Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, a performer, a filmmaker, a Torah scholar and a teacher. She’s also a mother. Rabins says that after she had children, she noticed that the way she interacted with the sacred texts of the Torah shifted. She saw the texts with new eyes and uncovered different lessons than she had before she became a parent. Her new book, “Even God had Bad Parenting Days,” connects the ancient stories with contemporary life. In this collection of essays, Rabins reveals some of her own deeply personal struggles and what she’s learned and practiced to get her through difficult times and embrace joy as often as possible. We talk with her about these stories and their intersections with the ancient wisdom in texts written thousands of years ago.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Alicia Jo Rabins joins us now. She is a poet and essayist, a composer and performer, a filmmaker and Torah teacher. She is the author of the poetry collection “Fruit Geode” and one of the creators of the film, “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff,” which was based on her one-person show. Her new book is a collection of short essays. It’s called “Even God had Bad Parenting Days: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents.” Alicia Jo Rabins, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Alicia Jo Rabins: Thank you so much.
Miller: You say early on in this book that you are not a fan of parenting books. Why not?
Rabins: Yeah, it’s kind of a strange way to start a parenting book, but I think the truth is that this is not really a parenting book. It’s a book of personal essays about my experience as a parent. And I found that as a new parent, I was just so lost, so overwhelmed. I was really excited to become a mother and I was really shocked by how underwater I felt. I came out of teaching and so I thought, “oh, I have some skills.” I had taught elementary school, and of course that’s very different from infants and toddlers. And I found that so many parenting books seemed to tell me how to change my behaviors without necessarily speaking to the experience I was having as a parent.
It’s maybe less a critique of the books themselves. I was looking for something that I wasn’t finding in most books. I didn’t just want to know how to be a better parent, although of course I did, but I wanted to know how to manage the extremely complicated emotions that I was feeling and I kind of wanted to hear whether or not they were normal. And I wanted support in my experience as a parent, as opposed to how I could change myself to be a better parent.
Miller: You first wrote versions of many of the essays that ended up in this book for a Jewish parenting website and these were started as commentaries on Torah portions. Can you explain,
first of all, just what that tradition is?
Rabins: I come out of the Jewish tradition, and one of my passions is studying and teaching about Jewish texts. And in the Jewish tradition, the way that we read the Torah (the five books of Moses) is that we spread it out over a year, in a cycle. And then we start again, usually in September or October, it depends on the Hebrew calendar. But we start all over with the beginning of Genesis. So it’s broken into these weekly portions, kind of like episodes of a tv show that you might watch weekly, over the course of a year.
Miller: Except you just keep watching the same show over and over.
Rabins: Exactly. There’s five seasons spread out over one year and then you go back to season one…
Miller: [Laughing]…and try to see new things.
Rabins: Exactly. I always think of it as a spiral. Every year you’re going through the same stories, but you’re experiencing them very differently if you’re a 13-year-old or a 25-year-old, or a 50, or 70, or 90-year-old. Different life experiences, different perspectives. The idea is that there’s sort of infinite interpretations that can be made. And each year, we approach the weekly Torah portion from the place that we are. So I was really curious when I was pregnant what would happen if I read the Torah portion of the week. I read through the entire Torah over the course of a year. And instead of reading it the way that I had before, I specifically read it through the eyes of a new mom.
Miller: Or a mom to be?
Rabins: Yes. I began writing them when my daughter was one, and then I had another baby, a son, a couple of years later. And so it was sort of like writing through a cycle. Sometimes having a toddler, sometimes being pregnant, both at the same time.
Miller: In some ways, this question is unfair because the answers may be threaded into every page of the book, but in the big picture, what are some of the ways that becoming a parent changed the way you read the Torah?
Rabins: The title is a slightly jokey riff on the fact that I suddenly had a really different insight to the character of God. Part of the Jewish tradition is wrestling with the idea of God and arguing back against God, in a way that’s seen as an act of love and respect. Which is a little bit unique, and not necessarily the way that we think about spirituality in other traditions, but we’re really encouraged to struggle with the divine.
