Evolution of Educating (or Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah Tales)

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Daniel was born a few weeks after Yeela’s spelling test. Very few families remember a spelling test that took place thirteen years prior. We remember because it was the first and last time that I ‘helped’ Yeela (or any one of the children) prepare for one. It all happened on an ordinary day. No one could have predicted the fallout of what was about to happen. Yeela was sitting in the kitchen, casually scanning the list of words for the next day’s test. She was getting ready to call it a day when I walked in. Being the concerned and responsible father that I asked her what she was doing. ‘Preparing for a spelling test’ she answered not suspecting a thing. ‘Why didn’t you write down the words?’ I asked. ‘I never do,’ she answered. ‘Well you should.’ The next day Yeela made her first and last mistake on a spelling test. It was the first mistake she ever made because I had ‘helped’. It was the last mistake because Imma took me aside, looked me in the eyes with a glare that had all the assertiveness of a mother protecting her offspring she said ‘Your genes are fine but your up-bringing sucked – therefore please do not intervene with the way I rear the children.’ ‘But I am their father,’ I attempted to protest. Imma produced the ‘Ktubah’, ‘Show me where it says that it is your responsibility to educate’.

And so it came to be; Daniel was born and I was to sit on the sidelines and watch him become a fine young man, without his original name, but a fine young man nevertheless. Like all our children Daniel lost his name for a nick name at a very young age. His nickname mutated from his initials. Daniel’s middle name is ‘Simon’ after half of his great grandfathers. Since two of them were named Simon his initials were actually DSSP, but that had no vowels so we nicknamed him ‘Osmo’. With the name behind us life was set to go. Over the years I would make the spelling test mistake over and over again, and Imma would be there to salvage the child time and time again. Imma let me have my way only when it was absolutely clear that no one would get hurt. The battle for the diapers was one of these rare examples.

‘For god’s sake – why do you change his diapers every two hours? Didn’t we go over this with the girls? You change a diaper when it is wet, not before that!’

‘This is a boy; he has a different anatomical structure.’ Ones sense of conviction is strong when it comes from the groin.

Imma was not impressed. ‘I am aware of the anatomical differences, any other ideas?’

‘Cooling is also a factor, that why the male reproductive organs are outside the body.’

‘The organs will do just fine covered with a diaper, its snowing outside!’

I threw out my trump card: ‘what do women know about crutch rot?’

‘That is does not affect baby boys who cannot walk.’

I just could not allow myself to be beaten on the issue. ‘Don’t you want grandchildren?’

Not much of an argument but Imma would let me have my way, a small price to pay to relieve the stress of a father with an overprotective attitude towards his new born son’s reproductive system. To me it was also an ego thing. How could I be a roll model to a child when my ego is in the pits? Knowing that, Imma allowed me to participate. Over the course of the next two years we would become Huggies gold members.

Fortunately nature does most things one step at a time so I could be kept in check without too much effort. With Daniel (and Tal and Amitai) weaning came before walking. In spite of my vested interest in early weaning (those used to be mine you know) I proudly sacrificed for the well being of the child. Learning to walk was an uneventful period. Given that Daniel was a third child, even I knew that you let gravity extract its toll of bruises. Leaning to speak caused a few flares ups over some casual grammatical mistakes that Daniel made, imitating the girls and referring to himself in female form (Hebrew is gender-sensitive).

‘Ima ani lo yehola.’ (I can’t)

‘Lo yahol, Osmo.’

‘Al tetaken oto!’ (don’t correct him)

‘But he is a boy. Remember the diapers? How come you let that pass?’

‘Because I knew this was coming…’

‘His hair is long, he speaks like a girl, and his pants are pink.’ I was genuinely concerned.

Imma switched to academics: ‘Don’t make me walk you through a child’s speech learning process again. The fact that he talks like he thinks he’s a she- doesn’t mean he thinks he’s a she. Our she’s know they are she’s and our he’s know they are he’s, and you have nothing to worry about!’ I was outmatched. I would try to find comfort in the fact that English treated sexes equally, but then so did the people in the Bay Area.

Third child or not, diaper training caught me completely unprepared, while Imma knew exactly what she was doing:

‘כשהו קם יבש בבוקר – זה הזמן להוריד את החיתול’ (the diapers come off when he wakes up dry)

I tried to postpone the inevitable claiming that by changing the diapers every two hours I made it difficult to gauge how ready Daniel was for such a right of passage into the ranks of ‘dry children’. Imma knew who she was dealing with: ‘I save all the diapers you change during the night they are all dry.’ Everyone knows that when diapers come off they stay off!!!

‘So what happens if he soils himself in his pants?’

‘What pants?’

‘We can’t let him walk around butt-naked and crap on the sidewalks.’

‘You can follow him with a plastic bag.’

Imma was right as always. Daniel was completely dry in a few days, he switched to male form and at some point we even cut his hair. It was sad to see those long locks of hair go but we were compensated with a beautiful face that emerged from under them. We had an adorable young boy running around the house, and all my worries had been for naught.

