Can the Torah Teach Us How to Parent?

Fiddler, songwriter, poet, filmmaker, teacher of Torah, Alicia Jo Rabins has run the gamut of artistic and spiritual exploration throughout her career. Now, she’s adding another element to the bucket of creative achievements as author of the new collection of essays, Even God Had Bad Parenting Days: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents, aimed for the new (or experienced) parent who is looking for meaning in the often endless days of chaos. (Look for an excerpt in the forthcoming issue of Lilith!)

Rabins’ essays are about everything from “acknowledging the gross” to finding role models in the likes of Moses and God. Reading them feels like talking to a friend. Parenthood is, after all, absurd, moving, downright tear-your-hair-out exasperating. This book makes space for all the complex and confusing experiences that make early parenthood the life-changing experience that it is. It takes the joyful and challenging and holds them together with ancient traditions and texts to create new meaning. Here are a few things Rabins had to say about creating this multidimensional work of meditation and love. 

Have you always felt that Jewish texts inform your daily life? 

I actually grew up in a secular Jewish family in a very non-Jewish suburb of Baltimore. No one had been observant in my family in three generations, since my great-grandparents came from the old country. Judaism was always very mysterious to me; I had a lot of unanswered spiritual questions. I had a bat mitzvah, but it was way across town, not integrated with my daily life. What I did grow up doing was art. I was very serious about music and writing from a young age.  They filled my spiritual hunger. I think I used art as a way to navigate the energy I felt inside. It was only when I went to college in New York, to study poetry, that I met observant Jews for the first time. 

I wandered into a chevruta study program at college because I was starting to get curious about my Judaism. The person I was paired with was observant and our study sessions were both her first time in the secular world and my first time encountering anyone observant. We ended up with a really beautiful friendship, teaching each other about our worlds. Our studies started with Pirkei Avot—Ethics of the Fathers. It was really moving to find wisdom about how to live a good life. It felt like this was the stuff I’d been trying to figure out on my own, and I was so grateful that I didn’t have to make it up—there was this tradition that I could get advice from. Finally, I was starting to connect with my own heritage, which I’d always been hungry to do, but never knew how. That led me to go study in Yerushalayim, where I fell madly in love with Jewish texts and ended up staying for two years. But I always continued to be a musician and a writer.

Your artistic practice includes music, writing poetry and essays, and studying Torah. How do these different media connect with and inform one another?

Essentially, my music and writing practices are accompanied by a third practice as a teacher of Jewish texts. Since my early 20s, I’ve woven these different threads together. My work manifests in a lot of different ways, but it really feels like one practice to me. Whether I’m tutoring B’nai Mitzvah students for their ceremony, officiating a sacred ceremony, writing a poem, performing onstage, or working on a film, I see it all as part of the same practice.

I’m investigating what it means and feels like to be human and how to make meaning of it, and how to navigate the essential paradox that we live in the now but are connected to a personal past, an ancestral past, and the potential of the future. That investigation happens in many ways. 

For me, it’s a relief to be making things. I’ve definitely struggled to balance that with being present with my kids, which is a core value. If I let myself do as many projects as I have ideas for, my relationship with my kids would suffer or my partner would have to bear too much burden. But it’s really important to my mental health to make art and teach Torah. It grounds me, connects me to the tradition and to everything that’s beyond me. I’m very grateful to have all these practices; balancing them is an ongoing improvisation.

Tell us about the process of dreaming up and writing Even God Had Bad Parenting Days.

This book grew out of a series I wrote for Kveller during early motherhood which looked at the weekly parsha through the eyes of a new parent. During that time, a dear friend of mine, who’s not Jewish, kept telling me that my weekly essays were really helping her in her own parenting, that I should make them into a book. So, when Behrman House Publishing approached me about writing a book, that popped into my mind immediately. 

At that point, the parsha structure felt too restrictive. I wanted the book to be accessible to all kinds of people at different moments in their parenting journeys, so I dramatically rewrote some of the existing essays and then wrote many brand new essays as well. I changed the focus so that every single one was about a point of Jewish spirituality and of parenting, but liberated from the strict grid of the weekly Torah portion. When you’re parenting young children, time has a different texture and flow. Things are very urgent, and then suddenly irrelevant. Everything is about teething, and then suddenly, it doesn’t matter at all, because it’s done. I wanted the book to have a disco ball quality, so the reader can turn it this way and that, dip in anywhere and still find a gateway to a way of thinking about the experience of parenthood.

Even God Had Bad Parenting Days feels intentionally accessible to many different kinds of families. 

That was a very intentional choice, and I’m so grateful to my friends who read the manuscript to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I personally am bisexual and identify as queer, although that becomes invisible when you’re partnered with a man. Still, that’s part of my worldview and experience. I also just have friends in all sorts of different family configurations and that accessibility feels really important. 

As a Jewish person who didn’t grow up in a Jewish community, I know how it feels when you’re on the outside—even if someone’s not intentionally disregarding you. Too often people just decide to go with whatever the majority is and assume that anyone different can translate for themselves. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t think that’s the most ethical way to live. It’s destabilizing enough to become a parent, and I wanted the voice of this book to be accessible to all parents. Not even just Jewish parents—all parents with an interest in spirituality. My intention is simply to bring together traditions and ideas that I found really helpful in the hopes that they can be helpful and meaningful to some other people, too.

What is one idea you hope readers take with them? 

I believe that we read the Torah cyclically because it contains infinite lessons that are beautifully applicable to all moments in our life. Thinking about these concepts or reading the Parsha as a mother of a young child added a layer. Still, there are so many more layers that, God willing, I’ll continue to encounter in these same texts and ideas throughout my life. Writing this was a very strong deepening of some of the texts that I had already encountered, during which they resonated in new and surprising ways.

The longer I live, the more I understand that love really is the answer. Sure, there are a million things I’m going to do as a parent that my kids will deal with in therapy in a few decades, but returning over and over again to that central love that I have for them and making sure they know it and feel it in real time is the bottom line. That balances out the fear and heaviness of thinking about the generations before, the decades to come, and the repercussions that my actions might have on my kids’ lives. Those things are real, but they’re really beyond my control in a lot of ways. Like with meditation, it’s not about stopping thoughts, but about returning over and over to the love I have for them. 

What’s next for you, creatively speaking?

I’m very excited that my film, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, is coming out this fall on all streaming platforms. It’s been in the film festival circuit for a year but hasn’t been publicly available. There’s a little secret cameo of my kids in the film—they got to visit me on set. Besides that, then I’ve been writing a spiritual memoir, all about where I started and where I am now, with a lot of misadventures along the way. It’s kind of lyrical, and very personal. That’s something that I’ll be sending out to publishers next winter, with the hopes to have it available in the coming years. 

Alicia Jo Rabins’ new book of essays is Even God Had Bad Parenting Days: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents, available wherever books are sold.