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Introducing: Perfect Jewish Parents

The following is a transcript of Episode 148 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, recording on July 19th, 2023. 

So when I was back in graduate school, I participated in the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program, and we were blessed with a number of great scholars and teachers who were assigned to our class to learn with us for the week when we were in residence at the various fellowship conferences to one year, we had a prominent rabbi and scholar who we had studied with for that week. And I apologize, but I cannot for the life of me remember the topic that we studied, much less any of the material. But I do remember the last thing that he said in my memory. He threw aside the packet of source material we were studying. He sighed deeply and said something to the effect of, look, whatever you do in this work professionally, the most significant impact you’re gonna have on the Jewish people is going to be through your kids.

At the time, I was really furious about this. Maybe in part cause I didn’t have kids yet, maybe cause I was looking around sympathetically at the folks who weren’t partnered, many of whom were really hurt and bewildered by that comment. And maybe because it felt like a concession to futility for all of our professional aspirations that we were all just starting to nurture. The idea that a life spent in Jewish education, potentially reaching thousands of people or in the Rabbinate or in Jewish scholarship, that all of that was not only less important, but inherently less impactful than a handful of kids that we might or might not have, that kids that might grow up to be great or might grow up to be rotten. That whole statement felt like a little too much. 

And I still believe that what the Rabbi said then was a serious overstatement. Though I guess I have a little more sympathy now, 20 years later to what he might have been getting at. When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a dad. Is it strange to say that? The idea of being a dad was far clearer to me than any other professional aspirations? And since my own professional journey only really began to clarify in my early thirties, maybe it makes sense in retrospect that we had our first kid before I really knew what I was gonna do with my life, but then my career took off and I think it would be deeply dishonest of me to say that my kids have been my primary focus, as I think about the Jewish people and our collective future. I missed my share of baseball games and tooth fairy appearances while traveling for work. On one memorable occasion, I found myself watching the movie Up in the Air and weeping on a plane on a business trip while my baby son was undergoing oral surgery back home.

In some ways, it was only the forced grounding of the pandemic that ultimately allowed for me to recalibrate some of the work-life balance that would best characterize what I understood as two different value systems that I cared about as an adult, doing my work in the world for the institute and raising my beloved children with my beloved partner. 

Now that my kids are getting older, I have two teenage boys and a 10 year old daughter, I have a better understanding of what it means to think about your children as a contribution to the world. I love having teenagers especially, because there’s so much to talk about with them, when they want to talk to you, and their brains are caught somewhere between explosions and incoherence, like silly putty that sometimes turns into a completed Rubik’s cube, and they’re right on the verge of entering into the world and doing things you’d probably never expect or even wish for.

One of my favorite lines from Indiana Jones from the third movie, which was the best one last crusade, is when India and his father are arguing about all of their past history and conflict. And the senior Dr. Jones says to him, “You left just as you were becoming interesting.” The time when our kids are at home feels eternal, but it’s basically just a moment and it’s so formative.

And still, I wonder, is it? Is it that important? I’m very skeptical of people who credit children’s accomplishments to their good parenting or the reverse. A lot of it surely has to be about luck or the weird, still-not-understood relationship between nature and nurture. And all of that just describes kids living with their birth parents, not to speak of adoptive children and parents. I’m really skeptical about the multi-billion dollar industry called parenting, which takes the most normal habit of humanity for all time, people having sex and then trying to keep the offspring alive, and turns it into a discipline that makes people feel bad about themselves. And what do we really do? 

Stephanie and I often have moments when we try to figure out how is it possible that our kids might have learned something that we didn’t tell them, only to remember that, that they’ll find out things from the world and not what we told them. That’s gonna characterize the vast majority of the knowledge that they actually acquire in the world. There seems to be no greater hubris in the world than trying to engineer the outcome of one’s offspring. I heard a standup comic once say it like this: “Hey, have you made people? I made people and now I’m their ruler.” That’s the gift and absurdity of this whole business called parenting. But what that rabbi got right back then is that for a stretch of time, all of us are tested, all of us with children at some point in our home to code switch from the work we’re trying to do in the world with other people’s identities and destinies to the people for whom we are most directly responsible. If you’re a teacher, you have to be that at home with your kids. If you run a business catering to parents, you have to figure out how to be the client as well.

So maybe it’s not that the most important contribution we make is through our children, but maybe our children are our biggest test of the clarity of our own commitments. That feels a little bit more real. And it definitely feels true for so many young Jewish parents who I know they have a decent sense of who they are as Jews, maybe, for the young adult life they enjoy when the areas where there’s lack of clarity don’t matter that much. And then suddenly they are the principle conduit of Jewishness for these other small, impressionable people. Suddenly they are a link in the chain that they never fully took custodial responsibility for. Suddenly they are on the answering end of endless questions that might make them feel a little bad that they never fully figured out the answers to for themselves. And then in those moments, the responsibility of Jewish parenting as a gift to the future, as a play for that magical world word called continuity, then that business starts to make sense, then it feels essential. 

