Friday, April 9, 2004 | return to: the column


Honor thy mother and father, but what if they don’t honor us?

by jessica ravitz

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The joke goes something like this. Three elderly women are sitting together at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, some bragging about their relationships with their sons.

One begins, "My son is so devoted to me, for my birthday he gave me an all-expenses-paid cruise around the world." The second pipes in, "That's nothing. Mine threw a huge catered affair for me, and he flew in all my friends from the East." The third woman smirks at them both. "Without a doubt, my son is the most devoted. Three times a week he goes to his therapist. A hundred and thirty dollars a session he pays. And what does he talk about the whole time? Me!"

Devotion to parents, in whatever form, is central to who we are. Straight from the Ten Commandments, we are required to honor them. It seems a no-brainer, but it's an obligation that gives me pause.

I am a child of divorce, not to mention two lawyers, and this experience has very much defined who I am today. As a young girl who sought understanding in the midst of what felt like an emotional tug-of-war, I often fell into the trap where I would pit my parents against one another, good guy versus bad guy.

Since I was living primarily with my mom, Dad usually got the raw end of this deal. But he was also the man who would crack eggs on his forehead, in an effort to make eating seem fun. And when this didn't lure his pint-sized daughter to the table, this most honorable father would serve ice cream for breakfast. I am not ashamed to admit that this helped sway my vote.

While I may be revealing too much about myself, let me say that honoring my parents, equally and at the same time, wasn't always easy. But if I can refer back to the joke up top, I suppose I was the most devoted of children, although I never went to therapy three times a week and would've never forked over $130 per session.

Today I am able to see my mom and dad for all that they are. Above everything else, they are human. And no matter the flaws, I know I'm blessed with parents who adore, believe in and honor me, just as I do them.

But what if a parent isn't worthy of honor? Do the rules apply across the board?

My best friend grew up with a deadbeat dad. Another has a father who abused her. In my mind, these men don't deserve an ounce of honor from their daughters.

Before I came to the Bay Area, I lived and worked on a kibbutz with inner-city, at-risk teens from New York. These were the kids written off by society — the ones who statistically should've been dead.

Let me tell you a bit about the fathers and mothers they're supposed to honor.

Tanesha, at 9, loyally sat by her mom, watching as the woman died from a heroin overdose.

Marissa bears scars from her stepfather's beatings, the ones she got before he kicked her out of the house (as her mother stood by), leaving her homeless at 16.

Kelly's never really known her dad, since he's spent most of her life in prison.

It doesn't seem to me that honoring your father and mother should be a given. Technically, anyone can be a parent. Why should impregnating a woman or giving birth automatically bestow honor upon a person?

I found my answer in Blu Greenberg, who writes and reminds us that the very first direct commandment in the Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. If the first obligation of a parent is to have a child, then the second is to earn honor. It's on the parents to teach children how to respect others. If a parent fails to instruct by way of words and deeds, a parent cannot expect to be honored in return.

We are the children of our parents, for the rest of our lives, regardless of how we view them. My best friend will always be the daughter of a dad who wasn't there. Tanesha will always be the daughter of a heroin addict who died beside her. And I will forever be grateful that I can honor a man who cracked eggs on his forehead every other weekend.

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master's in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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