Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What if it Went Up in Smoke?

A goal of Jewish teaching and learning today must be the strengthening of families of learners as Jewish families. Experience has taught me that many families fall short on the Jewish aspect because they don't know where to start the family conversations. An experience last night could serve as a great starting point.

While enjoying dinner with an old friend at an outdoor table at a restaurant, we watched as a fire burned through an apartment directly across the street. As firefighters struggled to contain and then extinguish the fire, they tossed smoldering items out the window onto the sidewalk and street below. First they broke the windows, then knocked out the windows themselves. Then we watched as chairs crashed to the street. The springs from what had been a bed came next. then ashes from papers blew across the neighborhood. As this occurred, the question that crossed my mind was: if my life were to go up in smoke, what are the items I would save?

This is a substantial question to help parents and children to communicate with one another about what their ultimate values are. The question can serve as a vehicle for parents who, in the rush of dealing with practical aspects of life, don't make sufficient time to teach values. It can also be a tool to encourage growing kids to articulate the values that they are developing to parents with whom they may not speak enough.

There are any number of contexts into which this conversation fits. Jewish history, in which our ancestors had to make split second decisions about what to save as they emigrated from Europe to Israel or the United States; Holocaust victims and Warsaw Ghetto fighters had to decide what to bury and hide for discovery by the next generation; those escaping the Spanish Inquisition had to decide what to carry with them into exile. It fits into the study of Jewish ritual objects: what are the items that are so invaluable to us and our family stories that they must be saved?

We don't need to limit it to tangibles, either. Discussion of which memories or stories must be salvaged is a time honored tradition [such as the point in the Seder in which Rabban Gamliel selects the three parts of the seder that must be discussed, even if nothing else is].

I am saddened to have watched someone's life go up in smoke. But it may have served as a catalyst for starting conversations and learning that allow families to live fuller family lives.

1 comment:

Chava said...

Arnie,

Over 12 years ago, on a Shabbat evening, the Shabbat candlesticks caused a fire after all of us gone to sleep. Our company woke first and screamed, “fire”. Michael, a trained firefighter, ran downstairs and grabbed the fire extinguisher, and I grabbed the children and the animals and ran out the door. 911 was called and the fire department was there as I watched in fear.

The fire was not dramatic to anyone other than us. Our neighbors woke up and gave us clothing, food, and if I remember correctly a l’chayim.

When I read your blog, I had initially forgotten about my fire or the fire of my childhood. All I thought about was that we NEED to create a family legacy through actions. When you actively live with values, Jewish practice, and family connections, nothing that goes up in smoke truly matters. As I started to type, I remembered my own stories.

Today, I would probably grab my computer too because the computer carries my stories and my heart, but by Monday, I will put my external hard drive into the safety deposit box and make certain I back it up once a week. I would be devastated if my writing went up in smoke.

Regardless, it’s the stories we create as a family, the stories we share from our past, and the conscious looking into the future that sustain us. If our lives go up in smoke, we are nothing but a memory. If our possessions go up in smoke, our memories and our connections sustain us.

There is little about me that is materialistic. I might be sad if my Shabbat candlesticks went up in smoke, or the paintings and artwork, I created, but I am blessed to have visions/memories of what I have created in my head.

Thanks for jogging my memory.

BTW, the fire that happened over 12 years ago happened weeks before Pesach. Our house was OK with the exception of smoke damage everywhere. The good news is that the fire restoration crew basically redid our kitchen in dining room in time for Pesach. Pesach cleaning was never so easy. ☺

Shabbat Shalom,
Chava