My colleagues here at Hartman, Masua Sagiv and Josh Ladon have spent the past year or so thinking about this phenomenon. I sense that this started because they’re neighbors in Berkeley, at least for now, with similarly aged children. And that’s kind of what you talk about with your friends and neighbors, the funny things and the struggles. And because both of them, Masua and Josh are great educators, and they started to bridge the gap between the big questions they were wrestling with at work and the more interesting, more dangerous frontier of those questions back at home. This week, they, and we, are launching the first season, a limited series of a new Hartman podcast called Perfect Jewish Parents, which brings that conversation public to parents and educators, exploring the complicated dynamics of raising Jewish children and maybe making the experience that all of us have of this weird journey feel a little less lonely.

So Masua and Josh, thanks for coming on the show to talk about this project and this work. And I, I guess I wanna start by asking you, is this right? Like, how do you come at this? You know, Josh, I’ll start with you. You are professionally a scholar of Jewish education. So on a piece of your work, in your scholarship, you think about how we teach, how we educate other people’s children. I’m curious how that may have led to your interest or curiosity to this business of talking publicly about the other side of it, which is not just other people’s children and how they’re supposed to be educated, but your own,

Josh: Thanks Yehuda for the question and the time. It’s great to be here with you and Masua. I think that in your introduction, you sort of identified, oh, before I had children, I had lots of ideas and then I had children and I realized, oh, the world doesn’t work where you just have total ability to manifest sort of your imagined life. And I was working, I studied Jewish education. I was, you know, I’ve had every job under the Jewish education sun, right? Camp, youth group, day school. And then I had children. And those children got older. And I started to realize I’m not necessarily interested in looking at the industry that you also are skeptical about the parenting industry or how do I do this, focused exclusively on sort of process and looking in psychology.

But I realized there’s a whole set of conversations, especially with my eldest, in part because she was my first, and I really don’t know what I’m doing with her, started to notice, oh, there are things that were passing by that I was a little, the whole concept of like, oh, sometimes we’re afraid to talk about Israel in our synagogues or our day schools or what have you. Like that has never been a problem for me. But then I realized because of what it means to parent is both to figure out a practice, but also to figure out how to translate a lot of the conversations that we have in our work at Hartman that Masua and I are having in our ongoing chavruta about big ideas. Oh, we also have an ongoing chavruta about children, and then what does it mean to meld the two? 

And I think we, I started to realize there’s a deep conversation about parenting that’s not just about a set of practices that makes my life easier, but what does it mean to be the type of parent I want to be and bring my family with my partner, bring my children into a world of Torah that I want to. And what does it look like to do that?

Yehuda: I wanna come back to this a little bit later because I think one of the things you’re alluding to is either the humility or the sympathy that gets engendered for the field of Jewish education by the experience of parenting Jewish children. Or the reverse, which is like, I, this is not my problem. It’s your problem. That’s why I send you to school, because I can’t answer it. So we’ll come back to that. I think’s an important piece. Masua, about you. I mean, it’s different for you. Your field of scholarship is not Jewish education. You are a Jewish educator by virtue of the fact that you work at Hartman and teach a lot of Jews. That’s another way of describing what a Jewish educator is. But you’re a law professor. Your discipline is different. I’m curious what motivated you to be involved with a project like this?

Masua: Well, first of all, it seems like I’m drawn to be in spaces where I feel foreign. So this is just one other space where I feel foreign in. But it’s really, it struck me what you, the, the story you told about the rabbi. And I actually thought the complete opposite because it’s not that, our children are the most important contribution, or it’s not the perception that the children are the most important contribution. It’s as if there’s no conversation, or almost none, conversation about what the connection between being parents and being Jewish, you know, because we engage with adults and with young adults all the time, with leaders and with educators and parents inside their homes inside the family unit are also educators and leaders just for, you know, smaller audiences.

And we do the same thing, but maybe with some adjust adjustments, right? Because what do you do when your kids are really, really small? Or what do you do when you have a combination of older and younger kids? Or what do you do when you actually have to speak with your children at the same time that you have to see for their needs and, you know, feed them and, and all of that. And I think that in a sense, we figured, or we thought that Hartman can be a place that gives tools to this audience too. 

Now, it’s true that it is supposedly foreign for me because you know, I’m a legal scholar, but at the same time, I think that being an educator is the source for me going and being a legal scholar and not the opposite. I’m a legal scholar because I’m an educator and not the opposite. So it felt very natural. 

Yehuda: So once your natural disposition is educator, then you can focus your attention on this field where you have expertise, or this sector, where you have responsibility. 

Masua: Exactly. Yeah. 

Yehuda: Now, the one difference though, in what you said before about like, you know, the professional business of being an educator versus what you do at home, is that of course, parents are not trained. And by the way, in anything, I mean, I don’t know if you had this experience as well, when they gave us our baby, 

Josh: There was no tests. 

Yehuda: And they were like,

Masua: What do you do with this thing?

