The Jewish Chronicle
…and my thoughts as my daughter graduates
AKE TISSUES!” This was the advice that came from other mothers, as I prepared for my daughter’s graduation this week. And yes, it was a day full of emotion — pride, joy and love all intermingled, as she went up on to the stage to be presented with her degree certificate from the University of Leicester (in Politics and Sociology, since you ask. Yes, oy, she has an “ology!”)
In America, graduation day is called Commencement, putting the emphasis on the graduate’s future life. And, indeed, it felt like a particularly meaningful rite of passage, almost more so than the batmitzvah which is meant to start womanhood. At 12 or 13, there is still time for parents to interfere and attempt to take control. A decade later, and all we can do is applaud and dab our tears as she makes her own way off the platform and on to the rest of her life.
For my daughter, and for many other students with learning difficulties (hers is dyspraxia, undiagnosed at five different schools), graduation is a fine riposte to all those people and all those systems that lined up to tell her she couldn’t succeed. Well, she did — magnificently — and she gained a lot of resilience along the way. And although I’d have liked her to have had an easier ride, I can’t help thinking her tenacity and determination will be a huge strength in the future.
How about the Jewish life that she starts now? How did we do as parents? Reading Jennifer Lipman’s touching column above, it struck me how hard it proved to shape a child’s Jewish identity once they get beyond babyhood. And I’m not alone in this. All around me, I see parents who took various paths Jewishly, and their children merrily going their own ways.
I wanted to pass on my love of Jewish music, my feeling for Jewish history and tradition, the way I run a Jewish home, and keep a kosher kitchen. I wanted her to feel at ease in a synagogue — any synagogue — and be part of a warm, loving Jewish community. I wanted her to have more Jewish friends than the handful I grew up with in my own childhood small community. Living in London, surely this would be easy?
Meanwhile, her father, more secular than I am, wanted to pass on his strong Jewish identity, his respect for (if not love of) family and tradition, and his huge interest in Jewish history and culture.
How did we do? Well, my misty-eyed vision of her at the heart of a community and at a Jewish school, going to youth groups took a battering when we moved to Amsterdam when she was a toddler. We went for two years; we stayed until she’d finished primary school. Her Jewish education was in one-to-one classes. Those were formative years, and at her international school she had friends from all over the world. (I will never forget the day she came home, aged around seven and told me that she’d decided to join the Korean girls’ group in the playground, rather than the Israelis).
She retains that love of diversity and multiculturalism among her friends, and in her life. Yes, she has some lovely Jewish friends, but she’s just as happy with her Muslim, Christian and Alevi mates. And she preferred an inner-city sixth-form college that had only a few middle-class students, to the one in a leafy suburb which was mainly Jewish. I’ve learned that you can’t write someone’s script for them, in Jewish matters as much as anything else. You can send them to Jewish camps, and on Israel Tour, but you can’t make them enjoy the experiences. Four weeks of Tour doesn’t always create a lifelong love of the Jewish state. (“I think Israel is overrated,” was her verdict).
I should probably have anticipated that my young sociologist would feel completely turned off by the innately patriarchal values of the United Synagogue, and I really should have taken her somewhere more progressive. I’m confident that she’ll always keep kosher— but mainly because she’s a lifelong vegetarian.
She feels strongly and proudly Jewish and confidently challenged classmates when she heard them spouting antisemitism. But mostly it’s a private, personal part of her identity, one based on home and family rather than a wider community. And, in that, she’s actually very much like her dad, and quite a bit like me. I can only hope and trust that she goes on developing that identity in the way she feels is best.
At her graduation ceremony, the historian Professor Sir David Cannadine was being awarded an honorary doctorate. His speech to the graduands ended with a quote from the Book of Joshua. He could not have chosen better for me, clutching my tissue, anticipating my daughter going out into the world, as a Jew, as a woman, and very much as her own person. “This is my command — be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For your God is with you wherever you go.”