Weathering The Hormonal Hurricane Of A Teenage Chassid

Guest post by David Karpel

When my fifteen year old son approaches me as maariv is ending Pesach 2014 for good, I know something is up.

“I know what you’ve said about not listening to music during sefira, but a lot of people draw the line at live music,” he says. “So I’m thinking that’s what I’m going to do. I mean if the halacha is unclear – ”

“In our house, it’s very clear.”

Eye roll.

Lately, we’ve been having teenage attitude issues, which Webster’s defines as a tightrope walk between teetering skyscrapers with no net in a hail storm while wearing ice skates.

“In our house, we don’t listen to music during this time. You know this. It’s been this way since you were six years old. This is the way it has been, this is the way it is. I have no doubt it will be difficult. I know. I have more than 25 years of hardcore music listening over your – what? year? As long as you live in our house – “

And it hits me: Oh my G-d! I have become one of those evil parents I have always despised.

 

My son’s size 10 shoes creep me out. That’s where all of this really starts – his big floppy feet.

I fear him.

For him, too, of course, but I know I fear him more. Adore him, love him deeply, often expectant and demanding to a degree from him – I’m his Dad – but I don’t know him.

That’s right: I don’t know him. And so I fear him.

He’s a hormonal hurricane.

Our son is a teenager taking the space of that short gingy just-say-yes kid with the hearty laugh and joy for family, faith, and community, our all-American suburban Yid, his tzitzit fluttering behind him as he rode off in the sunshine on his Huffy.

Now he’s a sprouted yeshiva bochur. When I look at him now, I look at him eye to eye.

His life is brand new to us even though we’re the one’s who brought him into it. We didn’t experience anything like what he’s going through now, what we’re putting him through now.

We started to observe Shabbos when he was three and our daughter was six months old. Since then, we’ve changed our lives completely for ourselves and for our children and, ultimately, for their children, and so on. We have so much more to learn, so much more to do, but we’re all doing this together.

Baalei teshuva raising a yeshiva bochur. Who are we? Who is he?

The answers are constantly changing. But the goals are the same. At least, I think they are.

 

“Dad, you didn’t go to school from 8 a.m. until almost 9 p.m. every night.”

He’s right.

“I’m 15! It’s so uncomfortable. I don’t want a long beard like yours.”

He’s right. And at 15, I wouldn’t have either.

His mother and I, worried about the negative attitude, sit him down and talk. And talk.

“Music is my therapy!”

Of course it is. In this one area, secular music, we chose not to be hypocrites. But we have kept to a strict abstinence during this time period for nine years, long before music meant anything to him. Now it’s his therapy? Oy. Not that there’s anything wrong with therapy.

It’s dependency we worried about.

“What am I supposed to do? I mean, how do you survive? After a day at school – my gosh!”

We explain how not listening to music during this time period allows us to better focus on what comes at the end of the seven weeks. Who are we, where are we holding in order to receive the Torah?

“Really? What am I supposed to do, meditate?”

My leg is running a marathon. I want him to have the best boyhood in the history of time. Yet none of this, our reasoning, my wish, is realistic.

I want him to flourish in yiddishkeit and chassidishkeit, the kind I never knew, the kind I’m still growing into.

The only kind he’s ever known.

Sitting there hearing his complaints – legitimate complaints! – I realize my frustration with his negativity is my own envy.

Part of me still believes that I’m giving to my son a boyhood I never knew, the kind of boyhood as an adult I wish I had.

And then I lose my temper. I admonish him. Inexcusably, I call him spoiled and list the reasons why. Open your mind to different perspectives, I say without an ounce of irony or self-awareness. What’s wrong with learning to like quiet? What’s wrong with spending time actually thinking without noise, away from the iPod and PS3?

I give him a taste of my boyhood.

And then I walk out of the house and go for a walk. I’m such an asshole.

 

The next morning I knock on his door.

His big floppy feet stick out of the blanket.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey, Papo.”

“Dad – “

“Hold on. Listen. I couldn’t sleep last night. I’ve only ever wanted the best for you. Just a couple of years ago you were delirious about being bar mitzvah, about putting on teffilin and getting an aliyah in the Rebbe’s room. But I know this is a tough time for you, lately. That the adjustment to mesivta and this period of your life has been hard. Here’s the thing: We don’t listen to music during sefirah. I want you to keep that, but I can’t be with you every minute. What you do in your private time is up to you.”

