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Wednesday, 4 February 2009

In the Beginning...

Wednesday Feb 4th 2009

If you are reading this you must have the capacity for curiosity. This capacity is a gift, though you may not experience it like that. Curiosity as in ‘I wonder what that is...? Let me have a look...’ It starts in childhood: ‘what’s that? - why? – where are we going? – why? – when can I? – why?’ You know the sort of thing. Endless questions, as the mysteriousness of the world is explored, and also the mysteriousness of parents (who are the world, at the beginning).

Of course our curiosity can become blunted, deflected, dulled over time. Parents can do this to us – remember “Curiosity killed the cat” ? The mantra of any parent who grows weary (or scared) by a child’s innate curiosity. ‘Don’t ask questions – just do what I say...’

So – Mazeltov on having some curiosity left to click onto this rabbinic blog. ‘What is a rabbinic blog?’ you might wonder. Join the club. It’s new for me too. I see it as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on – serious and trivial – in a way that is lively. And maybe informative. I’d thought I’d focus on themes of Jewish interest - or themes of interest to Jews. Is that the same thing? But here I am talking about curiosity, so maybe a blog – unlike a sermon, or a newspaper editorial, or a journalistic essay – can be discursive and free-floating. A bit like how our minds work.

In the weeks and months to come I want to say some things about events that are unfolding in the world around us. I’m probably going to talk about Gaza and Israel; about the BBC; about Darwin and creationism; about the group called Independent Jewish Voices. (I’ve made a list, that grows daily). I will try to respond to stuff in the news that stirs our imaginations, or outrage. I’ll try to cast a rabbinic eye (whatever that means) on themes in the public domain, and offer a personal view (for what it’s worth). If you are curious, click on. You are welcome. If not, that’s fine. There’s plenty of other stuff to be getting on with that can be much more enlivening than one rabbi-psychotherapist-writer’s musings and thoughts.

And although I’m a complete amateur in the ‘blogosphere’ (but learning the language) I understand that it offers you the opportunity to participate in a conversation, through your responses. I’m a great believer in conversation, informed conversation, attentive conversation. At its best it deepens our sense of ourselves and our sense of connectedness to others. And that can’t be bad.

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Thursday 5th February

Talking of childhood, I wonder how many of you caught a major news story this week - the ‘Good Childhood’ report? (You might be forgiven for missing it, sandwiched as it was between the media’s obsessional live reporting on Monday of the snow and the even more significant event of the day, the closing of the football transfer window).

The report was commissioned by the charity the Children’s Society, and produced by the independent Good Childhood Inquiry, which has spent the last few years on the UK’s biggest-ever investigation into childhood. (Full disclosure, as they say in reputable journalism: my son Rafi works for the Children’s Society, but that has no bearing, honestly, on the report being mentioned here). It is actually an extremely important piece of research, with some hard-hitting conclusions (the BBC, as Monday wore on, took to calling it ‘controversial’) about a subject that touches us all. A subject that is perhaps of special significance for us Jews, with our long tradition of placing children at the heart of our cultural and religious endeavour: “Repeat these words to your children...” the Shema tells us, the central prayer of our tradition reminding us that our cultural and religious survival depends upon the transmission of that culture to the next generation. We are a people who look to the future (while keeping our eye on the past, and where we have come from).

Anyway, co-authored by professors Richard Layard and Judith Dunn – Layard has the ear of government and wants ‘happiness’ to be taught in schools as a way of promoting the wellbeing of young people, an interesting idea I will save for another day – this report drew on contributions from 35,000 people in the UK and forces us to recognise that the experience of being a child or teenager in this country is an experience fraught with anxiety and pressure. Adults too are under pressure of course - and now more so than ever before with our huge slide into financial chaos - but it is part of a parent’s job to protect children from too much anxiety and pressure too early on in their lives.

And here the report suggests that many parents have taken their eye off the ball. What the authors call, in a snappy headline-catching phrase, “excessive individualism” in parents is seen as a root cause of many children’s problems. This is a parental attitude, they say, “which holds that our main duty is to make the most of ourselves. Too often this means being as successful as possible in what becomes a struggle of each against all”. I have little doubt that few people reading those couple of sentences recognise themselves in this description – and little doubt that the description is nevertheless accurate and apt. Self-awareness of our real failures is not that common a human quality. Self-justification often comes more readily. As Lionel Blue puts it at the end of our Yom Kippur liturgy, we think we have confessed our sins but we have probably merely rehearsed our minor failings.

The tabloid press (plus the Telegraph) predictably highlighted the way in which the reality of working mothers can affect the quality of life of young children in particular – in some ways the report could be read as dovetailing with a very conservative agenda on family values. But more significantly – and shockingly – for me was the divergence of views between parents and children over the central issue of the effect of parental disharmony on the well-being of their children. Only 30% of parents agreed with the statement that “parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children” – but nearly 70% of children agreed with that. This shows a staggering lack of insight in parents about how sensitive their kids are to the dynamics of their parents’ relationship with one another. (Another important area of research was on the significance of fathering, whether in a 2 parent family or family led by a woman on her own).

In regard to 2 parent families, the authors conclude that “If parents gave more priority to maintaining their feelings towards each other, this would do more for their children than much of the rest of what they do for their children.” Buying more stuff, expensive holidays, materialism in general , doesn’t seem to be the answer to childhood and teenage anxiety and depression. The hard graft of self-awareness in relationships seems to be a key to children’s well-being.

There is much in this report that is of relevance to us as a Jewish community. Do we provide the space in synagogues to talk about these things? Should we provide the space? Our children’s Jewish education is such a concern, but is learning about the festivals and reading some Hebrew and even promoting social action and tzedakah enough? I think individual communities can be a major resource in giving our youngsters a sense of the values that really matter in life: sensitivity to others, compassion, honestly, a sense of justice, personal creativity – these are Jewish values that it is easy to write about but hard to nurture in depth in ourselves and our children. They take a lifetime and are never fully achieved. We need to learn too how to accommodate in ourselves disappointments and frustrations. This is Jewish spiritual work and we need each other to do this work. That’s what community is also about.

'A Good Childhood:Searching for Values in A Competitive Age' by Richard Layard and Judith Dunn is published by Penguin today.

NEXT WEEK - the 'rising tide of anti-Semitism': what's the reality?

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