This series is sponsored by our friend, Danny Turkel.
In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to the families from our previous series on intergenerational divergence to follow up and see what they’re up to now. As we revisit the previous interviews, we continue the conversations where we left off, drawing from the experiences and wisdom of our guests.
• What advice would our guests give their younger selves during the difficult period that they went through?
• What have our guests been up to and what has the feedback been since sharing their stories on 18Forty?
• What is the role of disappointment and expectations in the idea of identity?
Tune in to hear a conversation about family, about dissonance, and about unconditional love.
The Europeans by Orlando Figes
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Reform, Conservative, Haredi — it’s all in the family by Robyn Frisch
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin. And today, we’re doing a roundup of one of our most popular series on intergenerational divergence.
This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18forty.org, that’s 1-8, followed by the word F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Without a doubt, the most popular series in terms of the amount of listeners who tuned in was the series that we did on intergenerational divergence. And it always struck me as interesting because I think a lot of people rightfully asked like why did you cover this subject? What is the mission of 18Forty, exactly, that this was a topic that you chose to take on?
And I want to talk about that a little bit before we get into the snippets and also get to listen to where they are now, those families that we introduced you to around this time last year, right before Passover. And to me, this is a highlight that I hope that we’ll be able to come back to each and every year, exploring how families navigate religious differences, whether religious or many other ways, but how they navigate difference, large and small.
But I first want to talk a little bit about why on earth we chose to cover this subject. Of all of the things that we cover, so much of what do is more theological, these major issues, these sociological issues, theological issues. We just covered like Halacha, sociological issues. We covered like wealth. We’ve spoken about God in the past. We’ve spoken about the phenomenon of people leaving religion and why they leave rationality.
But where does intergenerational divergence fit into this? And I think it’s squarely a part of our mission. What 18Forty is trying to do is we are issues driven and we are looking to provide content and ideas, videos, articles, podcasts, really everything that help people construct meaning in their lives, in the modern world.
And we address three points of dissonance as we’ve mentioned so many times. Theological dissonance, when the theology, the religious ideas that you grew up with as a child are no longer maybe suiting you or you’re finding new ideas that you need to grow into.
A sociological dissonance, the way that you look at other groups in the Jewish world. Maybe as a child, you looked at non-Jews in a certain way, you looked at minorities in a certain way, you looked at people who practice Judaism differently than you in a certain way. And now you’re an adult and you see them. You need a new lens with which to approach different segments, populations within the larger world.
And finally, emotional dissonance. And emotional dissonance, I think, is something that everyone’s felt in their life. So you grow up with a certain relationship to your Jewish life, to your religious life, maybe it was joyful, maybe it was very intense, maybe it was very real to you. And now you’re growing up as an adult in the modern world. And you’re trying to figure out you have that emotional resonance. How do you build an emotional connection with your Jewish life now that you have as an adult.
And on the simplest level, intergenerational divergence probably fits into the categories, at least, of emotional dissonance and, for sure, sociological dissonance. But I think it addresses something much larger about our religious lives. And that is our relationship to choice itself. We’re called 18Forty after the calendric year of 1840. And that is when the world became hyper-connected. The telegraph came out. And the world globalization began to connect the world in ways that people really could never have dreamed of.
This is what Orlando Figes talks about in his fantastic book, The Europeans, which is about the generation of 1840 and how it really shaped the world and brought this interconnectivity that previously was unimagined. And part of being connected is also the amount of choice that we are exposed to. When there are so many possibilities, professional possibilities, romantic possibilities, religious possibilities, and we’re exposed to so many more options, it makes it harder to really develop a sense of self and pick a particular path for our lives.
And I think that this is at the heart of some of the pain, the joy, the opportunity, and definitely the challenge of the modern world that we live in. We are exposed to an incredible amount of choice. And what began in the 1840s has just been heightened in the world that we live in today. Every religious community has 10, 20 other options within walking distance. Every professional path has a hundred other options of what you can do with it changing mid-careers.
And your romantic options. You look at the way dating has changed. And I hope that we’ll be able to explore this sooner. The amount of choice that people are exposed to. The amount of options. It’s certainly not growing up in the Shtetl where you had, you know, a handful of families that you’d look and say, hey, who am I going to build my family life with? And I think that the amount of choice has really shaped our very sense of self and really changed the very boundaries of family.
In the pre-modern world, there was a lot more stability to your family life, to your very sense of self. In many ways, it was suffocating the profession that your parents held, the economic station that your parents held, probably the families that they felt that you could even marry into. There was a certain amount of stability and stagnation throughout the generations because the world that you were born into was ultimately the world that you left as well.
And with the rise of globalization and capitalism, there’s been just so much more options for how we choose to create our very sense of self. And the fact that we are anchored within a family no longer necessarily has the same amount of stability that it once did. Families change within our own lifetimes. People take different directions that maybe in generations past would’ve been really radical and drastic, but it’s something that we see within whatever community that you live with. People moving in different directions.
So in many ways, I look at intergenerational divergence as reflection on modernity itself, reflection on how we situate ourselves within our families, how we allow our families to provide that sense of stability, that sense of unconditional love, while still realizing that the very notion of family and the stability that family may have once provided has become a more volatile, certainly for so many. And that’s so much of the stories that we are exploring, of how families contend with that volatility, how families contend with those sorts of changes.
And in many ways, it’s a microcosm of what everyone is trying to do in the modern world. With so many choices, with so many options, the world that we are born into is no longer the status quo for all that long. So how should we look at our familial identity and how do we figure out how to build our home from within the context of that family? And to me, that’s a very modern problem, because previous generations never really contended with other options.
But if modernity is all about the multiplicity of choice and the opportunity of choice, but also the challenge of figuring out how to author a sense of self with so much choice in front of you, it’s why I believe intergenerational divergence is such an important part of our discussions on 18Forty. And it’s specifically why we choose to talk about this right before Pesach. Pesach, believe it or not is now a month away. And at the heart of Pesach, at the heart of the Pesach Seder is really the building blocks of family, the way that it is described in the Torah, the way people connected and obligated themselves to eat in the Korban Pesach, the Paschal lamb, the offering that they brought every Pesach was in the description of the Torah, was each person for their family.
And it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the notion of family itself. And I hope that this is a topic that we’ll be revisiting this month. And I hope that it’s a topic that we have the ability to revisit every year before Pesach to reflect on the contours, distinctions, volatility, opportunity, and challenges that exist in finding our individuals sense of self within the larger context of family.
And we sometimes think of our religious communities as extended families. This idea that everyone is a cousin in some way is prevalent in the communities that I’ve spent time in. And there’s sort of a danger that exists when dating, is you never quite know how many dates in which you might realize that, wait a second, this person, is actually, my third cousin. No judgment. You can marry a cousin. You should know my personal family, the Bashevkin family origin were cousins that married each other. But really, everyone has the potential to be your cousin in this very small universe we call the Jewish community.
