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Telling Stories: Making Jews

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, October 3, 2014


I am not in the mood to chastise you tonight. Although Yom Kippur is our most severe of holy days, I am mainly feeling warm and positive tonight. I am reminded of the way someone once described her feelings about Sinai. She said, "I feel as if the walls are hugging me in this congregation."

If that's so for many of us, then I think you'll "forgive" me tonight if I simply share some stories with you. They are stories that have been told on this bimah over the last 26 years during Bar and Bat Mitzvah services.

As many of you know, it's our custom that before a Bar/Bat Mitzvah child chants the Torah blessings he or she tells the story of his or her namesake. Each child who is named after one or two deceased relatives (and most children are named in this way) gives a "name speech."

Over the years that means hundreds of name speeches have been given, and, although I haven't saved all of them, I have saved many of them. Last winter I reviewed them to see what might be learned from these stories. Here is what I learned.

(A note of caution: Because I actually published a fairly long article based on the names, I also changed the names in order to maintain confidentiality.) Listen, then. If the story sounds familiar, it may be your child's story. I've changed the names, not the content.

So what do the children tell us?

Not surprisingly, the B'nai Mitzvah often connect the life of their namesake to their own life. He loved baseball - me too. She liked animals - me too.

But there is more.

Many of the speeches communicate messages that are sweetly personal.

Alison writes, "Bubbe Milly loved to bake onion rolls and challah and I love to eat both of those foods." Other B'nai Mitzvah speak about delicacies from chicken soup to potato soup, poppy seed cookies, and cinnamon buns.

Eric offers up another kind of sweetness in his speech about his great-grandmother. "She never learned how to drive so my dad remembers taking the bus with her to the G. Fox department store in Hartford for a day of shopping, lunch, and always a new toy. She was kind and loving and made the Jewish holidays a tradition for her family. Today, in our home we carry on the same traditions that Grandma Golda brought to my father's childhood. We have her dining room table, dishes, and silverware. Her memory is always with us when we sit at her table."

Lisa's father shared a similar kind of memory about the grandmother after whom Lisa was named. "Dad says his Grandmother Lenore knew how to listen to him intently. She was his biggest fan." Lisa's remarks echo what Samantha gleans from hearing her mom describe the grandfather who was her namesake. "My mom loves to think about the great ping pong tournaments she and her dad played every Sunday. She often tells me that she and her dad used to watch TV together and look at each other to see who was crying first. I wish I could have known my grandfather. I think he would have been my #1 fan."

The generational memories are broader as well. After all, the people whose names the B'nai Mitzvah carry weren't always senior citizens. As Lauren notes, "When people think of a bubbe, they picture a little old lady baking cookies. This picture is not even close to how my bubbe was because she couldn't cook to save herself. But I can tell you what she could do."

Lauren proceeds to describe the Bubbe Libba after whom she was named. Grandmother Libba was a woman of determination. During World War Two in New York City, Libba's cousin invited some soldiers to dinner before they shipped out. Libba struck up a conversation with one of the soldiers and, when he went into training, the relationship kept going. The two stayed in touch via letters. Eventually, the soldier asked Libba if she would marry him. She declined, but the letters continued and, when the soldier was sent to Alaska, Libba followed him. She spent six months in Alaska, came home still unmarried, wrote more letters, and, finally, after the war married that soldier. Those two lovers became the grandparents of Bat Mitzvah Lauren.

There is another category of namesakes in the speeches too. These people are remembered differently. They are American born and their achievements are of a different order.

One Bar Mitzvah boy talks about his great-grandmother who was born into an immigrant family in New York City. She went to a high school for the arts, was conducted by Aaron Copland on one occasion, and ultimately graduated from the Columbia School of Social Work. After receiving a doctorate, she became the first woman to be a full professor at the School of Social Work.

Impressive achievement is the major theme in some speeches. Nathan talks about his namesake who was a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. At Judge Nathan's funeral one of his colleagues commented, "Nathan was a man of remarkable attainments and great character." Speaking to the congregation on the occasion of becoming a Bar Mitzvah, Nathan the younger wrote, "Just like my grandfather, I hope I can accomplish much without sacrificing kindness and the pursuit of principle. I've got my work cut out for me."

Real role models emerge out of the B'nai Mitzvah name speeches. Many succeeded in the broader professional world; many were also involved in the Jewish community.

Bar Mitzvah Elliot recalls his namesake, Elliot, who was a successful attorney and also a founding member of Sinai Temple.