As a child grows one wants to expose him to new challenges. Some of these are driven more by parents’ aspirations than the well being of the child, while others do serve the child’s interests. Swimming falls under the first category. You do not have to teach a two yea r old child how to swim, all you have to do is teach him how to avoid drowning. You teach a two year old child to avoid drowning by teaching them not to swim. You teach them not to swim by letting then fall in the water. At the age of two Daniel learned how to avoid water. At the age of four he could swim and became a lifeguard at five when he pulled Amitai to the shallows from water deeper than his head stating that ‘הוא הלך על הריצפה אז הוצאתי אותו’.

One could sense the tension build up in the house when the time came for the first bicycle lessons. I was still recovering from teaching Yeela and Tal six and four years earlier. Perhaps at the time it was imperative to run after them and support them with all kinds of contraptions tied to the bike. It was too risky to let them ride up and down the hill, from Ramat-Denia to Kiriat-Yovel, by themselves as the traffic whizzed by on one side, and the play ground was at the bottom of a fifty foot plunge on the other. But now we were in the ‘Silicon Valley‘ and things were as flat as could be. Imma watched me with pity as I was readying the broom sticks and belts and whatever else I planned to latch on to the bicycle so I would be able to support it while Daniel tried to ride it at the same time.

‘Why don’t I teach Daniel how to ride?’ Imma offered.

‘Are you up to it? It’s not easy you know.’

‘That’s OK, do you mind?’

The horrors of the hill in Jerusalem flashed before my eyes. ‘I guess you can try, but I’ll be happy to help.’ I said handing Imma the ‘equipment’.

‘I don’t need that.’

’It’ll be a long week. You’ll knock yourself out chasing after him.’

‘Who said anything about chasing?’

‘If you let him ride all by himself, he’ll hurt himself and will not want to ride.’

‘No he won’t, he’ll learn like I did.’ (אל תתערב לי בחינוך).

I reflected on the little scar that almost everyone acquires when learning how to ride a bicycle. How could Daniel not hurt himself? Mine is under my chin. However it did strike me that Imma had never mentioned her scar to me. When I came home from work that evening Daniel was riding a bicycle. Imma greeted me with a regular kiss and a smile and said nothing.

‘How did you teach him so fast?’ I asked, forced to believe my eyes.

‘I didn’t do anything.’

‘But he’s riding!’

‘Isn’t that what you wanted?’ Imma was toying with me.

After leaving me dumbfounded for a few more minutes Imma sat me down with a glass of water, patted me gently on the head and said: ‘I bought him a bicycle that’s small for him’.

‘No problem, we can return it,’ I blurted, eager to be supportive.

‘That bike is like having גלגלי עזר (training wheels)’ Imma continued.

‘But we don’t want !גלגלי עזר’ I protested.

‘And we don’t have them.’ Imma answered in a quiet, soothing voice. My eyeballs were beginning to dilate. Imma took my pulse as she stroked my hand gently. When she spoke she used my nickname to covey affection: ‘Bushy, when the bike is small Daniel can put his feet down on the ground when he starts to lose his balance.’

In an instant my view of the old world collapsed. The child did not need hand holding and over protection. The child needed to be let loose and do what he was made to do, safe and not afraid to try on his own.

That’s a wonderful concept but I could not abide by it when it desecrated the game of soccer. Daniel started playing when he was five. I thought it would be a great idea for the boy to play soccer. Imma thought that it would be a great idea for the boy to play. Daniel’s view of soccer was much closer to Imma’s than to mine. He loved the field because it was big and green, and there were a lot of children running around him, kicking a ball all over the place. Daniel felt so comfortable on the field that from time to time he sat down and watch the game go by.

‘Osmo KUM!!!’ (GET UP)

‘Leave him alone.’

‘But the ball is coming his way.’

‘The ball will pass.’

‘But he can score.’

‘He’ll score another day.’

‘This isn’t soccer.’

‘The child is happy.’

It was all but impossible for me to accept that a child can sit down in the middle of the field during a soccer game.

‘Look at the other kids.’

‘They are from very strict families.’

‘Well they’re playing aren’t they?’

‘Do you know what happens to them at home if they don’t?’

In seventh grade Daniel scored six goals in one game. Academics were no different than sports. Daniel cared about his grades where it mattered and allowed himself some slack when the teacher was a proven idiot. Imma saw to it that a third language was mandatory and reading was a daily routine.

From time to time, in spite of having seen differently so many time s before I stumbled and pointed out that ‘effort’ was not a bad thing, and growing up meant getting used to trying harder to get things done. ‘You know that you have to be strict at something’ I said with all the authority I could put into it. ‘That’s why we have a piano,’ was the answer. Daniel has been playing the piano for six years and practice is part of the daily routine:

‘Osme, lech lenagen.’ (go to play)

‘Niganti.’ (I did)

‘Lo shameti.’ (I didn’t hear it) None of the kids could ever fool Imma.

‘Niganti I’m telling you.’

‘Play again.’

‘How many times?’

‘Do the Chopin three times and the Bach once.’