Yehuda: We’re like, you’re letting us take this thing home. Where’s are, is there gonna, is somebody gonna check? They gave you, they gave us like this terribly dumb speech. I remember with one of our kids, the whole of the speech of how to take care of the baby was, you should get dressed first in the morning. It was backwards. It wasn’t smart. It was like, you should get dressed first in the morning because then the kids may take long, whatever. I don’t even remember. But we talk about that now, still, of like, that was not the most important information, like, can you give us like seven tools to keep this thing alive? 

Now let’s map that onto Jewish education. So Masua, like, okay, we wanna say that like, home is the arena where primary Jewish education is taking place, but there are very reasonable reasons why people would say, actually no, absent any real training or expertise. It’s not really the discipline of home life. Do you think that that’s fixable or changeable? Is it wrong?

Masua: I think it might be going a bit sideways, but I think that one of the biggest problems of, again, because we’re in the Hartman world right now, so I’m gonna speak about Israel for a second and a half, right? So one of the biggest problems, and I’m saying it as an Israeli of the religious Zionist sector in Israel, is the fact that parents, men, were convinced that they’re not good enough educators to educate their kids religiously and nationally.

Josh: You’re saying, from your growing up.

Masua: It’s not just my experience. It’s a societal and a group experience. You know, I had this conversation with my parents and with my in-laws and a lot of conversations around our society. So what happened is that parents sent their kids to schools where the teachers were different than them. So they would send their kids to schools where Haredis were the teachers or someone who were, who were much more frum, and if you have this agenda or ideology that you are only responsible to feed them and to keep them safe, which is very important. But it’s also extremely important to educate our kids and to have the tools and to think about the questions of what does it mean for me to be a Jewish parent and how do I want my child to be a Jewish child?

Yehuda: Great. So you’re, what you’re offering is that from the one phenomena in one sector of Israeli society is that responsibility for education was assumed to be a social or societal responsibility and not at home. And Josh, I would, I would argue that that actually happened in the American Jewish community at large, but in a slightly different frame, which is the assumption that Jewish continuity is a communal responsibility and it gets solved through scale, camp, Birthright Israel. And it doesn’t get solved by investing parents with more tools to be the ead responsible educators in the home. So do you see that, and what do you think of costs associated with that?

Josh: Right. Yes. I think that education in America, Jewish education in America has become, first of all, we think of it as like you, yourself, you’re using this language of continuity. It’s about making sure, like there’s an outcome that’s Jewish. And like, there are a long number of years that we’re doing Jewish with young people in our homes if we are parents. And so for me, part of it is also working, looking at parents is saying, and thinking about parenthood is about not just about outcome-based Jewish education, but actually saying like, oh, this is about what does it mean to live a fulfilling Jewish life? And a fulfilling, vibrant Jewish life means taking seriously that Judaism isn’t just about, oh, I go to an institution, but I am enveloped in a set of practices, a set using a set of cultural artifacts, meaning language and games and books and all of that. And doing that as an intentional Jew. That, my parenting then is a practice of Judaism, not just a Jewish education. 

I think Mara Benjamin’s book about maternal subjectivity was a turning point for me in taking this seriously and saying, wait a minute. I want to think seriously about how do we translate a set of ideas and a set of practices that are inherent, that are Jewish into our home? And I think that that then allows us to recognize that the institutions aren’t gonna do the work alone. That we are partners with these institutions.

Masua: There are two dimensions to this, right? So one dimension is the institution won’t do it alone. And the other dimension is, what’s our role as parents, as partners, with the institution. So my daughter here, my three year old, we are recording in Israel, right? So we are visiting Israel. And she went to an Israeli gan, an Israeli daycare, kindergarten. So she’s three weeks in an Israeli kindergarten, and she comes back, a three year old,

Josh: Having spent most of her life in America.

Masua: Yes. Having spent most of her life in America. And she returns home telling about the bad Romans who burned the Temple, the Beit Mikdash. And I’m like, you are here for three weeks. But the contradiction between, or tension even, between what you hear at school and what you hear at home is not necessarily a bad thing, but we have to be reflective on it. 

Yehuda: Okay. So now, but now this is the part of the kind of loftiness, theoretical stuff that we’re talking about, and what the lived experience for most Jewish parents. And I think this is true for most Jewish parents in both America and Israel, which I think is a little bit different, which would be for both of you and for me, we are highly educated Jews, we do this for a living, when it comes to complementing, or I would say counter-educating what our kids get in Jewish educational environments, we’re there for it. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but I feel all the time, like I have to do a little bit less with the school that Stephanie runs. Cause Stephanie runs the school. There’s once in a while I disagree with something that a teacher said, and I feel like it’s my job to talk to my kids about it in a respectful way. And certainly with my kids in an Orthodox high school in ways that sometimes the values don’t fully align, I’m in the process of countered educating.

And I feel relatively confident to do so. And I suspect both of you do also with some ambivalences as well, complexities, you don’t wanna undermine the school. Most parents, I would suspect, part of the reason that they want or need an industry of Jewish education is because they can’t or they don’t want to or it addresses some deep self-doubts that they have of their capacity to deal with these questions. So I wanna ask you guys, like this podcast is an exercise around helping people do some of this work at home, but I want you to engage empathetically with some of the resistance of like, why is it, really, is it my job as a parent who doesn’t have its significant Jewish education to be really educating my kids about this? Like, how do we help people get over that gap in terms of their own self-doubt or their own limitations to be able to do this kind of stuff?