And there’s this metaphor of God as a parent that’s so frequent and I always had identified with the child in that. The humans are the children and God is the parent, right? Traditionally, father, but I’d rather say parent. And there are prayers that are based around this. There’s just so much language and metaphor based around that. And suddenly, as a new mother, I thought, “oh my gosh, I’m the God figure in this relationship.” Like if I’m going to read these stories about God being kind of harsh, then I think about myself losing my temper with my kid instead of myself as the helpless child, and it really opened up a different way of looking at that metaphor for me.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us, because this crystallizes a lot of what you’re talking about, the title chapter of the book, an essay, which is sort of in the middle of the book. And it starts with the reference to the Exodus from Egypt. Maybe we need a short Saturday school or Sunday school reminder of the basics of that story. Then you could read that section.
Rabins: One of the great central liberation myths in the Torah and the Hebrew Bible is in the Book of Exodus. It’s the story that “The Prince of Egypt” retells in cinematic form, that the Israelites were enslaved in the land of Egypt, and [were] miraculously liberated through some semi-violent actions that God pulled off . . .
Miller: . . . a series of plague after plague after plague.
Rabins: Exactly, which seemed to affect all the Egyptians. Presumably there must have been allies among the Egyptians. So there’s so much to push back against and interrogate, but the simplest version of the story is that there was this miraculous liberation, and the Israelites are freed and they cross the Sea of Reeds. The Red Sea parts and they walk through. And there they are, in the wilderness, where they end up basically wandering under God’s care for 40 years.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us this section?
Rabins: “We love to celebrate the story of miraculous liberation of the Exodus; less often do we mention the fact that the recently liberated Israelis are extremely whiny. Sound familiar? They’re tired of wandering in the desert and they sit around complaining about how they miss the delicious meat they used to eat in Egypt. Moses, like a stressed out parent, finally hits a wall. He can’t take any more whining and complains to God that he’d rather die than lead these people. And how does God handle this? By making quail rain down from the sky, then sending a plague to kill the Israelites who choose to eat it. This is not a pretty story. In fact, it’s exactly this kind of thing that makes people think of God as a vengeful ‘guy in the sky’ with a white beard (which by the way, is not how I see it).
But reading this as a mother, I think, ‘Who am I to judge? I get it. I’ve had my crappy parenting days too.’ In the Torah, stories take place on a mythic scale. A bad day means quail raining from the sky and a deadly plague. In real life, we express our parental frustration in hopefully more mundane ways. Still, I have a lot of compassion for the character of God here, getting swept up in a difficult moment and forgetting all about patience and deep breaths. It’s easy to lose it, when it seems like a hard day or a spectacular tantrum or a difficult stage is going to last forever.
My favorite thing about this story though is what happens next. Nothing. The Israelites keep walking. Moses stays on as their leader and God continues to accompany them through the wilderness. In the end, this terrible episode is just a blip in their relationship. Impermanence is, in equal parts, terrible and liberating. The things I love won’t last forever, but the things that drive me nuts, break my heart, or just plain hurt, won’t last forever either. This is true in parenting and in life, as Sarah Naftali writes in her beautiful book, ‘Buddhism for Mothers of Young Children’: ‘Impermanence. The fact that all things change, can be a mother’s best friend.’
Even our worst parenting moments don’t last forever. No matter how rough it gets, we can always apologize. We always get another chance to wake up with our little ones and start over until one day they’re all grown up and gone and we’re the person on the street, smiling that annoying sweet smile, saying to a haggard stranger with a newborn, ‘Enjoy these days. It goes so fast.’”
Miller: Are you already that person now? You’re the mother of a 10 year old and an eight year old . . .
Rabins: [Laughing] Yes, eight and 10 years old.
Miller: Have you caught yourself saying that to the seemingly underwater parents of newborns or toddlers?
Rabins: No, because I’m sure many people are nicer and more flexible than I am and smile back and have no problem. But I had a really hard time. Despite my great joy at being a parent and how much I wanted it and how much I love my kids, I found it profoundly challenging to transition into motherhood and then to be the parent of young children.
So I just felt like something was wrong with me every time someone said, like, ‘oh, enjoy it, it goes so fast,’ and they would give me this sweet smile. So I do the sweet smile, but I don’t say, “it goes so fast.” Because even in retrospect, it’s shocking to me that my kids are as old as they are, but looking back it did not go fast at the time.
