These are the people who’ve made me a grateful father (from left to right): My daughter, Abigail, my wife Cheryl, me and my son, Jonah
There’s a lot written online about Jewish mothers, but when it comes to Jewish fathers, well, we’re kind of overlooked. Now, don’t get me wrong – Jewish mothers deserve all the attention they get. I was raised by an incredible one and married a fantastic one. But, we Jewish dads deserve some attention too. So, in anticipation of Father’s Day, I’m taking a small step toward giving us Jewish dads an online voice by pulling together three fundamental Jewish lessons with which every father, Jewish or not, should be familiar.
The first lesson comes from Life is Beautiful, the 1997 film detailing the fictional story of Dora and Guido, an Italian Jewish couple and their young son, Giosué, who are put in a Nazi concentration camp. Guido, determined to save his son and make the horrific experience something his little boy might survive, turns the nightmare into a game. He instructs Giosué to go about his days, doing what he is told to do so that he can win points and walk away with first prize – a tank:
Giosué: (Referring to Nazi soldiers)…they’re always yelling. They’re really mean here.
Guido: Well yeah … because first prize is so good. Everybody wants to win the tank so they have to be tough.
Giosué: How much longer till I see Mommy (who’s been separated from the two of them)?
Guido: When the game’s over you’ll see her.
Giosué: When is it finished
Guido: It’s finished when you make many points. The tank goes to whoever can earn a thousand points first.
Guido doesn’t survive the concentration camp, but his son and wife do. In the final scene, Giosué is rescued by an American soldier in a tank who brings Giosué to his mother. Embracing her in front of the tank, this little boy who’s been through unimaginable horrors raises his arms and declares: “We won!”
While many criticized Life is Beautiful for its upbeat and, at times, comical message, the lesson it teaches us about fatherhood is so important: We dads are there to make life beautiful for our children even when it’s so very ugly. We’re there to get them through the darkness so that they can celebrate wonderful accomplishments.
But, Judaism reminds us fathers that we won’t always be there to make life beautiful. The ugliness can and will sneak up on our children when we’re not there to protect them and as they grow and build lives of their own. And so, we turn to the second Jewish lesson with which every father should be familiar, this one coming from the Talmud which was compiled approximately between the third through fifth centuries of the Common Era:
A father is obligated to teach his child how to swim
Fathers must ensure that their children are able to thrive on their own. They must give them the skills needed to survive if they fall into an actual swimming pool or find themselves flailing in the middle of the symbolic pool of life which can get pretty choppy at times. Whether they be little ones who scream when the swimming instructor gently pulls them under the water or young adults who express their frustration with us as they find themselves struggling in the deep end of life and realize that we’re not able to toss them a life preserver, teaching our kids how to swim can be painful. But, Judaism insists that we’re obligated to do it. It’s how we father. It’s how we raise children who will flourish in life.
The third lesson with which every father should be familiar is a story attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, also known as the Besht, who lived in the 18th century:
A Chassid came to the Besht and burst into bitter tears. “Rebbe, Rebbe, what am I to do? My own son has strayed from the path of true righteousness!” The Besht blessed the Chassid and said, “Love him, my son … ” With a heavy sigh, the Chassid insisted, “Oh Rebbe, he has already fallen so low!” To which the Besht replied, “Then love him even more!”
Whether it be during the temper tantrums of our toddlers, the eye rolls (or worse) of our teenagers or the curve balls thrown at us by our adult children, our job as fathers is to love our kids unconditionally as we teach them to swim and do our best to live our own lives in a way that teaches them that life is indeed beautiful.
Happy Father’s Day to all of us lucky enough to have someone out there to call us daddy – this alone makes life beautiful.