Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Authentic Jewish nachos

I’m not positive that the person who originated this quote actually wants it traced backed to her, but a mentor of mine once told me and my wife, “Children were put on this Earth to kill us. If they fail, they give us nachas.”  Certainly, some of my children have done a better job of almost killing me than others, but they all have managed to give us nachas.

Nachas is one of those words that doesn’t translate well from Yiddish to English.  When blessing someone with nachas from their children, it’s not exactly “pride” that we are wishing them, though certainly when our kids are great we feel pride in them. It’s not quite that we’re proud of them.  It’s not only that when we have nachas we are also filled with gratitude. Nachas is not gratitude. And we’re not saying that we hope that our friends are “happy” with their kids.  “Happy” is such an amorphous state and nachas is richer and more complex.

One of the quirks of modern living is the inconvenience/convenience of auto-correct.  A certain subset of mankind is simultaneously frustrated and amused by the fact that auto-correct changes the Yiddish word nachas to the Spanish word nachos. That makes sense because I suspect that technically there are more people who say nachos, so no hard feelings.  But it is sort of amusing to find out your told someone that you hope the have real yiddishe nachos. I’m picturing cholent and kishe on top of fried corn chips. Actually, that sounds amazing.

My oldest son had a second daughter this week. Certainly, seeing your son being a good father and an attentive and caring husband is nachas.  I went with him to shul this week to hear the baby’s name during Torah reading. It turned out that the most nachas inducing moment was when I realized that the young married man leading the prayer service (like it was the most normal and natural thing in the world) had been a student of mine when he was in 8th-grade gemorah. (As I recall.)  Just something about seeing him skillfully leading the service, and receiving his mazel tov, just made me so — nachasy.  (The baby’s name is Aliza, BTW.  Yes. Thank you very much!)

I teach an 11th grade Jewish Theology course.  We’re winding down on the “assigned curriculum” part of the year having done units on Faith in a Creator, Theodicy, Prayer, the Afterlife and Jewish Eschatology (though I didn’t call it that) and so forth. The last unit I do with them is on the Jewish Revelation story. The units I do first and last are, I believe, the most important.  There is a Creator, and it’s rational to have faith in a Creator.  And the last unit is about how the Jewish story of revelation, the story of Sinai, is completely different in kind from every other religion’s revelation story. And most importantly, it is un-counterfeit-able. It can’t have been made up and introduced at some other point in history. My experience has been that the stuff they are most likely to remember is the stuff we start the year with and the stuff we end the year with.

At the end of the unit the students write summaries and reflections, to help them integrate into themselves what they learned, and if need be, articulate questions they have. The writing the students did was so deep, and so insightful, and so filled with experienced wonder that it felt a blessing to have been part of the experience.  As a teacher, it was authentic Jewish nachos. *Nachas.

Today was Yom Ha’atzmaut. Covid forced us to change what we usually do.  The whole high school couldn’t gather together for the Hallel; we had to do it by grade.  But do you know what happened, spontaneously in each grade?  The kids wanted to dance! They wanted to sing!  They wanted to celebrate together the way we have in the past. Of course it couldn’t be the same and we had to kibosh it, but wow! I have to say, seeing our kids spontaneously break into a girls’ circle and a boys’ circle and sing “ay didy dahy dahy dahy Thank You, Hashem!” — it was a big, satisfying serving of Jewish Nachos.Nachas.

If there is any advice to my fellow parents, grandparents and teachers out there about how to set yourself up from nachas (other than not dying as noted above) I would say there is an insight in this week’s Torah reading.  When the Torah is describing the condition of Tzaraas — a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness that presented as a skin malady — it lists a bunch of things we in the 21st century might find bizarre. But far and away the most bizarre detail is that if a person is totally covered by this malady — kulo hafach lavan — he has turned totally white with no healthy looking skin, he is pure. He can mingle with others and eat sacrifices and participate fully in Jewish life.  But if he gets any patch of healed and healthy skin then he’s impure, must separate from the community, isolate himself and get healed.  Surely that’s insane sounding.  Totally sick = pure but somewhat healed =impure? How does that math work?

I wonder if the symbolism could be understood like this. If a person is totally ill, then there is nothing he can do.  There are no options. He might as well be with everyone else.  Nothing will help.  But if there is just a small patch of healthy skin, just a glimmer of hope, then he must immediately start treatment.

When parenting or when teaching we occasionally come to moments when it all seems hopeless. The situation is so bad we could be excused for feeling defeated. The key is to notice that it’s never really kulo hafach lavan — totally changed to sickness, Find the glimmer of hope, find the good patch, find the small part that is healthy, and get to work.  Build on that, work with that.

And when we do find those places, and we can capitalize on those moments, I pray that Hashem grant us all true yiddishe nachos.

*Nachas.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.
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