If the metaphor of religion as family is meaningful, one we think of less often is that of family as religion. Just as each religion or religious community has its doctrines, beliefs, mythologies, traditions, cultural norms, every family has its own set of beliefs, figures, modes of seeing the world. We’re used to thinking of our religious lives as family, particularly in the Jewish life. But what I think this topic does is reorient and maybe thinks of our family as like almost a mini religious community of sorts.
We’re used to thinking of each home, the Gemara has this illusion in several different places in the Talmud that each house is almost like the Temple in Jerusalem. Every house is a Beis HaMikdash, it’s a theme that comes up on the Pesach night when we dress in all-white, we wear a kittel. Where we literally dress up in that imagery of wearing all-white and sitting around the Passover Seder in many ways is trying to invoke the imagery of the Beis HaMikdash itself, where the Kohanim, the priests, they wore all white.
And I’ve been drawn to that imagery of every home being a Beis HaMikdash, not just because it’s a reminder that our religious community is a family, but it’s also a reminder, as we said, that every family is really its own mini religious community. And just as the Beis HaMikdash has places of worship, places for eating, and for religious function, each home has those distinct areas for connection, for food, with different functions of every sort presiding over each area.
I think in your own home, you could think about the labels we have for each room. You have a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bedroom. It’s not always how it works out of where people actually eat, where people actually kind of live and schmooze and talk with each other. I know in my house, when we were younger, some of the most serious conversations took place on the stairs. Like if you were having a really serious conversation with a parent, with a sibling, we would always sit on the bottom steps of the stairs. It’s not really a room that anybody would talk about, but it imagines your home is having these different nooks and crannies, each of which have their own religious function, so to speak.
And this lovely belief also speaks to this idea of a family as religion. And just as religions have their faiths, each family has its own faith, its own beliefs about what being a human, what being part of that particular family means. I think of those lawn signs, which I’ll be honest, I sometimes used to roll my eyes at. In this home we believe that and they’d have a bunch of stuff.
But I think each family has an implicit sign like that. Each family being this mini religion of sorts with its own beliefs, with its own set of culture, with its own set of rituals that you build out of it. And those beliefs inside of a family might be about the job that one has. You say, in our family, we are all doctors. I mean, I grew up in the family of a doctor, of a hematologist oncologist.
We were not a family we were all going to be doctors. We made that clear. It’s part of the quirks of having a hematologist, which is a blood doctor and cancer, married to my mother who faints at the sight of blood. And I’ll let you guess which of those genes most of us inherited.
But you have a home where they have beliefs like what kind of job you have, the value or a character trait that’s exemplified. We believe in kindness above all. Or about something more subtle and deep. We love each other in this family. We value each other’s contributions.
And I think every family has its own culture. What do they celebrate? What do they promote? What are they proud of? What are the type of things that they hang up on the fridge? Is it artwork? Is it getting into college? Is it failures? Is it difficulties? How do you build culture in your home? In many ways, these almostmezuzahs of sorts that we hang up on our fridge to remind ourselves of our familial beliefs in this mini religious community that we call family.
Our friend Yehuda Fogel, who writes our weekly emails. And Lord knows that I need to urge you, please sign up for those. We really send that a lot of great stuff in there. And it means a lot if you could sign up. Believing that aside, I’m not here to plug those weekly emails. I’m here to plug a book that Yehuda Fogel told me about. It’s called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. And it’s a really beautiful book with kind of this painful beauty of the process of writing.
And in that book, there’s something incredibly profound. She wrote that the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. There’s plenty of room to debate this point about what the opposite of faith truly is. But I find the idea interesting, particularly as it relates to families. When one member of a family deviates from a family belief, often everything is thrown into question. This member may stray from the certainty of the felt norm of this family by choosing a different profession, a lifestyle, a political preference, community religious identity, or any other moniker or label that the family has not tended to in the past.
When this happens, I believe that many families kind of find that their truest faiths may be deeper by such deviation, such strains. And although they’re often reminded that faith itself does not always come allied with certainty, they realize that we have a deeper faith that’s not just a specific path, but a faith that animates what it means to be a part of a family itself.
Every family has its own complexities, its own quiet challenges, whether they go said or unsaid. And too often, each family lives with a fear of being seen for its imperfections. We fear that our issues and ours alone, particular to our own homes, and we find our certainty shaking someone that we’re going to be known as the family who dealt with X, with Y, with an illness, with a child straying, with a child going in a different direction, with a child whose life did not unfold in the way that we had hoped.
And it challenges that certainty. And we need to find a deeper form of faith to animate our family lives. It’s not a comfortable feeling. And when I started talking about intergenerational divergence, people will get stuck on the mouthful of the name. It’s a terrible name. It’s the first text I got after we launched the series from a dear friend of mine, Yaakov Langer, who said, this is one of the most awful names I’ve ever heard. And he’s a podcaster of note who definitely has the experiences and the expertise to say that.
But that was until they heard from the three families we had on. And in each, the discomfort of the changing faith of the family, and I don’t mean changing faith in terms of the religious practice, but in terms of reorienting the faith of what it means to have faith in a family, what it means to have a culture and that mini religious community that we call family.
And I believe that every family is its own religious community. And finding a faith that is flexible, that you’re able to look at each child, and each child’s able to look at each parent and sibling, and able to come together in that flexibility of faith that necessarily needs to animate each family in this modern world of hyper choice, hyper options, hyper paths of so many directions that we can each unfold.
We need a different form of faith that can’t just be certainty in order to ensure that we’re able to stick together, even when we change, even when we go in a different direction. And that was often a more complex faith as families figured out how to express their love for each other despite, or perhaps because of and through the different choices that each made.
There’s an old blessing that says when your heart breaks, may it break open. That each of these families had a choice to make between loving each other more or letting differences get in the way. And they each, in their own way, chose a path of letting their heart open, letting their heart break open a path of deepened connection.
And that’s why I am so excited to not just recap these past episodes, but we also reached out to each of these families to find out what they’re up to now, how sharing their story on 18Forty. A story that was so private and so intimate and opening up to all of our listeners may have affected the way they looked, approached their own story, the feedback that they heard. And I’m so excited to share each of those with you.
The first family we spoke to was the Grama family, Rabbi Daniel Grama, the Rabbi in Los Angeles and his daughter, Aliza. Aliza, as she shared, is a recovering addict and she hosts a weekly Parsha talks with her father on Instagram, which is really how I found out about them originally.
The Gramas had a hard road in getting to this conversation. You could hear it, in their openhearted honesty, the real work that went into the family they have now. One of the many pearls of wisdom that the Gramas shared with us, one of the most poignant, was the lessons in communication that they learned in the crucible of experience. Listen with me.
