When to Apologize. And When Not To.

I am a Jewish educator and have taught children and adults on many topics in Judaism. However, there is one class I have vowed to never teach: Parenting. I realize many Jewish parents are curious about this topic and it tends to bring big crowds. But I will not teach this class because it is an area that I do not feel I have a right to speak about.

I mess up as a parent. Every. Single. Day.

I have reasons, explanations, excuses. It’s hard to take care of 4 kids when you’re a working parent and your husband’s job is all-encompassing and you have little time for yourself. It’s hard to have patience when after a long day of work, your two oldest kids war over every little thing and while you’re trying to mediate as the patience is quickly ebbing, you turn around and see your two year old emptying all of your spices on the floor. I am a Rabbi’s wife but marrying a person with that title didn’t give me the pixie dust to handle these situations with righteous patience and equanimity. I blow. Quite often.

But if there’s one thing I have learned to do right in parenting, it is this. I apologize. A lot. When the cloud of frustration dissipates and I am left with feelings of guilt about the wrong way that I handled yet another situation, I sit with my children and I sincerely apologize for losing my patience and for not giving them proper attention. I tell them that I was overwhelmed, that it is not an excuse but I will try to do better the next time.

It amazes me every time how quick they are to forgive, how they understand. They get it; Imma makes mistakes but she regrets her behavior. And while this is not why I apologize, I hope they can apply a secondary lesson, that they too are human, that they too will make mistakes and that admitting our mistakes don’t define us as bad; they define us as human.

But as important as it is to learn when to apologize, I believe it is equally important to learn and to teach my children when not to apologize.

In a society where to be a religious Jew is often to find yourself in the minority (and certainly in the small community where we live), it can be uncomfortable to do things differently. It is uncomfortable to be the only child in the class who does not trick-or-treat on Halloween or to be the only child to wear a skirt during gym class. But it can be even more difficult for religious adults to find themselves in the minority; not only from the social pressure of “everyone’s doing it” but to feel that your religious views are judged on an ethical/ intellectual level, with claims that religious beliefs are prejudiced, antiquated or illogical. Time and again, I’ve seen religious Jews keep the perceived “oddities” of their lives quiet or even fabricate them in ways to make them appear aligned with cultural norms.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture at our local college’s Jewish Studies program. The speaker was a former Hassid who had left the fold and he was there to share the sad story of how he was separated from his wife and family as a result of his decision to leave his community behind. When telling his story, he described the Hassidic community from where he came, where no one knew of birth control and therefore, they had many children. The crowd, mostly non-religious Jews, laughed. He spoke about how the Jews in his community were secularly uneducated and would not read books written by non-religious Jews and again, the crowd laughed. Derisively. This happened a number of times during his presentation and I found myself, probably one of the few Orthodox people in the room, feeling very uncomfortable. Not because of the speaker who had his reasons to feel resentful, but because of the crowd’s laughter.

Would they laugh if it was a Moslem describing his religious practices, I wondered, even if the practices sounded extreme? Somehow, I imagined they wouldn’t dare. They would listen with interest and respect to a culture that was foreign to their own as enlightened and liberal people often do. When it’s anyone but their own people.

I am not an ultra-Orthodox Jew and I have chosen not to live in an insular community. My hair is not shaved, I was not set up with my husband, we did not marry at nineteen and we both have college and master’s degrees and yet, while I do not live the life of the ultra-Orthodox and probably find it as foreign as the rest of the crowd did, how could I laugh at someone else’s religious practices? I agree that there are times when ultra-Orthodox Jews can act more respectfully towards those who don’t share their views (like booking a plane seat in advance and not embarrassing someone by asking them to switch seats) but just because I don’t live like that doesn’t mean I can’t respect their lifestyle.

But what’s more, just as you know when your friend gossips about another friend, that she would not hesitate to gossip about you, I could just hear the crowd laughing if the speaker was describing my religious life. Tablet Magazine and The Forward feature articles deriding the Orthodox (and not just ultra-Orthodox!) all the time.

The general sentiment about those who of us have a religious worldview (contrary to a liberal mindset) is that we are naive, unintelligent, and unquestioning at best, and unethical, submissive and prejudiced at worst.

My covered hair and three quarter sleeves in the summer are a sign of my subjugation. Our lack of a television is a sign of our isolation from the world at large. (Newsflash: you can become addicted to following the news on a computer also). My belief that Jews have the right to settle anywhere in the land of Israel (including areas that Israel won in a defensive war against Jordan in 1967) is a sign of my brainwashing. That I pray that a Third Temple will one day be rebuilt on the Dome of the Rock means I’m a fanatic extremist (Thank you, Martin Fletcher who said this on MSNBC News). Never mind that there are reasons behind these views, that they are well-thought out positions, that they come from a three thousand year old belief system upon which three of the world’s religions are based. Never mind the beauty and meaning behind religious observance that has impressed so many that a movement of young Jews have decided to adopt its ways. And never mind that many of these supposedly oppressed Orthodox Jewish women are powerhouses and are leaders in their homes, in the workplace, and yes, in their synagogues- even if they don’t lead prayers.

Don’t people realize that to be universally accepting doesn’t just mean to be accepting of those to the left of you but also to the right? Don’t people realize that this is a religion they are poking fun at and that these derisive comments are not just disrespectful but also hurtful? That for observant Jews, Judaism is a package deal and that the feel-good parts are accepted with the not-as-feel-good parts? Shouldn’t religious observance be respected, rather than derided?

And so at this college event, I raised my hand. I spoke up. They were not laughing at me, but I spoke up.  I would not let them laugh without saying something. Many people thanked me for speaking up afterward and strangers came up to me to express that they too felt uncomfortable by the laughter at this lecture. That was comforting.

That week, when I saw a man on a street corner in our city with pamphlets and a huge board showing a series of propaganda maps, falsely claiming that the Palestinians stole all of Israel’s land (also featured on Martin Fletcher, MSNBC) and that Hamas is a human rights organization which is fighting against Israel’s oppression, I spoke up. I was told that I was a pro-Israel fanatic, but I spoke up.

And when Martin Fletcher spoke in our synagogue, I spoke up about the propaganda maps he had shown on TV. We had a nice little conversation afterward. He may not like me so much for pointing out his mistake, but that’s OK. I spoke up.

Some might think it’s disrespectful to speak up but I will not apologize about standing up for what I believe, so long as I do it respectfully. I will not sit quietly when someone speaks derisively about my religious practices or Israel. Anyone is welcome to disagree with me, and certainly to ask questions to understand why I do what I do; I am happy to share and to explain. But please don’t speak disparagingly about my beliefs because I will speak up.

Because it is so important to teach my children, not only when to apologize, but also, when not to apologize.

About the Author
Ariela Davis, a native New Yorker, is the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, and the Director of Judaics of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She is the wife of Rabbi Moshe Davis and the mother of four children.