Off the Shelf: Using Jewish ideas to parent by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are numerous books on how to raise children, including several with Jewish themes. For Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah, the seder (Jewish prayer book) gave her the tools she needed to become a better parent. In “Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Secrets for Raising Modern Children” (Ben Yehuda Press), she discusses what she learned while acknowledging there is no magic formula that fits every child. However, she believes the prayer book offers values that children need to assimilate in order to become worthwhile adults. While the book focuses on what children learn, adults will also find many of her lessons relevant to their own lives.

When placing her work in context, Pessah notes that she sees God taking the role of a parent in the Torah, particularly in the story of Adam and Eve. When God tells Adam and Eve not to eat from one tree in the Garden of Eden, like many children, they are tempted by the forbidden. However, Pessah believes that when God then calls to them asking where they are, God knows exactly where they are and what they are doing, much like a parent knows when a child has his hand in the cookie jar. She writes, “As the ultimate parent, I believe that God knew what His children were doing, just like we know when our children are being sneaky. For me, this story is a great example of how the Divine can be seen as a parent looking after Her children.” 

The author picked 18 prayers – the number that is the Hebrew equivalent for life – and offers each in transliteration and English. Pessah writes about the meaning of the text and then uses personal stories to illustrate the parenting lesson it taught her. To help readers better assimilate her message, each chapter includes concrete suggestions for what parents and children can do to better incorporate the text into their lives, and questions for them to consider.
In the chapter called “Choices (Ahser Yatzar),” Pessah notes how a poem read on Yom Kippur that compares God to a potter is relevant to parenting. Since she’s taken pottery classes, she knows the clay doesn’t always do what she wants. Sometimes she thinks she is going to create one type of pottery, for example, a bowl, but finds herself producing a plate. The same can occur when dealing with children. She notes, “[Children] come to us as ‘lumps of clay,’ unformed and waiting to be molded. It is our job as parents to mold and fashion the clay using all the tools we have and the tools we acquire along the way.” However, Pessah also realizes that “as hard as we try to move our children in a certain direction, sometimes they don’t move the way that we envisioned.” Parents need to accept that since, even when their children do not take the shape they expected, “something beautiful and unique always emerges.” The author makes it clear that parents have to be aware that their children can be different from them, but still wonderful.

When writing about “Gratitude (Birkot Hashachar),” the morning blessings, Pessah offers an interesting and enlightening interpretation of the prayer that thanks God for opening the eyes of the blind. She notes that the prayer should be taken figuratively, in addition to literally; “All of us are metaphorically ‘blind’ in different situations. Some of us are ‘blind’ to the feelings of others; some of us are ‘blind’ to new experiences; and some of us are ‘blind’ when dealing with certain subjects like physics, economics, or English. Asking God to open our eyes means allowing us to see things from a fresh perspective or gaining an understanding that we might not have had previously.” This idea should resonate as much with adults as it does with children, Her “Ways to Promote Gratitude” are aimed at children, but can be easily used by adults. For example, her suggestion to “before bedtime, share three things you experienced during the day for which you are grateful” has been used to help adults achieve happiness.

Pessah also acknowledges that, even if she does everything she thinks is right, the result might not be what she wants or expects. She tells readers to do the best they can and trust their instincts, but to also double check to make certain their impulse feels right. This lack of control over a child’s fate is noted in the book’s afterward, although readers get a clue from the dedication page, which lists the names of her three children: Pessah’s eldest child died at age 20 of illness. She notes all the trials and trouble he caused over the years and also the joys: Each of these just made her love him more. 

“Parenting on a Prayer” doesn’t pretend to offer a magical formula so parents can produce perfect children. Pessah is too wise for that. What she has written instead are suggestions for using Jewish values to help shape and mold a child. Her book also offers insights those without children will also find meaningful.