But still reflecting on those moments before we get into the more mature conversations, I’m wondering if you could each talk, and you’ve both touched on it a little bit, how do you think if you could go back and give advice, Aliza, to your 15, 16-year-old self, Rabbi Grama, to your younger self as a parent parenting a 15, 16-year-old girl? What advice would you given to your younger selves during that period? Not vis-a-vis the school, not vis-a-vis dress code, not vis-a-vis cell phones, vis-a-vis one another that you could have done differently to ensure that the pain that you had already gone through and experienced as a family wasn’t compounded by the distance being created between both of you.
For me, I think that if I would go back, I would be able to say that my parents love me no matter what. And they would be able to accept the person I was becoming. And maybe have the conversation with them then, instead of just resenting them, being angry at them or making me want to follow a certain path and have the conversation with them being like, I’m struggling with this right now. And I may need to tell them that I was straying instead of trying to hide everything or instead of just being angry at them. Have the conversation that we eventually had. Had that at an earlier age to let them know and know that no matter what they will end up accepting them.
And I understand it was hard for them to accept me at the beginning. And I don’t know how they would have reacted at time, but looking back now, how it is right now is something I could have never imagined at that young age. So I was never able to… Right now, I can’t see how it would go back then, but that’s what I would’ve wished that I could have talked to them about it and been more open with them instead of hiding everything and sneaking around.
These are heart-rending words, the words of a daughter that wishes she was able to say more. And here’s Rabbi Grama’s response. Speaking from the other side of the aisle, as he reflects on those hard years and what he wished he knew at that time.
So Rabbi Grama, I’m wondering now, if you could weigh in again on your giving advice to your younger self as a parent and perhaps listening in on other parents, whether they have very young children or they’re noticing themselves. What advice would you have given yourself during that period, watching the struggles of your daughter?
I think there are two primary lessons that I took away from that experience with Aliza in those truth is very, very hard rebellious years. Number one is every child relies on their parent to be their protectors and their safety net. And when we, in their mind, disappoint them or fall short of that, we’re going to be blamed, regardless of how ignorant we were of what they’re going through. But they have to, between the anger and the hurt and the disappointment that we’re not protecting them from what they felt oppressed by or attacked by. So that’s we’re going to be in the room for that. So that’s it. That’s obviously an understanding which can only come with experience.
I think there’s an important concept that I’ve learned over the years. And that is that it’s not natural or normal for children to want to walk away. As you mentioned in your introduction, that every parent aspires for the children to follow their path. And obviously, we know that not every child’s going to be exactly like their parents, but there is a certain level of comfort or expectation that why would a kid want to leave the comfort of the warmth of the home, the love of the home and try something so radically different.
And that means they have to be willing to sacrifice what they’re getting at home for something else, that means you’re really not getting something from the house. And there’s something very deeply missing that’s worth it for them to create that level of trouble and to find it and seek it someplace so out, not just out their home, out of the religious culture, out of the environment, out the expectation. And then cause trouble because of that and cause pain because of that.
So there’s a lot of deep stuff going inside a child who does something like that. And parents have to recognize. I wish I would’ve understood that then, to understand that if this child is really not just walking it, but running away, then there’s something which is really, really hurtful inside of her. And not just this crazy rebellious teenager who couldn’t handle the death of her brother and got a little messed up in school because of it. And now just taking herself down this path of destruction. It was much more about what she was missing and that what she was seeking than she could really understand that. And I wish I understood that then.
I think for me on a personal level, the story that resonated most with me, that broke my heart open to their story was the story that Rabbi Grama shared when Aliza was threatening to break her sobriety and the reaction of Aliza’s mother.
There’s one time when literally she was a few months into treatment and she was threateningin to, not in a harsh way threatening, but she was threatening to break her sobriety because she just wasn’t a place she couldn’t handle anymore. And my wife said, don’t move, I’m coming. And she jumped on the plane and flew to Texas that night at 8:30, 9:00 o’clock at night. I was at work. I couldn’t get away. And my wife said, I’m coming. Just promise me you’re not going to move and I’m coming. And she spent the day with her. And that was it. And these small things, not so small, but these pieces built a picture for Aliza.
And this broke my heart wide open. Don’t move, I’m coming. It reminded me of a story when I first came to Ner Yisroel, quite honestly, it opened me up. When I first came to Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, I had like a panic attack. I think that first year of being in such a different place, I was so scared. And I called my mother. I remember I was crying to her on the phone. I was probably like in my early twenties, probably 20 years old or so. And my mother, her first reaction says, I’m going to get on a train. I’m going to come out to see you in Baltimore.
She didn’t end up having to come, but that instinctive reaction of don’t move I’m coming really highlights that unconditional love that I think only a parent has in the recesses of their heart. And something I found incredibly moving in this interview.
When I think about this interview, it’s not natural for people to want to run away. It was more about, like Rabbi Grama said, it was more about what she was missing, what she was seeking. It’s a keen insight sharper than you may realize. We think of running away normally from a family as a sort of natural instinct, Peter Pan escaping to Neverland in the dead of night.
But Rabbi Grama reminds us to think about everything that is happening inside of someone, the inner life of someone who wants to leave it all. We can turn toward. Keep on trying to turn toward no matter how much it seems like someone we love is trying to turn away.
So what are the Gramas up to now? I reached out to the Gramas. And I want to share with you what they’re up to now. Because really, Rabbi Grama and what he represents, and that faith that he represents, that maybe in a way is the opposite of certainty is something I find so deeply moving.
Reflecting on last year’s podcast that we did for 18Forty to Rabbi Bashevkin. The truth is when he reached out to me initially, I had no idea what to expect. I’m not a real podcast guy. I don’t really listen to too many, nothing personal, but I said, sure. I couldn’t imagine what it would incorporate, what it would require. I definitely could never envision the impact it had on me and my daughter. And I’ll let her speak for herself.
First of all, it was such, for myself personally, it turned out to be really a very cathartic and almost therapeutic experience, allowing myself to be able to talk openly in a way that I haven’t really never done stuff. Surely not in a public forum, being asked very poignant and relative questions. And together with my daughter to do it together like that, it was really powerful.
Secondly, what really struck me, as I mentioned, I’m not a podcast guy and I have no idea the scope of people that listen, but I can tell you that literally at times we couldn’t walk down the streets almost without being called out and shouted to and people I hardly know sometimes just told us how much they’ve listened to it and how much it meant to them.
I had one experience where a guy I do know… Well, not that well. I know from around, I know his family, but I know him and he really called me up and I took his call right away, because he’s not person who typically calls. And he’s literally excited. Like literally like… He says, I’m just middle listening to the podcast. I have to call. I have to call you.
