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Finding Grace in Parenthood

Jonah Itai Staub, our grandson, emerged on Friday at 6:45 a.m. At 6:52, we received the text from our son Andrew: “Baby is here! Everyone is healthy.” This coming Friday, little Jonah will be circumcised into the covenant of Abraham.

So far, we have made two roundtrips up and down the New Jersey Turnpike to New York City to spend chunks of time with our new true love. Which has provided ample opportunity for me to reflect on the grace and blessing of good parenting. When I think about the crowning moments of my mother’s and father’s parenting careers, this is what I recall:

On a chilly morning in early December 1967, I bumped into my father Andrew on the way out of the apartment. I was a high school senior, but I was clearly not dressed for school, and it was way too early to be leaving for the Bronx High School of Science.

“Where are you going?” my father asked.

“To the army induction center on Whitehall Street,” I replied, making sure not to avert my gaze. “To protest against the draft.”

I knew my father was uncomfortable with my political activism. He was born in America only a few years after his parents arrived from Hungary, and he believed that the government knows how you vote. He always voted for the party in power, to insure that he would receive the next promotion due to him in the civil service. He was certain that our phones were tapped. (Only recently have I begun myself to wonder about the secrecy of the ballot; I, too, could hear the clicking of J. Edgar Hoover’s minions on our phone even then.)

“Would you do me a favor? Just cover your head.”

“What?!!” I assumed he was asking me to wear a yarmulke. I stopped covering my head for religious reasons almost four years before. I was annoyed. Insulted.

“Listen to me. Whitehall Street has cobblestones. The streets are very narrow. The police will be mounted on horses. They will have billy clubs. The horses will charge at you on the narrow street. Don’t let them hit your head!”

I absorbed his advice, shocked that he was coaching me. I thanked him and left for the subway.

The second moment:

On a Friday evening several weeks later, I unlocked the front door at 1:00 a.m. and was not surprised to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table, reading a magazine. She always stayed up until I returned home. It was an awkward moment. I had not eaten Sabbath dinner with my parents. I had been out on a date—something I was raised not to do on the Sabbath.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“I went to the movies.”

“With whom?”

“Dorothy Yang.” I braced myself. My mother looked up, took a deep breath, and turned to face me.

“That’s the eleventh straight non-Jewish girl that you’ve taken out. Couldn’t you alternate?”

I was caught completely off guard. How could I argue with such a reasonable, conciliatory request, even if I was seventeen and determined to argue? I condescended to explain that I didn’t check a girl’s religious credentials before asking her out, but in the end, I agreed to try to find a Jewish girl now and then.

Ever since, I have cherished the memory of these two moments, hoping that I could be a parent in their mold, willing to stretch without snapping, able to keep my eye on what’s really important rather than obsessing about who is in charge.

Thirty-one years later, I was in Albert’s Fruits to Nuts down the block from our home in Elkins Park on a Friday afternoon, buying loaves of hallah and fruit salad for dessert. It was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and we agreed to let our sixteen-year-old son Andrew drive several of his friends to the Jersey shore in our minivan. Though he received his driver’s license only four months before, Andrew was a good driver, and I felt better with him driving rather than any of his friends. He drove off to fill the gas tank before he picked up his friends.

The door to the fruit store banged open and Andrew fell through, crying.

“Are you okay?” There was no blood. “What happened?”

“I’m so sorry, so sorry. I misjudged. When I turned into our driveway, I hooked the Windstar’s bumper into our Volvo’s bumper.” He was sobbing.

“Andrew—listen to me. Try to calm down. Statistically speaking, you will have an average of four accidents in the first five years of driving. May they all be just like this one! You are not hurt. Nobody is hurt. It’s okay!”

I gave that speech through a gift of grace. It was unrehearsed, but I felt as if I was channeling the cover your head response of another Andrew, my father, keeping my eye on what was most important, supporting my son with love.

Don’t worry, Jonah Itai. Your father knows what’s important.


Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/parenting-grace.

Type: Essay