Josh: I wonder if there’s a way to sort of shift the framing of that question a little bit, which is to say, if it’s true that those of us who do this for a living also feel at moments that we’re navigating the relationship that we have with the set of partners that we’re raising our children with, how is it that we, Masua and I, can offer some set of conversations with other people who have similar expertises to say, Hey, these are the set of questions we’re asking ourselves, and these are some ways we tackle these questions. And look, this is it, there’s like a shared, there’s, it’s, I don’t wanna say shared, it might be shared vulnerability, but just like an invitation to say, my sense is a lot of parents are trying to figure out, how do I offer my children a set of values that are important to me when I’m raising my children in partnership with all these institutions?

And to be able to say, these are big important questions that we’ve certainly had this moment. I think for us, I live in Berkeley, so I don’t think anyone’s gonna be surprised that the Trump presidency was a, a thing for us. And there was this moment where my wife was driving in the car and the kids are talking in the back about something. And my one child said to the other, they were learning at the time, like, denominations of money, like $1, $5, which president is on that? And they’re like, which bill is Donald Trump? Oh, my eldest, he’s not, but you know, he’s, some people say he’s good for Israel, and my wife didn’t know what to do, and my wife is also a professional Jewish educator.

Yehuda: That statement, by the way, is empirically true. Some people think that he’s good for Israel.

Josh: That, by the way, is not the best response to give to your spouse when she is like, because she was like, what do I do about this? Like, she stopped the, and I was like, well, it’s true. And she was like, that’s not helpful. And which is my general, like, it’s not a perfect Jewish spouses, someone else can do that. But I think being able to say, oh, the set of values we have and the set of ideas that we wanna put forth for our children, these are big questions that we wanna take seriously and we wanna put them into a language for parents to be able to wrestle with them. And, I guess I would say, I think parents are looking for tools to express the set of values they have with their children. And to have conversation partners that are saying, yeah, this is challenging, even when you feel like an expert, I think is a helpful tool.

Yehuda: In other words, what you’re basically saying is, the fact that I don’t really know all the answers to these questions and I’m struggling with it, and I do this for a living, is a way of making public what may be a deep and too private anxiety or ambivalence that many Jewish parents possess, which is, I’m on the front lines alone with this piece of work. And maybe it would be useful for me to feel that I’m part of a community of people, including scholars and experts who are willing to acknowledge that this is not straightforward and it’s hard, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be pathways or tools or role models to help us negotiate these questions.

Masua: You know, for a long time parents didn’t talk with their kids about sexuality, about being protected and about masculinity. Parents won’t talk to their kids about it because they felt like they don’t know enough or maybe it’s not their job to do that. And I think that today we know how important it is to talk with our kids about, about these issues. In a sense, our audience are usually people who care about Judaism. Care deeply about Judaism. If you care deeply about Judaism, it will come up as a parent, it’ll come up,whether it’s in the conversation on the way home, whether they will hear something about Israel, whether they will hear something about the Holocaust. And you know, I think that a lot of the questions are questions that we were not sure about, that not necessarily that we have an answer to, you know. I’m a Jewish educator, but I’m not a Jewish text scholar, so obviously I don’t have the answer to

Josh: To be clear, you are a Jewish text scholar, but you mean,

Masua: Yes. Modern, modern legal, Jewish text scholar.

Yehuda: Only at the Hartman Institute would one say, “I’m not really a Jewish text scholar,” who’s like a scholar of the Israeli, entire history of the legal system.

Josh: Right, teaching at Berkeley.

Yehuda: So, but, so let’s, I want, let’s probe this a little bit. You know, and I’ll use you first Masua, as an example on this. You’ve been living in Berkeley for the last couple years as a visiting professor. Israel has been an unbelievable turmoil over the last some months. I know it’s been complicated for you personally and politically to be far from it. Probably also in some ways great to be far from it. And then you come back to Israel for the summer with your Israeli kids right in the middle of something that is burning, is on, it really feels on fire. Getting angrier and angrier. 

How have you been thinking about, I’m not asking you like what you did with your kids, but how have you been thinking about the conversation to have with your kids, where it’s not just an abstract thing of, here’s something that I want you to know about, but where actually is essential to their identity and because of circumstance, they’re not actually in the proximity to it the same way. What has that process been like for you for the last six months?

Masua: You know, it’s so interesting because at the beginning I was absolutely paralyzed at home. I was talking about what’s going on in Israel everywhere, but at the moment that, you know, I set foot at home, I stopped talking about it. And it, it is very weird because if we would have been here in Israel, the conversation would’ve come through,

Yehuda: Organically.

Masua: Going to protests or seeing protests around us. But for a while I felt like I don’t, I don’t know how to say these things when the emotion level is so high. I don’t know how to talk about this with my kids without, I don’t know, starting crying in the middle of the conversation or something like that. And also, how do I balance the fact that I have very strong feelings to one side, but I don’t want to inculcate my kids to have the same strong views. I mean, I do want them to have the same strong views that I have, but I want them to have a journey on the way.

