Thursday, July 03, 2008

What is “Naches”?

It is the great parental quest: to receive joy from one’s children. In Yiddish, the word “naches” (which means parental joy) is laden with emotional connotations, the result of generations of immigrants dreaming of their children’s success.

To many Jews of a certain era, naches was defined by four simple words: “my son the doctor”. This particular parental obsession was often lampooned for going overboard. One joke is about an apocryphal birth announcement that declared “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Goldberg are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jeffrey Goldberg.” Jokes aside, the mindset of “my son the doctor” gives a distorted picture of what the parent-child relationship is about.

Pushing a child in order to provide the parent with pride can have destructive consequences. Elisha, a second century Rabbi, is chosen by his father Abuya to become a Rabbi so that Abuya could impress others with his son’s ability. Elisha does become a great Rabbi, but in an era of Roman persecutions, eventually crumbles and becomes a heretic. Unfortunately, Elisha’s studies left his soul empty because they were intended to impress his father. In the end, neither father nor son had any naches.

This uglier side of “getting naches” is what psychologists call “achievement by proxy syndrome”. A parent with simple achievements sees his child, the prodigy, as a ticket to greatness. The parent-child relationship is then reduced to a puppet show, with the child acting as the parent’s puppet, dancing to the tune of the parent’s dreams. In the end, both parent and child lose their souls and insanity ensues.

Achievement by proxy syndrome leads to a multitude of dysfunctions. There are violent altercations between fathers and coaches over the proper treatment for athletic prodigies; there are parents who quit their own careers in order to manage their children’s “talent”. And the child ends up paying dearly for a childhood in a pressure cooker; indeed, Macaulay Culkin and Jennifer Capriati are poster children for the excesses of “achievement by proxy syndrome”.

True naches is not about getting, it’s about giving. The real joy in parenting comes from being a true parent. A parent’s role is to give guidance and impart wisdom to one’s children. When the Bible tells the child “Hear, my son, your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching”, it is reminding us of the parent’s greatest role, as a teacher.

Randy Pausch is a college professor and father of three young children, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2006. After going on permanent leave, he returned to university to deliver one final presentation based on the wisdom he had learned from life experience. This lecture that became a youtube sensation (and later a bestselling book) called “The Last Lecture”. Pausch explains in the forward to the book that the lecture was his way of “bottling” the life lessons he wanted to impart to his children as they grew up.

Pausch’s book is an exercise in true naches; it’s a dying father’s way of giving his children a legacy of authentic wisdom.

Most importantly, naches is about love. Parents transform the lives of their children when they show dedication and devotion to them. And the parents that do this the most are the parents of the developmentally disabled. Unfortunately, they often stand alone in their efforts.

Until recently, a child with cognitive impairments didn’t have a Bar-Bat Mitzvah. Synagogues were too rigid and formal to accommodate the needs of the developmentally disabled. But that is changing. In Boston, a program called “Gateways” has enabled dozens of developmentally disabled children to have their own innovative Bar-Bat Mitzvahs. I myself have been involved in several Bar-Bat Mitzvahs like this, and there is no question that there are powerful emotions in the air. You can sense the love, you can sense the family’s dedication, and as the young man finishes his carefully rehearsed presentation, you can sense something else as well:

Authentic naches.

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