I grew up in a big rambling wooden house perched on top of a hill surrounded by woods and streams in McLean, Virginia, the second of four children of assimilated, wealthy, German-Jewish parents. Our household also included, at any given time, two or three dogs, any number of guinea pigs, assorted hamsters, a canary, various au pairs, and our loving, African-American, Baptist housekeeper, Mae Carter. There was also, for a time at least, a horse named Massy, whom my older sister, Barbara, rode to school for Earth Day in 1972, while my mother, with the three other kids, drove behind in the Chevy wagon.
I had piano lessons, guitar lessons, painting lessons, dance lessons, diving lessons (I pictured myself doing triple back flips off the high dive and landing on the Olympic diving team) and — for that brief ugly period when people were hanging brightly colored glass birds and flowers in their windows — glass-cutting lessons. In other words, I was hardly neglected. But I was a miserable, anxious, dark and moody child nonetheless, prone to anxiety, depression and debilitating stomach aches.
I was a lousy student — which in my family (which prized brains in a big way) was very bad and, to the bewilderment of my mother who had been a jock all her life, an utter and complete dud on the sports fields. I attended a fancy, WASPy private school where athletics were important. But, as far as I was concerned, the best thing to do if a ball was heading in your direction was to duck for cover. That attitude didn’t get me far in the adolescent popularity sweepstakes.
Though my father, who’d grown up Orthodox in Baltimore, made a big deal out of just about all things Jewish (from the Jewish holidays on the one hand, to the State of Israel on the other), I didn’t feel at home in my Jewish skin and would have done anything to have long straight hair and a small nose like my best friend, Nina Chapin. I was, moreover, terrified of Nazis (of whom, in point of fact, there weren’t too many in McLean, Virginia, in the 1960s) and was certain that the entire world would soon be incinerated by a nuclear bomb. I preferred the company of my stuffed bunny rabbit, Bumby, to that of most girls and boys my age, and at the age of 12 I developed an ulcer. Unfortunately, my father didn’t believe in sickness, so it was awhile before my mother hauled me off to the pediatrician, who sent me home with a lifetime supply of Maalox and instructions to avoid fatty foods.
I now live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and have children of my own — Sam is 13 and my twins, Rose and Jonathan, are 9 — and, like every other parent in America, I am determined to raise happy, healthy, self-confident children who, as a bonus, don’t suffer from migraines, ulcers or general self-hatred; children who don’t take drugs, abuse alcohol, sleep around, pierce their tongues or their belly-buttons, or drive too fast; children who, in other words, are filled and buoyed all their lives by feelings of happiness, self-worth, confidence and optimism; children who understand that their very existence on earth is an incalculable blessing that demands, in return, a lifetime of saying thanks; children who have the inner freedom to become the people they were meant to become and pursue the dreams and talents they were endowed with at birth.
To this end, I pretty much leave them alone, except on occasion to yell at them because they are so loud that they are driving me clear around the bend and if they don’t quiet down pronto I will end up in the loony hatch. To be fair to myself, I also cheer them on in their strengths, browbeat them into learning manners, make them write thank-you cards, break up their fights, drag them to synagogue and all the rest of it.
A few years ago, when my mother was visiting, she and I got into an argument on the subject of how best to instill self-confidence in kids. We were sitting in the jungle that is my backyard in Baton Rouge, watching the kids play. I told Mom that Sam, my eldest, was bright and a good student but sloppy and careless when he wasn’t interested. She said, “Well, you encourage him don’t you? You tell him he’s doing an excellent job and that you’re proud of him, don’t you? You want him to have good self-esteem, don’t you?”
I thought about it for a second, took a deep breath and then went on to lecture my mother, in the self-righteous voice that I’ve mastered ever since I realized that Mom still feels guilty about my girlhood ulcer, that never, not in a million years, not if every child-development expert in the country told me I was wrong, would I heap false praise on Sam. Self-esteem, I said, came from the mastery of skills (in school, on the playing fields, at the dining room table and so forth) and from general parental love and acceptance, and not from unearned pats on the head. As if I knew.
