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What Is a Jewish Father?

This Father’s Day will be my second, and I’m feeling a bit conflicted. Last year was wonderful. My son was just four months old, and I shone with that new-parent glow. Strangers were approaching me in the street and cooing over him, and my friends were treating me with a new respect. Father’s Day felt like a national celebration of me.

A year later, fatherhood is less magical. My friends have their own children, and strangers no longer stop to gawk. I’m just another 30-ish New Yorker pushing a stroller down the street. My son is, of course, better than ever — now that he walks and laughs and sings nonsense songs and empties cans of paint onto our newly finished hardwood floors. But as he grows, my sense of responsibility grows with him. Recently, a friend asked if we had joined a synagogue yet. A few years ago, the question would have made no sense to me, as there was nothing remotely religious about me. Aside from a refined sense of pessimism and a few vaguely understood Yiddish phrases, I barely felt I qualify as a Jew, much less a Jewish father.

What exactly does it mean to be a Jewish father? If I’ve read Philip Roth and Woody Allen correctly, to be a Jewish father is to be a bit player next to the incandescent and awe-inspiring figure of the Jewish Mother, that smothering, guilt-inducing, matzo-ball-soup-making superstar of the Jewish family unit. Jewish men just don’t have the authoritarian heft of other patriarchies. Think of Isaac, tricked by his younger son, Jacob, into giving away his all-important fatherly blessing. Jacob hoodwinked Isaac with the help of his mother, Rebecca. Even in biblical times, it seems, Jewish wives pushed their husbands around.

The normal worries that any sensible person might have when first undertaking parenthood are perhaps flavored for the Jewish father by a sense of melancholy. We are, after all, expected to be mentshes: nice, sensitive guys who provide loving and nurturing family lives for their children and who, by example, ensure that they grow up to be kind, well-adjusted parents themselves. While this is, ultimately, a noble thing, it’s not terribly sexy on paper. Patience, wisdom, upright behavior: Is there any room for fun, for irresponsibility, even recklessness? Then there is the heavy presence of “the Jewish Fathers,” the somber procession of wise men stretching back to Abraham — learned and inspired figures who suffered through thousands of years of persecution, yet somehow passed on to their descendents an unbroken tradition of religious belief. How does one measure up to the standard that has been set by that dusty crowd? How does one prove a dedication to the Jewish enterprise in contemporary American society — a society in love with the ideals of self-definition and individualism?

If you’re one of those searching for a definitive answer to this question, “Jewish Fathers: A Legacy Of Love” (Jewish Lights, 2004) is not the place to look. A combination of photographs and interviews, this coffee table book peruses (“examines” would be too active a verb) the ways in which different contemporary American Jewish men have approached fatherhood. The authors bring together as many flavors of Jewish fatherhood as they can find. Hence the inclusion of such unrepresentative examples as the Chinese convert, the lawyer who dresses up as Santa Claus every Christmas, and the former stand-up comic-turned rabbi who owns “Vermont’s only shomer-shabbes, kosher, organic, horse-powered maple syrup farm.” There’s no analysis here, just different examples, often contradictory. An alternative-medicine practitioner states that “trusting your kids and letting them make their own choices is what gives them the smarts, the strength and the will to make good choices,” only to be followed by a former Marine who believes that “a lot of Jewish families do not discipline their children enough, and then they wonder why their kids act up.”

Okay, so every father has his own idea of how to raise children. The authors seem to think that the wide range of options is what makes Jewish fatherhood so special, as if to suggest that Judaism is no more than a pluralistic lifestyle philosophy. But to me, Judaism is also about traditions, and the more established patterns of Jewish parenting always have been under pressure from secular American culture. One of the interviewees describes the Talmud’s delineation of the responsibilities a father owes his sons: “Teach them Torah, teach them a trade, teach them to swim (both literally and as a metaphor for how to navigate the world) and find them a wife.” Of those four, perhaps only the third is viable — and only when translated literally. Outside the most traditional communities, it’s hard to imagine any contemporary father dictating his son’s profession or marriage partner — or any contemporary son standing for his father’s attempt to do so. If raising your child as a nonobservant, folk-singing socialist is just as valid as producing an ultra-Orthodox Torah scholar, does being a Jewish father in fact have any meaning at all?

Obviously, I’m in no position to answer that question. As I said before, my feelings are conflicted. Like a lot of secular Jews — like a lot of secular gentiles, for that matter — I have waited until having a child to get my religious priorities in order. After a lifetime of ignoring my Judaism and remaining largely ignorant of its traditions, I now find myself yearning to pass those traditions on to my son. In my year-and-a-half of being a Jewish father, I’ve learned just enough to realize that I know nothing at all. Here’s hoping that’s the beginning of wisdom.

Jon Moskowitz is a freelance writer living in New York with his wife and 16-month-old son (who really did dump a gallon of paint on the floor).

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