So I asked him like, what point were you listening to that prompted you to call? What point struck you? And he said for him, it was a point where it said, if a parent sees that a child is beginning to veer or struggle from the norms of the home, then the parents must be aware and realize that there’s something going on, that there’s something that the kid is struggling with. And that always really struck home for him.
So I think it helped a lot of people in the sense where it gave every person a kind of a voice, a connection, somebody who experiences on different levels, what they’re experiencing, one Rebbe of a yeshiva in Israel told me he actually had most of his talmidim listen to it. So it obviously resonates with a lot of people, was a great idea from Rabbi Bashevkin to come up with such a creative concept as he does always. And we’re really, really grateful to be able to participate in it.
And like I said, whatever impact it might have had on people, it’s really our zechus to be able to participate in that and to have had that impact. And now give it over to Aliza.
Well, for me, when we first got asked to do this, I was more than willing, I just didn’t know at the time the effect and the impact that it would have on people and how many people would listen to it. During, I was just kind of going with the flow. I was an open book. I just kind of said whatever I said was strictly from the heart, it wasn’t planned. And doing it with my father and us getting to hear it, I didn’t know how he felt during my struggles. When he was doing it, it helped us connect on a different level. And I have more understanding.
After we did it, it was just incredible. People I haven’t spoken to in years would reach out to me. People were messaging me, finding me on Instagram, messaging me. It was just nonstop. And I didn’t know… I wasn’t even able to listen to the full thing because it was hard for me to hear my own voice speaking to it, but so many people. And I was just so, so surprised by the effect that I had on people. And it made me feel like, wow, I do have this effect.
For a moment, it made me feel like I want to do more. I want to help more. How can I help more? Because just this podcast that we did and not knowing at all what it would be like at first and then affecting so many other people who have struggles. Some that are just keeping it to themselves would reach out to me and be like you really helped me open up and see that you can struggle and you can be okay, and it’s going to be okay if you just do the work, even though it’s hard.
And I was super grateful for the opportunity. I was super grateful that I was able to help others. But for me, personally, right after and getting all that feedback, it made me, for a sense, like really wanting to grow, to help others and impact others as much as I can. But as you know, from my podcast, there’s a lot of ups and downs in my life. So there’s that too. But if we just keep pushing forward and helping others.
Everyone who reached out, there was so many different parts, everybody connected with a different part of our story. Whether it was my part or whether it was what my father said or whether it was a connection. And it’s interesting because a lot of people, and I think we spoke about this a little bit on the podcast about how do you have this connection? How do you have this? And I just want to remind everyone it wasn’t always like this. But I think it just… I think people need to be more open and not struggle in silence.
Because you’re struggling with something and I can promise you somebody else is out there struggling. And if my struggles and my experience and my story can help others, that’s all… My father once told me, he said something to me saying the purpose of speaking is to impact someone for the better. And even if that person is yourself, it’s still worth it. And I can definitely say, as much as it helped others, it definitely helped me. So thank you.
Yeah. Just to add to Aliza’s point, where Aliza just said that people are impressed and inspired, if I may, using their words of our relationship. And what she said is very, very accurate. It wasn’t always like that at all, to put it mildly . And even till today, there are still struggles. But I think like any relationship that you value, so you allow the strength and the benefit of the relationship to overcome the challenges. And when there’s love and respect and appreciation for each other and for the relationship, then that hopefully will carry through.
And that’s something that both parents and children have to recognize. Obviously, as adults, as the parents we have to create that vibe and establish that platform in our homes. But it’s definitely something that we want our children to pick up and appreciate and recognize that it’s important to us. And it’s hard. Not always easy. It’s a big struggle.
I’ll just conclude that. I remember one of the last questions that the Rabbi asked was if I had to write a book, what would it be? And I thought about it afterwards, and I think the name would… I mention this to him subsequently, but I would perhaps call that The Journey is the Destiny. A lot of us are looking to get to a place to end the journey, but life teaches us that it doesn’t work like that. And as we are on every step of the journey, each step of the journey is our own little destiny. And everything we accomplish along that journey is within itself a mini accomplishment, a mini destiny that we have reached in our relationships with our family, with ourselves, and of course with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. So again, we thank you. My daughter thanks you. I thank you.
I just want to say one more thing on your destiny. Don’t give up when you hit roadblocks, because you will. But yes, thank you.
Thank you. And again, like Aliza said, if we can ever be more help… And I do apologize for anyone listening to this who reached out at times, and we try to respond to everybody, and if I did not, and she did not, we apologize for that. But if we can be some form of help, please let us know. Thank you and God bless. And again, Rabbi Bashevkin, thank you for the really, really amazing work you do for Klal Yisrael.
The next interview we did was with the Frisch Family. Rabbi Robyn Frisch is a Reform Rabbi in Philadelphia. And her son Benji made the choice in high school to become Orthodox. And not just a little bit. He went on to learn Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim, which I’m sure many of our listeners are familiar with, if not being graduates of the Yeshiva itself.
We absolutely loved having the Frisches on. Their relationship warms our insides for the Frisches, there’s a fundamental, an unmoving respect that operates in both directions, that lives in the heart of a family that has divergence in it. And that has difference. Listen with me.
What other advice would you have given to yourself in those early points in the relationship?
I think the thing that I’ve come to realize, like I said, I understood earlier was that Benji’s not going to stop being Benji. He’s going to practice a different lifestyle. They might call him Binyamin in the Yeshiva. We call him Benji. The biggest question I, well, one of the biggest questions I get, and believe me, there are many, is how does he get along with his siblings? And my honest response is, great, he’s still Benji, they’re still Noah and Tali. He comes home.
He spends more time in his room studying Talmud than he used to, but when he comes out and he’s interacting with us, he could still be a total goofball with the rest of us. And has interests both Jewish and otherwise that he shares with his brothers and… I’m sorry, brother and sister. There’s only one of each. And he didn’t lose the essence of who he’s. He’s just taken on a different lifestyle.
And I think that was probably, and I don’t… This is the first time I’m realizing this as you’re asking question, is that probably what scared me the most is that we were going to lose our son. And we haven’t lost our son. Benji has discovered a lifestyle that’s different than ours. It has its challenges and it also has its blessing. And he’s brought beautiful things to us. Like when he’s home, Shabbat is different. And sometimes that’s challenging, but sometimes… Overall it’s like I feel like an extra sense of holiness because of the way he experiences Shabbat and views Shabbat.
And so while things have changed, if I could have known or could have told myself that doesn’t mean Benji is different. As essence of who he he is as a human being is still there. And that’s really, I think, what I was scared of losing more than anything.
