Our oldest granddaughter Leah told me that I was repeating myself, that I kept calling out, “it’s so clever!” as I passed each Lego display. She was right. Why did I find Legoland to be fascinating and fun when I went there this time with my grandchildren? I don’t remember enjoying it nearly as much when we took our own children there ten years ago.
Both times, we were in California during winter break to see the Abends (our daughter Elkie, her husband Nachman, and their family). This time, the Legoland visit included more children, but other than our seventeen-year-old son Sholom, most of the kids belonged to the Abends and their good friends, the Staubers.
Last time we went to Legoland, it was during what I affectionately call our family’s “awkward stage.” The group picture at the park’s entrance confirms this undeniably: The cute little babies and toddlers had turned into less cute adolescents. But it was more than what everyone looked like. There was a looming spiritual question hanging over the picture: How are these kids actually going to turn out?
Don’t forget, we were trying to raise kids very differently than the way we were raised. We wanted them to grow into people who loved being observant Jews, people who followed the Rebbe’s teachings. When I went to Legoland with my children, I didn’t see “clever.” I was only worried whether or not it was good chinuch, education, to indulge my children in the vain pleasures of an amusement park. All the other weeks of the year, I was learning in my Chassidus classes that pursuing G-dliness is the truest pleasure. Was Legoland putting my children at risk? When could I expect my kids to want to spend their vacations doing mitzvos?
I didn’t know what being “Chassidishe” meant, but I knew I wanted Chassidishe children, because, well, everyone around me wanted Chassidishe children. I’m serious. The “Chassidishe” component was hidden, but was still an essential part of what compelled us to return to Jewish observance during our fateful Shabbaton experience thirty years ago. (One reason we bought the package was that we saw how well integrated the Bubbes and Zaides were, never imagining we would one day be them, but that’s another story.) Our children were already four and two. If we wanted to make a seamless transition, we would be wise to talk the talk and walk the walk as fast as we could. We could ask questions later.
I quickly learned that raising Chassidishe children in the Chabad world is like raising secularly educated children to get into Ivy League schools. It seemed that everyone wanted it. And, like getting to the Ivy League, I could see this accomplishment was not entirely in my control.
But I had to try my hardest. When I had doubts about the package, I trusted they came from my lack of knowledge. Deep inside, I knew I believed. And cared. And I wanted for my children what G-d wanted for my children, even when I didn’t know what that meant.
Which is why we asked our mentors (known as mashpiim) about almost everything regarding child-raising. This eagerness to ask turned out to be the best thing we could do for our children. Our kids saw we weren’t looking for shortcuts. They saw we weren’t trying to give them the best of both worlds. We hadn’t chosen a “lifestyle.” We were looking for Truth. And, according to Torah, when you don’t know, or if you’re not sure, you ask.
Our kids were sometimes annoyed by our constant asking, but I never stopped doing it. I’m grateful I was never even tempted to. We kept asking, and kept listening to the answers. I don’t take for granted that the formula worked so well. Maybe G-d has special compassion for the clueless, I don’t know. I just know He came through for us.
Our children can’t claim to be clueless, but I hope G-d will be as compassionate to them as they raise their children.
Oh, and I did finally settle on my own definition of what it means to be “Chassidishe.” It’s the drive to improve spiritually and physically by following the Rebbe’s teachings. Like everything G-dly, it’s personal. It’s ongoing. It’s demanding. And, for me, it’s good.