“Dad, I couldn’t sleep either. No wait. Don’t interrupt, please. I was so wrong. I was chutzpadik, and I’m sorry. I gave it a lot of thought. You guys are so right. I’m not going to listen to music. I deleted a couple of apps to help with being tempted. I’m just going to learn to spend more time reading and practicing guitar.”

And then he throws those big feet on the ground, comes into my arms, and gives me a great big bear hug and kisses me on the neck.

“I love you, Dad. Thank you.”

To fear him has been folly. Because I know this, this love, this is how it always ends with us.

 

David Karpel is from Miami Beach and now lives in a South Florida suburb. He is married to the funniest woman in the world and they have two freakishly well-behaved children. When he’s not teaching Krav Maga, practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu, or eating leather in muay Thai classes, he’s a high school English and Social Studies teacher, aspiring poet and amateur essayist, neglectful blogger at Jew Jitsu: Life in Search of the Soul Roll, and the founder of Frum Fit to Fight, a self-defense academy dedicated to serving the Orthodox Jewish community of Coral Springs and Boca Raton, Florida. David is now also on the editorial staff of The Good Men Project.

  • Hymie

    Balance… great story.

  • Greg Lauren

    we need to figure out how to manage minhagim within the context of halacha.

    this no music thing is a minhag. some hold all music. some hold no live music. some hold till lag b’omer. some hold all 49 days.

    “in this house” is not a good explanation for a kid. yes…you will end up sounding like an “mean parent”.

    if you yourself learned the deeper kabbalistic reasons as to why you personally do what you do, then sit him down give him a shiur on it. and then if he holds by it himself, then great.

    if not, then not. he is 15…not 2. he should hold by what he wants. be happy he is in yeshiva and keeps shabbos and kosher, at this point.

    shoving something that comes from minhagim down a 15 year old kid of BTs throat is not good.

    you are not FFBs from Boro Park. there is no “in this house”.

    “in this house” you were going to Metallica concerts 20 years ago just like the rest of us (or whatever you were into)…so take a good look in the mirror and never forget where you came from.

    • David Karpel

      Greg, thank you for your comment.

      Believe me, we have not forgotten. Well, not everything anyway. That’s part of the difficulty I’m trying to get at here.

      Your points about the rigidity of my first answer to him is well taken, and perhaps it wasn’t clear that I acknowledge that.

      The strongest part of our relationship as a family is communication. But even though we’re pretty good at it, we still mess up often.

      This essay isn’t about me telling the reader how to go about doing things. It’s about me messing up.

      We spend a lot of time talking. We never want to give answers like “because you’re a yeshiva bochur” and leave it at that. Explaining for deeper understanding is the goal.

      But even then, there are chukim. Understanding chukim has to start with practice in the home. Otherwise, how else?

      So when we sat him down, we did explain to him the whys and hows, hoping he’d take our answers and go with it. His response was pretty typical: “What am I supposed to do–meditate?”

      Looking back, it’s a great answer for a 15 year old in response to a bunch of spiritual mumbo gumbo, even if it is broken down for his understanding.

      The rest of the essay speaks for itself, I hope. He’s an amazing boy. Sometimes, to quote my wife, I’d like to be just like him when I grow up.

      • Greg Lauren

        shkoyach. i totally hear you.

        quick question. what is in fact the “problem” with listening to recorded music. (sorry i’ve been a BT for 3 years and as a former DJ, i’m still at the level of listening to recorded but not live…maybe i’ll stop listening altogether one of these years)

        i feel like it’s the live aspect that brings the ultimate simcha. recorded is recorded. there’s a vast difference, for example, in hearing certain bands or DJs live (especially if you’re in a specific energy/atmosphere) than if you’re listening to their album or even a set of theirs at home, which is basically only you and some sound waves.

        there’s a gotta be a difference, metaphysically speaking. i don’t mean to pry into your choice of minhag…i’m just asking out of curiosity…because i’ve yet to hear a proper/definitive shiur on the difference between live and recorded in terms of what that does to us.

        all i hear is “this rav holds like this” and “this rav holds like this”

    • Not a fan of this comment at all… surprised it got so many upvotes. Telling a parent what a bad job he did, even when he admitted he didn’t do it perfectly (which, in fact, is the entire point of the piece), claiming to know how every frum person should deal with minhagim vs halacha, etc, especially in regards to children, and on and on.