Yehuda: You want them to reach that conclusion on their own.

MasuaL And if they won’t reach that conclusion, I might be upset, but then I’m, I’m okay with it. So how do I manage this journey when I have such strong feelings? And for me, it actually started through, well, and we had, by the way, we had a whole episode about how to talk about Israel and specifically during this time how to talk about Israel. Where professor Sivan Zakai is our guest. 

For me, it started through going to my kids’ school. I asked the kids’ school whether they want someone to talk about what’s going on in Israel, and they were really happy. And I went there, and then through the conversations in the school, it entered home. 

Yehuda: Josh, let me ask you a different version of this question, which is, I remember during the lockdown especially, you were doing a lot of thinking and a lot of writing about the ways in which pandemic was already altering the trajectory of Jewish communal life in America. You argued in this essay in Sources about, gonna oversimplify it, but an argument that Jewish community is really meant to be local, especially for diaspora Jews, that it depends on a kind of social fiber of relationships and responsibilities that people have towards one another that you can’t really flourish without that. And you were writing almost kind of prophetically, if we don’t address this. And the atomization that was brought about by pandemic was kind of illustrating the loneliness of the Jewish experience in America, if we don’t get on in front of this, this is, a lot of it’s gonna fritter away. 

So here’s like an issue that you probably are observing in Jewish life in San Francisco talking to people about, and probably also noticing that it’s implicating your home life because your kids are in lockdown. They’re not experiencing friendship the same way, not experiencing community. I’m curious how you as a parent approached that kind of moment in terms of thinking about how your children were experiencing life differently in the middle of that moment.

Josh: I think the pandemic provided a moment where I was thinking deeply about Jewish life, in part because all of the structures of Jewish life that we had were no longer immediate. And I was starting to realize that my children, I’m interested in, and I’ve talked to Masua about this on the podcast, I’m interested in being in approximate community, that I think Jewish, what it means to build strong Jewish kids is to do that in partnership with institutions, but also neighbors and friends. And to be able to feel and touch, o, we walk down the street and we see, that’s part of our Jewish encounter. And so to be able to talk to my kids about what makes something Jewish, that’s part of the question that we’re dealing with, that I start to talk to my children about in that moment of the pandemic is like, oh, what does it mean for things to be Jewish if we’re only in our house? How do we conceptualize Jewishness if we don’t have a synagogue? If we don’t have a JCC or a school to go to? It can’t just be these institutions. It has to be the things we do together with people. 

So in my community, we started to do outdoor activities, whether it was prayer or meetups, but also trying to get them to understand, oh, when we text friends to find out if they need stuff to go to the, oh, I’m going to Trader Joe’s. Do you need food actually to help that? To like say to them like, oh, that itself is a Jewish practice and let’s talk about what it means to help our neighbors to visit, you know, visit the sick or to be encumbered in that community.

Yehuda: You know, it’s interesting in both of these examples, you know, Jewish life in a home is so much about generating routine, right? The familiarity of when Shabbat candles come out, you know, if you want to experience a Shabbat atmosphere in the home, you wanna generate that sense of this happens every week. It’s not a special thing that happens once in a while. You want the familiarity that comes with certain songs. You know, I guess even the ritual for American Jews of the PJ Library book has shown up, as a routine, it’s a ritual. 

And in both of these examples, I wasn’t thinking about it as I was planning the question. It required a little bit of an exit out of a routine to push you both as parents, to interrogate something. And I’ve heard you talk about this a little bit before, Masua, as well, of when you, when you actually detach people from routine and continuity, it sometimes forces a certain set of questions that are different.

So now I want to use that though, to ask a little bit of a different question on this, which is a lot of what we talked about so far is reactive. So, you know, Sivan Zakai’s research, she appears as one of the scholars on the episode of how to talk about Israel, oftentimes motivated by kids know more about Israel just by being in the world. And then our questions are like, how do I talk to them about something that they may already have opinions about? And I think a lot of the issues that we’re talking about, certainly when kids have formal Jewish education and you’re counter-educating, that assumes there’s some knowledge base and I have to react and respond to it. But what many, I think, Jewish parents are craving is not reactive Jewish education, but constructive Jewish education. How do I even start talking about God, Shabbat, grandma, trauma, joy, all of that stuff.

I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on how you think about that as scholars and parents. cause the, the first part seems really important and also a little easier, right? Same way that like, the minute my kid asks me anything about anything, I’m gonna give them an honest answer. And so, like, on sexuality, we basically said, the minute our kids ask, we’re gonna give them a straight, unapologetic answer. And they’ll, and you know, it will evolve developmentally depending on who they are. And the same thing happens for Jewishness. And if you don’t know something, great, now I have a resource that’s helping me figure out, oh my God, my kid asked me about the Holocaust. I don’t, haven’t really thought about it. But how do I get into the business of thinking about constructive Jewish education as the responsibility of a parent?