This mother’s a rabbi and a leader, but above all, she’s a mother of Benji. And although Benji decided and subscribed to a somewhat different flavor of Jewish observance, he returns home to a home that is eager to celebrate Shabbos with him, even if their Shabbos looks different than his. I think my fan favorite, I’ll be honest, and I don’t like picking favorites, but we remain in touch, is Robyn Frisch.
I kept on calling her Mommy because it was almost like so instinctive the warmth and the way that she stretched herself to appreciate Benji’s own journey throughout our interview. It wasn’t from a lack of respect. It was from a deep warmth that she had. And I was so excited when I reached out to her again, to share us what she’s been up to and her reflections on sharing her story on 18Forty.
The feedback was remarkably positive. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, when I wrote a couple of articles in the Forward, I heard from some people who were Haredi and Orthodox, and others who were more like myself, who were more liberal whose children had become Baal Teshuva. Not surprisingly, from your podcast, I tended to hear more from those who were Orthodox, who were more in the world of listening to that. And their feedback was, it was almost exclusively women. Although I did hear actually from a couple of male Orthodox rabbis, which is really interesting. And they all basically focused on our common Judaism and our common humanity and said it was just so wonderful to hear a mom whose joy comes from seeing her child happy.
And they all said that they feel the same way. Now, I got to be honest, I don’t know if their kids went off the derech, if they would feel the exact same way. And certainly it’s easier for them to say it when my children have gone in the direction of their life. And I don’t mean that cynically at all. But they were without a doubt, incredibly supportive. I cannot tell you how many offers from a Chassidish woman who was herself Baal Teshuva, who said Benji’s welcome to come for Shabbos, we live in Jerusalem.
I just got, literally a week and a half ago, a woman who said I’ve just been thinking about this since I heard the podcast ages ago and I’m finally writing to you. And she said how nice it was for her to be able to learn something from a Reform Rabbi. And that she had always thought her way is the one way to do things. And now her own children actually have become a little more right wing than her. And how hearing me talk to you on the podcast has made her think about, look, they’re my kids. And as moms and as fathers as well, ultimately, we love our children and we have to accept that they’re going to make their own choices, but it doesn’t change how we love them.
And I think for me, my biggest takeaway from all of this has been, we all love our families. And we all put our families first. And our Judaism may be practiced really differently. And in my case, my child’s Judaism may be practiced really differently from mine, but that’s not a reason to lose connection with your child. And what’s made me really sad recently, in the last months, has been, I always grew up being taught and believing that Klal Yisrael was really important. And that Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh L’Zeh like, Jews are supposed to be there for each other. And there are all types of Jews and we’re still Jews.
And I don’t see that in reality very much these days. I think there’s so much hatred and resentment, and, whether it’s political, whether it’s just even the ways Jews talk about other Jews. I hear it in my community. I know it goes on in other communities as well, of this sense of I’m doing it the only right way. And maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much if my family itself weren’t Klal Yisrael or if I didn’t live in a family with a diversity of Jews, maybe I would just go through life saying, yes, liberal Jews are correct. And this is the way to do things. And these Haredi Jews are crazy. And it would be very simple.
But I don’t think that because not only do I have a son I love who’s chosen that world, but I have a glimpse into that world. I can’t say I live in that world, but I have a glimpse into it. And while it’s not something I choose to make my life, it’s something that I see many beautiful things about. And like anything else, like liberal Judaism, it’s complex. And there are things that are wonderful. And there are things that I may not see personally as wonderful.
But I also see ultimately really good, generous, kind human beings. And if I don’t agree with everything they do Jewishly, or everything they might think politically, or whatever the case may be, that doesn’t stop my caring for them in their community. Again, unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the way most Jews are these day. I think we’ve become more and more isolated from each other almost as if we’re, I wouldn’t even say two different peoples, multiple different peoples.
And that just makes me sad. And again, maybe that’s coming from a really personal place because I believe my son’s Jewish, I’m Jewish, and we practice it differently. But at the end of the day, we’re both Jews. And unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of my peers feel of that. And I worry that a lot of people in the more traditional community don’t feel that either.
I can’t remember if I shared this on the podcast before. As I wrote to this very kind woman who sent me an email recently, there’s nothing that could make me listen to myself on a podcast or watch a video of myself. I listen to a podcast up to the part where I started speaking. So I can’t remember if I did say this on the original podcast or not, but I was talking to one of the fellows in the fellowship I run for liberal Rabbis who work with interfaith couples and families.
And I said to one of the Rabbis, just out of curiosity, we were just having a conversation, I wonder if your children who are quite young now, if one of them grew up in and said, I’m going to marry someone who isn’t Jewish, how would you feel? And she said, I would be fine with that. That would be totally alright. I would hope that they would live in a Jewish home and bring Judaism and teach it to their children. And I hope it would be a very healthy, respectful marriage. But she said it would really upset me if they married someone Haredi.
And five years ago, six years ago, before Benji went through his journey, I probably would’ve said me too. And I certainly would have taken it personally. She had no idea of my personal situation. And I think what’s hard for me in many ways is more than people being angry about it or more than people saying, how could he do that? It’s when people feel sorry for me. I think that’s what upsets me the most, is that there is nothing to feel sorry for. I have a happy, well-adjusted child who’s living a life different from mine.
And we always say, when our kids are little, we want them to be independent. And at least I always did. And in his own way, this is his independence. And this is a path he chose. And he’s not harming anyone. He’s not doing something dangerous to himself. He’s making his way in the world. Again, not in a way that I would choose personally, and not in a way, frankly, that I would’ve chose for him, but in a way that works very positively for him.
So when I get from my peers, yes, that sense of that would upset me for my own kids, that’s hurtful, although it’s not intended to be. But again, it’s that sense of sympathy and that sympathetic look that I get as if, oh, poor thing. I think that’s the hardest for me. And that’s where it’s been powerful to bond with some other parents whose kids are Baal Teshuva, whose kids aren’t just Modern Orthodox, but whose kids have become very traditional, who I’ve met through articles I’ve written, who’ve reached out to me.
Because we are able to share not just the challenges, which it’s wonderfully terrific to have someone who can understand the challenges of being a parent, who’s not in that world, having a child in that world, and there are challenges, but who also can share the positive things and who also can share what’s nice and how these Ultra-Orthodox women have been so nice and kind and inclusive to them, or families have been so generous to their children.
And also to just share some of the questions we have. I met this wonderful woman from Baltimore who is further along in the process. Her child’s older and he’s now married with a child. And she’s kind of able to tell me what comes next. And of course it’s different for every human being. I know people think it’s all the same and everyone Haredi looks like and does everything the same. That is not true. But give me a sense of what the community is like.
And actually the woman who emailed me recently was so sweet and said, when your child’s involved in the whole dating process, please feel free to reach out to me. It’s really confusing. And I can help explain things. And was even kind enough to share at her nephew’s wedding in Lakewood because she lives in a different community. And he’s in Lakewood. Everything seemed a little foreign her because every community’s different. And just this sense of I’m not alone in not understanding all the norms of that community.
