Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child (Book Review)

Jewish Child
I recently finished reading Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child, a translation of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s original. It was a pretty solid, concise read. The author is extremely honest, often stating principles at odds with the accepted practices of his community, principles important for any parent, regardless of religion or religiosity. I wanted to highlight some of my favorite moments, with a bit of my own commentary.

1) Thinking About The Future

“If you force him into a different track, one inappropriate for his nature, he will indeed listen to you now, and you won’t notice that any damage has been done… when he matures and no longer fears you, he will no longer listen to you.” (p. 28)

I have a friend who used to pressure his son to go with him to his synagogue. When the son was older, he was a fantastic, God-fearing young adult… who never wanted to set foot in that particular synagogue again.

We as parents can so often think that our coercive or intimidating methods are effective. But we are being wildly short sighted. The long term result is almost inevitable failure.

This would be like the teacher who sees the child sitting quietly in the classroom after being angrily chastised. The teacher might feel pride and joy at their brave accomplishment. How does that teacher feel when the student grows old and still feels angst toward school in general, and that teacher in particular? How does that teacher feel when he learns two decades later that this student still avoids that subject matter, since it just makes him feel the pain of the classroom?

We must learn to look at the future of our children, as daunting as a task it might be. We must sometimes sacrifice immediate results for far more important, long-term goals.

2) Screaming At Children

“Screaming at a child is as bad as, or perhaps worse than, spanking a child… when a father screams at his son, the child is so terrified that he begins to tremble… True, it is difficult to control oneself: When the father returns home… tired and hungry, and of course the children want  to jump on him… the children refuse to go to bed… a father might get angry and begin to yell… Yes, it is very difficult to control oneself in such a situation. Nonetheless, screaming damages.” (p. 37)

I am thoroughly intrigued by the notion that causing fear can be as if not more damaging than actual physical violence. But not terribly surprised.

Bullying: Boys vs. Girls

I’ve often quipped as a teacher that girl bullying is infinitely worse than boy bullying. Boys generally bully with their fists. For sure it’s not good, but it’s easy to spot when it’s happening, the damage is usually temporary, and there are countless ways to counteract this, including learning to fight, learning to stand more confidently, and just getting bigger as time goes by.

Girl bullying on the other hand is a whole different beast. It’s subtle and evil, and the damage it does can linger for quite some time if not forever.

Nevertheless, society has come to associate most bullying with the former, and most abuse in general with a physical act. But those in the know realize that mental and emotional damage is far more potent, and lingers for much longer.

So it does not surprise me that yelling at a child (an act all parents have done and continue to do) can cause real long-term problems.

I’ve often said there is no greater character trait for a parent to obtain than patience. And there is rarely a time when one can look back at having yelled at their child with pride, feeling the situation was handled in the best possible way.

We should all be blessed with enough patience to be firm yet calm no matter what parenting complications come our way.

3) Whose Kid Is This?

“Parents often deceive themselves into thinking that their primary concern is their children’s education, when their motivations are really selfish… We see the child as our property. We think that his purpose on earth is to benefit us, the parents… What happened to the principal that we should “Educate a child according to his way?” (p. 42-43)

Ah, what a trap this is! Why should they not act according to our standards? And why should we not have very specific expectations of someone who owes everything to us?

Why? Because they’re free-thinking human beings, with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own preferences, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies. We need to raise each and every child to be the best them, not to be some idealized image we’ve created that we wish for them to become.

All children will be better served by giving them space to grow, with support and encouragement, and ample opportunities to fearlessly learn from their mistakes.

4) The Dinner Table

“Shabbos [Shabbat or Sabbath] should… be attractive, not oppressive. We should not force children to sit at the Shabbos table for an entire meal. This is too difficult for them… ” (p. 54)

Hard to forget a time I sat with a family in Bnei Brak for a Shabbat meal. I watched horrified as the father screamed at a small child for breaking the most intricate of laws. The child burst into tears.

The father wasn’t trying to make the experience beautiful. He wasn’t enticing the children with songs and treats. He wasn’t focusing on the amusement of the youngsters at the meal. Just that people looked and behaved a certain way.

Children are not adults. Not that you should scream at adults for small things, but you are entitled to have greater expectations. The inability to be reasonable, and to focus on children being children, simply cannot produce quality long-term results.