Masua: So for me, that’s exactly the case, in the issue of Holocaust, which I know might be weird because I’m an Israeli and we constantly talk about the Holocaust. But for me, for reasons that we kind of, some of them we unpacked in the episode of how to talk about the Holocaust and at what age, I understood that I’m not talking about the Holocaust, and maybe I should. And I think that in other issues.

Yehuda: In other words, you found as a parent that you were avoiding it. 

Masua: Yes. 

Yehuda: And you were looking then to figure out why am I avoiding, and what do I need to do in order to be able to trigger it?

Yehuda: Exactly. I figured out that I’m recreating the pattern of the second generation of the first generation of the Holocaust as a third generation of the Holocaust. And I’m not speaking with my kids, and then what the fourth generation is going to look like. 

But when we are in the routine of, you know, getting up to school and, and, you know, prepping sandwiches and then taking the kids to school, and then going to work, and then back from work, and then, you know, like making supper and all of these, you are in a constant reactionary mode. And for me, in other issues, such as sexuality and such as even, you know, how do you talk with your kids about bullying and stuff like that, for me, I use tools such as parenting podcasts to know what are the moments where I should insert something. If it’s in a moment where they are captive audience in the car with me on, on the way somewhere, or whether we see together some TV show or something like that. 

But I know that I have to be prepared, not necessarily for an answer, but I have to be prepared for a moment where I can insert notes. Part of the problem is what do you do when you don’t have the answers to some of the questions that we ask, right?

Josh: I think there’s something empowering as a parent because of the lunch making and the, it never, as someone wrote on the pandemic, like during the pandemic on Facebook, like why does dinner have to happen every night? Like, there’s a sense of like, oh. So I think part of the podcast, one of our goals was to lay out a set of questions that we wanna be asking as parents, but also that we think Jewish parents will feel more empowered when they ask, oh, right. I’m being reminded. I should be thinking about, how do I wanna talk to my children about Israel? Not just as a reactive, but as a proactive, how do I wanna be thinking about God? How do I want to think about what count, and we say this is about raising kids Jewishly and about Jewish parenting because A) We have some parents we imagine are parents who found themselves to be Jewish parents, they married a Jewish partner, they all of a sudden have Jewish kids. 

And also like, we sometimes forget to talk to our partners about core questions. And that what allows us to feel empowered is, oh, I’ve talked to my, I’ve talked to my partner about this big question, cause I listened to this podcast, we listened to it together, we heard some ideas that actually, oh, these are the set of ideas we wanna bring. And then, and then there’s this whole question of about, well, we know that if we throw it at our kids and make them do what we want, it’s not, you can’t shove it down their throat, but, so,

Yehuda: Yeah. I guess I wanna try again to push on this a little bit more, cause like, okay, so last week when I took my 15 year old to the protest in Jerusalem, or almost 15 year old, this is like perfect for him. As soon as he sees something, he asks, he’s done this since he was six months old, just questions, morning to night. I remember he used to fall asleep mid question. 

Josh: I’m shocked to hear that your child is like that.

Yehuda: Well, you know, again, 

Masua: My children fall asleep mid eating a cake, but, okay.

Yehuda: Well, so that too. But like the minute we left the protest, just question after question, and he and I, and you know, on the 40 minute walk home, we did areas A, B, and C of the Palestinian authority. We did the whole Oslo process. We did, we talked about 48, we talked about 67, we talked about Mahmoud Abbas, and we just covered everything. Question after question. We talked about the American Jewish left. It was like, great. That’s number one, easy. When your kids ask questions, it’s easy. Well, I first,

Josh: It’s easy for you. 

Yehuda: No, in that particular case, that was easy for me because I know the answers to those questions. And if I don’t know the answers, I know where to look. And I also am not particularly scared of saying, oh, that’s interesting, I don’t know. So I understand it’s not easy always for everybody, but in general for parents, when kids ask questions, it’s an opening.

Where, I think, many American Jewish parents struggle is not the opening to talk about Holocaust or God or Israel or hard things. It’s like, how do I domesticate Judaism, lived Judaism in our house? And I’m wondering whether the answer to that is that’s another podcast, or there are some dimensions of this type of discursive way of thinking about wisdom as applied there as appliable here that can also be parts of tools that help people just think about how to bring Judaism into the home.

Masua: So one of our episodes is an episode about Jewish books and Jewish games and Jewish play and creativity, which is very much, it’s much more inside our home and our house, both as ritualistic texts, but also as just, you know, like you said before, PJ Library is a ritual. 

But I think, at least for me, this podcast is almost a substitute to the questions that are not asked. Because if my child won’t ask the questions, I won’t have the questions alone, I need a trigger. So one type of trigge is my kids asking question, but a different kind of trigger is me taking the action and listening to something that will inspire such a conversation. And I think that that’s part of what I’m trying to do in this podcast.

Josh: Yeah. I mean, I do think podcasts have, there’s a limit to a podcast, right? A podcast is not a book. It’s not, and there are lots of resources that help bring Judaism into the home. I think one of the things that we’re trying to do is to sit with parents a little bit and say, oh, it’s not just about going to Target and getting Hanukkah decorations now, because you can at Target. And so, like, you can bring the materiality into the home, but it’s about, how are we shaping sort of the disposition to thinking about parenting as a Jewish practice, so that parents are also thinking about, how am I bringing in both the material objects that might help me parent and bring Judaism into the home. The set of rituals. And the set of conversations.

