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.