Elizabeth Brenner Danziger

Transmitting Tradition: On Not Dropping the Ball


On a recent trip to rural Kernville, California, with my daughter and her family, I sat on the couch with my 6-year-old granddaughter, Eliana, and we recited the morning blessings together. As I heard her sweet voice repeating the ancient words, I was suddenly suffused with joy – a joy rooted in the deep satisfaction of fulfilling the fundamental precept: “And you shall teach it to your children.” (Actually, my daughter taught it to her daughter – but that means I taught it to my daughter in a way that made her want to pass it on to her children.) As we recited the words together, the ancient words of the Sh’ma became a shimmering bridge between the past and the future. A similar feeling overcame me a few months ago as I stood by the Kotel watching my son teach his bar mitzvah-age son how to put on tefillin.

What does it take to transmit a tradition? When my children were young, I once dreamed that I was playing a game that involved passing a ball. I dropped the ball, and my team lost. In the dream, I was devastated. I awoke and understood that in raising my children, my primary responsibility was not to drop the ball. I had been handed a gift. My job was to pass it on.

Teaching our children how to live as Jews is an act of transmission – of passing the ball. It forges a link that binds us to our ancestors and carries us into the future. But it does more than that. By giving our children roots in the past and inviting them into ongoing efforts to build the future, it also shapes the fabric of their identity, transmitting values, molding character, and providing them with a spiritual foundation for their lives.

Reflecting on those precious moments of davening with my granddaughter, I remember that the seeds we plant today will blossom in their lives tomorrow. Just as Abraham’s early choices grew into the Israelite nation and the Jewish people – so the values we instill in our children when they are young become the compass guiding them through life’s journey, helping them navigate its complexities with wisdom and strength.

Each of us relates to the tradition in our own way and each of us is uniquely gifted to share the tradition. As we do so, we are accepting the  Sh’ma’s command:

You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up.

And yet, when I think about the obligation not to drop the ball, I realize that this idea expands beyond my role as a parent. Each of us either carries the ball or drops it in the life choices we make. Choosing to take a Jewish action, whether reciting the Sh’ma or selecting a kosher restaurant for a family meal out, affects more than our own lives – it contributes to the passing on an identity that has kept the Jewish nation alive against all odds for thousands of years.

Sitting with my granddaughter during her winter break from a Jewish school, sharing Parsha stories with my other granddaughters in Jerusalem, and hearing my grandsons tell me about the Talmud they are learning, I am grateful to feel that, so far, I have not dropped the ball.

Will they pass the tradition to their children? Time will tell.

About the Author
Elizabeth Brenner Danziger is the author of four books, including Winning by Letting Go (Harcourt Brace: 1985) and Get to the Point! (Random House: 2001). Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is the president of Worktalk Communications Consulting. She has four grown children and many grandchildren. She has been living an observant Jewish life for 40 years.
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