the media after splitting with his pregnant wife. "Lep's Jewish," Barber told Sports Illustrated, "and it was like a reverse Anne Frank thing."

“Holocaust trivialization continues to spread and finds new ways and expressions that shock the conscience,” the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement Thursday. “Tiki Barber's personal behavior is his business. But our history and experiences are ours and deserve greater respect than being abused or perverted by Tiki Barber.

My reaction--

1) Barber's comment clearly displays both an awareness of European Jewish history and a love of a particular Jew who cared for him. Barber felt persecuted, feared being seen, and needed someone who could protect him. (that he put himself in such a situation is another story) Sounds like a sympathetic read of a personal connection to the Anne Frank story -- the very thing that fifth grade teachers around the country hope for.

2) The Anne Frank story is a story of both the Franks and of Meip Geis and the other brave souls who protected the Franks. I'm not sure who the "our" is that Foxman is talking about. "our experiences" -- is that Jews? Survivors? It makes no sense in the context of the Anne Frank reference.

3)" Abuse?" "Perversion?" -- maybe insensitive, I'd accept that but..it seems like these words one should reserve for those who are truly malicious.

Barber has also been one of my favorite NFL commentators and I hope he continues to work in the sportscasting biz....so it is a shame to read about this attack on his character.

16.5.11

What I thought music television would look like

I remember hearing, in seventh grade, that there was going to be music television. I was so excited to see it because for some strange reason I thought that the music would be visualized -- it would come to life through color and shape and we would all enjoy it all the more. It turned out to be lots of folks with long hair in tight pants. But now, thanks to the interwebs, we are coming close to such visions.

If this isn't a dream fragment from the mind of 13th century mystic Abraham Abulafia, I don't know what is.

28.4.11

Comments on Shoah education....


...in the Jewish Week. Graphic novels etc. in this new piece in The Jewish Week

But as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, nears this year, observers are debating the uses of irreverence to memorialize the event, especially when it comes to passing the lessons of the Shoah on to a younger, Facebook generation. After years of Holocaust farces like Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway play “The Producers,” Holocaust comedy films like Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” after Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” and art shows depicting Zyklon B canisters alongside Coke cans, irreverence, when it comes to the Holocaust, is now the classic “teachable moment.”

And in our medium-is-the-message world, the graphic novel (comic book, to an older generation) may end up being the vehicle to carry the memory of the Holocaust to younger people.

14.4.11

Top Ten Niche Haggadahs for Passover 2011




Seder for Sderot
by Justin Bieber

It’s a Zenga Zenga Pesach
by Muhamar Qadaffi

Four More Cups
by Snooki

Search for the Afikomen- Hawaiian Edition
by Donald Trump

The Prison Tweet Haggadah
by Lindsay Lohan

The Moosemeat Seder
by Sarah Palin

Ten New Plagues
by British Petroleum

The Big Book of Jewish Conspiracies Seder
by Julianne Assange

Rock Star Seder From Mars
by Charlie Sheen

22.3.11

7.3.11

Karzai Tallis Collection

PANDER WITH DIGNITY IN A KARZAI TALLIS!
Forgive my cultural insensitivities here, but as I was daydreaming the other day in synagogue I started to look at the many colorful tallisim around the room and I had the thought that Hamid Karzai could walk into this place and not a single person would look twice at his shawl. In fact, the only thing that people would say would be "nice tallis." I google searched and found that the vision I had of his closet was not far off. This guy has got quite the collection.  

10.2.11

Slice Jerusalem like a PIZZA

And now, a moment of zen....

"Devise a solution to Jerusalem that will bring lasting peace and does not slice the city in half as if it were
a pizza" - Jennifer Laszlo Mirachi 






7.2.11

A very Jewy-y Super Bowl


Jew-fro? Yes. Jew? Not-so-much.

Last night I thought that I would have a much needed break from the Jewish world that occupies my thoughts on a daily basis. No Jewish football players on either team, I thought. No Jewish coaches or prominent owners. The game is in Dallas. How Jewish could it be? But the gods of televised sports had other ideas. First up, Glee starlet Lea Michele sings America the Beautiful. Then Joan Rivers is in a Go Daddy spot, the Black Eyed Peas sing "mazel tov" which made it all seem like the world's biggest bar mitzvah, then Richard Lewis and Rosanne Barr in a Snickers ad? Adrien Brody singing for Stella Artois? Throw in a new Spielberg promo, Sharon Osbourne, and Henry Winkler and it adds up to one extremely Jewy Super Bowl night. This morning I heard a rumor that Aaron Rogers celebrates Hannukah....alas, there is no escape.