Kids need to run and play. Let them run and play!

5) An Aware Child

“It is also distressingly common that children riding on a bus fail to give up their seats to older passengers. Certainly, this reflects some insufficiency in the schools’ curriculum, but such behavior also reveals flaws in the educational program at home. Parents must teach their children to notice others and care about them. It should be obvious to a child that an elderly passenger needs to sit, and the child should enthusiastically and happily offer his place on the bus.” (p. 59-60)

Bus rides are easily within my top five most stressful parts of living in Israel. Whereas I think most adults here are actually exceptional about giving up their seats to the elderly and others, I find that the youth often claim much more space then they should. I’ve been on crowded buses with a teen sitting in his chair, legs spread out on the chair in front of them with a bag to their side taking another seat. Often they’re shouting on a phone, or even blaring music from their phone. One kid, three seats, lots of noise. Every last bit of this is because they grow up not learning to be aware of the people around them, and it’s very refreshing to find a leader of the community acknowledging this.

An Adult Problem

Nevertheless, I personally consider this an adult problem. Yes, adults usually stand up for their elders on buses here, but my compliments of their awareness of others around them ends there. I am often shocked at the lack of awareness people show in everyday life, whether it be walking through the grocery store or just up the street.

Years ago I was Youth Director at a synagogue in Baltimore. I was asked by one of my employers to “take care” of the talking problem during the teen services. My response: You will never stop the problem with the teens until you solve the problem with their parents in the adult services.

Our children learn from what we do. If we want caring and kind children who are extremely conscious of others around them, we must first look at ourselves and the environment in which we choose to raise them.


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Posted by jaffeworld in book review, judaism, parenting, 0 comments

Vayishlach, the “Me Too” Parsha

Me Too

Am I Allowed To Talk About This?

It’s an odd sensation, clicking your fingers on the keyboard, not wanting to upset anyone but knowing it’s inevitable. I’ve been wanting to share my thoughts on the ubiquitous “Me Too” phenomenon that has smashed our culture from every side, but fear has prevented me. Somehow I’m perceived as disqualified to weigh in, because I’m a) male and b) not a victim of sexual abuse.

However, society falls apart when anyone’s opinion is inherently invalid, and the good amongst us are discouraged from sharing our thoughts and feelings.

I read. I read a lot. And it quickly became clear that something like 80% of the articles I was reading were somehow related to this subject. Every time I felt like there was nothing left to be said, someone wrote an article that caught my attention. I’ve read everything from articles about accounts of nasty public figures, to a woman’s apology for the role she may have played in perpetuating what’s been going on, to an advocate of teaching aggressive self-defense techniques as the best solution. And just last night I finished an asinine article claiming that left-wing rapists should get some latitude over right-wing rapists, because of the good they do. I kid you not, this wasn’t satire!

So here I am. Weighing in. Admittedly nervous, but also happy to put my thoughts and feelings out there. I’m well aware that it opens me up to be criticized or worse, but I’m more than OK with that. It’s my duty to share, and it’s society’s duty to have thoughtful, intellectual discussions.

Facebook Blah Blah

I was initially highly wary of this movement. Mainly because it’s origin was nothing more than people plopping “me too” into their Facebook profiles. Things of great importance should be treated with greater urgency and seriousness than the same methodology we spread the Harlem Shake or the concerts we’ve been too but one is fake. I feared, and to some extent fear, that any campaign whose primary source is Facebook posts, can never make a proper difference, especially if there’s no clear path from where to take things next.

But things are happening. The world is a changing place, and social media is the place where things happen. And even though “me too” is tossed into the same place as that simple test that will tell you if you’re a genius and your cousin’s 7,000th baby picture, this does not disqualify it from being effective or serious.

Personally, I like to compartmentalize. Maybe I was born into the wrong generation.

Naive or White Knights?

Nevertheless, I want to first talk about a common male response I saw following thousands of “me too” posts flooding Facebook. The response basically looked something like this:

“I never imagined that this was going on. I am sickened and horrified to find out that my beloved sisters have been suffering so much at the hands of my gender. And I am shocked and appalled, and embarrassed to be a male.”

