My Elementary-Aged Kids are Smarter than Me!

The BT journey is a humbling one. On the one hand, you become convinced that Hashem did write the Torah, and he chose YOU and your family to carry out its mission. You come to feel that G-d does care what goes into your mouth, what is spoken by your tongue, and even, whether or not you fast on Yom Kippur. But just in case you start feeling too arrogant, there’s nothing like the embarrassment of not being able to help your kindergartner with homework to bring you right down to size.

Along the journey of the past ten years there have been thousands of moments when I have felt just plain stupid. When I didn’t know the words to pray, or that I should be standing up when I prayed them. When I sewed up all the slits on my long skirts in an inspired, momentary, desire to dress frum enough for my black-hat, wigged, shul, only to realize after the fact that those slits are put into these skirts for a reason! When I’ve asked a question of my Rav, only to reveal how little I really knew about the subject at hand, as he asked probing questions. Oh, the list goes on and on. But no list of embarrassing moments reads as long as the itemization of each and every time that my ineptitude in Hebrew made it impossible for me to assist my children in school, or the way I want to slink down into my seat when I attend “meet the teacher night” and I can’t really understand what the Hebrew teacher is giving over.

As we now school the children in Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway, NJ, half the student body is frum from birth with parents the same, and the other half are like my kids – their parents may be BT’s, but these kids are already fluent in Rashi and able to converse in Hebrew at the Shabbos table. We parents all look the part, as if we’ve been observant for generations, but some of us are trying to learn a few choice Hebrew words we can slide into the conversation so that our lack of learning isn’t plastered all over our foreheads like a billboard. A few Yiddish words, interspersed with a few of the more common Hebrew expressions bantered about, and hopefully, we’ll “pass.”

Until one of my children, maybe aged 11-years old, comes crying to me and says, “Mom, I don’t understand my homework!”. Or I go to shul on a Shabbos that has something different about it, and I’m lost in the service, flipping the pages of my siddur back and forth and trying to figure out where I am, and where the rest of the community is. And then, despite all of my learning, and commitment, and ongoing efforts to make up for my lack of yeshiva education, I am red-faced again, experiencing what I now call one of those “BT moments!”

I’ll share with you how deep this insecurity can run sometimes. I was a professional speaker for a Gateways seminar, and was both delighted and nervous to be receiving this honor. I had recently published my book, “What do you mean, you can’t eat in my home?” and I was there to help other BT’s deal with family issues that have arisen because of increased observance. It was candle lighting time, and perhaps fifty women were standing in front of a large table of tea lights, ready to light. I couldn’t get my tea light to light. No matter how hard I tried, the flame would not ignite the wick. Meanwhile, ladies were waiting behind me for their opportunity. In a flash, I experienced one of those “BT moments”. It went something like this in my head: “Here I am, such a stupid BT, I don’t even know how to light one of these stupid candles. I bet this never happens to FFB’s!”

Now of course, this kind of self-talk is crazy. My problem was with my candle, not my technique, or my lack of learning. It was just a bad habit, for me to sink into momentary despair at my stupidity.

I’d like to tell you that these moments don’t happen for me anymore. But that would be a lie. They still happen frequently, but when they do, I try to snap myself out of them quicker. If I sink into despair, I refocus my attention either, away completely from the topic, or, I make myself think of something I have accomplished, rather than what I have not, or, never will, accomplish.

I will never learn enough Hebrew to keep up with my kids. Thank G-d. We have sacrificed so much, my husband and I, so that our kids will far surpass us in their Jewish learning. My husband takes great pride in the fact that our 9-year old son is starting to give him a run for his money. My kids know that Mom can’t help them with their Hebrew homework, but they also know that she puts out a beautiful Shabbos table, that people in the community think of her as a woman who does chesed, and that she really lives by her firm commitment not to speak loshon hora. I know they are embarrassed by me sometimes. But really, what kid isn’t embarrassed by a parent from time to time? I should be rejoicing that their embarrassment is because of my lack of Hebrew background, rather than raising a household of kids who could care less.

When I cry, and I do, in those moments when I feel just too stupid to pull off this journey and do it well, this is what I believe I must think. How wonderful that I am in a place in my life where those tears arise, when I can cry about what I do not know, rather than being in a place where I have not a clue what it is that I am missing. There was a time I never shed a tear about what I’ve missed out in my Hebrew learning. That’s far sadder than all the times I now cry because for me, it really is too late to catch up. Yes, I know, Rabbi Akiva didn’t start till age 40. Yes, I know, theoretically, it’s never too late. But it is, for me, too late for some things. I’m too old to have another baby. I’m too fat to fit into sized-eight clothes. My bunions hurt too much now for me to walk ten miles. I’m not going to learn Rashi, and my kids have learned to ask their friends and teachers for help with homework. I can’t do it all, and some of it, I can’t do very well.

And so be it. Because I’m on the journey, and so are my kids, and maybe I’m bumbling along this road some times, but bottom line, I’m
ON THE ROAD. And really, I hope, that’s what matters.

Cry with me sometimes, and laugh with me. At least we are on this
journey together.

10 comments on “My Elementary-Aged Kids are Smarter than Me!

