The first time my daughter cried, I was so blown away that I almost forgot to do something about it.
It was the most amazing thing on earth. Her eyes, huge and blue—not like anyone’s in my family, but like a glossy, full-blown photocopy of my wife’s—they ordinarily took up half the space on her face, but suddenly, they were contracting into these tiny fleshy slits of crunched-together eyelids. Her mouth seemed to be bigger than her whole head. Her cry was the most moving and heartbreaking thing I’d ever heard….you could even see her tongue as it vibrated.
Before long, I snapped into action. Soon, we developed what would become the “chill-out routine”—a complicated series of pats on the back, holding her as I bounced up and down on the fitness ball, and sang songs softly to her. (I can’t tell you why, but she absolutely loves Prince.)
For the first few days, as I was sounding it out, experimenting with routine, order, and length, it seemed to be working like a charm. As she developed, some things changed, and some didn’t—the fitness ball didn’t seem so necessary, especially when I started walking the length of our apartment as I sang, cradling her on my chest. I would learn to wait for that telltale of the eyelids fluttering, that single soft sigh before she sunk into sleep. It was like some mythical reward when it actually happened.
For the first week or two of her life, my wife and I became experts at calming the raging twenty-incher. We soothed, coaxed, and prodded her into sleep, concentrating all of our thoughts on it, and willing our entire beings to it. At times, it felt like we were robots, created and driven entirely for the purpose of calming this creature. It took all my energy, bouncing up and down on that fitness ball, sometimes for most of an hour or more. She’d be almost there, almost at her goal of asleep—eyes closed, tiny chest rising—and then one eye would open, then the other.
Then, usually, came her mouth.
And it was wide, wide open.
Here’s what happened: we got lazy.
Not lazy as in neglectful, or even as in tired. We were both sleepless and loving it, everything from the dizzy where-did-the-night-go sensation first thing in the morning to the train ride of a night. We’d worked out our toolbox of tricks, and used them on a rotating basis, and usually—almost always—we’d find something that worked. Our reaction times were getting quicker. She was falling asleep quicker. We were actually starting to get the hang of this thing.
But, somewhere along the way, we started taking things for granted.
I don’t know when I realized that for the first time. Probably the millionth time I was running two fingers on her back in concentric circles (three times clockwise, three times counter, then repeat) I thought to myself, I can’t wait till she stops whining and just falls asleep.
I’m a good father. I like to think I’m a good person, too: I always stop on the street to give people directions. When kids come to my door selling magazines, I always hear them out and usually buy a subscription, too, even though I hate reading magazines. When the crazy guy starts talking to me on the subway, I take him seriously. When I speak with people in general, I like to think that I’m actually listening to them and not just paying them ear service, zoning out and nodding when they say something interesting.
And it’s not like my daughter can speak English, or even understand it, but for somebody who weighs less than ten pounds, she’s pretty perceptive. Rocking her to sleep is a long, rigorous process. Her eyes close, and you can’t stop what you’re doing—you know, as soon as you put her down, she’ll start screaming.
But will she really notice if I pick up a magazine, or the book I’ve been in the middle of since she was born? Or, occasionally, I will start thinking to myself, I can’t wait till she’s asleep, I have a zillion things to do and tomorrow’s a big deadline…
And the second my mind starts thinking that, she starts yelling all over again.
In the Talmudic book Pirkei Avos, the Ethics of our Ancestors, it tells us not to converse excessively with a woman. “It is said even about one’s own wife,” the volume goes on to note—just in case the point wasn’t clear enough the first time.
The first time I read this, it was just after I’d become observant, a few months into this little religious exploration of mine. I was still fresh-faced, still more or less sounding things out. There it was, stuck in the middle of a tractate of the Mishnah, possibly the most famous tractate—the one known for meting out helpful lessons and suggestions for a more practical spiritual life.
I immediately struck the determination to march straight to Rabbi Freundel, the guy who’d gotten me into this whole Jewish mess in the first place. I called and asked whether he was available. His voicemail picked up. I resolved to ask him about it.
But the next day, in class, he’d somehow preempted me. We’d been going through the Ethics of the Fathers, a few verses each session, and that day we happened to fall on the Do Not Speak Excessively To Women.
Instead of explaining, though, he called on Yariv.
Yariv was the only Israeli in our class. Most of the people in the class weren’t totally religious, and they weren’t totally irreligious—they were just interested. Yariv was interested, but he’d grown up in Tel Aviv, “the most secular city on Earth,” as he’d explained to us. His parents passionately hated all forms of religion. He didn’t hate it—well, not outright—but he had a super-rational, super-analytical mind.
As anyone can tell you, super-rational minds are not usually the best candidates for in-depth conversations about religion. In the middle of an intense, serious class discussion, Yariv would wave his hand high in the air and say, “Can I remind all of you, we are talking about a bunch of old books?” It was impossible for us to take him seriously, mostly because he didn’t take himself seriously.
“What do you think of this?” he asked.
“Typical sexist mumbo-jumbo,” Yariv said at once, taking the bait.
Rabbi Freundel leaned back in his chair and smiled.
“Now, would you please read the Hebrew?”
He did. It was almost the same—only, instead of the word talk, as in Do not talk to women, he said flirt. Same word, but a world of meaning away.
The rabbi’s smile fluttered for a moment—doubtless, he could have come up with a better definition—but he said to the class, “There are several words in Hebrew for the word talk. One of them is for casual conversation. Another is for giving orders—the word mitzvah, or commandment, is a word that refers to talking. Here, the word used is lightly converse, or talk idly—or, if you prefer,” he added, with a sidelong glance at Yariv, “flirting.
“The idea,” he said, “is not that men should never talk to women, G-d forbid. Otherwise, how would you ever get married? Even in the Talmud, Rebbe Yehuda gets into a heated debate over certain customs with Yalta. So those of you looking for institutionalized sexism in holy books will have to search elsewhere.”
He says this with a knowing chuckle, and just before he flipped the page, I could have sworn he nodded at me knowingly, as though he could read what was going on in my mind.
The rest of us are only human, though, and we aren’t telepathic—my daughter does, she knows when my mind has wandered – but most of us at least, are not.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the ability to read people’s minds. Most of the time, we do it by watching each other as we talk, listening to the ways that people communicate—their volume, the tone of their words, and their body language—in addition to the words they say. In the Torah, there are at least half a dozen words to say the words to say.
In English, we’ve only got one, and we’ve got to make it count. What my rabbi said about not speaking idly with women, I know exactly what he means…and now, with my daughter, I know a little more. I always promised myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those parents who speaks baby talk with their children. Now, I’ve already broken that promise—although, somewhere along the way, I discovered why it was okay: A meaningful squeak or gurgle or, yes, even a “goo gaa” can go places where all my half-conscious, distracted song lyrics can’t…when what that gurgle really means is that I’m trying to speak her language.