Last night I attended the family Passover, a formal meal and service presided over by my 83 year old father. For those who don’t know, this Jewish celebration is a remembering of the Exodus from Egypt and Moses’ encounter with Yahweh in the form of a burning bush; it’s about the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, so well portrayed in Disney’s ‘Prince of Egypt’ film.
Jewish ceremonies are highly symbolic, with various foods referring back to aspects of an experience, like bitter herbs as a reminder of years of slavery, and apples and dates as a symbol of sweetness and fruitfulness. Progressive Jews typically include the whole family in the Passover service that is usually conducted at home prior to eating a great feast, on the first two evenings of Pesach, as it’s known in Hebrew. The family takes turns in reading excerpts of the service, they sing together, and, for the major service, questions are asked of the gathering for the purpose of education and discussion.
The Jews are a very studious race and my father is philosophical by nature. He has been a lay rabbi in his time, and his Jewish men’s group has been going for close to a couple of decades; he was clearly looking forward to the opportunity to engage the whole family in discussions about the nature of freedom and opportunity. Having made his own exodus from Egypt in the 1950s when he escaped rising anti-Semitism with the equivalent of $15 and one suitcase, the Passover story is all the more poignant for him.
However in his modern family where only one of three daughters is a practising Jew –and mainly for the major festivals – and most of the grandchildren are far removed from Jewish values and rituals, when he asked for input from the gathered clan, the silence was marked.
“No comment,” he would murmur, in a light tone of voice but his disappointment was palpable. This pattern was repeated numerous times through the evening. He maintained a light demeanour but I felt the weight of his sadness. But what could he possibly expect? I asked my husband as we drove home late last night. Aside from the fact that few members of his extended family are engaged with Judaism nowadays, and there were boyfriends and even husbands present from non- Jewish backgrounds, there were many other factors loading the dice against greater involvement:
i) the fact that my father’s involvement with his own grandchildren over their lives has been limited, so there was no history of deep discussion. Who would possibly expect a deep and meaningful conversation ‘on command’ without any kind of precedent?
ii) the fact that fear of public speaking is one of the most common fears people have, so while people might be noisy and chatty when conversing with each other, once the room is silent and listening for their answer, performance anxiety often sets in. Besides, we were sitting at one very long narrow table where it was impossible to see everyone at once and literally difficult to hear the speakers at either ends of the table;
iii) the fact that many people have hang-over fears of getting the answer wrong from their school days; iv) the fact that his beliefs and values were so clearly predominant on this occasion that were we to voice opinions in contradiction, we would risk setting off an unpleasant feeling and tainting the whole event; family) v) and, a significant item, the fact that we all knew from experience that the prayers and service could delay our meal by a good hour and a half, so who would want to delay it still further by triggering off a hearty discussion? Besides, when one’s stomach is growling, the mind doesn’t think as clearly… Reflecting on these dynamics, I stood in my father’s shoes and considered what he had been hoping for. I saw his idyllic vision of family in all its glory and irrationality. Anyone would agree that the idea of a large family gathered together over a meal and engaged in a thought-provoking conversation was not at all unreasonable and absolutely achievable… until one loads the event with all the other factors I’ve listed above.
So many of life’s disappointments are generated by inappropriate expectations. ‘All meaning is contextual’ is one of the teachings of NLP that can be applied here. Yes, a unified and close-knit, communicative family is definitely within the realms of possibility. But any parent desiring to create such a family must take responsibility for creating it. They must build relationships over time, engaging in genuine, two-way conversations from the time children are young, and drawing them out so that they feel safe and comfortable about expressing themselves in public. Since my father hadn’t done that, his disappointment was to be expected. He had been harbouring a fantasy, an illusion about the kind of family he wanted, and fantasies attract ‘reality checks’.
What could he have done instead? Was there a way he could have achieved his outcome despite not having built that kind of family culture over the years?
Yes, I’m sure. He could have asked more specific questions than ‘What does freedom mean to you?’, which froze everyone like rabbits in headlights. He could have requested a different table layout to facilitate closeness. He could have started these conversations prior to the service when we were all arriving and engaged in small talk.
Opening these themes in private, relaxed conversation would still have required skill but been less daunting for his conversational partner than the public exposure version. And then he could have referred back to those private conversations: ‘So-and-so was mentioning before that…’ There is always a way to achieve our outcome so long as our level of commitment matches our vision. No goal or dream is unrealistic but what we are prepared to do in order to achieve it often is unrealistic, especially when we want our vision to materialise in front of our eyes with very little input from us.