The following essay about family values, including love, was written by SZ, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
Plotting out my family tree was a very interesting experience, because it showed me what my family was like throughout many generations and countries and put my own experiences into better perspective. I found several values that are important to us, some of which I only discovered while working on this tree! Among those I found most important were: family, education, adaptability, humor, science, strong Jewish identities, and hard work.
Spending time together as a family (mish’pacha) is an important value for all of us. My mom chose to only work part time, so that she could spend more time with her children (snuggling with us, and harrassing us!). Our Babushkah, (my father’s mom) treks to our house from Roosevelt Island nearly every day. She’s there by 7:30 a.m., to help take care of us and get us to school, then typically picks us up from school, brings us home, feeds us, reads with us, and helps with our Russian homework. Of note: though she’s now over eighty, we don’t see her retiring from this job any time soon!
Grampa Neilie started a second family after his first wife died, because he values family. He’s now spent 45 years raising kids, with few breaks, and he’s still at it! I suspect my Uncle UJ values his family too. He’s taken me on trips to Florida and New Orleans, and he’s made rituals of taking us to the diner on Sundays, and ‘guitarring’ my brothers to bed at night. Finally, we have many family gatherings each year, to celebrate holidays and birthdays, because we all enjoy each other’s company.
A second value which repeated itself throughout my family tree is the importance of education (chee-nuch). My father went through many years of education to become a specialized physician; each day he teaches doctors-in-training, and he’s always encouraging me to study hard and strive for the best schools. His job also includes scientific study; beyond curing diseases, he also researches ways to cure the cancers that affect women. My mom is also a doctor, a pediatrician. Much of her career involves teaching pediatric residents (doctors-in-training), and before that she was a teacher when she lived in Ecuador.
When my grandma, Babushka, was a student in Moscow, she always earned top scores, which tells me she also took her education seriously. And for as long as I can remember, she has been helping me learn to speak, read, and write in Russian. Babushka’s husband, my Grandpa Lev, was a scientist when they lived in Moscow, and earned his PhD. After moving to America, he then became a writer. Meanwhile, my Grandpa Neilie is still teaching dermatology and immunology to his residents, after earning both an M.D. and a Ph.D. Finally, as a graduate of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, ….and Stonybrook(!), my Uncle Josh must also feel strongly about education!
Another value (and great skill) I found in my family is that of adaptability (s’gee-loot). For example, during WWII when she was only four years old, my Babushkah needed to relocate to Uzbekistan with her family to survive, under very harsh conditions. Then again, when she and my grandfather arrived in America, they had to learn a new language, adapt to an American way of life, and give up their careers. Like many immigrants to our country, my Dedushkah proved his adaptability by becoming a writer when he couldn’t continue to work as a scientist. My maternal grandfather, Neilie, proved he was adaptable by switching gears and pursuing a Ph.D. in immunology when his initial medical school program fell through. Later on, he again applied to medical school, and then worked much harder to finally receive his medical degree and become a doctor.
The value of humor (Hu-mor) is also common throughout my family. My father is always trying to make us laugh with his corny jokes, and his inner silliness. My mom values humor because it makes people happy. Although she’s always trying to be funny, unfortunately, she’s not! Still, she’ll try to make weird jokes and tickle us all the time.
As per my brother Nash, “When I make a joke, Grandma always appreciates it, laughs along, and then adds to it.” Personally, I think my grandma has quite a sarcastic sense of humor. My paternal grandpa is also quite silly, like my Dad. On my Mom’s side, Grampa Neilie also loves to make us laugh, and my Uncle UJ was the first of the Brodys to try out his stand up in NYC comedy clubs. Let alone his middle name is, actually, ‘Danger’! It’s ridiculous! …and humorous. Not surprising then that my half-uncle Jonah introduced me to the world of improv comedy, when we saw his amazing troupe perform in Cold Spring Harbor.
Another popular value in my family is interest in science (ma’da ). The careers of my grandfathers, grandmother, mother, father, uncle, and cousin have all involved science. My father- as a doctor who also does cancer research. My mother- as a double science major in college who then earned her Masters in Biology before teaching science in Ecuador prior to medical school. My brother Nash won first place at the PS 163 Science Fair. My grandfathers both earned Ph.D.s in science, and my uncle- a passionate and renowned scientist- is the Director of the Lymphoma Immunotherapy Program at Mount Sinai. Cousin Mark, while in medical school, founded the East Harlem Software Company, which creates customized applications to optimize medical care.
Within our family tree, while not many are observant Jews, still we often value our Jewish identity (z’hoot yehudit ). Growing up in Moscow, my father was discouraged from religion. In his words, “I agree with Karl Marx that ‘religion is the opiate of the people.’” Though he doesn’t obviously value Judaism, and even dislikes religion, we still see signs of his pride in his Jewish culture. My mom clearly appreciates cultural Judaism, since she’s encouraged me to pursue Jewish education and this Bat Mitzvah process. While in Moscow, my paternal grandparents lived with a lot of anti-Semitism. Babushkah says that nonetheless, she’d still hold her head high and acknowledge she was indeed Jewish. She knew it wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, and lots of smart people were Jewish, so why be shy about it? My paternal grandfather often would hide his Judaism, to avoid embarrassment. He felt that others would judge him poorly for being Jewish, and he preferred to be like everyone else and fit in. Thankfully, now that he’s in America, he also can enjoy pride in his heritage. On my mother’s side, only her Grandpa Georgie was a practicing religious Jew, though it always disturbed him that he was the last of the family to be observant. Though my living relatives are not actively religious, I do appreciate that they all take pride in cultural Judaism and Jewish values.
The final value I found among my family is the commitment to hard work (avodah kashey). My father relishes in his 80-hour work week, and then comes home and works more! Babushkah always tried hard to earn the top scores when she was growing up in Moscow, and Grandpa Neilie earned multiple advanced degrees. Since my Uncle Joshie was accepted into so many top schools, it’s clear that he works quite hard as well.
In conclusion, many values were common across my family, which clearly have been shared and passed down from generation to generation. Those that stood out to me were family, education, adaptability, humor, science, strong Jewish identities, and hard work. In the course of researching and writing this essay, I too have demonstrated my interest in family. Having also worked quite hard on this essay, I am glad now to have shared it with you!