Thursday, January 04, 2007

In Our Times

A friend of mine E-mailed me this article, it is from the New York Times. I thought about editing it but decided against that. I think the contrasts speak for themselves. See ya at the comments field! CC

In the third century, the rabbis who put together the Talmud instructed fathers to teach their sons to swim. It’s safe to say that most American Jews aren’t familiar with this directive, whether or not they take their kids to the lake or the pool. But one morning this past summer, a group of mostly non-Jewish parents puzzled over its meaning in a classroom at the Carolina Day School, a nonsectarian private school in Asheville, N.C.

These mothers and fathers were accidental students of Judaism. They had come together because they often felt flattened by achieving the modern ideal of successful children. They were seeking relief in a weeklong course based on the book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children,” by a Los Angeles clinical psychologist named Wendy Mogel.

Genevieve Fortuna, a 58-year-old former preschool teacher who has been teaching classes on raising children for 30 years, wrote the Talmudic quote about swimming in blue marker on the classroom’s white board. The half-dozen or so parents, dressed in summer-casual shorts and sandals, looked up at her from their seats around two child’s-height tables. Fortuna opened her copy of Mogel’s book. “Jewish wisdom holds that our children don’t belong to us,” she read. “They are both a loan and a gift from God, and the gift has strings attached. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. The children’s job is to find their own path in life. If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful or feel too comfortable to want to leave.”

“This is the most difficult part for me,” said Marie-Louise Murphy, a mother of three. “My husband is really protective of our girls. Even more so now that they’re older, because it’s such a critical period for them.” Her 14-year-old daughter is eager to baby-sit, Murphy explained, but her husband “is having the hardest time with it.”

Increasingly, not being involved in every aspect of a child’s life and letting children take risks that used to be a matter of course feels like an act of negligence to many parents. To resist the forces of judgment, internal and external, the parents in Asheville were in search of what every countercultural movement needs — a manifesto. Wendy Mogel’s book may seem an unlikely one, with its reliance not only on the Bible but also on the Talmud and other intricate rabbinic texts. Published in 2001 with a print run of 5,000 and little publicity, it went largely unreviewed, and bookstores often shelved it with their bar-mitzvah fare. Yet five years later, “Blessing” has sold about 120,000 copies at a pace of more than 20,000 a year. It’s the kind of book that has influence beyond its sales figures.

Principals press it into the hands of mothers, who read it and then buy it in bulk to give away as baby presents. If you have children of a certain age, chances are that someone you know will own a copy or have lent one away.

Strikingly, Mogel’s book is being used as a text for classes and discussion groups that take place not in Jewish settings but in churches or schools like Carolina Day. Mogel, who gives about a speech a month, has been a keynote speaker at the annual meetings of the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,300 private schools, and the American Camp Association, an umbrella group for 2,600 summer camps and youth groups. This fall, the National Association of Episcopal Schools will give her top billing. Mogel’s diagnosis of the ills of middle- and upper-class modern American child-rearing — that children too often don’t learn to take care of themselves — resonates with the educators who deal with these families every day. In thinking about this issue, Mogel finds her psychological training useful but insufficient and turns her audience’s attention to the laws and teachings of old Jewish texts.

Wendy Mogel wasn’t to the religious manner born. Her grandfather was the president of his Orthodox synagogue in Brighton Beach, N.Y. But her father fell away from strict observance, and her mother never knew it — “she was as close to a shiksa as he could get,” Mogel says. Mogel was raised to know the difference between cherrystone and littleneck clams, not to follow the Jewish proscription against eating shellfish.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Mogel majored in art history. She spent the summers as a counselor at a camp for emotionally disturbed children, working alongside her husband to be, Michael Tolkin. After marrying, the couple eventually moved to Los Angeles. Tolkin’s father wrote for the TV series “All in the Family.” Tolkin entered the family business; his best-known movie is “The Player,” directed by Robert Altman and based on a novel Tolkin wrote. The sequel, published recently, bears the mark of spousal influence: it creates a world of Hollywood sharks let loose on the process of high-powered private-school admissions.

Mogel has lived in Hollywood for almost 30 years now, and she is of it without being captive to it. At 55, her style is part girlish, part granny. Her hair is unbleached and her skin un-Botoxed; on the night I visited her, she wore a white T-shirt, a pink flowered skirt and low-heeled green sandals. Her voice is commandingly deep and throaty, except when she’s excited and lets out a thrilled squeal. (“Me too!” she squeaked when I confessed my poor sense of direction.) Mogel did her doctorate work at the Wright Institute in Los Angeles — “very alternative, Marxist-Feminist,” she says — and interned at the “totally mainstream” Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Mogel got her license as a clinical psychologist in 1985. She opened a dual practice, doing therapy for children and families and also testing for disorders and disabilities, like dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. For 15 years, the work was fulfilling. The hard part of Mogel’s life lay elsewhere; she and Tolkin struggled for several years to have a child and went through many miscarriages, including the loss of a premature baby born on the way to the hospital. None of this hardship moved Mogel toward religion. When she was 35, Mogel gave birth to a girl, Susanna, and four years later, to a second daughter, Emma.


At 6:59 PM, Anonymous Yona said...

I don't get it, whats the point?

At 7:50 PM, Blogger Shpitzle said...

I didn't read the book so I dont really know where the author is taking here points from, but I have no recollection of the Jewish religion teaching more independence than any other religion.

Never mind today's OJ, where kibu as avuchu has a child tied to its parents in knots, I'm talking about biblical times where she seems to go back to. I don't see how the Jewish lifestyle was different in this respect.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Independent Frum Thinker said...


At 8:58 PM, Blogger Chaim Chusid said...

Yona Amous

Dare I say try to read it again??

Madame Pointe

You don't need to read a book to see that a bunch of gentiles find wisdom in what is for them some of the most obscure places. While some of our own don't see what they have sitting on their doorsteps.

Inde Thinker

I thought so too!

I remain,


At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post.

At 10:33 PM, Blogger Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

Chaim - I still don't see what we have sitting on our doorstep that non-jews don't have. In other words, how does Jewdaism make you a BETTER parent?


At 2:23 PM, Blogger yingerman said...

I think the Mogels will eventually return, if not now then somewhere down the chain.

And If I may respond to Madame P. Shpitz, I think judiasm gives kids a sense of pride and the ritual while sometimes conveyed as serious and stiff are meant to be enjoyable, kiving the kiddies something fun yet holy.
In general being Jewish IMHO contributes towards a responsible adult.

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Chaim Chusid said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Chaim Chusid said...


There are not many that I let speak for me,, for you I make an exception!

Madame Pointe,

If I might just add, what we have sitting on our doorstep is a manual that has many of the answers that we as parents, or simply students of life seek.

Some of us see the wisdom that lies within the good book, while others choose not to see...

I remain,

At 4:15 PM, Blogger yingerman said...

(deep bow)
Why, thank you, It IS a great honor!

At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HHHHHMMMM>>>>>>>>>>>>Interesting, to say the least.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 11:49 PM, Blogger Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:27 PM, Blogger Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

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