Miller: What does it mean? One of the lines that you read in that passage is that you had compassion for God, what does that mean to you? To have compassion?
As you note in the book - and we could spend the entire show wrestling with these notions - but the kind of old fashioned, maybe more ultra-orthodox version, whether it’s in Judaism or other monotheistic religions, is God as this unerring being that is beyond mistakes. Beyond bad parenting and sort of an inhuman version of perfection. What does it mean to have compassion for God?
Rabins: This is where I just want to say out loud, clearly, that I’m not a therapist and I’m certainly not a parenting expert. But what I am is a parent, a very flawed parent. And I am a Jewish educator and a student and teacher and scholar of the Torah. So the way that I see the character of God in the Torah, for me, is distinct from the way that I might experience the “great transcendent spirit of beautiful power that pulses throughout the world,” right?
There’s sort of this truly transcendent, kind of contemporary “in the moment” of every single moment, almost psychedelic, experience of the divine. And then there’s the stories about God that I see quite differently. So I don’t think that the actions of the God character in the Torah are necessarily…first of all, they’re not particularly consistent. So, [in] some stories God is extremely compassionate and in some stories, God is quite destructive.
And there’s a mystical Jewish conception that God actually contains all of these disparate energies. And so do we, because we’re made in the image of God. And there’s actually a physical, visual map that the mystics [use to] represent these interrelated energies. So I think that’s a way of saying God as a true concept is beyond any character in any story. When I’m looking at these stories, that’s when I allow myself to say, “wow, what a flawed creature.” And even though this is a god who has power over humans, in these ancient stories, I’m also a parent who in some ways has power over my children, but is still this also extremely flawed being. And that’s where that compassion came from, and I think also allowed me to have more compassion for myself as a parent.
Miller: The subtitle of your book is “Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents.” Who did you have in mind as your potential audiences as you wrote a pretty wide ranging book that is tied to your specific religious tradition (and I should say, mine as well)? But it doesn’t seem like this is meant to be a book just for Jews.
Rabins: I absolutely wanted to write a book that anyone who has any inkling of interest in spirituality or religion, whether from a from a sort of “woo-woo” perspective or a more analytical perspective, I wanted anyone who who might be interested in those concepts to be able to enjoy this book and I really wrote it with that in mind. So yeah, it’s really for everyone. As you said, it began as a commentary on specific Torah stories, going through the cycle of the year, but that was sort of the first version. And then when I turned it into a book, I decided to take that out and there’s still a lot of stories in it, but also I brought in some of my favorite Jewish concepts that apply to the idea of parenting. Like there’s the idea of “tza’ar gidul banim”, which is the pain of raising children, which the rabbis talk about in the Talmud. And I just think, in such a child positive religion, it’s so beautiful that they also acknowledge the pain that can be part of this intense human experience.
Miller: That’s your very first chapter in this book; it’s called “The Pain of Raising Children”. What were the rabbis talking about?
Rabins: I don’t think any parent knows…[mutual laughter] …what the rabbis were talking about. And that’s what I really wanted to bring to certainly not only Jewish people, but people of any or no faith; this human wisdom and sort of emotional realism of like, “wow, this is an incredibly hard job.” It’s like its own intense journey. It’s a spiritual practice, it’s a kind of philosophical gauntlet. The rabbis in the Jewish tradition have so many beautiful observations about it, that I wanted to bring out and translate.
Miller: What was that particular pain like for you? And you can also tell us about the joy. But how did you experience that pain early on?
Rabins: I want to be really clear: my children are fantastic. It was really about me and my own [pain]. I would say one of the central ways that I experienced pain was the loss of my pre-motherhood life, and I just had not thought about that beforehand. It seems maybe kind of obvious in retrospect, but I was so forward looking, I was so excited to become a mother. I love children, I love family and I really was kind of blindsided by the experience of having to really let go and almost let a previous self die, in order for this new mother-self to be reborn.
And there were logistical elements of that in how I live my life, but I experienced it, also, on a much deeper level that I just felt like “I have to let go of who that person was.” And it took me a long time to really accept that and to even understand that I needed to just give myself this space to sort of grieve my former life, as blessed and lucky as I felt to be moving into this new chapter of my life.