  1. Mrs. Jaffe…your posting was one of the best I’ve ever read on BT. I loved it because my wife and I are living it. Our two chidren (a 14 year old son and an 11 year old daughter) are both miles and miles ahead of us in their learning abilities. We started down the BT path in our mid thirties, so it’s even harder for us in that, like many BT’s, we didn’t get going as 18 yr old college students…Hebrew, limud haTorah, etc., all seem to come so much more naturally to them. We’ve come to the realization that this is the way it’s supposed to be. While my wife and I continue to grow in our Yiddishkite, it just seems that the kids pick up on things with such ease. Good for them! :)
    So while they may struggle dealing with the fact that we parents can’t help very much with homework, they still are experiencing fewer speed bumps than we did and do. Chazak!!

  2. I want to give a little prophylactic push to all the BT women who don’t have children yet: DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO SPEND A YEAR OR TWO LEARNING TORAH. I don’t fool myself that my time in midrasha will always be sufficient background to help my FFB daughters with their homework.

    But it will help. As will any classes you (anyone) can manage to take in modern Hebrew – the grammar concepts are similar enough that the skills are valuable if not the exact vocabulary.

    Two semesters of college Hebrew (intro level) served me well in midrasha, and the year in midrasha has served me well in helping with at least some of the homework so far (3rd & 5th graders).

  3. I want to give a little prophylactic push to all the BT women who don’t have children yet: DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO SPEND A YEAR OR TWO LEARNING TORAH. I don’t fool myself that my time in midrasha will always be sufficient background to help my FFB daughters with their homework. I’m sure they will outpace me before long (They are 3.5 months old now, so at least not for a bit. They can’t speak a word of Hebrew. Even their English is extremely poor). But I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn seriously before they were born.

  4. It’s always fun, when filling out HS applications (as we now are), to decide what to put in the “mother’s Jewish ed” column. Fortunately, the HS my son is most likely to go to already knows our family, and therefore are less likely to be put off by my somewhat silly answers.

    And when the kids really get on my case about my terrible Hebrew (which goes along with my terrible HS French – I’m just one of those people with zero language apptitude), I like to tell them that it’s the “way I learned it in the Bais Yaakov I didn’t go to”. That generally puts things back into perspective.

  5. Very good post. Everyone is embarrassed at one point or another. I remember at one of my first NCSY conventions I went around after havdalah saying “Good luck” to everyone – because that is what I thought I heard someone else say. I didn’t know that the proper greeting was “Gut vuch” (“a good week”)and that it was Yiddish!

    Here in Israel I can’t help my kids with their limudei kodesh – but I can sure be a great help with English!

  6. My kids still ask me for help with their homework, so I must be doing something right! Sometimes I defer to their FFB father, and sometimes I grab a Hebrew-English Dictionary (and then teach them how to use it too!). And I’ll ask my oldest (10) for Grammar help, since his Hebrew grammar is much better than mine. Wish I had time to audit their classes! Surprisingly, some of the time, I actually know the answers. And having one after the other taking the same class with the same teacher and having pretty much the same homework means I’m better at answering the next year (or two years later).

  7. It just kills me to hear you say that you feel stupid sometimes. It is obvious from reading your article that you and your husband are very intelligent people who understand Judaism so much better than many frum-from-birth people who just go through the motions without comprehending the meaning behind the mitzvahs. What you have done takes enormous character and wisdom. My mother raised five “yeshiva kids” despite an almost total lack of religious education, time, or money, and we are very grateful to her. No way should your kids be embarrassed by you!

  8. Thank G-d I was able to help my FFB kids with all their homework, as I was sent to yeshivah my whole life but we were not frum at home. My real jolt as a BT came about when we were applying for my daughter to get into high school. I felt like “you mean I gave up my family to be frum and you can’t accept my daughter into high school, after all I went through?” Nothing ever prepared me for the feelings of rejection, that I just wasn’t good enough. The FFB parents seemed to cope and know the drill (beg, plead, call a zillion people to pound down the door for you, grovel, daven, etc.) whereas I felt so rejected. Now I know that of course it was all from shamayim, but I thought it was because I was a BT. If anyone reading this has a hard time getting their kids into high school, just don’t take it personally. I learned the very hard way. I could write a whole post about this but I am new over here and I am waiting for someone else to write about it.

  9. Ahh yes, I have always said that at least once in a while each child/teen wants the world to think he/she hatched out of an abandoned egg!! We BTs just know what area is going to make our kids feel this.

    In truth, I found it better to tell the teachers that I cannot help X with her homework and why. I also said that if there were problems, I did not want to find out on the report card, they should call me as soon as anything came up. We told them we would hire a tutor as soon as they felt she needed one. We also continually asked “How are you doing? What grade did you get? When the teacher asks questions/calls on you can you answer? What did you learn?” BH. we never did need to hire a tutor, some kids just swim in the deep end with no help!

  10. Thanks for the great post. I experienced exactly what you describe over the weekend. I’m taking a Hebrew class now, and I’m trying to learn the numbers. Each time I would try to count to 10 (err… es-air), my 4 year old daughter would join in, then lead me and correct me the whole way. While I was proud of her knowledge, I was also a little humbled that she could count just fine, and I was struggling. I’m sure it’s a sign of things to come. I’ll just keep trying to focus on the “proud of her knowledge” part. :-)

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