In Search Of
The Jewish Father
Let us now praise famous men,
And our fathers that begat us .. .
All these were honored in their
And were the glory of their times.
ARTHUR J. MAGIDA
FRIDAY, JUNE 16, 1989
he jury is still out on whether the
father is still "the glory of his
time." Not that he doesn't deserve
to be honored and respected year-
round and, at least once every 12
months — this Sunday, Father's Day —
allowed to sleep late. But the role of
fathers, especially the Jewish father, is now
undergoing such- a transition that the
"glory" may have to wait until the smoke
has cleared and one can decipher just what
a father is and what is expected of one.
Fatherhood, in fact, is in such a state of
change that it is difficult, if not impossi-
ble, to arrive at one all-encompassing
image that neatly encapsulates the con-
temporary Jewish father. The Jewish
mother, for instance, has been stereo-
typed so much — and so nastily — that to
mention "Jewish" and "mother" in the
same sentence is to invite snickers. The
Jewish Mom is supposedly overbearing,
long-suffering, self-sacrificing, all-
consuming. Her life is her home, her chil-
dren, her husband. She is there to serve
them all, goes the image — whether they
like it or not.
But the Jewish Pop? To Woody Allen,
he is a schlemiel; to Philip Roth, he is a
victim (often of his wife); to the rest of us,
he is whatever we may perceive him to be:
provider or nurturer, sage or dunce, the
fellow who changes diapers in the even-
ings or works in the office late at night,
the guy who mows the lawn on Sunday
afternoons or the one who goes to UJA
meetings Sunday mornings.
Or all of the above.
And therein lies the rub. lbday's as-
similated Jewish father is not part of a
tradition. By becoming "more American"
and being so ferociously upwardly mobile,
many Jewish fathers have abandoned the
roles of the men who preceded them. They
have to redefine themselves as fathers and
as "Jewish fathers" — at a time when both
are undergoing transformation.
This is not to say that the traditional
Jewish father was a raving success. Ab-
raham's readiness to sacrifice Isaac may
have meant that his faith in God was
rock-solid, but it would not have won him
a Father of the Year Award today. And
the shtetl father who distanced himself
from his family by studying for long
hours in shul is echoed, said New York
author Susan Weidman Schneider, by
some Orthodox fathers today "who hide
behind their Gemarah and say, `Shaa,
shaa' ['Quiet, quiet'] to their children, as I
often hear from social workers who work
in the Orthodox community."
In the past, there was certainty about
what a Jewish father should do and how
he should do it. There is now confusion,
almost a floundering.
But at least, this is a shared confusion:
Throughout society, gender roles are
changing. More mothers work full-time,
more fathers help out with the kids, and
almost everyone is less sure about what a
parent should do to guarantee financial
security — and a warm, loving family life.
Most everyone agrees that change is in
the air, but not everyone is satisfied with
the rate of this change. The pace, said
Letty Cotton Pogrebin, a columnist for
Ms. magazine, "is not fast enough for the
good of children and the good of fathers.
Some Jewish children are starved for
their fathers. They may not even see their
fathers in daylight because they come
home so late from work. Jewish fathers
are the most success-oriented in the na-
tion. They relate more to their workplace
than to home."
Pogrebin attributed the quest for a new
role for Jewish fathers' to "Jewish
mothers who are demanding it," to a
"younger generation that will not stand"
for the older, less satisfying roles — and
to "young men who want a better emo-
tional balance in their life."
Fathers of Old
or centuries, Jewish society centered
around its religion — a patriarchal
religion. Religion authority flowed
through the male. Men were learned and
devout. They studied and prayed in the
shul. To sons in the shtetls of Eastern
Europe, fathers were remote authoritarian
figures and fairly formal teachers of the
Talmud; to their daughters, they were more
easygoing and indulgent.
But it was the mother who ran the daily
life of the home. Here, she was para-
mount. The father, when he was there,
gave knowledge; the mother, who was al-
ways there, gave affection. The mother
ruled the roost, although the father was
occasionally held up as the court of last