Telling Our Stories

Jews have always hoped that telling the stories of the past would shape the lives of our children; we have always insisted on the immediacy of our national experiences in the lives of the individual
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Sara and David Wolkenfeld direct the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Princeton University and are the parents of Noam, Akiva, Hillel and Sophie. Their parents, in turn, were born in Staten Island, Bavaria, Brooklyn and Suffolk County.

Like many parents, we were captivated by Bruce Feiler's article in last Sunday's New York Times "The Stories that Bind Us." Feiler, author of a parenting guide, describes a research study that uncovered a strong correlation between children's level of psychological resiliency and their ability to answer questions about their family origins, the so called "Do You Know?" scale. The more questions they can answer about where their parents and grandparents were born, about their family history, and about the story of their own lives, the better they are able to cope with challenging circumstances in their own lives. Having a family narrative, a sense of the trajectory of the lives of one's parents and grandparents, a grasp of the ups and downs of the lives that have come before, provides children with the deeper sense of self that they need to grapple effectively with their own troubles.

We found the article fascinating, if guilt inducing. Do our children know where their grandparents were born, we wondered? Do they know where they were born? We have enough trouble getting them to remember to use cutlery and memorize our home address; is it really a problem that they don't know where our parents lived? But then we realized: They do know. They know, because they've been learning about it in school and at home for months now. They know, because Judaism emphasizes the stories of the past in a way that makes them part of our present. Our children can tell you of the suffering of our people in Egypt; one of our 4-year-old twins trails his fingers down his cheeks to mimic the tracks of the tears that were cried by the people of Israel so many years ago. They may not yet know their own birth stories, but they can tell you a fairly passable version of the story by which the Jewish people came into being. The seeming hopelessness of the situation, the feeling of holding on to faith at a difficult time, the wondrous exultation of the redemption -- in their own childish ways, they can describe these feelings.

Bruce Feiler writes, "The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family's positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones." Reading these words in the aftermath of our family's Seder, we are fascinated by the implications of Feiler's charge. Jews have always hoped that telling the stories of the past would shape the lives of our children; we have always insisted on the immediacy of our national experiences in the lives of the individual. Could it be that the rhythms of traditional Jewish life give our people a leg up where the resiliency of our children is concerned?

With that piece of parenting nirvana close at hand, we offer the following three aspects of the Haggadah as discussion points following this year's Passover celebration.
  1. "In every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us, but God saves us from their hands." In every generation, and in every stage of life, there are enemies and obstacles that threaten to conquer us, but we always make it out somehow -- and you will too.
  2. "Had He split the sea for us and not led through on dry land, it would have been enough -- dayenu." Obviously, had God stopped at this point, we would be lost. But redemption is a long process, and gratitude is an appropriate response at every stage along that path. We are always grateful for what we have, even as we acknowledge that there is more to be had, more to be done.
  3. "Let all who are hungry come and eat." We can never be so caught up in our own stories that we fail to realize there are other narratives in the world. As we celebrate with wine and food, we remember that there is always someone without food -- and that it is part of our family mission to invite them in and feed them.
Of all the stories we can tell each other, "The most healthful narrative is the oscillating family narrative. We have ups and downs, but we always stay together as a family." When we decided to raise our children with a deep and robust sense of Jewish identity, and to make a substantial investment in their Jewish educations, we knew that, in so doing, we were supporting the flourishing of the Jewish people. Feiler's article reminds us that we are also investing in their own growth and in the health and resiliency of our family.
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