Actually, and despite the self-esteem deficit that I continue to struggle with, I think the whole slippery subject of self-esteem is overinflated. One thing that strikes me is that self-esteem seems to have replaced God as an ultimate goal — a dogma, its precepts spread by Oprah and her minions, providing countless pop psychologists with enough material to write enough books on the subject to fill up a thousand Books-A-Million stores. Without it, we’re told, we’ll become, at the very least, neurotic, self-defeating wimps; with it, we’ll lead successful, fulfilled lives. But my hunch is that neither Hitler nor Stalin, not to mention Bin Laden or your friendly neighborhood drug kingpin, suffers much from a lack of self-esteem. The prophet Moses, on the other hand, is depicted as a guy with plenty of tsuris. (A Yiddish word that means woes, troubles or suffering.) And yet who, given the choice, wouldn’t gulp down a big fat portion of self-esteem with every meal? Who wouldn’t ask for seconds? It’s just one of those good things — like love, or health or really good, thick, manageable hair — that only the biggest schlemiel (loser) would refuse.
On the whole, my life has been lived on easy street, surrounded by loving friends and, as I’ve finally come to learn, relatives. I’ve long since grown into my Jewish skin, such that Judaism has become for me, as it is for my father, both a central, creative impulse and a source of comfort. In addition, I’ve also been helped by a whole army of talented psychiatrists, starting with the ancient, paternalistic Freudian to whom my mother took me when I was a senior in high school and coming apart at the seams, and ending with a German Catholic transactionalist (whom I began to see when my husband, a professor of law at Louisiana State University, spent a semester away from me and the kids as a “visiting professor” in Arizona—a career move that excited all kinds of fears of abandonment that I hadn’t previously known I’d had. After all, I was hardly an abandoned child).
I still don’t really know why I tend to fall into the misery pit, where I can wallow for weeks on end, eating far too many potato chips and daydreaming about attaining such huge professional success that I’ll somehow be catapulted into the realm of the angels, never to be touched by feelings of mediocrity, insecurity or raw, ugly, naked unhappiness again. Although I do know that most of it is mixed up with the usual culprits of childhood misapprehensions — the boo-boos my parents made out of a combination of inexperience and simple human imperfection in that sweet hazy time before anyone other than a handful of New York intellectuals consulted professionals in the field of mental health.
Even though my dad, Judaism and I have been on excellent terms for years (so much so that, at the age of 41, I wore his tallith, or prayer shawl, on the occasion of my much-delayed bat mitzvah), some of my lingering anxiety doubtless comes from the way religion was practiced in our home in McLean when I was a child. By nature I was spiritually inclined. Long before anyone taught me to pray, I chatted away with God as if he and I were old pals, relying on him to protect me and my family from everything from earthquake (an unlikely event in Virginia) to volcanoes (equally unlikely, but what did I know?) to infestations of locusts. But in our house there was really only one Jew — my father who, on top of having been raised in the cloistered, Orthodox world of pre-and post-war Baltimore, was the only male of his generation and hence the person slated by his parents, grandparents, and many aunts and uncles to carry on the 4,000-year-old Jewish tradition.
My mother wasn’t religiously inclined at all. She’d been raised by parents who basically didn’t believe in God and who also, as adherents of the Reform strain of American Judaism, had long since chucked such central Jewish practices as keeping the kosher (dietary) laws, praying on the Sabbath and mastering Hebrew. Mom did her best to make a Jewish home along the lines of the one my father had grown up in, but it was mighty hard to think about keeping the Jewish dietary laws when we were just about the only Jews in all of northern Virginia and my father couldn’t so much as find his way to the kitchen, let alone explain the niceties of setting up a traditional Jewish home. My mother wouldn’t have kept a kosher home anyway; she’d been raised eating her mother’s marvelous, Southern-style honey-glazed hams and thought the whole idea of limiting one’s diet and complicating one’s cooking based on three statements in Exodus and Deuteronomy was dumb.
As for me, I was torn between the two of them, yearning to find some path both to God and to the Jewish tradition but also pledged, as if at birth, to defend my mother’s rights and integrity against my father’s increasingly insistent high-handedness on all matters pertaining to religion. Also there was the fact of my gender. I was a girl, who, on top of being a girl, resembled my mother and her entire line of not-very-Jewish Jews to such a high degree that it was as if I’d been cloned. It was my brother, David, one year my junior and sporting my father’s green eyes and athletic build, who seemed to be the focus of our father’s hopes and dreams. As for me, I think I simply slipped off Dad’s radar screen.
As I sat sobbing one day during an unusually emotional (even for me) therapy session a few weeks after my husband had gone to teach in Arizona, my German Catholic therapist asked me if I’d feel comfortable asking God to let me feel his divine love. I knew what she was getting at — if I had suffered deprivation in the paternal-love-and-approval department when I was a child, wouldn’t it be good for my wounded little psyche to get a dose of the heavenly variety? I thought about it for a second and then agreed to give it a try. But even though God is depicted in both the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish prayer service in the roles of both loving Father (“Abba,” which means “Daddy”) and all-forgiving lover, divine love wasn’t a concept that I was at home with. Even as I told my therapist that I’d give it a go, I felt goofy, like a big fat fake.
