“Do you think the whining and complaining was worth it?”
I asked this question while meeting with a set of parents in the weeks following their child’s bar mitzvah. I had just gotten comfortable on their green living room couch when the conversation got tense. The mother described how hard it was to get her son to practice his Torah portion and prayers, and she mentioned the many arguments they had over the past few months.
So, I asked. And what ensued was a heated discussion about family values.
Even their poodle’s ears shot up as the voices got more confrontational. I decided I should stop taking notes and just let the recorder do its job. Basically, the father argued that since their family does not live in Israel or go to synagogue regularly, there is no practical reason for his child to learn Hebrew. The mother then recounted her upbringing in a traditional Jewish household and emphasized the importance of carrying on the Jewish tradition. Their respective opinions are important, but I’m going to put them aside for the moment and focus on the fact that a heated argument even took place.
Over Hebrew school.
In the midst of my panic that my interview was causing marital problems in this seemingly happy couple (I had not accounted for this in my IRB), I realized how little we think about parents as separate people rather than as units.
A typical question in Jewish educational research asks about parents’ motivations for sending their children to religious school, or about their commitments in Jewish life, more generally, in order to understand how the family makes decisions about Jewish education. Researchers
and practitioners in both Jewish and secular education tend to lump parents into a single unit and assume they share the same attitudes. In almost all cases, researchers interview one parent (usually the mother) and then make general statements about how parents think, feel or act. Not only does this privilege the mothers’ perspective, but it doesn’t account for variations in parental opinions within the family unit.
In the case of this couple, the meaning of the bar mitzvah was not at all clear. Instead of hearing a single, unified story, I witnessed a heated exchange that illuminated just how differently the parents felt about the bar mitzvah and their commitment to Hebrew school. If the mother had it her way, her son would keep attending. If the father had it his way, their son probably wouldn’t have attended in the first place. So what does this say about the parents’ attitudes towards Jewish education?
It tells us, importantly, that they are different. It tells us that, although they make decisions about their child’s (and family’s) Jewish commitments all the time, that those decisions are not necessarily the result of a shared commitment, nor are they always the result of a rational, well-articulated, discussion. Watching this couple, I realized how emotionally intense it is for parents to make decisions about Jewish education, and that we, as researchers, should be careful to not overlook the complex processes that lead to such decisions.