Anyone who has read a Philip Roth novel or watched a Woody Allen film might conclude that to be a Jewish father means to be a bit player in that thing called a family— especially in juxtaposition to the awe-inspiring, larger-than-life figure that is stereotypically considered to be the Jewish mother.
We don’t believe that’s true. And so, we asked our rabbis to help us define the Jewish father. Our question: What does it mean to be a Jewish father? Is Jewish fatherhood something special?
Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz
Temple B’nai Israel
I recently had a great experience as a Jewish father. I got be my daughter’s assistant. She’s 15 and on a recent afternoon at our religious school, she ran the kids through a crazy tour of ideological reactions to modernity in 19th century Eastern Europe. Over the course of an hour they built cardboard walls, tossed paper “cookies” to feed paper “fish,” recited Turkish tongue twisters, and stomped on bubble wrap “grapes,” all while trying on the identities of our Orthodox, socialist, and Zionist forebears. I got to see my daughter be a creative, fun – and Jewish! – leader. Being her assistant as the “Russian customs officer” and the other characters she assigned me was such a joy for this Jewish father.
What’s it mean to be a Jewish father today? If we’re lucky and blessed and have put in the effort, it means to have naches (soul-satisfaction) when our kids can lead us into the future.
It also means to be in a role in flux. Jewish fathers used to have a clear role model, a Father in heaven. Tough to live up to, but clear. These days, if there’s anyone “in heaven,” most of us suppose it’s as much Mother as Father, or both or neither. It’s no longer necessarily Jewish fathers in charge of Jewish institutions, and we don’t necessarily live in Jewish neighborhoods, surrounded by other Jewish fathers.
But we aren’t so different from the Jewish fathers my daughter was teaching about. Their world was also changing. They held on to what they thought was good about the past and improvised the future. Just like the Jewish fathers in medieval Spain or Roman Eretz Yisrael or the Babylonian exile. Basing ourselves in a glorious tradition, Jewish fathers improvise.
There have been constants. I want to mention just one. Judaism reminds us that you and I (and our children) didn’t create the world and we’re not alone in it. Those two facts give rise to obligations that are also opportunities. We need to be responsive to our neighbors, our people, and our Creator. Judaism calls those responseaible obligations “mitzvot.” In a general culture, where “whatever” was the reigning buzzword for years and self-idolatry is rampant, Jewish fathers can give their children the tools to live lives of meaning, connected to eternity, through the practice of mitzvah. That’s a gift to them and to us. It’s a mitzvah.
of Greater Greenwich
“Teach your child to swim.” (Kiddushin 29a) This is one of the few declared rabbinic duties of parenthood specifically mentioned. Its meaning and importance manifests obviously, one must learn to swim to survive the waters. The commandment to teach your child to swim is literal, and the waters have many levels, we will swim among challenges from “waters above” —- our futures, and “waters below” —- our pasts.
The obligation to teach swimming also provides metaphorical realities. As a father, I take this commandment, to teach my children to swim, very seriously. I have noted that through 22 years of parenting that, like the water that this commandment addresses, the challenges occur again and again in waves, at different ages.
When I first brought my kids to the beach when they were young, I remember the physical feeling of carrying them against me into the ocean. Sometimes we tentatively held hands and went in, then, we waded. I taught them to jump a little as the wave approached. I pushed away seaweed vines as these floated by. I comforted them from the rude taste of saltwater. As they grew, we would go further and further out together.
Now, with three of my kids practically full grown, we stand out pretty far. The waves that come now, for a father with young adults, are no less consistent than actual waves, but I find them harder to predict. Also, my foresight is often not appreciated. On the contrary, I, who once pushed that terrifying sea flotsam away, am now “narrow-minded and limited.” I accept our different views of the horizons; I don’t mind being my children’s binoculars, their lighthouse, their buoy, their discarded lifejacket (to an extent). I consider this commandment the way of the Jewish parent, the way of any parent. Sometimes they let go of your hand, and you let them swim away, so they can swim back.
A child runs through the retreating water’s grip with a screaming voice of awe and joy. Shall we let God jet through our lives likewise, cheering at the wonder of us? To my children: although we live between the waters above and the waters below, we will always learn how to be anchored among the currents . . . and how to enjoy the waves.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen
Congregation Agudath Sholom
This year’s Father’s Day will be different. It all began last summer at JFK airport.
As my daughter Michal prepared to embark on her year of study in Jerusalem, I wondered what to say as my parting words.
What would you say to a child going away? Would you say, “Have a great year, do not forget to Skype, I love you?”
Yet, moments before she left…out of the corner of my eye, I was struck by the image of a father placing his hands on his daughter’s head. I realized immediately that he was offering her the priestly blessing. May God watch over you and protect you. May God shine his face upon you. May God grant you peace.
I paused and sensed intuitively that these words represented my hopes and aspirations for my daughter and the “right” goodbye. I took her aside, placed my hands on her head and invoked this timeless blessing.
The experience so touched me that, as I left the airport, I felt the urge to begin blessing all of my children every Friday night. Yet, I had a challenge. Jewish tradition teaches that we abide by the custom of our parents. My father’s tradition was to bless us only once a year.
I called my dad and shared my dilemma.
I will never forget what he said.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have blessed you and your siblings every Friday night. How can you pass up a moment every week to look your child in the eye, offer a blessing and give them a hug?”
With his permission, I began blessing my daughters every Friday night. It changes them and changes me.
The story does not end there. I shared the experience with my congregation. Soon after, I received an email from a congregant, “it is not too late for your father to start blessing you. He wished he had when you were a child, but it is not too late. He is your father and you remain his son”.
I called my father and asked him if he would begin blessing me every Friday. He now lives in Israel so it would be a long distance blessing but I knew that words would transcend space. He, of course, agreed and now every Friday morning (due to the time difference), he invokes the timeless blessing and gives me a virtual hug.
I learned that to be a father means to live inspired, possess humility and never miss an opportunity to bless your child.