Seth mentions his great-grandfather, the first Hebrew tutor in Springfield to drive a car and go to the homes of the children he taught.

Not surprisingly, tzedakah is a major theme in generations past. The charity is coupled with the earlier generations' experience of poverty.

One great-grandfather drops out of school at an early age because the family needs more income. Later, when he manages to become an insurance salesman, he doesn't forget his modest roots. If clients couldn't afford insurance premiums when they were due, he would sometimes pay the premiums for them.

Along with poverty, the theme of loss comes up in the speeches. Allison explains the challenges her great-grandmother faced in Brooklyn. Great-grandmother Shayna lived in a small apartment with her two parents, her husband, and her two sons. Before the boys even entered kindergarten, Shayna's mother and husband died. She was left to care for her ailing father and the boys and went to work in a sweatshop. To say the least, Allison comments, Shayna was "a single mom" before the term became popular.

What may have sustained these hard-working people is the fact that many of them had come from places where life had already been demanding. In most cases, the people recalled in the speeches had not only been born into poverty, they had also lived in danger of their lives. That is because they had their origins in the anti-Semitic world of Eastern Europe.

And what was life like in Europe?

Interestingly, the B'nai Mitzvah speeches do not say too much about that - probably because most of the people after whom they are named left Europe as children. Nevertheless, here is one story that offers a fascinating historic echo.

Adam writes about his great grandfather who lived in Vienna and whose surname was Herzl! Adam doesn't comment about any connections to another famous Viennese Herzl family. (Think Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.) But the name Herzl itself rings loudly. Unfortunately, Adam's namesake, Arnold Herzl, did not reach America. He escaped Vienna as World War Two began but, like many Jews, only made it as far as Shanghai, where he died during the war.

But most of those described in the speeches do come to America and, when they arrive, their stories are "the stuff of history."

Abby's great-grandmother sells shoes by day and goes to school at night. Others become tailors, furriers, and upholsterers.

It was a long journey from Europe, but those who made it were actually most fortunate. Family members who stayed in Europe beyond the 1920s encountered terrors no one could have anticipated. Several of the B'nai Mitzvah are named after people who experienced the Holocaust.

To be exact, three of the B'nai Mitzvah are named after relatives who did not leave Europe. For example, Dan writes about a great-great-grandfather who was a rabbi. His name was Peretz. Dan's speech concludes, "No one really knows when Peretz died. One day he simply stopped writing."

Meanwhile, Gabe tells the story of his great-grandfather's audacity. When the Germans invaded Belgium, Gabe's namesake somehow got his family onto a boat heading for England. When that boat sailed for freedom, Gabe's great-grandfather grabbed a rope, threw himself onto another ship, and followed his family out of Belgium. Several months later they were reunited safely in England.

And a final Holocaust reference: It pertains to the great-grandmother of one other child. Like many, one of this child's parents is Jewish; the other is not. Like many, she is named after a family member who is not Jewish. In this case, Jennifer speaks with pride about her great-grandmother, Gerta, who hid Jews in her family's farmhouse. Gerta was captured by the Russians and imprisoned for two years. After the war, she immigrated to Canada and purchased a farm in Saskatchewan in order to begin a new life.


And those are the stories - or at least a fraction of them - from a generation of our children.

I love to see the faces of family members who glow with pride and affection when they hear these stories read. I am so proud of the fact that we honor those gone in this way.

The stories are a gift to adults in the congregation, but they are more than that. The stories are also a gift to our children, for it turns out that children who know where they come from are healthier and stronger than children who don't.

Two researchers from Emory University have done the homework in this area, and they have concluded that families where stories about the past are told tend to be families with kids who navigate the challenges of life with greater success.

Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush are the Emory psychologists who became interested in family stories several years ago. They scoped out the value of family narratives by developing a measure called the "Do You Know?" scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know how your parents met? Do you know the story of your birth? Do you know the source of your name?

Duke and Fivush asked dozens of families those questions and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children's results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem. The "Do You Know?" scale is an outstanding predictor of children's emotional health and happiness.

Of course, it wasn't only a matter of content. Any child could learn the answers to the 20 questions as part of a school project in less than an hour. What made the family stories touch heart and soul of the children was how they learned them. It had to happen over time, across a breakfast table, in the back seat of a car on vacation, at dinner with grandparents, at another dinner with aunts and uncles, at a family picnic, and at bedtime from mom or dad or some other loving family member.