“See what happens,” she said.
So that night I got down on my knees and bent my head to the floor and asked God to let me feel his love, and the very next day my real father sent me a book on the subject of Jewish theology, in which he’d written in Hebrew on the inside cover, “To my second daughter, with love from your Abba.”
And perhaps someone with even a shred of rationality would see the arrival of this particular book signed in this particular way as no more than a coincidence — after all, my father regularly sends me books, I read them, and then we get into heated e-mail discussions on their merits — but I couldn’t help but view both the book and the inscription within it as a little love-bomb from heaven itself.
A few months ago, after a particularly trying time in my life, I hopped in the minivan and drove to the other side of town to fetch my son, Jonathan, from his friend Luke’s house. Luke is black and lives with his wonderful mother, a fourth-grade teacher, in a tiny house in a fairly crummy black neighborhood in North Baton Rouge around the corner from his maternal grandparents. I don’t know quite how she does it on her ridiculously low teacher’s salary, but somehow or another, Luke’s mother, Ginnie, manages to send Luke to the same private, Episcopal, rich-kids’ school that Jonathan attends — a place where I myself have often felt like the odd-woman-out among the mainly Episcopal, mainly white, mainly Republican and mainly well-dressed former LSU and Ole Miss sorority sisters who make up the bulk of the school moms.
How, I sometimes thought, could Ginnie stand the place? What does she think when, for instance, the other moms start chattering on about new chintz curtains for the “keeping room,” or taking the kids to ClubMed? Just for starters, she doesn’t have a husband. Then, too, the school is hardly around the corner from Ginnie’s neighborhood — an area of town that I would guess is all but terra incognito for most of Luke’s (and Jonathan’s) classmates. I was dying to ask her how she dealt with the gap between her home and work life, and her only son’s school environment, but I never had. After all, what business of it was mine?
But as we watched our two boys playing football in Ginnie’s front yard, and the cicadas set up their chirping choir, I asked her, point-blank, how she managed. “I know it must cost you,” I said.
“You got that right, baby,” Ginnie said — and we both knew that she wasn’t referring to finances alone. “But you know,” she said, “I’ve got a lot of help. I’ve got my mother and my father, and let me tell you, the two of them have always been there for me. From the time I was a baby girl, I can’t remember anything but love. My daddy is just wonderful with Luke, too, and you know that a boy needs a man in his life.” She paused, then said, “That boy is going to get a good education, because he deserves it, see? But you’re right. It isn’t always easy. But when things get really tough I know I can bow my head and ask for help. And you know it always comes. He’s always been there for me, and he always will be.”
In a single well duh moment I understood that, despite whatever financial hardships or racial prejudice Ginnie might encounter, she had something I’d never been able to count on: faith in a loving, protective and sheltering God, courtesy — at least in part — of a loving, protective and sheltering father. The two daddies went hand in hand. Ginnie walked between them, buoyed by feelings of love and acceptance that were as much a part of her childhood home as the food on the table and the family photographs on the dresser. That Ginnie had so readily and warmly opened up to me, allowing me to get a tiny glimpse of her soul, was a gift that made me feel as if I too might be able to dip into this marvelous, life-sustaining, sweet warm sea.
In 60-second psychoanalysis terms, Ginnie, the recipient of her father’s love and acceptance, was able to transfer good feelings of self-worth right to the heavenly realm, whereas I, with my absent-even-when-present father, had spent my childhood feeling unlovable and inadequate. But it was more than that. How different were the paths that Ginnie and I had walked, and yet as we stood together watching our boys play, I knew we were growing together, both of us reaching up toward the light. Self-esteem is too paltry a word to convey what Ginnie was describing, and yet it is the word we turn to, again and again, as we try our best to teach our children well, setting them on the paths of happiness and peace.
I felt so good after talking to Ginnie that I went home humming the Aleynu (“Our Father”) to myself, while in the back seat Jonathan told me about all the fun things he and Luke had done. The sprawl of midcity Baton Rouge looked glorious to me in the dim light of early evening, and then I realized that it was Friday night — the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath — and all my worries, at least for the moment, were gone.
Jennifer Moses is the author of Food and Whine: Confessions of an End of the Millennium Mom. She’s working on a book about being Jewish in the Deep South.