A Time To Teach

What Is the Best Age To Instill Life Lessons?

Poolside: Sarah Wildman and her daughter, Orli, play in the water during a recent outing.
COURTESY OF SARAH WILDMAN
Poolside: Sarah Wildman and her daughter, Orli, play in the water during a recent outing.

By Sarah Wildman

Published June 23, 2010, issue of July 02, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Talmud tells us to teach our children to swim, I mused to my father as we watched a 3-year-old toddler melt down in hysterics while refusing to enter a hotel pool. (Granted, every kid has his bad days.)

My parents were in town visiting my 17-month-old daughter, Orli, and me; my partner, Ian, was out of town.

As is always the case, the visit was too fast and not fast enough, fantastic and frustrating. In other words: a good time. My mother had booked a hotel not far from our apartment. Summer in Washington, D.C., started early this year and, though it has been fierce from the outset, I pooh-poohed the idea of hours with Orli anywhere, let alone in water.

But I could barely tear her away from the pool. Orli insisted on attempting to swim: jumping and paddling, remaining immersed until our collective fingertips had long-since withered and her lips had turned from pink to periwinkle.

“When do I teach her to swim?” I wondered aloud to my parents. “How do we know the right time to teach anything?” Of course, the Talmud’s lesson on swimming is literal — teaching someone to swim can save his or her life. But could we, I wondered, think of “swim” as swimming in life — in other words, as tools to live by? Bits of knowledge we’d like our kids to have?

The last time I was at my parents’ house, it was just before Shavuot. My father was scheduled to read the haftorah in synagogue during the holiday. Briefly, because we’d arrived very late at night, he went into an exegesis of the parsha. He was mildly worried, because while he knows the parsha for the holiday nearly by memory, the haftorah would require some studying.

This is something I’ve always admired about him and taken for granted. At shul, my father will sometimes lean over to me and say, “Do you see this translation? Don’t you think it’s odd they chose to translate it that way?” He will then explain the nuance of a verb construction in biblical Hebrew that, invariably, I have not noticed. He’ll often have several texts with him, in addition to a tikkun (book of Torah commentary) and a siddur (prayer book). Usually, it is some modern commentary, though sometimes it is a pamphlet picked up during some long-ago bar mitzvah that he thought was particularly insightful. My father still takes Talmud classes each Tuesday, and sometimes it is the insights from a class that he whispers to us during davening or later at night in the kitchen.

When I was a child, my father led the junior congregation at my synagogue. Envisioning a vibrant community of children clamoring for knowledge, he would prepare endlessly for sermons and Torah portions, lessons taught and advice imparted. Sadly, it was mostly for naught. Talmud Torah in 1980s suburban New Jersey did not have the same verve and enthusiasm as it did in 1950s Western Massachusetts, where my dad grew up with a refugee father.

In my father’s childhood, Jewish kids, at least in the Aggadah of my family, were vibrant scholars from an early age. Isolated, as the town had few Jews, they became fervent students, eager Torah readers and joyful congregants. And then, during summertime at Camp Ramah, kids actually conversed in Hebrew. My father likes to recall a table-tennis game with soon-to-be-Talmud scholar Baruch Bokser where the words “I won” were debated as vigorously as the points lost.

“He said ‘zachiti,’” in Hebrew, my father says; he tells this story often. “Meaning ‘I merited.’ Zechut Avot (Merit of the Fathers). You ask for Zechut Avot because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were such devoted followers that God should have mercy on their offspring; it’s merited. So ‘zachiti’ means, ‘I merited.’ The tennis courts were in [bad] shape and the ping-pong table was right outside our door in 1961. So we played ping-pong all the time.”

In any case, at junior congregation, I was his sidekick, a goody-two-shoes determined to show my day-school cousins that I knew as much Hebrew as they and could read Torah just as well. Each week, I learned an aliyah, beginning about the time I turned 10, listening at night to my father singing into cassette tapes, memorizing the lines with a tikkun blessed with vowels. Invariably, the night before attending shul, we would have a massive fight, with me insisting that I had gotten it mostly right, and therefore right enough, and my father trying to persuade me that mostly right wasn’t right.

I took it for granted that he could make me the tapes — that he could break down the parsha for me, teach me what it meant, not just what it said, explain the context as well as the conversation, and meander a bit about the Hebrew and the etymology of the words.

But in the years since college, I have done little studying on my own, Jewishly. I do not take Talmud class, I haven’t read Torah in ages — for the aufruf (aliyah) before my wedding, I read the haftorah. But my father made me a tape to remind me of the trope.

What will I teach Orli? I worry about this late at night sometimes, or when I am at my parents’ home. I have the Hebrew, more or less, but not the breadth of knowledge.

I was a swim instructor at Camp Ramah in the early and mid-1990s — tzevet mayim (swim staff). I can teach her to swim. But Torah? The Talmud also counsels mothers to teach Torah. Is it too late to become a student in time to be her teacher?

Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for the New York Times and Politics Daily. She is the 2010 recipient of the Peter R. Weitz Journalism Prize for excellence and originality in reporting on Europe and the trans-Atlantic relationship for her writing in Slate.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.