Bottom line: When the children feel they are truly part of something bigger than themselves, they are stronger.

Which brings me around to wondering about one other variable in raising the children (or grandchildren) you and I have in our lives.

It's not something I would expect psychologists from Emory to discuss, but I would like to think about it. After all, our story telling at Sinai doesn't happen in a vacuum. We invite our young people to think about their names and their connections to family and history in a very Jewish setting. It's part of how we raise Jewish children. It's part of what we do to build future Jewish adults.

So if telling stories about the history of their names helps do something positive for the teenagers on our bimah, what else might do something positive for them?

The research tells us about twenty kinds of general family lore a child ought to know. Could there be twenty kinds of Jewish experiences a Jewish child ought to have in order to become a competent, caring Jewish adult?

What do you think?

Could there be a list of twenty experiences your Jewish child (or your grandchild) ought to have before he or she leaves home and heads off to college?

Twenty experiences to build/create/inspire a Jewish child for a lifetime of Jewish living.

Let's try it. Since I'm already talking, I think I'll start.

  1. Before he or she turns 18, every Jewish child ought to find out whom they are named after. (That was easy. We've already got that covered here.)
  2. Every Jewish child ought to video his or her grandparents or even other older relatives telling stories from their past.
  3. Light Shabbat candles. Jewish young people should experience Friday night dinner with candles, Kiddush, and motsi on some kind of regular basis while they are growing up.
  4. A Jewish kid becomes acculturated when he or she feels comfortable in a service. That has to involve at least 36 Shabbat services over the years.
  5. Jewish children need to experience the sights and sounds of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for at least ten years before they head off to college.
  6. Dress up for Purim and hear the Megillah at least ten times. Same for Simchat Torah - except costumes aren't required.
  7. Cook something for a Jewish holiday or two with a grownup. A grandparent would be perfect.
  8. Little children need to be part of PJ Library. Older children need to be helped to stop by our Temple library to read at least an occasional Jewish book on any topic that suits them.
  9. See Fiddler on the Roof.
  10. Over the years, visit at least two Jewish museums of any kind.
  11. Engage with tzedakah. Raise money for a project. Additionally, a child ought to know something about the kind of tzedakah his or her parents give.
  12. Go to a rally for a good cause or write a letter to a public official advocating for something important.
  13. Attend a Seder. Learn the Four Questions. And remember the Hillel Sandwich? Learn five terrific, life-enhancing quotes said by this same rabbi called Hillel.
  14. Do what you can to be sure every child is confirmed in Tenth Grade.
  15. Attend a service at a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue with someone who belongs there. Try to learn how it works for them.
  16. Go to Israel if at all possible. Or if not, plant a tree in Israel and watch an Israel movie with subtitles.
  17. Join a Jewish youth group in High School.
  18. Attend a Jewish summer camp.
  19. If your child or grandchild has a parent or other family members who aren't Jewish, help your child or grandchild learn about those other beliefs. If the non-Jewish family members go to church, a Jewish child ought to go with them and ask lots of questions.
  20. Speaking of questions, a Jewish child should be asking questions about God, prayer, what it means to be a Jew, and anything else that makes his or her mind tingle.

There you have it: Twenty experiences to be had over about 18 years that I believe can build/inspire/create a happy, thinking, positive Jewish adult. Couple that with a family that shares its stories openly and frequently and we've solved the problems of child-rearing while the festival candles are still burning brightly.

If only it were so simple, if only there was a formula for the future, we could package and market it for the whole world.

Except you know and I know there isn't any such formula. Children don't come with instruction manuals. Life doesn't come with an instruction manual.

All we generally have is our best intentions, the advice of family and friends, some ideas we've read and learned along the way, PLUS... a little bit of luck.

That's why we stumble along the way. Even Derek Jeter didn't bat 1000. Abraham, Sarah, and Moses struggled. All of our ancestors were no more positive or successful about playing the game of life than we are.

But they did give us one gift that shines tonight. That gift is Yom Kippur which allows us to acknowledge our shortcomings and encourages us to get back on track and on with life to the very best of our abilities.

One of the slides from our Erev Rosh Hashanah service said it all: Be patient. God isn't finished with me yet.

So, my friends, be patient. Tell some stories when you get home. Listen to the stories of others. Give your families (your children or grandchildren) the best you've got. Do Jewish.

And if that's not quite sufficient, try again. God isn't finished with us yet. The best is yet to come.

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