Anyone who has walked through a bookstore recently knows there’s no shortage of parenting books. From getting your baby to sleep through the night to understanding what your ‘tweens are doing online, shelves are overflowing with advice for the sleep-deprived, jittery or just plain puzzled parent. But what if you’re looking for a Jewish take on child rearing? Here are a few recent books we’ve compiled that give a flavor of the diversity of today’s Jewish approaches to parenting.
In 30 years as a surrogate father to thousands of homeless adolescents, Chaim Peri has learned a thing or two about parenting teens.
Peri, 65, is the director of Yemin Orde Wingate Youth Village outside Haifa, Israel. Founded in 1953, Yemin Orde houses and educates 500 teenagers, from 20 countries, with lives shattered by war, civil upheaval, poverty, and parental loss or dysfunction. The village instills in its children the belief that they are destined for greatness. “We don’t just mainstream them; we make them the best,” Peri told the Forward, recounting success story after success story. But Peri never thought that his ideas had wider application until two benefactors, the late Henry Everett and his wife, Edith, of New York encouraged him to write a book. The result is “Reclaiming Adolescents: A Return to the Village State of Mind” (Jay Street Publishers).
This is the parenting book that Martin Buber never got around to writing.
Peri’s application of Buber’s “I and Thou” philosophy draws on the concept of a village. The ethos of the ideal village is perfect for cultivating in children a core of inner strength, Peri claims. Children are steeped in a sense of their personal, familial and collective past, and groomed for a recognizable future. They are bestowed a constructive role in society and a connection to God or other transcendence. Yemin Orde adopts this ethos to stabilize its shaken adolescents, to anchor teens’ identities by letting them discover who they are, where they come from and where they are going. Peri says parents and teachers everywhere can attain a “village state of mind.”
That’s the theory. In practice, Peri’s highest priority is to forge indestructible emotional bonds with his teens. Everything else — rules, schedules, schooling — comes in a distant second. No child is ever expelled. Graduates are always welcomed back. In his book, Peri describes the powerful and surprising ways that he expresses to his teens his unwavering faith in their ability to heal, rally and grow.
Peri once appealed a graduate’s criminal record to the president of Israel, who pardoned the Yemin Orde alumnus, enabling him to become a firefighter. To support a despondent Ethiopian youth whose grandfather was on trial for molesting a young girl, Yemin Orde hired lawyers to combat biased media coverage and to appeal the trial judge’s misconduct all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. Another boy, after attempting suicide, revealed to Peri his fear that he had AIDS. In response, Peri grabbed the boy’s face, which was plagued with a heartbreaking case of acne, and licked it, explaining, as is written in his book: “If you have AIDS, my actions said, then I am willing to risk getting AIDS, too. You are not alone in the world, whatever your problems are. I am willing to share your very blood.”
Can Peri’s approach, so effective with troubled teens, apply to kids from more stable backgrounds? Peri believes so. “People are insecure when dealing with adolescents. Their rebellion is dramatic; it frightens you.” Yet, he says, kids need parental wholeness, an aura of coherence. “Every child needs a mentor. You can be it.”
Shmuley Boteach, a follower of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, is the author of “Kosher Sex” (Doubleday, 1999) and host of TLC’s television show “Shalom in the Home.” In “Parenting With Fire: Lighting Up the Family With Passion and Inspiration” (NAL Trade, 2006), Boteach warns that the crass materialism and crude entertainment of today’s world diminish children’s humanity. His remedy: copious doses of soul-nourishing, wholesome family activities and togetherness, orchestrated by parents who lavishly impart their zest for the simple and edifying things in life. Not everyone will agree with Boteach’s handling of particular child-rearing dilemmas, but his countercultural philosophy will challenge thinking parents to ponder what they permit in their homes — and why.
Most parenting books focus on prescriptions, but not “Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents” (Algonquin Books). This is a quiet, shrewd, lyrical look at a child’s world captured in snippets from the writings of Polish Jew Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), a doctor, writer and orphanage director who tended to his charges in the Warsaw Ghetto and died with them at Treblinka. Edited by psychotherapist Sandra Joseph and misleadingly packaged in a cute volume with a sentimental title, Korczak’s spot-on observations force parents to examine how they actually appear to their children, and display children as they really are. Read this one slowly and meditatively, like poetry.
In “Parenting Jewish Teens: A Guide for the Perplexed” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006), Joanne Doades advises parents to convene Jewish-teen parenting groups in their synagogues and in Jewish community centers because you can’t raise Jewish teens without a Jewish community. Doades, a family educator, sympathetically addresses such topics as conflict, family relationships, Jewish observance and intermarriage. Looking at the challenges of raising teens now, she turns to Jewish sources for wisdom and insight, gleaning her mega-message of acceptance from the story of Jacob blessing his grandsons. She writes, “Embrace the children who stand before us just as they are, and bless them with a vision of a future we may or may not live to see.”
Jeri Zeder writes for the Forward from the Boston area.