And certainly as he does get married and have, God willing, will have, not 12, but a few grandchildren. Not that there’s anything wrong with 12. That’s totally fine. I just think it’s a lot for him, But we’ll see. However many grandchildren I have through him, I’m assuming that at that point I will want to be personally more involved in the community because it won’t just be Benji coming home to me by himself and being Benji in our home, but it will be, he will have a partner in that community and children in that community. And I’m assuming a home in that community and will be more of us visiting there and entering into his world.
Until this day, the podcast of ours that gets the most attention is this one with the Penner family. We had Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of RIETS, come on with his son, singer and songwriter, Gedalia Penner-Robinson. In his role at RIETS, YU’s Rabbinical program in Yeshiva, Rabbi Penner helms one of the foremost Orthodox institutions in North America. Gedalia is a deeply powerful singer and songwriter with a voice that can shake the heavens. And he’s currently studying in Cantorial School at JTS.
Overall, I feel like the reactions to this really rose to the occasion of the honesty and vulnerability that the Penners opened themselves up to by sharing their story on this. It was a story that I saw our community, and by our community, I mean the larger Jewish community, needed to hear on an issue where we so often only hear institutional pronouncements. To hear a family learn how to navigate this is something that I think we so desperately needed in our lives. And it’s the notion between our institutional affiliations and our family affiliations that, more than anything else, stuck out so much to me. And this is how Rabbi Penner describes it.
Rabbi Menachem Penner:
I think that’s very, very extreme when it comes to a family. And I think that should only be done as a real, as a real last resort. I don’t think religiously, in most cases, it’s the proper thing to do. I don’t think that HaKadosh Baruch Hu gifted you with a member of your family with the permission to cut off that member of the family, to say, I’m done. HaKadosh Baruch Hu, that’s it. I’m not a parent anymore. I don’t think that’s a very easy thing to say.
And a child doesn’t have another family down the road to turn to if the child is not part of your family. Gedalia has found a lot of comfort in the Conservative world. He’s a student now at JTS in Chazzanus. And I think it’s easier for a shul to say, I’m not sure if we can accommodate what you need. Maybe there’s a shul down the road that can. As opposed to a parent saying, I’m not sure if this home can accommodate. There’s no other home down the road.
This to me is one of the most profound things in the way we think about navigating familial differences. Just to repeat it again, a child doesn’t have another family down the road to turn to if the child is not part of your family. We’re so used to being able to pick a different shul, a different school, a different community, but what if there’s no other home down the road? And we can’t choose another home like we can choose another shteibel. And watching the way a family negotiates these differences is something that I think we could all keep in mind when we confront the inevitable differences that we find in our own lives.
There’s another moment in particular that really speaks to me when I asked about advice he would give parents who are going through something similar. What did advice would you give to parents who are going through something more similar to this to help them navigate that situation and process?
Rabbi Menachem Penner:
So it’s a good question. And we speak, my wife and I speak to parents probably about once a week, a different set of parents trying to talk to them and trying to… We’re a little bit further along in the process, in a certain sense. And we’ve learned a lot. Really, most of what we learned is from Gedalia, but we’ve learned a lot and we’re trying to help them.
There probably are a couple of things that I think are difficult for parents to realize at first, at first. Usually when we speak to a parent, their child came out to them pretty recently and they’re just spinning. Their head is spinning. So I think there’s several things. First of all, there is a certain amount of trauma. There is a certain amount of challenge with the initial coming out to the parents.
And the initial facing it itself, as Gedalia spoke about, of a person kind of realizing that this is so. And that both the parents and the child are going to go through. I wouldn’t even say the child here, both the parents as parents and the individual who’s going through this is going to go through a period of free fall. It changes everything. It just it’s a very big difference of the way that one expects life to proceed. Our community has a pretty set steps that just one leads into another. And of course we should acknowledge that sexual orientation is not the only reason. It’s the same thing, which puts pressure on couples who are not able to have a baby. There’s just certain things that you just take for granted that just happen, one step after another, after another.
And when you hit a roadblock there, it’s not going to be the way it seems. It’s very challenging for both parties. And I think, first of all, parents have to realize that this is ultimately happening more to the child than to the parent. People respond to this. Whether you call this a challenge, whether… Whatever this disruption is, a changing of perspective, a changing of sense of what’s going to be in the future, that challenge, that process is so much more difficult for the child than for the parent.
And it’s easy for a parent to look at it and say, what is the child bringing home? Why did you do this to us? What does this mean for us? What does this mean for our other kids? What is… None of those things compare to the inner turmoil that the individual is facing. And I think one of the things that we had to learn the hard way is to stop thinking about ourselves and to just listen to Gedalia. And what’s he going through? And what is this for him? And what is the experience? And what does it mean to be gay?
And what are the challenges? What does it mean? What does it mean in terms of, what is sexual orientation? What is a person who’s gay looking for in a relationship? And just to listen to him. You don’t have to, from a Halachic, Hashkafic perspective. Listening is not the same thing as saying that we agree with next steps or we agree with what God wants. But just listen. And that can be very difficult, because it is obviously a disruption and trauma for both parties.
And it’s hard when you’re going through trauma yourself to think about the other party. And parents have to realize that when something like this happens, it’s happening to the individual more than it’s happening to their family. And I think that perspective is a really important one.
Rabbi Penner speaks here to the necessity of listening to each other no matter how hard it is. We speak of acceptance of love, but maybe we don’t speak enough about how hard it is to truly listen to each other. Our loved ones get it the worst in a way. As we come to each other with the assumptions, biases, and baggage in the world, we always think we know what each other will say, what they will think, and what they will do that we forget to sit down and listen with open ears and an open heart.
But the following is one of the most important ideas that I’ve ever heard in the thousands of conversations that I’ve been a part of since we began 18Forty. This is pivotal in all of our relationships, friendships, families, friends, and the whole overwhelm. Listen up and open your hearts to this.
Rabbi Menachem Penner:
I think the other thing which is probably the most important thing that I shared with parents, and it was a little uncomfortable to talk about this with Gedalia, except that I’m saying that I’m wrong and he’s right so that I’m easier to do that. But one of the things we get from parents very often is the question of how much are we supposed to allow our child to win? He came home, he said he was gay. She said, she’s a lesbian. And now they want to bring their partner home. And now they want to X. And now they want to Y. When do we put down our foot? And when do we say…
And that is something that you do think about as a parent. Like, why does he always get to win? Why does he always get to determine where this thing is going? And you know what? As a parent, it’s not really about winning or losing. It’s about maintaining your relationship with your child. And it took a long time for us to kind of assimilate that, that of course people need to be respectful. There need to be standards in a home. There are other children. There are other things.
