My late grandfather was German down to his lederhosen. His daily routine was carved in stone and any deviation would not result in anything, because it simply never happened. In his world, children would be seen and very rarely heard, and when a conversation that could be considered off-color would take place, then they would not be seen at all. They would be banished to “look for the cats.” Incidentally we never found them and I wonder to this day if they existed at all.
I recall him telling me about his bar mitzvah in Munchen Gladbach. His parsha was meant to be Toldot but as the subject matter dealt with the pregnancy of Rivka it was considered inappropriate for a 13 year old boy to read about these matters. And so, it was shifted a week in order to allow him to “search for those cats” as it were.
A literal lifetime later the situation could not be more different. I was at school yesterday, collecting my daughter when I noticed a leaflet had been placed on my windshield. I was slightly irritable, having just been accosted by the teacher in whose parking I had allegedly parked (she could not prove ownership) and the whole thing got a bit ugly, with my daughter claiming that I had now embarrassed her and she would never be able to show her face again. She put her head in her hands just to prove her shame. So I grabbed the leaflet, threw it on the seat next me, screamed one more time at the teacher, something about changing her bloody attitude if she want to be a decent educator, and left.
Truthfully I would have thrown it on the floor of the parking lot but didn’t want to risk the wrath of my child whom I had clearly already disappointed, and the teacher who was waiting for another opportunity to shake her head disapprovingly and pounce on me.
When I got home, still slightly wound up by my tussle with the teacher, in throwing the godamn thing out, I happened to read the headline. “Erection Problem!” it screamed at me, “Answers that matter!” This had been placed on my windshield at the religious day school, which my children attend. And I don’t suspect it was that teacher person (although I wouldn’t be surprised) who had suggestively placed it there, as every car had been polluted in the same way. I had never been so offended in my life. To suggest such a thing, on my car windshield for that teacher (and everyone else) was simply not beyond the pale. I am in my early 40s (ok late 40s) for God sake.
The fact that I had mortified my young daughter by what she had determined was my poor behavior saved us from a discussion (she refused to look up the whole way home). She would no doubt have read it and demanded an explanation. And I don’t believe that I should be forced to have that dialogue with my 8 year old. Contrast that to a 13-year-old boy not reading a Torah text that dealt with a pregnancy and the juxtaposition is staggering. We are now, almost daily forced to discuss erectile dysfunction with our 8 year olds, metaphorically that is.
Billboards, TV programs and the Internet assault us daily and if we see them then so do our children. It is futile to pretend that they don’t exist but the question is how we achieve a balance that allows us to function in society without becoming contaminated by it?
The answer is clearly not the approach of my great-grandparents. It is unrealistic and anachronistic. It might well have been the option of choice at that time, as my grandfather remained observant his entire life, became an art collector and was comfortable with nude paintings in his home. But very few would argue for its re introduction. What is clear to me is that we are being desensitized and so are our children. And that is sad.
Perhaps the answer is to be parents. To not be uncomfortable to tell our children when a subject is or is not appropriate. To have discussion when they are at an age to really understand it and not to engage when simply because it has been vomited in front of them. Maybe indeed, we need to be confident enough to tell them when to go and look for the cats.