      • Greg Lauren

        he didn’t do a bad job. maybe i just didn’t see from the article or maybe he didn’t make it clear (which he clarified for me later) that he sat him down and explained to him why they hold by no recorded music.

        “We explain how not listening to music during this time period allows us to better focus on what comes at the end of the seven weeks. Who are we, where are we holding in order to receive the Torah?”

        yes, i’m sorry. if i was 15…this wouldn’t mean a thing to me. when i was 15, i thought i could focus just fine on receiving Torah as I listen to music lol. moreover, especially since it says “and they saw the sound” in Chumash. but that’s a topic for another discussion as to what that pasuk means.

        and it doesn’t matter what we think is right. it matters how the kid perceives it. we have to look at it from his angle, not ours.

        if on the other hand, if you sat me down and explained to me the metaphysical machinations of what happens to my soul during sephira if i listen to ANY music, i would be like…wow that’s really interesting. makes to total sense now.

        i’m not saying he’s a bad parent. he sounds like an amazing parent.

        but it seems like in our society, we are underestimating kids intelligence at times.

        example: my secular father, when we were all secular/traditional, when i was 15 years old, would tell me stuff like:

        “Greg, we live in virtual world. all this is stuff is like a hologram. there’s no such thing as ‘random’. it’s only millions of possibilities but everything is preordained”

        i basically got Chassidus and Rav Dessler concepts when i was 15 from my secular computer programmer dad (at the time). we are both shomer shabbos now, baruch hashem.

        and this is what made me not have an aversion to Judaism or yiddishkeit. INTELLECTUAL explanations. this is where we have to go with our children.

        the generations coming up are very very intelligent, sharp and they will not back down. the sages were right. they will be a chutzpahdik generation mainly because of this intelligence.

        and so we have to be prepared. shkoyach to the author. he didn’t do anything wrong. he just did what his father would do, but that strategy doesn’t work for kids today.

        • David Karpel

          Oh, boy. Okay, this is a great discussion, but I have to come in again and say this:

          When we’re dealing with our kids, we’re not always going to be the greatest communicators in that moment. Self-awareness should tell us to table it until we can be. But we’re no always so perfectly self-aware.

          Plus, each person is different. Speaking to my son about metaphysical stuff will only go so far (even though Chassidus is his favorite subject) because of his strong desires. He knows where those desires come from, too, but he’s also honest with himself most of the time. We had to mix it up a bit to try to get through to him. Apparently, in the end, we did.

          And, Greg, I am not speaking to my son the way my father OR my mother spoke to me. Honestly, for the most part, I learned what not to do from what they did. That’s a different topic.

          The “strategy that works for kids today” is too much of a blanket statement–and it always has been. We have to speak to our children from the heart to the heart on an individual basis, according to that child’s needs.

          • Greg Lauren

            David, i completely agree with you.

            just so we’re clear, in no way am I trying to attack your personally or question your competency as a parent.

            i was speaking more in general at this point.

  • Berry Schwartz

    Amazing

    • David Karpel

      Thank you!

  • Surely this is his life not yours, our children come through us not to us, surely we can trust them to make mistakes to choose between halacha and minhag, between being frum and not? Surely you should stop listening to goyish music full stop, not just in sefira? Surely our job isn’t to send our kids to the mentalist yeshiva system aged 14! Surely just as you CHOSE to be frum so will they, if you love and really enjoy it yourself?

    • David Karpel

      Max, I’ll try to address each of your surelys:

      Trusting them to choose: Obviously, kids need guidance and instruction. The questions is how much in and, well, how. Trust them to make mistakes? Of course, we all make mistakes. Parents are there to often try to help minimize the damage of bad choices made or wherever negative mistakes might take them. Choosing between halacha and minhag is a different story. We raise our children by what we know–and my wife and I are babes in the woods when it comes to yiddishkeit. And we’ll probably be that way forever because we did not go to seminary or yeshiva and even if we did we’d be the kind of people to acknowledge that as much as we learn, there’s always more to learn, as much as we do, there’s always more to do. We hope we’re giving our children an education that will exceed our own and allow for that kind of decision making when they feel they have enough of a basis upon which to choose. I guess the same is with frum/not frum. Of course we hope our children will remain frum. When they are adults, they will make there own choices and we will not love them, care for them, worry for them, etc, any less.