Miller: I have to say that the “death” word, it doesn’t seem too extreme for this. I mean, there is a permanent loss to a version of our lives if we become parents, and it can seem dramatic to use that word “death,” but I actually think it’s accurate.
You write movingly in a number of different chapters about dealing with postpartum depression. Were there specific teachings that you turned to for that, either you knew at the time, or in retrospect, were most helpful for you specifically to deal with postpartum depression?
Rabins: Well, I really appreciate how Jewish myths and legends and stories contain these sort of archetypal depictions of what we go through in our own lives. And one story I thought about was the story of Joseph and his special coat when his brothers get jealous of him and throw him into a pit and essentially abandon him. And there are a number of stories in the Torah of individuals being, in some way, outside of the circle. And I took a lot of comfort in the fact that this book of sacred texts and sacred stories, really acknowledged that experience of sometimes we just feel extremely alone. And it may not even be because anyone’s rejecting us, it may just be that we are in a place where no one can really be with us at that moment, whether it’s because of depression or whatever is going on with us.
I think that the sense that that kind of existential aloneness, I don’t know if I want to say normal, is part of being human and we all have moments of going in and out of it. Yes, we need to get help, and I’m not saying “just deal with it, it’s normal.” I’m saying it’s a deep, profoundly challenging experience that is so important and so centrally human, that it shows up all over our stories and myths and I found a lot of comfort in essentially feeling less alone in my aloneness.
Miller: That you were still alone, but you’d seen that other people, throughout time, have also been alone or alone right now.
Rabins: Yeah, and I have a wonderful partner. So I’m not saying I was literally alone, but that I was sort of in a place where I felt that I was in a bit of a gauntlet and I was having the alienating experience of postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression and no matter how supportive people wanted to be, there was a way in which no one could touch me at that moment.
I think one of the things that myth and legend and ancient stories allow us to do to zoom so far out that we can depersonalize, a little bit, the situation and not feel like something’s wrong with me, “why am I having this experience at what should be this amazing, heightened moment of beauty and domesticity, why do I feel so alone.” But to realize that can be a part of the human journey and so to just sort of relax around the edges of it a little bit, like it may be painful but there doesn’t have to be this extra layer of feeling like something is also wrong with me, specifically.
Miller: You have a lot of examples of bad parenting or biblical examples of parents behaving in ways that, if they happened in contemporary life, would be shocking to say the least. Are there positive examples of parenting that stand out to you in the Old Testament?
Rabins: Yes. I didn’t grow up in a religious Jewish family. I grew up in a more culturally Jewish family. And I came to study Jewish texts and traditions in college, a little bit, and then a lot in my early twenties, quite deeply. So I had always kind of thought, “oh the Torah is our holy book and it must be a book about holy people doing holy things because that’s probably what’s in a holy book.” And I was quite delighted, actually, especially as an English major, to start reading the actual text - I learned Biblical Hebrew reading the text in the original - and seeing how dramatic and high stakes the relationships of the characters were.
And these families, the foremothers and forefathers . . . there’s definitely a lot of examples of them; people showing up and treating each other well. And then there’s many examples of the opposite. I would say it’s probably roughly the same balance that you might find in your favorite HBO show, depending on the show. But there’s this profound love between the characters that you can just feel, that’s palpable. And I think that that is what keeps everything together, even while people are betraying each other and making these mistakes and making the wrong decisions. But the love and the allegiance, in the sense that the family returns to itself - and healing, sometimes generations later that is also woven into the stories - is a beautiful example of how it’s not about creating a perfect life and it’s not about becoming the perfect parent, but it’s about repair and love and returning to that over and over.
Miller: One of the themes that’s threaded throughout many of the essays has to do with striking the “right balance” between potentially competing desires or ways of reacting. The balance between empathy or enforcing boundaries, between gentleness and firmness, between broadly, saying, “yes” to the little people in your charge and saying, “no,” for their own good. Both of them, hopefully, for their own good. How have you come to think about that balance?
Rabins: I am pretty obsessed with that balance. It really comes from this mystical idea, that is kind of alluded to earlier, that there are these different elements of divine energy that we also contain within us. One of those elements is the power of “yes,” and one of them is the power and importance of “no”.
