How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life
By Anita Diamant, with Karen Kushner
Schocken Books, 291 pp. The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children
By Wendy Mogel
Scribner, 256 pp. Chances are if you were searching for your place in the Jewish world as a grown-up, you read Anita Diamant's "The New Jewish Wedding." Perhaps you then moved along to Diamant's "Living a Jewish Life," and then, if you were going the parent route, you went on to read "The New Jewish Baby Book," followed soon after by "Bible Baby Names." Now, if you have any time to read at all, you will want to spend it with "How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life," which Diamant (author as well of the best-selling novel "The Red Tent") has written with Karen Kushner, a family therapist and children's book author. Diamant provides parents with necessary information to create joyous Jewish lives for their children, lives infused with Jewish values, Jewish rituals, and the possibility of Jewish memories that will be compelling enough to endure. In doing so, Diamant and Kushner manage to avoid the ubiquitous metaphor of building fences around a crumbling Judaism. Rather, Diamant depicts Judaism as vibrant, a source of wisdom and a path toward a meaningful life. Parents looking for help in presenting Judaism to their children will find this a useful handbook. Most helpful are the authors' suggestions for making holidays more fun and kid-friendly. My favorites are for Passover. Diamant suggests creating a tent or place under the table for kids to hide out, pretending they are Israelites when their interest in the seder lags (this can work nicely for cranky adults too). They suggest jazzing up the plagues with "origami frogs, plastic bugs, red food coloring dropped into a clear bowl of water (for blood), a burned-out light bulb or dark glasses (for darkness), rice (for lice), ping-pong balls (hail), bubble wrap (boils)," and so forth. There's celebrating freedom by eating dessert first: chocolate matzoh. There's going to the "Lotus Blossom Chinese Restaurant" as a traditional post-Passover "break-the-fast" (it's pizza in my house).

Those new to Jewish life in general, and to Jewish family life in particular, will be grateful to have a book that tackles not only the rules and regulations of Jewish life but that offers strategies for making its dailiness possible for both parents and children to share.

As in Diamant's other books, she holds that there are many ways to be Jewish, none more authentic or valid than the other. Her Judaism, therefore, abounds with choices: She is more concerned about the ways individual families can find meaning in Judaism than in preserving a particular Judaism. Families, she suggests, can experience a meaningful Sabbath in diverse ways. Saturday Sabbath services followed by gefilte fish and brisket is only one option. Families might prefer "washing the car or raking leaves or baking cookies as a family." Or, instead of dropping kids off at a Saturday soccer game, they might stick around and cheer, and then go out together afterward for ice cream.

The ambitiousness of Diamant's inclusiveness can sometimes be tricky. The book is pitched to a wide range of parents, from the non-Jewish raising Jewish kids to the most traditional. Some will find the Sabbath, holiday, and life-cycle information offered here far too rudimentary. Traditional families won't find much charm in the suggestion that family trips can be "an extra-special family adventure" if you keep kosher or observe Shabbat even while on the road. (This is like saying to the nearsighted, "If you take your glasses with you on vacation, you'll be sure to enjoy what you see!") But even observant families need wrestle with creative compromises for their young children. Certainly -- and I say this from personal experience -- the parents of observant teens need plenty of guidance as they help their children bridge Jewish and secular worlds.

I wish, for instance, the authors had told parents that sometimes the compromises come from teachers, coaches, and peers, all of whom can come to respect their Sabbath observance. My teenage daughter's entire track team recently traveled to the state meet Friday night before sundown so she could run with them. The next morning, they got up in their hotel near the track and took first place.

Readers may find the brief chapters on special parenting issues (such as adoption, choices in Jewish education, special-needs kids, and helping children face death) insufficient. As the mother of a daughter soon to be thinking about colleges, I read in the "Selecting a College" section that many colleges had "interesting opportunities for Jewish living and learning" and that most colleges have a Hillel center. I can't imagine this comes as news to anyone.

But even where they fail, Diamant and Kushner end each section with a list of other helpful books and appropriate institutions and organizations to lead seekers to the more nuanced information they need. (Diamant directs the college-bound to an excellent resource: the "Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus," which was our bible when my older daughter was applying to college.) Judaism plays a different role in "The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children," by clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel. When talking cures ceased to help the distressed parents she was counseling, Mogel turned to the wisdom of a Judaism she was rediscovering as an adult. Judaism, she felt, could offer insights into the issues of contemporary parenting. Mogel argues that much of the rotten behavior that parents witness in their over-protected and over-scheduled kids is rooted in parents' own failure to teach their children the deep lessons of Judaism, like honoring parents and respecting others.
Jewish leaders often urge us to transmit Judaism to our children, treating Judaism as a precious, but not terribly appealing, commodity that is about to disappear. In the face of this constant refrain, Mogel's perspective is incredibly fresh and intelligent. She doesn't tell us to teach our children Judaism for the sake of Judaism, or because a long line of ancestors would be terribly disappointed. She is telling us that if we learn and transmit the incredible wisdom of Judaism -- a wisdom communicated in what we say and do, what we permit and prohibit, and what we treat as worthy of our respect and energy -- our children will be better people, not just better Jews. They will be more respectful of authority, more compassionate, more responsible for others. Judaism will guide parents who are charged with the task of making kids into mensches.That's the good news. The tough news is that it will require parents who prefer being laid-back and non-authoritative to act in ways that might seem old-fashioned: to address children with authority, demand that they work to become good people (as opposed to becoming accomplished), and hold them accountable.

How does this play out in real life? Can Jewish theology speak to the woes of a parent whose child is a picky eater? Can Yiddishkeit make five-year-old Asher eat his peas? Mogel counsels Mom not to bribe or nag him. If the meal is a stage for testing out a child's power, Asher must not be allowed to win. Mogel wants Asher's mom to turn to the Jewish teaching that "the dinner table is a place where a family comes together and to enjoy each other's company." Instead of turning the table into a battlefield, Mom can "Light a few candles...relax, and enjoy your meal, concentrate on your blessings and invite your child to do the same. He may catch the spirit." Mom can also introduce the Jewish concept of blessings for particular foods as a way to understand mealtime blessing as a consciousness-raising tool.

Mogel suggests that "as you size up what you are eating, you open up the window of consciousness a crack further. Remembering the blessings bring dignity to the individual food itself, to its cosmic soul.... If you then eat with guilt, in an angry mood, or in a hurried manner, you are misspending the blessing."

Even those excited by Mogel's approach may wonder if it's possible to detach the values of a religious system and apply them to family life without their seeming hollow, ungrounded, or artificial. Can non-Jewish parents apply these same strategies, as Mogel claims? (What if the situation were reversed, and this were a book about applying Christian values to families of all traditions: Can you teach a Jewish child the blessings of the Christmas spirit, for instance, without the observance of Christmas?)

The formulas and maxims Mogel wants parents to employ are part of a larger current of life. They are made real through a multitude of daily actions and interactions. Reading her hopeful recommendations, it occurs to this reader that it's no coincidence Mogel derived her insights only after she found a Jewish community worth embracing and being embraced by.

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