18.1.11

Milton Rogovin, Zichrono L'vracha




Reading an elevator TV news blurb -- that's how I learned that one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century had passed. I was somewhat shocked that the Jewish press seems to have missed the death of one of America's most innovative and socially conscious artists -- Milton Rogovin. An optometrist, he developed a photo bug in the 1950s and began to document the social conditions of those who live on the edge in Buffalo, New York. He was a "social documentary" photographer and his triptychs are masterpieces that were replicated by numerous photographers after him.

My friend Ezra Bookstein directed a film about Rogovin in 2007. You can see a clip here as well as many photos and a wonderfully written biography.

16.1.11

Chinese Moms, Jewish Dads


Chinese Moms, Jewish Dads?


The post-dinner- now-the- kids- are- in- the- other- room -and -the –adults- have- two –bottles- of- wine -to -finish-off talk at our Shabbos table this week was, as I imagine it was for many thousands of other parental types, Chinese moms. We had all read the Wall Street Journal article by Yale Law professor Amy Chua (or heard her interviewed on NPR) and her razor sharp attack on “western” moms seems to have kicked up a storm from all of us who have let our children attend sleep-overs, practice their instruments for less than three hours a day, play sports, and worst of all, try out for school plays. (the horror!)

From Chua:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty—lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.)

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.




Chua also makes reference to a threat that she made regarding Christmas-Hannukah presents in the article and that got us thinking about the silent Jewish father who is, we imagine, kicking back on the couch with the Arts section of the Times while his ‘Chinese mom’ wife berates the children for getting a 97 on a math test. (yes, another nail in the coffin for all the twenty-something Jewish women I’ve met who ask why Jewish men pass them over for Asian women)

The couples around our table all weighed in – and while none of us had the ‘tiger’ qualities of Chua, we all addressed the various demands we have put on our children and the need for both demands and occasional comments that are, well, frank.

So, shabbos afternoon arrives and I curl up with my New Yorker. After I dispense with my usual perusal of the cartoons, I stumble into David Brooks latest piece, Social Animal


Brooks writes: “Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even outstanding accomplishment…the traits that do make a difference are the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships, to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings, and to imagine alternate futures.” And it occurs to me – this piece, by a Jewish dad, is the perfect anti-dote to Chua’s diatribe.

Brooks bolsters his argument from a place of social psychology and biology, citing recent studies that have shed new light on human behavior. This got me thinking: How would Chua respond to Brooks’ piece? Chua might defend her child-raising techniques and say that her children have developed these qualities. But at face value it would seem that calling your child “garbage” or “fatty” is not going to lead to a very trusting relationship. A brutally honest relationship? Maybe...but a trusting one? Highly doubtful. One can imagine Chua and Brooks at the Passover Seder debating the reaction to the Wicked Son.

So, who’s right? Truth likely lies somewhere in between the two polarities – to be demanding without being controlling, to be sensitive without coddling – these are the challenges of parenting.

But I was thinking about both articles this Saturday night as I took my sons to their indoor soccer game.

After the first half, my sons’ team was down 5-1. It was demoralizing. I thought with my “Chua” head– maybe I need to force them to practice more, run two miles a day, call him lazy, that sort of thing. Then I watched as one of my sons decided that he was not going to lose. In the second half he ran full-speed at every ball and the defense couldn’t stop him. He scored four goals, made an assist on another, and got the win. Then I relaxed and patted myself on the back for my less than Chua-like demands – “see, I never yell at him to practice and still he’s playing beautifully” And then something happened that I did not expect.

I was a typical dad, thinking about my kid – about how he had won the game. But when I met him on field after the game, he didn’t think of the win as something that he had accomplished. His first comment was about how his team played better defense in the second half. As he chugged from his water bottle, he went up to one of the defensive players and gave him a high five. The part of me that liked Brooks' model of human success was very happy.

So – what did I learn from these articles? I’m still not sure, and not sure if they will change the ways that I parent. But they did get me thinking about the cultural norms we collectively create and the importance of talking, preferably over a glass of wine and some rugelach, about what they mean when applied to each one of our quirky and wonderful children. On the other hand, maybe I should stop writing and go downstairs and yell at them to practice the violin. It will be all that better as I yell because none of my children play violin. yet.

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12.1.11

Snow Schmooze

Despite a half foot of snow falling on Gotham, Schmooze is on. I'm heading into join a fine team of folks speaking about "Next Generation" things in the marketing seminar.