By Dodi-Lee Hecht. Originally published on the Nishma Blog.
It is three o’clock in the morning and, having slept so much this week of illness and fever and delirium, and with so many thoughts racing through my head, I cannot sleep. So, instead, I have read a post on my uncle Avrum’s blog. It was an older post, about growing up the son of a rabbi, growing up in a small town, growing up with danger and adventure and anti-Semitism and parents with a mission. It has got me thinking.
Now anyone who knows me knows that thinking is what I do – constantly, like breathing – and when I run out of thoughts then I start thinking about the emptiness of my brain or the world that I see or the people around me – and if I can’t find something to latch onto among all that then I will find solace in thinking about numbers. But, still, for all my thinking, my uncle’s stories got me thinking in a way that made me want to write. And so here I am, telling all who read this the intimate details of my brain at 3 am.
I am thinking of what my uncle and I share – life as a rabbi’s child. It is funny that one man’s choice can brand a whole group of people with a title. My father and my grandfather chose to become rabbis – they studied, they passed tests, they dedicated their time and their lives. My mother and my grandmother just fell in love. And me and my siblings? All we did was be born. And yet, here we are – rabbi’s children. And we take it very seriously.
My uncle was right in his blog – a rabbi’s family doesn’t know the privacy of just being, without an audience. In many ways, though, the rest of the world is forgetting that level of privacy too. With things like blogs and Facebook, camera phones and YouTube – the privacy of unexamined (by others) moments seems to be something of the past. Whether as a rabbi’s daughter or as a citizen of the 21st century – I am being watched by people. It is unbelievably scary.
But as a rabbi’s daughter, it just seems more intense. I remember the first time I entered a shul and I was just a congregant – one of many – someone who wasn’t expected to know the answers to all the questions or help those who needed assistance – someone who was, foremost, responsible for her prayers and not the comfort and prayers of everyone around her. I was 21.
Sometimes I get asked halachic (Jewish legal) questions and I want to say: why are you asking me? Sometimes I don’t get asked halachic questions and I want to say: why aren’t you asking me? Sometimes, although I’m never proud of it, I will pull out the “rabbi’s daughter” card in an argument to shut up someone who is stupid enough to warrant me playing dirty – those are the kinds of people who will respond to my “title” before listening to the wisdom or stupidity of my words and so, although I’m not proud to do it, I’m also not ashamed.
When I was in college, I was the unofficial posek (decider of Jewish law) for most of my friends (excluding the other rabbis’ kids, of course); it was a scary and awful responsibility but not one I was unused to. Lucky for me, my father was on speed dial.
I have more respect for rabbis than the average Jew because I lived with one my whole life and I saw all the sacrifices he’s made to be a scholar and moral leader for our people. I have less awe for rabbis than the average Jew because I lived with one my whole life and I know they are not gods – they are men – they make jokes and root for basketball teams, they stay up worrying when their daughters go out. I have empathy and sadness and pride for all rabbis’ children. We understand each other.
When I was interviewing for law firms I had to answer the question what made me get interested in the law. My answer always began with the fact that I was raised in a rabbi’s home, at which point I would have to explain the implications of that and how it factored in. one time though, as soon as I said that I was a rabbi’s daughter, the interviewer – a black woman with the hint of the southern lilt of one of the Carolinas – said to me: say no more, I’m a preacher’s kid. I liked her choice of terms because that’s the truth more clearly than one can ever get out of the word rabbi.
My father is a preacher – I mean, he’s a rabbi but he, predominantly, preaches. Rabbis say a lot of beautiful things that people like to hear but where their job gets tough is when they have to preach – they have to say the unpopular stuff. They have to say assur (forbidden) and treif (not kosher) because the world can’t always be kosher and mutar (permissible). They have to weave mussar (rebuke) into sermons and sermons into mussar. And, most difficult of all, thy have to find a way to say to a student “respect me” and they have to find a way to explain that they only say it because Gd commands that his scholars be respected.
I have watched men of ignorance insult my father and I have watched him walk away and cry, not for his feelings or his ego but because he feels that he did not defend the Torah within him and he cries for the Torah. And I cry for him.
Rabbis’ kids have great stories – my uncle is right about that. We get to see a part of the world that other people don’t. Some of my favorite childhood memories are definitively the moments I was a rabbi’s kid.