If the prevalence of harassment and assault against women in society is a surprise to you, there are only two possibilities:

a) You are a completely ignorant, naive fool. Or:
b) You are a White Knight, coming along to save all those poor lassies out there, with your own underhanded agenda. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to these guys. Pardon the crudeness… but they’ve got a point.

Fact is, every guy is aware of what happens, and has, in some capacity or another, participated in behavior that’s been criticized all over the internet, ranging from the most heinous of crimes to ogling the girl in cute yoga pants next to you at the gym.

Which leads to my next point.

A Cavern of Difference

I have never liked when different actions are bundled together. And I am very bothered by the fact that rape and harassment are being categorized together. This is by no means to say they are not both reprehensible, and that systemic change needs to happen in society to deal with both issues.

But there is an enormous cavern between the girl who was violently raped and the one who was whistled at once.

I think it is unfair to put the actions together, both because they need to be dealt with differently, and because it is disrespectful to victims of rape and sexual abuse to have them categorized alongside someone who has been harassed.

I say this as someone who knows abuse victims. And as a father who will inevitably instruct his daughters how to deal with being harassed (and his son how to not be an asshole).

Harassment and Bullying

Harassment is shameful behavior; however, I believe it is best dealt with the same way one confronts bullying. Those who harass should be addressed, and addressed harshly. Their behavior should be shunned and society should find ways to change the behavior from normative to taboo . However, sadly, like bullying, the likelihood of removing the problem from the world is almost non-existent. (However, I do recommend everyone read the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. They speak of ways societies went about changing the perception of common, reprehensible behaviors.)

At this stage, the victim’s reaction is more vital. The victim must learn how to defend herself and how to remain strong and healthy in the face of mistreatment. Not to belittle one who has been harassed, but the ability to move forward is the greatest strength you can have.

But this is not the case with abuse. Abuse leaves indelible imprints that ruin lives, for the victim and those close to the victim as well. Abuse is a violent and sick crime, and should be dealt with in strongest and harshest ways possible (I will get back to that in a moment).

A Human Problem

I have seen commentaries that speak about these issues in terms of where one stands on the political spectrum.

This is hurtful, inane, and blatantly misleading.

It is not a liberal or a conservative problem. This is a human problem. The mistreatment of anyone amongst us is wrong, and every good person should do whatever is within their power to help make the world a better place.

To those who see these issues as belonging to one group or another, I say: Grow the hell up.

If anything age and experience has taught me along the way, there are only two groups of people who matter: Good people and bad people. And every race, religion, political group, sexual preference, and both genders are filled with a whole lot of both. Positive change only happens in the world when the good people amongst us work together to make a difference.

What would Dina say?

This week’s Torah portion has a horrific story about Jacob’s daughter Dina. To summarize, she is taken captive and raped by an important figure. Said figure attempts to make peace with Dina’s family, which they presumably accept. However, two of Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levi, have different intentions. They sneak into the village, and massacre the perpetrator and everyone else living there.

After the incident, Shimon and Levi’s father, Jacob, rebukes the brothers’ actions, since the overall effect would result in provoking the surrounding communities to join together to harm the nation. The brothers’ response (essentially): It’s our sister. What the hell did you expect us to do?

And the story ends there.

Me Too vs Vayishlach

Looking at this tale in the modern era, we can see some bizarre parallels. Dina was out and about and a terrible tragedy occurs to her at the hands of an important individual (politician, celebrity, producer, etc). Who is to blame? According to Shimon and Levi, the blame falls not just upon those who commit the actions, but the society that surrounds them and continues to allow those actions to occur (those who know it’s happening the whole time, but remain silent). They are not just to blame. They are equally to blame!

Jacob, though, takes a cautious route, fearing reprisals for taking actions against wrongdoers, similar to the many in society who choose silence or diplomacy, rather than take aggressive or risky stands.

Traditionally, Shimon and Levi are criticized for their angry and aggressive approach.

Baltimore Jewish Times

Many years ago, well before these topics were hotly debated, I wrote an article for the Baltimore Jewish Times, where I sympathized with the approach of Shimon and Levi. My basic view was: How could a normal person not respond, at least emotionally, the way they did? I don’t even want to think how I would respond if, God forbid, someone harmed one of my precious daughters! I would certainly not be thinking restraint and diplomacy. And I would certainly be infuriated with those who tried to cover for the sick bastard who did this.