But it’s very difficult for a parent to differentiate between what the rules that they’re putting into place, because the rules really help, and the rules that parents try to put into place, or they’d hope were in place just to kind of maintain their dignity in order to stage a win. Okay, you did X, Y, and Z, but you can’t do this. Well, why not? Is it because you have to feel like you’re in control of the relationship on some level?
You know what? None of us are in control of the relationships that we have with our children. HaKadosh Baruch Hu set us up as parents. And children as children. That’s there. We’re parents and children regardless of any rules or anything else. So once my wife and I, and I’d to admit, I had a tougher time with this. Once I got over the fact that it wasn’t about winning and losing in each encounter, but about what’s the best way for us remain a family. What’s the best way to continue to have our relationship. It changed.
As I said, it doesn’t mean everything goes out the window. I sometimes will speak to a parent where the child is being so disrespectful that it’s just wrong. It just there are limits to what parents can take. There are limits to how they could be slapped in the face, so to speak. But that was never really Gedalia, even though at times he seemed to be pushing the limits a little bit. But it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about maintaining the relationship and doing almost everything you need to maintain that relationship because to cut off a parent-child relationship, it has to be pretty extreme in order to say that that’s not worth continuing the love for a parent and a child.
And if you don’t have time to go back and listen to each of these episodes, let me leave you with one practical piece of advice that Rabbi Penner said that I find so incredibly powerful.
Rabbi Menachem Penner:
I think just to go back to practical advice, if the first time you share with your child how much you love them, and the first time that you share with your child, how much you love God, is when you’re discussing whether they can go to their wedding, it’s going to be very difficult. We should have done more of it. We didn’t do enough of it. We didn’t do enough of telling Gedalia how much we loved him beforehand. That we didn’t do enough of expressing to him how much we loved the Ribono Shel Olam and how committed.
But we did some of that, certainly over the years. And that’s where, again, when something like this happens, it’s going to be in the context of everything else. And I think that Gedalia appreciated that this is not the first time we struggled with something because we tried to figure out what the Ribono Shel Olamwants.
The first time that you tell your child how much you love them, how proud of them you are can’t be the first that you face an insurmountable challenge. Start telling that you love them early so when you have to face such a challenge, when you have to face a difficulty, when you have to face what life throws at you, that love doesn’t have to be articulated for the first time and as almost a part of the culture or part of that mini religious community that we call family. And it’s what you kiss every time you walk into a child’s room, letting them know that unconditional love and being with them no matter what.
And of course, we reached out to Rabbi Penner to see how this, because I think of all of the families we listened to, the Pennners really began a very public conversation over a very private story. So I reached out to him to see how he has been and how he has reacted since first appearing on 18Forty.
Rabbi Menachem Penner:
The feedback since the podcast has been pretty overwhelming. Many, many more people listen to the podcast than I ever would’ve imagined. And I imagined that many would listen. If you remember, you told me, when you tried to convince me to do this, that not too many people listen to the 18Forty Podcast yet. So I told you, I think people will listen to this particular session, given the topic. And many people did. And Baruch HaShem, they did. And many, many, many people listened. And many people continue to listen.
Not only did people listen, but many people reached out. And that has given us a sense as to how many people are really grappling with this issue. How many parents, how many individuals, the podcast, as far as I could tell, spread to many parts of the Jewish community all over the world. And in particular, it went much further to into guess I would say right wing circles, then I would have expected. We are constantly speaking to individuals who tell us that they heard the podcast and they want to talk.
And it’s also being listened to, as I’ll get back to soon, with many people who just have a different sort of a challenge, with children choosing a different direction. And that’s been an interesting. I didn’t really expect that to be as much a podcast just about parenting, even though from your perspective, it was part of that series. For me, it was more about LGBTQ issues, but it seemed to resonate with many people who are just struggling with various parenting issues.
There was a small amount of negative feedback, but it was primarily from people who hadn’t listened to, clearly hadn’t listened to the podcast at all. They just didn’t feel that this should be discussed in the community. People had opinions about what was said. And we’ve learned a lot from the feedback in many, many ways, but the core idea that we need to work to maintain relationships with our children, even, and especially when they make different choices, have that resonated with many people. Many, many people, as I said, reached out to me and to my wife to talk to us and they continue to do so.
We’ve come to understand how important it is for families to feel that they aren’t alone. Families need to have someone that can listen to them and talk to them, our conversations with so many families, which began before the podcast, and we spoke about it in the podcast, but went through the roof after people started hearing the podcast, they seemed to provide people with a lot of support. And again, I think that comes from understanding that they’re not alone.
And perhaps even more than that, looking at a family like ours who have been dealing with this for many years to understand that families can go on. We don’t sugarcoat the challenges that individuals, parents and families face. And when we speak to parents, we don’t sugarcoat our own experience. We’re still making mistakes. We still don’t know exactly what we’re doing. But it’s very relieving for families to feel that they can have a glimmer of hope. I think that very often when a child comes out, the parents feel that their family, as they know it, is done. And to understand that the family can go on and can still be a family in many ways, I think is very important for people to hear.
I think it also gave hope to a lot of LGBTQ individuals who are very afraid of what it means for them when they come out. It’s not that they’re only going to come out because they heard this podcast, but I think understanding that there’s hope for them in terms of retaining a relationship with their parents. And that their parents might have someone to talk to.
We spoke to a therapist in Israel who was working with individuals in their year in Israel. And we were talking about what a relief it will be to those individuals. Many of whom are less worried, interestingly, about their future than how their parents will deal with it and what this will mean. And knowing that there are other parents out there that their parents can speak to they felt would mean a tremendous amount.
It’s led my wife and I to begin the process of starting an organization to be called Kesher, Kesher Families, with several wonderful partners. Because we’re looking for individuals who can help. We can’t handle the volume of the individuals who need to talk and want to talk. And it’s led us to the beginning stages of developing an organization. We’ll keep everyone up to date, as things develop, to be able to both speak to parents, grandparents, siblings, the individuals themselves when we can be helpful, but we understand it best as parents.
And we also hope to be doing training for schools and for nonprofits. And even for mental health professionals. We don’t know how being LGBTQ plays out in a Orthodox world and with Orthodox families. So more information about that to come. I guess Reb Dovid, we have you to blame or to thank for kind of cementing the role that we need to play in terms of being there for many families, if we can.
We have been super impressed by so many of the parents that we’ve spoken to. Not all the parents are ready for what we speak about on the podcast, but many, many of the families have shown a tremendous amount of resilience and a tremendous amount of love for their children. And we have a lot of hope that, from a family perspective. It’s not clear to any of us how this plays out in a community way, but from a family perspective we have a lot of hope for many of these families.