Miller: And it could be as simple as, “no, don’t run into the street because there are cars there . . . "
Miller: …and it could be more profound than that.
Rabins: Yes, and it can also be towards ourselves: “I want to go back to sleep, but my kid needs to nurse again.” So I’m going to say “no” to my own needs, to be able to say “yes” to my child right now. So there’s this really tremendously complex negotiation between the two, and there’s a lot of generosity. One of the things that mystics actually talked about [is that] there can be a lot of generosity in the “no” and there can sometimes be unkindness in the “yes,” right?
Miller: What do you mean by those?
Rabins: An infinitely permissive parent is not going to be a good parent, right? Part of being a good parent is setting structures and boundaries that make your kids feel safe and allow them to grow and to experience in the safe container of home. Like what’s okay and what’s not physically safe or emotionally hurtful towards other people. So saying, “no, you can’t hit your brother because that hurts,” or “no, you can’t yell in your sister’s ear because that’s really annoying and frustrating.” That kind of “no” is a form of a “yes, I see this person that you are growing into, and I know that you’re going to grow into someone who’s going to be caring and aware of the people around you and you’re too young to quite recognize that yet, but through these ‘no’s’ and ‘yeses’ I’m going to support that growth.”
Miller: I’m going to forget some of the exact requirements now, because I didn’t write it down, but you have a chapter where you talk about the rabbinical needs; if someone’s going to study certain versions of mystical thought, you had to be a man, you have to be old enough. And if I remember correctly, you also had to be a parent, you had to have children in order to gain access to this sort of specialized esoteric world of Jewish mysticism. And you point out that there is something sexist and ageist about this, but you think there may be something to this idea of the wisdom that can come from having kids preparing you to embark on this particular kind of study.
Maybe I’m paraphrasing there, hopefully not unfairly, but what are your thoughts about what you learn as a parent, and how that can prepare you to delve into life’s mysteries?
Rabins: I just want to make so much space here for people who are not parents, for all the reasons, some by choice and not by choice, that people don’t become parents. And so, in no way, [do I] want to say that there’s a certain wisdom that you can only get through this path, and at the same time, just like any experience in life, we learn things from the experiences that we pass through. As I said earlier, Judaism is a pretty child positive religion and most of the great rabbis did have children. Some of them didn’t, but it was sort of seen as a part of spiritual practice in a certain way. And there are these ideas about grounding ourselves in the world around us, and also passing down our traditions in this historically minority religion, the importance of passing down the traditions to the next generation. And there are these cautionary tales about some rabbis who allowed themselves to be swept so much into mystical realms that they completely lose touch with this world.
And that’s something I appreciate so much about parenting is how humbling it is, and how grounding it is. Just making snacks and tucking little people into bed and taking deep breaths at moments when you’re challenged and it’s just a constant callback to the present moment. You can’t get too intellectual. You can’t get too up in the air about things. And I find that to be one of the great blessings of being a parent, even though sometimes it’s really challenging
Miller: Did any of the parenting wisdom that you’ve taken from the Jewish tradition help you think about or talk about climate change, as it relates to raising children?
Rabins: Well, first of all there are stories of climate destruction in the Torah, like for example, the Noah’s ark story.
Miller: So that’s climate change as punishment…
Rabins: That’s climate change as punishment, and I mean if you look at punishment in a more kind of karmic sense, it was climate change in that sense. Mythically as punishment. But if we’re generating climate change through our actions, whether or not you call that punishment or just consequences, it’s an eternal parenting conversation as well, you know?
I think, definitely, the principle that we each have the ability to contribute to repairing the world, often called “tikkun olam,” the healing of the world, the repairing of the world. And there’s this beautiful rabbinic saying, that’s one of my favorites: “the work is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.” So it’s not your job, one person, to hold back climate change. No one person can do that alone, but that doesn’t free us from the responsibility of doing our part and doing whatever we can in the sense that we’re part of something bigger. We’re part of a larger collective and we have to do what we can, whether we’re a child or an adult. I think that’s a really profound teaching.
Miller: Alicia Rabins, thanks very much for joining us.
Rabins: Thanks so much for having me.
Miller: Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer and musician and filmmaker and author. Her new book is called “Even God Had Bad Parenting Days: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents.”
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