When you become a parent, you naturally fast-forward in your mind to what kind of person your child will eventually become. You have hopes and dreams and aspirations for your child. There are all of the places you want to take them to, the life lessons you want to impart, and the milestones throughout their lives.
When Sam was born, I just wanted him to be happy, healthy, and of course, a mensch. As with many Yiddish words, mensch doesn’t have a precise definition. But we know what it really means. If you raise a child and that child becomes a mensch, you have done your job as a parent. In my opinion, that’s the ultimate goal of parenting.
But as your child gets older, there are some other things that pop up, other things that you might not have considered when you simply hoped for health and happiness. Everyone has a passion, something that they breathe 24/7. Most of us don’t find that passion until adulthood – and some of us are too afraid to chase it. Some of us even have lifelong regrets for not following that passion. I know that my dad’s passion was flying and he reluctantly gave that up when Vietnam hit. For me, I had an opportunity to start a career in baseball – but the $500/month salary scared me away (not a misprint – $500 a month!).
And then came Sam, who found his passion at the age of 9 and has been rolling with it for years now. What a thrill to see your kid do what he loves and kill it at the same time. What a thrill to have a kid who knows that this is HIS thing at such a young age. But wait, there’s more – he found his people! Parents of teenagers have so many worries of course. Don’t we all worry about who our own kids will have as friends? Will they be bad influences? Well, thank G-d for theater kids – what a wonderful group of passionate, talented, and decent young people. Sam found his people and I am both relieved and impressed by them all.
So here I am checking off boxes.
Found his passion – check
Found his people – check
What else is there at this point?
When we moved to Minneapolis from New York, I knew that being Jewish would present some challenges. I knew that the bagels wouldn’t be as good and that I wouldn’t be able to find a decent pastrami sandwich. I knew that I would have to try extra hard to purposely be Jewish. You grow up in New York and you really don’t have to do that – because it’s part of New York’s identity. Schools are closed for the holidays. And non-Jews know what the holidays are about. They also know how to pronounce them. In New York, you don’t have to explain to your kid’s teacher or your boss why you need the day off for Yom Kippur. I have found myself being “The Go-To-Jew” on numerous occasions in the workplace. Whether it’s the holidays, food, pronunciations, bar-mitzvah etiquette, or comments like “I never realized that Seinfeld was Jewish. I have been an unofficial ambassador too many times.
My grandma, who I have written about several times, was my biggest Jewish influence. She never sat me down and explained why it was important to maintain our traditions and know our history. She just did it. And I absorbed everything. I remember laughing when my Grandma would point out an Israeli-made product and say “This is the best one, made in Israel.” Naturally, I do a version of this with my own kids. I’ve fun-facted them about cherry tomatoes (invented in Israel), Sodastream, and of course Bamba. In this sense, I have become my Grandma – dishing up the chicken soup and as much Jewishness as I can. I’m happy to report that it might actually be working.
This past fall/winter, Sam performed in How The Grinch Stole Christmas at The Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. We joked about singing Christmas songs over and over again, night after night. We joked that as American Jews, we all know the lyrics to the Christmas standards (ironically, many written by Jews of course). Sam didn’t have to learn Jingle Bells – he’s heard it hundreds of times on the radio, in stores, in TV shows, and anywhere else music is played in December. All was well in Whoville: dozens of performances, a packed theater most nights, and some nice reviews.
At some point during this run, the Spring musical was announced. An American Tail The Musical is the adaptation of the hit 1986 animated film that tells the story of the Mouskewitz family as they journey to America from Eastern Europe. Sam, who is the understudy for Fievel for select shows, was pretty damn happy to finally get the chance to play a Jewish character in a Jewish story. Along the way, Sam was “The Go-To-Jew” for the first time in his life. I explained that while occasionally annoying, it’s an important role to play and one that he will play many times … until lands on a Broadway stage sometime in the near future! I’ve been so proud of Sam these last few weeks – standing up for himself and standing up for all of us. A Jewish actor playing a Jewish character in a Jewish story – what a wonderful thing to witness.
What I know now, thanks to Sam, is that I don’t have to worry anymore. At 15, he is, without a doubt, a proud Jew. He understands where he comes from and why it’s important to continue our centuries-old traditions. He understands that eating a pastrami sandwich from a deli in NY is not just lunch. He understands why we root for Jewish baseball players even if they’re not on the Yankees (we root especially hard for Harrison Bader). He understands that we live in a world where we are a distinct minority. He understands that Jews around the world are still attacked physically and verbally simply for being who they are.
I still have plenty to worry about of course – like where Sam will live when he gets his first role on Broadway or how he will survive the Big Apple without eating pizza. But I can cross one thing off the list. If my grandma was here she wouldn’t say anything but she’d look me in the eye and give a subtle nod of approval.
So thank you, Sam, my first, for making me so proud when you’re up on that stage and for simply being you.
And don’t forget to catch Sam as Fievel Mousekwitz in his final scheduled performance on June 15. Trust me – such nachas!