As I said, I was very surprised by how many people were interested in reaching out to talk about parenting in general. I don’t think of myself as a particularly good parent, but I suppose that my wife and I, through the various stages of our life and our children and their challenges have developed certain approaches to parenting challenge that are helpful to others. The common denominator for parents is just to understand that when your children make choices that are different than yours, you have a choice whether to continue to try to be their parent or to give up on that role.
And that we believe that if one sees themselves as a partner or a messenger of God, that one was given a very particular mission to care for a very small group of people called your children, that if you see that as a divine mandate, as a divine mission, possibly more important than any other mission that you have, then it makes you wonder how do I stick? How do I stay in this role no matter what? How do I make this work? How do I continue to be a parent to my child? And again, it doesn’t always mean to give in, so to speak, but it means how to maintain the relationship and how to continue to be a parent.
We also learned in the aftermath how little we know. And that’s actually a scary thing for me and for my wife to realize that on the one hand we’ve become sort of spokespeople for families, if not spokespeople. We’re not really looking to be spokespeople, but we’re looking to be a place that parents and others can turn to. How little we know. We’re still learning. We receive feedback from the podcast. And the reality is we get feedback every time we talk to another family or another individual who identifies as LGBT, which is really every day.
And we’re still learning, we’re still learning what it means to live as a gay person in the Orthodox community. We’re still trying to grapple with and understand what it means to be transgender. And we want to continue learning. As I said, it’s a little scary to be at the same time counseling, speaking on panels, doing things like that, and yet realizing that there’s so much we don’t know. But we feel we don’t have a choice. The time for this issue to simply be whispered is, I believe, over. I think it does need to be discussed because there are so many people in pain. And there’s so many families in pain. And we need to be able to talk about it. Whatever approach we’re taking to, we need to be able to talk about this issue.
There’s so many issues in our community that weren’t spoken about 20 or 25 years ago and are now spoken about. They’re painful. We don’t necessarily want them to have to be discussed, but they’re discussed. This is somehow the last frontier in many ways. This is the last thing that we simply don’t name. And we feel strongly that, in some way, it needs to be discussed. But it’s scary to be on the front lines and at the same time realizing there’s so much that we don’t know and so much we have to learn. And I think this has exposed us to even more people who can help us understand what this is and how we can help people and how as a community and families we should move forward.
The last thing I think we learned from the podcast is certainly reminded, was how special a son we have in Gedalia. His presentation was magnificent, well said, and so sensitive. And we recognize that so much of our success as a family has been to Gedalia’s credit. So I’ll end my review with the same thought that we ended the podcast. We love you, Gedalia.
That’s the core of everything we’re trying to share, that your child may take a different approach, but the parent-child relationship is much deeper than a particular decision or even a life choice. It’s about a mission that was given to us by HaShem. It’s about love. And it’s about being a family, no matter what.
So I want to thank you again, Rav David, for the opportunity, for pushing us into this space a little further, for launching us into a more public space that we’ll be soon taking with an organization that will be starting. And we’ll keep you up to date about how that’s going. Kol tuv.
The book that got me thinking about intergenerational divergence was a book by Andrew Solomon called Far from the Tree, which we recommended the first time we did this series. And I would urge all of you to find the time to at least buy it. It’s a really, really big book. You could read it over a Pesach. Or if you have time, on Chol HaMoed, on the intermediate days, but it is worth buying. It’s worth looking at. The introduction is absolutely crucial.
And we invited the author of Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon, who’s an intimidatingly accomplished writer. And really was the inspiration for the entire topic. Andrew’s exploration of the ways family deal with and around difference has always struck me. And Andrew’s open about where these explorations come from in his own life. Listen to his words with me.
I’m trying to understand the role of disappointment and expectations in the idea of identity. Is the goal to have no identity so you have no disappointment and no expectations? Or it’s almost unavoidable? So how do you then manage those expectations and feelings of disappointment?
I think the idea, and I say this both as a son and as a father, I think the ideal is to have a strong sense of identity of your own and to be able to tolerate your children’s emerging sense of identity, even when it’s different from your own. And I think that’s very difficult to do.
One of the points I’ve made in the talks that I’ve given about Far from the Tree is that all of parenthood consists of two activities. It consists of changing your children and it consists of celebrating your children. And you have to change your children. You have to give them an education. You have to give them moral values. You have to convey whatever is most important and meaningful to you, which may be religion or may be sort of intellectual pursuits or whatever it is you have to convey it.
And then you have to also recognize what are the things about your child that are fundamental and that aren’t going to respond to your influence and help your child to feel okay about himself in the ways in which he is different, or she is different from you. And I think that can be terribly, terribly difficult to do. And some things obviously need to be changed. I mean, you have to teach your child to read. And some things, obviously, they’re not going to change. Like if your child is short, you aren’t going to suddenly make your child tall by exerting your influence.
But a lot of things fall in a kind of foggy middle. And many parents become confused And even I do about the question of, in what instances do your children need to be persuaded? And what instances do you need to be accepting? And the book really, Far from the Tree, is about that process. How do you go about loving someone who isn’t exactly what you had in mind when you set out to have children. And none of us, no one has ever had children who turned out to be exactly what they had in mind when they set out to have children. We all faced this challenge. I wrote it in very dramatic instances, but even on a much smaller scale, it’s operative, I think, in every family.
This is a pivotal point as we consider this subject, having a clear sense of one’s own identity and tolerating the identity of those around you. Whether those are your children, parents, friends, or loved ones. Andrew reminds us that it’s in the foggy middle between acceptance and change, and between loving our loved ones as they are and helping them become better.
That’s where the stories of our families often grow complicated. And that’s why it’s been such a privilege to share these stories with you and to share another round intergenerational divergence, which we will be dropping shortly on 18Forty. We’ll be speaking to different families and new authors to kind of help us guide and think about how we navigate changes and differences within our family lives and personal identity.
And in all matters, there is our family. And then there’s the story of our family. These families help us realize that all of our families have a circumambulatory narrative. That’s a word that it took me about 11 times to be able to say flawlessly. I’m not sure if I did it now, but I certainly tried. A non-linear narrative of growth in which we often have to turn back in a way to end up appreciating each other more deeply. This is a story that we all urgently need to appreciate.
And behind every curtain and window lies a way that each family is unhappy in their own way, as a certain author famously said. But peering through those windows and behind each of those curtains, we’re able to also rediscover how each of those individual families is able to rediscover a happiness that belongs to them and of their own. And we can learn from the ways that families navigated the waters of change and perhaps become more open and vulnerable from it all.
So thank you so much for listening to this roundup of intergenerational divergence. We’re so excited to drop more episodes coming soon. And thank you so much for listening. This episode was edited by our friend, Denah Emerson. And it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a smidgeon, a teeny tiny bit of Jewish guilt.
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