Book Review: How to Be A Jewish Parent
November 20, 2000 by Howard Blas
Putting a mezuzah on the doll’s house is just one of many ways to turn your home into ‘Jewish space’
Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, or even by its title, but that didn’t stop fellow riders on several Manhattan buses and subways from offering their comments about Anita Diamant’s new book, “How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life.” One passenger exclaimed, “My parents never had any book like that,” and proceeded to tell me how much he hated Hebrew school, but has found his way back to Judaism. Another speculated, “You must be a new parent.” (No, I have a few kids, thank you, but isn’t there still room to learn more about being a Jewish parent?) A 15-year- old boy asked, “Why do Jews need a special book about being a parent?” And perhaps the most innocent comment came from a 14-year- old student of mine who noted, “It seems rather simple. From what you taught me, don’t you just have to be Jewish and have children?” If only it were so easy!
But get past the title and you will find another informative handbook by the author of such useful titles as “The New Jewish Baby Book,” “Living a Jewish Life,” “Saying Kaddish” and the recent best- selling novel “The Red Tent.” In this collaboration with Karen Kushner, a family therapist, Diamant shares with parents and prospective parents the wide range of choices available in creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.
It is this idea of “choices” that will give the book wide appeal, but at the same time make it difficult for some in the Jewish world to take certain parts seriously.
The person new to parenting or looking to reconnect with Judaism will love learning how to make his or her home a “Jewish space,” model Jewish behaviors in everyday interactions, and bring meaning to every holiday or other special day, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Hashoah. It is these “mitzvah as good deed” folks who will appreciate the book’s non-preachy
approach and the flexibility Diamant’s brand of Judaism offers as they decide for themselves how and when to bring Judaism into their lives. This “liberal” Jew (defined by the authors as Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist - something sure to offend those Conservative Jews who do not like being called “liberal” and lumped together with the others) is the intended audience, the group “for whom Jewish law (halachah) is not the unifying arbiter of all Jewish life but a venerable authority and important source of values and standards.”
The more traditional “mitzvah as commandment” crowd will find the discussion of Jewish holidays and practices to be a useful albeit obvious review of basic Judaism. They may very well dismiss as hokey such suggestions as “make a mezuzah for the doll’s house”; they will cringe when they read that “some Jews avoid all forms of shopping [on Shabbat] but make an exception for a treat on Shabbat afternoon,” or that “some families forego synagogue observance on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and… [s]urrounded by the quiet beauty of the natural world, parents and children read prayers and poems, talk about forgiveness, and discuss family goals and Jewish resolutions for the coming year.”
Finding a parenting book that speaks to all Jews is like finding a universally acceptable prayer book or synagogue. Some Orthodox Jews will find this book unacceptable. But the majority of Jewish readers will find it a delightful and helpful parenting guide that tackles obvious as well as difficult issues. We discover how to look for a synagogue, travel Jewish and feed fussy kids on Passover, while also learning how to deal with death, adoption and kids of mixed marriages, who ask questions like “Why can’t I go to church with Daddy?”
Diamant and Kushner speak mostly to American Jews. However, any Jew looking to bring Judaism into his or her family will appreciate page after page of helpful suggestions. Those who already “do” will feel good and strive to do more Jewishly; those who “don’t” but are searching can confidently find a point of entry. A book that lets us feel good about ourselves as Jews and as parents is an important contribution.Howard Blas
is a Jewish educator living in New York.