And as to the psychological theory that the clergy’s children can be a little screwed up? Well, I haven’t done studies but every rabbi’s kid I’ve ever met, including myself, is a little weird and I think we’d all admit it.
But it is the tears that, I think, bind us more than anything else. To be a rabbi’s child is to be witness to struggle and sorrow. Even the most beloved of rabbis has followers who leave him and, given the dark side of eilu v’ eilu (religious tolerance), all rabbis have enemies (most often those followers of another rabbi who are foolish enough not to understand that disagreement is meant to stay in the beis medrash).
So, I sit here at three in the morning and wonder about my brothers and sister and my mother and her siblings and all my friends who, like me, are preachers’ kids. How many times have we each seen disrespect? How many times have we watched our fathers mistreated? And how many times did we watch our fathers whisper promises to the Torah, to try to protect it better, to be a better vessel for it, less of a target? I sit here and wonder.
My mother used to say that the problem with some congregations is that everyone wants their rabbi to be a shepherd but they also want him obedient. No one would go to a doctor and say to the doctor: look, I’m paying you for this so you better say I’m in perfect health. You pay the doctor for the truth, for advice on how to be healthy. Rabbis aren’t treated like that. Part of it is in the system – rabbis want to be able to give people the answer they want to hear. Every rabbi I’ve ever met has pulled more than his fair share of all-nighters in search of the elusive heter (legal loophole) for a distraught student. But “no”, to many people, often does not mean no – it means find another rabbi.
I guess what it boils down to, all my musings, is right there in the Torah:
If you ever want to understand why Yitzchak redug his father’s wells – ask a rabbi’s son. It’s not easy following a top act.
Want to know why Moshe hit the rock – ask a rabbi’s daughter (and stand back). Followers are never easy to deal with.
But ask a preacher’s kid why Moshe defended his nation to the death. They are a stiff-necked bunch but their leaders love them, no matter what.
And, ask me if I wish my father was a lawyer or doctor or accountant. No, I don’t.
Sometimes I don’t understand why my father loves Jews as much as he does, why he doesn’t want to “hit the rock” more often. Sometimes I want to hit every rock in sight. And being a Yitzchak makes me want to scream more often than it makes me want to laugh.
But every once in a while I remember how lucky I am.
I have a rabbi on speed dial. And I get to be a Yitzchak. I get to help represent Torah scholarship. Hopefully I do a good job. Sometimes I’m scared I really don’t. Then I take a deep breath and dig some wells, walk a bit on a well worn path, in my father’s footsteps – slowly tentatively branching out from there.
And, more often than not, when I get really frustrated or scared, I remember that I’m not just a rabbi’s daughter, I’m also a daughter of Israel. And, whether as one or the other, I represent the Torah of my teachers and my Gd.
And sometimes, at hours like this, I curl up in some of my favorite memories – moments when, as a little girl or young woman – I watched my father talk Torah with other rabbis – their faces alight with passion and wisdom; I remember that I once went shopping with my father and he ran into another rabbi and they began to argue and discuss Sinai – right there in the canned vegetable aisle – and I could have grabbed the list from my father’s hand because I knew there was no way he was going to be involved in the shopping from that moment on – but I chose, instead, to come back with each item and then run off for the next one – and just so I could have the chance to catch bits of their conversation and so they would have more time to talk. Great thoughts were dissected in that store – and my father shared it all with me on the ride home – and I think, ironically, we forgot to get canned peas.
I remember one Shavous I got into a fierce argument with the daughter of a Lubavitch rabbi – no minor debates for us – we went at the notion of tzimtzum (a fundamental concept connected to Gd’s creation of the universe) with full force, calling each other heretics at least once each in the course of it all. Next to her stood her father and next to me stood my father – they were good friends; as the conversation continued, our fathers subtly steered us through the great philosophical debate that we were acting out – the classic mitnagid-chassidic dance – we did not change each other’s minds but we were friends by the end and, I feel, had properly welcomed Sinai. Our fathers discussed us afterwards, each complimenting the other’s daughter, each voicing philosophical loyalty to the views espoused by his own child.
It’s now almost five in the morning – I do not know what these ramblings tell me. I guess I miss my family and I miss my childhood. I miss when being a rabbi’s daughter meant nothing more than getting to sit at the front of the shul. But I also don’t.
If you liked this post, be sure to subscribe to our RSS feed.