Yehuda: So you alluded to partnership before, which I think is a really interesting piece of this. My question really is like, how do you hope that people use this? And one of the interesting things that I’m watching here is that you are basically a chavruta in the very traditional sense.

Josh: It’s fun.

Yehuda: You’re not actually partnered to each other. 

Masua: We are not. Nope.

Yehuda: You have your own partners. You have your own partners. So parenting is actually, it’s this weird thing because it’s actually a very private discipline that takes place between a parent and a child, sometimes a parent and a partner and a child, but you’re making it a public exercise and kind of having a public chavruta around this. What do you wanna have happen for parents with this material? Do you want them to listen to this, talk to their partners if they have one? Do you want parents to listen to this and then try out things on their children? Do you want parents to listen to this and talk to their friends? Like, what are the types of uses that you wanna see happen? And I don’t mean just with this podcast, but I mean around the culture of Jewish parenting as a result of this kind of work.

Masua: I would like parenting, well, first all, all of the above.

Josh: Yes!

Masua: But I, I would really want parenting conversations to be more of the chavruta type, adding to the conversations of, he didn’t let me sleep at night, or my daughter said the most craziest thing, and they’re great, they’re great conversations. I want an added conversation. And the added conversation would be, what does it mean to raise a Jewish child? And what does it mean to be a Jewish parent? How do we insert it into our daily lives? That’s my slightly ambitious result.

Yehuda: Right. And especially cause if it’s already, if parenting, and again, I have such resistance to that term.

Josh: Because of industry. 

Yehuda: Like, I have this complicated relationship with these people. They’re my people. Am I doing, am I doing something called parenting? You don’t see me, but I’m using air quotes. Am I doing something called parenting? I don’t know. I’m building powerful relationships with these human beings. But you’re trying to basically say, if you’re in that business already, let’s find ways to create a language, a a Jewish language around the things that we’re already doing.

Masua: And it shouldn’t be lonely. 

Yehuda: It shouldn’t be lonely. Yeah. Go ahead.

Josh: I think that one of the things we’re doing is I want people to see parenting as itself a Jewish practice. Like it’s a Jewish ritual, it’s a Jewish practice. And what makes a Jewish practice is that it’s a canvas for a whole set of beliefs and behaviors. We are incubating Jews. We are trying to make young people feel both inheritors and contributors to the tradition. 

And I don’t want Judaism to, and this is going back to the, the stuff I was, I wrote about in Sources. I don’t want Judaism to feel like an episodic program that’s Judaism is this full, rich, robust, sometimes fun, sometimes painful challenge, lovely, wonderful experience. And we’re doing it with our kids. And so to, for this podcast to be something that parents see as a resource for themselves to talk about with their partners, to spend time as a community. Like if it facilitates a conversation within a community, whether it’s a synagogue or a school or a JCC.

Yehuda: Or a bunch of parents at the dinner table.

Josh: Or just a bunch of parents saying, what are we doing together? How are we raising these Jews together? We’re like living in a world that’s so individualistic. We have little machines in our pockets that make that and increase that. To say like, what are we doing together and how are we being the types of Jews we want to be? How do we create a Jewish people together that feels, that’s my, like Masua, very lofty goal.

Yehuda: Yeah. Lemme ask you one last question, and I think you have a,

Josh: We have a question for you.

Yehuda: You have a last question too. I’m curious if you could just give a window of what Jewishness feels like in your home. Doesn’t have to be everywhere all the time, but maybe like a bright spot, not a hard thing, but like a moment when the Jewishness that you’re trying to create in your home feels right. 

And I’ll give you my example first, which is, 

Josh: It’s a beautiful question. 

Yehuda: Like, I remember years ago, remembering what it felt like the morning of Pesach as a kid, the morning of before Pesach of the rush and the bustle and the like, relinquishing your bed because someone else is coming in, and the cleaning and the scrubbing and kind of being helpful and also kind of being in the way and then falling asleep under the table. I remembered that and I said, I want my kids to feel that. And that’s when we stopped going away for Pesach. I was like, I need my kids to feel that. I don’t know whether they will ultimately process it the same way, but I was like, I’m gonna give them that feeling of that amazing chaos as part of what I think the preparation for Pesach is about. And blessedly, we got, we had plenty of chaos, they got, they got it. So I felt like that was a moment of like, I know what I’m doing. I’m trying to engineer a feeling. And it feels terrible when you say that out loud, but that’s actually part of the work, right? 

Josh: Well, we could, 

Yehuda: We could spend more time on that.

Josh: We could psychoanalyze why that feels bad.

Yehuda: But there’s something, that’s to me, it’s like a window into what does the Jewishness that I’m trying to create in my house look and feel like. I’m curious if both of you can give us a window as well.