      Goyshe music: Haven’t made that choice for ourselves. Is that detrimental to us and our children? Quite possibly. We are weak. We have more to learn, more to do.

      Yeshiva: We made a choice. There are things we like, things we don’t. In some ways he struggles, in some ways he thrives. I’ve been a teacher for 12 years. It’s the same in public school and in non-Yeshiva systems.

      We hope our children will choose to be frum, of course, because we love it. But being frum and not raising your kids that way seems hypocritical, if not impossible. I’ve heard that argument from anti-circumcision activists. “Let them choose when they’re 18!” Um. No. Raising them that way pretty much already determines a choice: “This isn’t important enough to me to try and pass this on to you. I’ll just leave up to you to choose whenever you want.” No matter how I was raising my kids, that doesn’t seem to be feasible for a healthy understanding of what’s important and what’s not. Or something. I hope this is clear.

      • Just as you’ve started to admit in yourself, you wouldn’t want to be in your sons big shoes, so why do this to him? Lubavitch yeshiva is intense, it’s really not a good or healthy place for kids, I was in them from age 17- 24. They are hard, relentless, unforgiving, as well as being, alcoholic breading grounds, not to mention the homosexuality, fear, guilt and mental health problems such an intense myopic lifestyle can have on a young impressionable person. I’ve seen the kids, aged 14, abandoned by their parents, scattered to the ends of the earth, lost, lonely, bewildered by the sense of hopelessness, in the knas based nonstop oneupmanship competition to be a superbochur, or risk wearing a modern shirt. If sefira teaches you anything, it’s about balance and moderation, a little bit of everything is included in everything else. That people and love are more important than ideas and being right or frum.

  • Rebecca K.

    My eldest kid is just shy of teenage. I’m totally empathizing with so much of what you say.

  • Malka Hellinger Forshner

    And where is the funniest woman in the world/Mommy in this story? A very wise, female mashpia once said to me, when boys are this age, cook them lots of food and do their laundry…(perhaps the unsaid part was to let the boys’ father and rabbis work everything else out)
    Yes, the scenario of BT parents with FFB kids is hysterical—yeah, in retrospect, not in the middle of each “issue”– but it sure sounds like there’s some very wholesome communication patterns going on in your house. May Hashem continue to bless you with nachas, in a sweet and revealed way!

    • David Karpel

      Ha! The funniest woman in the world — my best friend, my wife, my life — came up with the title to this piece and she’s my first reader. I could have included her, her wisdom, and kept going. She told him that life with your parents is the ever repeating bicycle experience. You first learn with training wheels with your parents cheering you on. Then, when it’s time to take them off, Dad or Mom runs along side you, holding on, then letting go, each time letting go a bit earlier, until you can do it yourself. Then you’ll get bumps and scratches from falls until you get better at it and we’ll be there to help you heal.

      You can see where the rest of that goes.

      Thank you so much for your comment. It’s true that I need to start getting more of my wife into my writing. And my daughter has also requested a staring role. Ha.

  • Shoshannah

    I like this blog. Thank you very much for sharing it Elad and thank you for writing it David. I work in a highly combative field. I won’t mention the organization b/c that doesn’t matter but suffice it to say I spend many daylight hours defending Judaism as the only path for Jews. I get a lot of “Why?” questions from Jews and Gentiles alike. The point is, I deal with adult kids all the time, and though I have not become the best that I can be when warding off impatience and feeling indignant, I learn so much from these people I do not agree with. I learn how they were taught or not taught; how they want so badly to believe in something that matters; most of them genuinely want to do the right thing but they don’t know what that right thing is. They do not understand that we may need the mitzvot but Hashem needs them even more. So instead of why does He need them I answer what happens when we love G-d first as opposed to loving our egos first. Everyone is different for a reason. There was a psych conference in Toronto where all the psychologists agreed that the therapy that works for other people doesn’t work so well with Jews. We need a different kind of therapy for a different kind of problem. They did not publish their findings b/c they thought it would appear racist. G-d loves uniqueness and so do I. We are not Jews because it’s a fun experience all the time. We’ve suffered more than any other nation. But different personalities work well with some and not so well with others. That’s the glory of not being a robot. David, I wish you, your wife and your children the very best with your parental experience and the memories you are all building for a lifetime. I think you’re juggling what we all juggle every day: obstacles for growth. Kol tuv!

    • David Karpel

      Thank you!