Jewish Parenting: Improving the World

    May 2011          
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The Jewish Tiger: Guilty and Suffering

By Laurie Lichtenstein

Amy Chua, in her article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” criticizes western parenting for what she perceives to be their overindulgent, democratic style of child rearing. She further asserts that the Asian “tough love approach” yields highly successful children both academically and musically.

I can’t speak for all western parents. I can’t even speak for all Jewish parents. However, Jewish Americans have long been admired for the ability to produce academically thriving children. After reading Chua’s article and the fallout, it is clear that a culture has significant impact on the way in which one parents. And perhaps Jews should take heed of what Mrs. Chua says, since over the last two decades I have heard it whispered that Asian children are taking the spots of Jewish children at Harvard and Yale. Maybe Jews have assimilated too much and if we are to regain our coveted Ivy League spots, then we need to reflect upon our humble beginnings.

Guilt: a complicated emotion with which Jewish people are intimately familiar. Mrs. Chua rules her roost with fear: if her daughter did not master her recital piece, she couldn’t go to the bathroom or have a snack until she had attained perfection. As Jews we tend to indulge, and it is unfathomable that we would deny our children food, so we need to recall how to dole out adequate amounts of guilt to get our children to succeed. The concept of “Teshuva” or repentance is deeply embedded in Jews, who show up once yearly to ask God for forgiveness. Just look at the parking lot of any synagogue on Yom Kippur- the day of repentance- and it will be obvious that this is something Jews take very seriously. Couple this with “Tikkun Olam” or the Jewish obligation to repair the world and you can see where guilt comes in.

We are obligated by our mere existence to improve the world in which we live. How can we do that? Medical School, of course! How do we get to Medical School? Straight A’s and entry into an elite University. Maybe that is why we only repent annually- the rest of the time we are studying, or nagging our offspring to study. And maybe it is no coincidence that Yom Kippur falls at the Jewish New Year, which corresponds with the beginning of our school year, before tests and heavy duty school work has commenced. At least I know when I am packed tight with thousands of other Jews on Yom Kippur, feeling woozy from my fast, that should I pass out a doctor will be readily available.

So what does this have to do with out parenting? Well, Jewish parents, and mothers in particular have traditionally been quite adept at making their children feel guilty for bringing home grades less than stellar. “What you got an 88 on your math test? Oy! I guess we could have gone on that cruise last year! We won’t need that money for your education!” Or, “Your great grandparents did not toil in sweat shops on the Lower East Side so that you could barely make it out of High School.”

If a healthy dose of guilt doesn’t get one’s offspring into medical school, law school will suffice. Jews are nothing if not resilient. It is a reliable career, requires an advanced degree, and allows one to live comfortably. And living comfortably is something that Jews place a premium on. I am not asserting that every Jew desires wealth - just that they don’t want to suffer. Jews feel they have suffered enough. These are a people who wondered in a desert for 40 years! And this was only the unfortunate beginning of what was to come—years of being kicked out of their host country. Somewhere in the midst of the Diaspora a clever Jew figured out that one doesn’t need a suitcase to pack up his education, and so when everything else had to be left behind, his education and skills travelled with him.

Suffering has had another impact on the Jews, too. Chua mentions that Chinese children’s extra-curricular activities are carefully picked for them and almost always involve the violin or the piano but not drama or sports. While Jewish children are by no means absent from the ball fields, they do not appear in large numbers in contact sports, especially as they get older. Why, you ask? Contact sports can cause great suffering! No Jewish mom wants to see her boy tackled on a football field or elbowed with a basketball. Further, every Jewish parent knows it is unlikely that her boy will make it to the pros; so much effort goes into steering a child away from sports and toward the books.

So how do Jewish children bolster the High School resumes to get the attention of the finest colleges? Unlike their Chinese peers, they star in the school plays. They are captains of the debate team and model congress. On the stage they can channel their angst and call upon their inner Jew—guilt ridden, full of neurosis and suffering- to perform. Is it any wonder that there is a disproportionate amount of Jews in Hollywood?

As for Model Congress and the Debate team, it’s good practice for Law School. And, since much of Jewish culture is predicated on intellectual inquiry- how many Rabbis and Talmudic scholars weigh in on each and every question? These activities are coveted. In short, Jews like to talk. And argue. And when a Jewish parent lays down the law, and her child comes up with a response that may not be obedient but is most definitely clever, she secretly applauds him even if he is sent to his room to study for his Social Studies test. And when he climbs the stairs with another smart remark for his parents, his folks look at each other knowingly and hope they live to see the day their clever one is appointed to the “Jewish Seat” on the Supreme Court.

So, this writer would like to thank Amy Chua, who I believe has been unjustly vilified since her article appeared on the scene awhile ago. We are all products of our environment, and many of these environments are deeply rooted in our heritage. While I will never approach parenthood the way that Professor Chua does, I made sure to sign my daughter up for a drama class particularly after her command performance in a one woman show entitled, “You love my brothers more than you love me!” And when she refused to practice violin the other day, I laid on the guilt to make sure she understood all the sacrifices that were being made monetarily so that she could take violin lessons. This was, of course, over dinner, Shabbat dinner in fact, where I swear I saw my ancestors smiling at me through the flickering candle light.

* * * * *

Laurie Lichtenstein is a freelance writer, teacher and Jewish mother of three Harvard bound children ages 10, 7, and 4 .


from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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