Masua: Every Shabbat Eve after we light the candles, the, dafka the light of candles is not like the main event at us, but we always go to the living room couch and we sit and we say Bracha L’mishpacha, a blessing for the family that was authored by a woman rabbi quite a few years ago. And it’s really, it’s a blessing where we say, well, we ask to be together as a family and to be safe and happy. And, you know, we say our children’s names, and everyone recites it together. Often we get to this point extremely angry, and with everyone either yelling or crying or some of, you know, the members of the family, but we keep on doing it even though we are angry or even though we are, you know, exhausted. And I think that this, the content, the space, the place, and the fact that it happens every week, I think, tells a lot about the kind of Jewishness that I want in my family.

Josh: I mean it’s beautiful. It’s great. It’s beautiful. I was just like, wow, that’s really a beautiful moment. I was like, on one hand thinking about all the times my kids are singing songs that they have learned at preschool or from our home, which are Jewish, but then they’re just saying, you’re poopy to the tune. And there’s like,

Yehuda: But that’s a win. 

Josh: That’s a win. Right? Meaning like the cultural, that’s one thing. And the other thing is my, each one of my children is so different in terms of the way they engage with their Jewish lives. So I’m just, but the, like, I have one child like your son who asks questions, who, when we’re walking somewhere, and they ask questions, and to be able to say, Judaism isn’t just pediatric, even though we’re young, and that it’s rich, full ideas, and that when we treat our kids with the, like, respect and care that they can handle these rich, fascinating ideas. They love it and they want to be part of more conversations like that.

Yehuda: So, I mean, that’s a huge gift in and of itself, which is to say, you know, to say to our listeners that if you are a parent who is not sure whether you’re doing it right, Jewishly, that one way to do it is to just be available to your children to answer their questions. Whether or not you have the answers is an enormous gift that I think you’re giving to people. 

All right. You wanted to get the last word here.

Josh: So at the end of each of our episodes, we have a segment called On One Foot, where we turn the tables on our guests and on ourselves, the way our kids do oftentimes at bedtime or bathtime when we’re trying to move them and they ask a big, a big, deep question. 

So our, today’s question, a little bit ripped from the news, whether we’re in Israel or other places, which is how do you answer your child when they say to you, why do people who believe in God hurt other people? How would you answer? What would you say? Let you take it, Masua, and then I usually take the sweet spot of going last. 

Yehuda: Uhh. I think people are people. I think people are people and people can do good things and people can do bad things. And the fact that somebody claims to believe in something doesn’t necessarily make them organize their lives or their principles in accordance to what they do. Now, you may say to me, Yehuda, you’re answering that question as though you’re talking to another adult. 

Josh: No, it’s great. 

Yehuda: But this is how I talk to my kids. And, you know, Stephanie and I are very committed, because we’re actually pluralsists, that like your belief systems do not make you better, or even different than anybody else. It’s how you act in the world and how you treat other people. So that if we’re, if we are to be people who believe in God, it has to be believing in God to make us better people. The fact that others don’t do that, they’ll maybe one day be punished for it.

Masua: Well, I think basically that would be my exact answer. I think that religious people can be bad people and that non-religious people can be good people. And it’s not necessarily has to do, whether you’re good or bad doesn’t have to do if you believe or not believe. But I think it’s a good segue to talk about what believing in God should mean to ourselves and to our family and, you know, to ourselves.

Josh: So I’ll say, Donniel Hartman in his book, Putting God Second points out, there’s this like complication about, like, the contradiction about believing in God is that it, one, can intoxicate you to feel like you need to thrust it upon everyone else. But that the, what God should do is create a sense of humility, and allow you to see you’re part of this larger thing. And that’s probably the answer that I would give my kids, which is to say, it’s easy when you feel so committed to something to think that that’s the end all be all. And anything you do justifies how you act. 

But in fact, being part of committed to the divine and being, having a relationship with God is recognizing there’s value. There’s something bigger than yourself. And then you have to be, you have to be careful.

Yehuda:I’m gonna say two things on that. One is, some years ago, one of my kids had, I don’t know, a toothache or something. And obviously eventually it was like, why does God do these things to us? And I think my answer, or maybe it was Stephanie’s answer, or maybe it was both of our answers, was like, God has bigger problems than your toothache. Because actually the really important lesson there was like, you know, have some humility, right? There are bigger problems in the world. 

But the better thing I want to say on that is, one of my kids years ago thought that Donniel’s book was titled Pudding God Second.

Josh: First of all, I mean, if there’s a Hartman cookbook

Yehuda: That’s right. 

Josh: It’s gonna be called Pudding God Second.

Yehuda: Well, thanks to all of you for listening to our show. And special thanks to our guests this week, Masua Sagiv and Joshua Ladon. Masua and Josh are hosts of Perfect Jewish Parents, which launches this week. You can find it wherever you can find this podcast. 

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman, with assistance from Miri Miller, Sarina Shohet, and Yoav Friedman. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC, our production manager is M Louis Gordon. Maital Friedman is our Vice President of Communications and Creative, and our music is provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our show now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs to find them. And to learn more about Shalom Hartmann Institute, you can visit us online at 

We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have topic you’d like to hear about or comments on this episode, you can write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcast are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening.

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