American Orthodoxy

The Rabbi-Kid Dilemma: Another Angle

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Zev Eleff

Yesterday, Elli Fischer addressed the psychology of “rabbis’ kids.” In his uncanny and unique way, Rabbi Fischer portrayed Yitzhak as the first rabbi’s son, saddled with ferocious burdens and formidable bullies. His representation resonates, to a point at least. I am the son of an anesthesiologist and an attorney; not a rabbi’s kid. Our son, Jack, a precocious one-and-a-half-year-old, will one day have much more to say on the matter. Meital, our opinionated four-year-old, will no doubt have a word or two on the matter in due time.

In the meantime, Elli’s comments remind me of the other half of the predicament: the challenge for all parents—rabbis, scholars, educators, overworked professionals—to find quality time with our children. For all of the talk of Jewish education, it is all-too-often about the schools and other institutions to which we outsource our tradition transmission. I’m more concerned about education in the home. It’s something closer to “Cats in the Cradle,” but more understanding of parents with “planes to catch and bills to pay.”

Here again, Yitzhak is something of a patriarchal paradigm, particularly as described by Rabbi Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin. In his Humash commentary, Neziv heaped ample criticism upon Yitzhak’s and Rivkah’s relationship (Gen. 24:65). In fact, it’s the sort of sermon that would get a modern rabbi in loads of trouble. But this was the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, who held much more clout than your average pulpiteer. From the very first time they met, Rivkah was “afraid” of the her betrothed, averred Neziv. The latter appeared to her too removed from real life, enwrapped in otherworldly prayer. The disconnect—or the perception of it—between Yitzhak’s holy man life and his family persisted throughout the marriage, impacting the patriarch’s relationship with his sons, as well.

Neziv’s interpretation stands out to me, and not because it is something of a scriptural stretch. For me, it serves as an important reminder that family must come first. This, I learn from rabbi-friends, is especially challenging. Too often, pastoral predicaments interrupt important occasions and chances to teach and interact with their daughters and sons. But it’s also a challenge for committed parents, working very hard and long hours. For all of these well-intentioned individuals, there’s good—even noble—reason for their busyness.

Then there are the instances conjured up more by self-indulgence than selfless obligations. Consider the case of John Dewey, the unrivaled philosopher of education. In 1952 Dewey died, and some of his closest students gathered for an “evening of reminiscences” to honor their beloved teacher. There, one disciple related the following about the absent-minded Dewey at Columbia University:

There’s another story about his walking with a friend across a college campus, and a little boy coming along and saying, “Would you give me five cents?” Dewey looked down, was a little peeved, put his hand in his pocket and gave a nickel to the boy, and then said to his friend, “The trouble with boys in this city is that they’re always asking you for money.” The friend looked around and said, “Well, Professor Dewey, isn’t that your son?” John looked and said, “Why, yes, I guess it is.”

Talmudists are not immune to scholarly preoccupation, even self-absorption. The same goes for community leaders. Rabbi Judah David Eisenstein was both. For New York’s Orthodox Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Eisenstein was an icon. His grandson also respected the elder Eisenstein, but was much aware of his failings:

Grandpa devoted his time to community affairs and to scholarship … Despite his learning, which he had acquired from his grandfather in Meserich (or because of it), he neglected totally the education of his children. My father, the eldest, was expected to go to work at an early age to help support the family. Father had attended P.S. 2 and had taken the entrance examinations for City College. When he came home breathless with excitement, eager to report to his father that he had passed the examinations, Grandpa told him he simply could not continue at school. He would have to go to work.

The problem, then, is one of priorities. In 1988, Dr. Irving Levitz studied children of rabbis. A well-respected Long Island psychologist, Levitz reported that almost three-quarters of rabbis’ children believed that “their fathers [were] over-involved with synagogue life.” One interviewee testified that his rabbinical parent “wasn’t even there when he was there. His mind always seemed preoccupied.” Of course, it’s not just rabbis. It’s every parent. There are plenty of times that we can’t be “there.” But when we are “there” we ought to really be there.