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High Holidays Feature How to Follow Rabbinical Parents? a Woman Examines Her Guilt Feelings

September 29, 2005
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I’ve spent this past year editing a book titled “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” so it may not be such a surprise that I spend an awful lot of time feeling guilty, thinking about why I feel so darn guilty, and wondering why I’m so thoroughly guilty that I’m willing to devote a year of my life to the topic. The High Holidays offer an especially rich opportunity to dwell on why I am so consumed by this particular obsession.

The conclusion I’ve come to is this: I will never, ever, be as good a Jew as my parents are.

There are two possible reasons why: I like bacon cheeseburgers too much, and they are both rabbis.

Maybe this predicament is shared by all children of rabbis. When your parent lives a life devoted to Torah, good deeds and Am Yisrael, how do you top that?

When Eema and Abba are both rabbis, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to live up to their legacy. Unless by some miracle I am elected to the rabbinical court of Israel — and I’m fairly certain that’s not in the cards — I’ll never top their achievements. I will always be the child who failed to make aliyah, who neglected to provide grandchildren before I was 30 and who only eats “kosher style.”

I’ve also chosen to be a journalist in Hollywood. Occasionally I’ll call up my father to announce with great excitement that I’m profiling Ben Affleck or Brad Pitt. He’ll reply with enthusiasm and support even though he clearly has no idea who either man is, though he was genuinely excited when I interviewed Los Angeles Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson.

For a moment I’ll bask in the warm glow of parental pride — and then I’ll ask what he’s doing.

“I’m about to go off to Moscow to a conference on saving world Jewry from anti-Semitism,” he’ll respond. “Have a great interview with Brad Affleck, honey!”

The shallowness of my life suddenly overwhelms me. A moment will pass before he continues, “When are you writing for the Forward again? I loved your piece on the Jewish federation’s outreach program.” The Forward is a national English-language Jewish newspaper.

I hang my head, heavy with shame.

The worst part of all my failures as a Jew is that my parents have rarely, if ever, given me a hard time about it. They almost always responded with support and patience to the turns my life took, even if the path lead away from the synagogue.

Their acceptance, of course, made the guilt a million times worse. Scream at me, please! Don’t tell me you accept whatever path I take! What do I have left to rebel against? My parents are nice people, great Jews, and they accept me as I am. Oy vey.

I remember when I first felt this way, right around the time of my bat mitzvah. Throughout my not-so-charming adolescence, I devoted much of my free time to pointing out to my parents — who paid for expensive summers at Jewish camps, youth-group weekends and trips to Israel — why being Jewish just wasn’t cool.

“Why are we Jewish? Why can’t we be a cool religion?” I would plead with my father, who would look down upon me with sage rabbinical wisdom and just a hint of amusement and exasperation.

“Well, Ruthie, what is your idea of a cool religion?” he would ask. Aha–a clever rabbinical strategy, answering a question with a question.

“Buddhism!” I would declare with the deep conviction only a teenager can muster. It was the most exotic religion I could think of.

“Well, when you’re an adult you can learn as much about Buddhism as you want,” he’d reply with infinite patience. Then he’d quickly add, “As long as you marry someone who’s Jewish.”

Today despite all of my teenage rebellion and contrary to all expectations that I would move to Tibet to become a monk, I am married to a “nice Jewish boy” and living a relatively connected Jewish life.

Though I still feel that I don’t quite live up to my parents’ examples, I try from time to time. I write about Jewish subjects in my work, participate in Shabbat meals and live in a world that is rich with cultural Judaism.

Still, that’s not really so impressive when my mother is leading a Torah service, an act that would have been revolutionary for women of previous generations. Family legend has it that my great-grandmother, an immigrant from Russia, used to nearly fall out of the women’s balcony in her longing to join the men’s service below.

Sadly, as the product of this dual legacy, I would rather fall off of a balcony than follow Mom up on the bimah.

I’m not sure why this is the case. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to see Judaism as a source of warmth, meaning and community, and I do my best to respect and love the rich heritage I’ve been blessed with. Despite my protests at age 13, I’m certain that I very much want to be Jewish and there will be no converting to Buddhism for me.

So why do I still feel guilt? My parents may have gently questioned my choices, but they understood that I needed to feel connected to Judaism on my own terms and that those terms may be very different from theirs. As rabbis and parents, they never totally lost faith — although I suspect it was highly strained on more than one occasion — that I would find my way home.

I’ve come to realize that my guilt is self-induced. A part of me wants to do more, knows I can be a better person, knows that I could push myself to follow in their footsteps toward tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

In the meantime though, I’ll put my nonrabbinical soul at ease this Yom Kippur by confessing — in print — to eating pepperoni pizza on Passover and hope that both God and my parents will find it in their hearts, once again, to forgive me.

Ruth Andrew Ellenson is the editor of “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.”

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