‘Three? But I already played…’

‘Do both three times! ‘

Ouch, that was harsh but it worked. Imma has made it crystal clear that ‘In my house you play for a living!’ To this day, Daniel is still showing normal resistance, but when the time comes he’ll be very grateful to Imma for not letting him wiggle off the hook. To sweeten the piano pill Imma was less strict with guitar practice and has not yet mentioned that the future held a flute or a Trombone.

The piano studio concludes every year with a dreaded piano recital, where each child has to memorize a piece and play it in front of an audience. Just for the sake of comparison this is at least as difficult as memorizing a text in one language and translating it rather than reciting it without the audience being able to tell that the text was memorized in another language. Sounds hard, ask all our kids how they felt as the day of the recital came closer every year. Yeela and Tal always wanted to run away from home and Amitai lost his will to live. Daniel, on the other hand always remained completely calm – somehow the stress skipped over him when he played. During a recent recital there were audible noises from nesting pigeons somewhere in the rafters above. All the kids played on as though there was no background noise, not daring to take their eyes off the piano – except Daniel. Daniel raised his head towards the ceiling and looked for the source of the noise, while his hands played on – performed like a true master of the arts.

Sitting on the sidelines for thirteen years, my day in the sun came when it was ‘Bar Mitvah’ time. ‘This I know how to do’. Imma was a bit apprehensive. Although she did not say it, her demeanor indicated that she was watching me, ready to step in if I went too far.

‘Osmo, you can memorize your haftara in a week,’ I said.

Imma jumped in immediately: ‘this is not what I meant when I let you le-hitarev bahinuch!’

‘What’s the big deal? It’s only a haftara!’

‘Just remember that Hebrew is his second language.’

‘That why I think he needs a week.’

Seeing that I was out of control Imma talked to Eitan our ‘new age’ Rabbi. I have to admit that Eitan was extremely open minded and knew all aspects of herding whatever was left of Jehovah’s flock.

‘Eitan. do you mind having a word with my run-away husband before he turns the child anti-Semitic?’

So Eitan ‘took me aside’ and very gently made it clear that what I was doing was just another form of ‘Kfiya Datit’ (religious intolerance) with all the adverse implications. ‘Now you don’t want that do you Yiftah?’ I had to admit that I didn’t. Eitan patiently laid out the three month plan which included some Jewish studies as well as learning how to read and sing the text.

‘Remember Yiftah if Daniel only does 95% of what you expect it’s still a great achievement.’

‘You mean that 95% is not a bad grade?’

‘Of course not, how could you think that?’

‘That’s what Yeela got on her spelling test…’

Mazal tov Daniel.

Of course the above could not be read so it was replaced by the following piece. This is the original version which served as a basis for a modified Hebrew translation which was presented during the celebration and remains to be posted some day

In the old days the BM was the ceremony designating the right of passage from being a child to becoming an adult. In the old days life was a lot simpler, much harder but fortunately for most people shorter. One had to do things a lot faster if one was to get anything done in life. In fact if we were in the old days we would go back up to the room after the ceremony and I would ask Daniel not to change his clothes because we would be going back down to his wedding a few minutes later Yes, arranged marriages were part of the deal until not so long ago because things had to be done quickly.

Modern society is much more complicated and there is so much more to learn before becoming independent and going your own way. We obviously live much longer so there really is no need to rush things, (but shouldn’t we reconsider the right to pick our in-laws?…) In our society the BM is more of a ‘checkpoint’ rather than a ‘turning point’.

Being at this checkpoint there are three things I would like to say to Daniel.

Part of growing up entails making more and more independent choices. At first it might seem as a scary proposition how do you know what the right choices are? Daniel, you have the gift of distinguishing right from wrong. If you do what you think is right you will be right most of the time. Every once in a while you will make some mistakes, but you will learn to correct them. I emphasize this because most people your age do not have this ability to the extent that you do. This will put you in situations where you are torn between doing what is right vs. doing what is popular. Look at your sisters; they have passed such tests time and time again, at times paying a price for standing by their principles looking back I don’t think they would have done otherwise in any situation. Follow your heart and mind and you will not fail.

The second thing I want to mention is that standing up for what is right goes hand in hand with being open to accept that other people are entitled to opinions, beliefs and customs which could be different than yours. Living in a foreign society has exposed you to cultural differences and taught you a great degree of tolerance. However, at times, you will be exposed to anger and sometimes hatred no matter where you live. You have to learn where to draw the line; when to stand firm and when to back down. Tolerance and the right to defend yourself, your family and your people go hand in hand. While practicing tolerance one should never forget that the other side is wrong when its opinions, beliefs or customs aim to deprive you of the same rights which you extend to them.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all learning is the key to making the right decisions, understanding people and becoming successful. From this day forward this is your responsibility – it’s all about working hard to learning more and more. Since you are not getting married this afternoon, you should focus much of your energies at making the most out of the many opportunities which you have to learn. Make the best of the opportunities at school; not withstanding that some teachers might not challenge your abilities. Learn as many languages as you can there is no better enabler to get to know people and come to understand them. Learn to play a third instrument you will not regret it. Read, read and read it takes away from Internet time but books are a world of riches like no other.

There is so much more that can be said but we have many years in order to do that. We will stand behind you with love and guidance and support you in everything that you do.

Mazal Tov.