And for the next several weeks I watched as people debated what I wrote. The overwhelming majority were upset with me. One even questioned why a school would employ someone “like me”, with my revolting and violent attitude. The bulk of negative response I received were from liberals, which I find ironic considering they are usually the champions of the rights of the downtrodden.

I wonder if I were to get a different response if my article were published now, in the wake of the world somehow magically discovering that Dina’s story was not some isolated legend of Biblical history, but something that still happens to this day, and with alarming frequency.

So, many years later, I ask again: Were Shimon and Levi justified in their actions? If not, were they at least justified in wishing to react the way they did? If so, were they justified in placing blame on both the criminal and the accomplice? And for God’s sake, what would Dina want us to do!?

For most of my adult life, I’ve advocated an extremely aggressive approach to those who commit the basest of actions.

Am I wrong?


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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, 0 comments

No Such Thing as Celebrity in Judaism (Guest Post)

Welcome to my first ever guest post. ‘No Such Thing as Celebrity in Judaism’ was written by my good friend Gabe Lewin. Gabe and I met during my first year teaching in Baltimore. Out of the craziness of that year emerged a wonderful, long-lasting friendship. And I’m honored to post his beautiful and profound words here in my blog.


A “Celebrity” Came to Town

Sometime in the year 2003, the new Chabbad Rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, had invited a new Lubavitch singer to the campus for a small concert, which I did not attend. However, he and his bandmates needed a place to daven (pray) on Shabbos (the Sabbath). They ended up attending Bais Abraham Congregation near the campus. We offered this singer the amud (the opportunity to lead services from the pulpit), but he declined. Instead, one of his associates led, very nicely. We gave the singer an Aliyah (the honor of making a blessing during the Torah reading).

That singer, I later learned and realized, was Matisyahu, who at the time was the Chassidic Reggae pop star that was on the verge of taking over the Jewish world. But to me, he was another Jew in the minyan at the shul (synagogue) on Delmar near the Loop. (A “minyan” is the requirement to have ten adult, Jewish males at the prayer service.)

It’s a fascinating phenomenon. Imagine showing up to the local Catholic Church on Sunday for Mass and sitting next to you is Bruce Springsteen. That just doesn’t happen. But in Judaism, the Maccabeats need a minyan too.

Another story about Matisyahu (before the excising of the beard): My father went to a concert of his a number of years ago at the Vogue Theater in the Village of Broad Ripple neighborhood in Indianapolis. They converted this  vintage 1940’s era movie theater into a concert venue. After the late-night concert (attended mostly by non-Jewish or non observant Jews), Matisyahu called to the crowd. He said, “Can anyone help make a minyan for Ma’ariv (evening prayers)?”

Celebrity? Not in Judaism!

Even the famous people in the Jewish world need a minyan.

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to daven with Jewish musicians such as Avraham Rosenbloom (of the Diaspora Yeshiva Band), Yehuda Green, Yehuda Solomon (lead singer of the Moshav Band), Chaim Dovid Saracik (“Yamamai”), Yussi Sonenblick (Dveykus), Eitan Katz, as well as all members of Simply Tzfat (I’ve also eaten meals at their Shabbat tables). This does not include famous Chazzonim (cantors) either. And, certainly, my list is not anything special nor is it particularly remarkable except in its ubiquity.

In Judaism, there are no celebrities. There are Jewish celebrities, but in Judaism, there are no celebrities. Avraham Avinu’s (Abraham the Patriarch’s) fame was widespread, but so was his tent. In Judaism, we are all part of the same congregation. And we all need a minyan despite our hits on YouTube.

This Shabbos I was fortunate to bring my son to a Friday night davening with Gad Elbaz, perhaps the most famous Jewish music star at present. The shul was packed, his voice was in top gear and the tefillah was gorgeous – but it wasn’t a concert. It was opening his heart and voice to Hashem (God) and the rest of us followed in turn. This is the special nature of the Jewish community and the Jewish spirit. That even our most famous members are still connected enough to shake an 8-year-old’s hand and wish him a Shabbat Shalom.


Thanks Gabe! If anyone would else has some beautiful, inspiring, controversial, or interesting words you’d like to get out to the world but you’re lacking a platform, feel free to reach out to me: jaffeworld@gmail.com


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Posted by jaffeworld in guest post, judaism