OUR PARENTS ARE WITH US

A fellow in California has launched a new business. Mothers or fathers are invited to take photographs of their faces and send them in so that they can be printed on the face of a plush doll. In addition, a voice recording – up to eight minutes long – of mother or father is added, leaving both an image and a message that a child can carry around all the time. The company, Parental Media LLC, calls these items “Parent Dolls.” (The website, www.parentdolls.com, also advertises grandparent dolls and sibling dolls.)

Writing in USA Today, Craig Wilson, has little positive to say about “Parent Dolls.” The very idea of seeing his father’s face on a doll’s head he considers “creepy.” Moreover, Wilson relished the time he had away from his parents: when they went to work, or shopping, or on vacation. This was his opportunity to individuate, that is, to develop his own independent identity and to learn to cope without them. Further, he doubts that there could be any recorded message of his parents that he would want to listen to more than once. Wilson does not question the company’s motives. (The website claims that there is no stronger bond than that of parent and child and that there is no better teacher for a child than his or her parent.) But he does question the doll’s value.

As Jews, so should we; but from a different perspective.

There are two interconnected ideas that are at play. First, there is nothing that can effectively “ease separation anxiety” as the Parent Doll website claims. Even as adults the death of our parents – the ultimate separation – is emotionally distressing. And age makes no difference. Whether our parents lived a full span of years or died “before their time,” the feeling of loss and bereavement is no less painful.   Second, even after death our parents are still with us. The values they imparted to us, the talents they engendered in us, the teachings they inculcated in us: all persist. In effect, we are both literally and behaviourally the creatures of our parents. To be sure, we establish our own identities and shape who we are based on our freedom to choose. But much of our essence is a function of our heredity and the homes in which we were raised.

The Yizkor service recited in synagogues on Yom Kippur and the last day of the three Festivals (Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot) alludes to both ideas. On the one hand, we need to come to terms with the fact that physical separation from our loved ones is inevitable. We remain in this world. The dead are now in a world beyond.   And that is precisely how the memorial prayer reads. Yet the very call Yizkor has on us – that which draws us to the synagogue – is a consequence of the fact that we feel our parents (and all our loved ones) are still with us.   As one wise man once put it: our parents first brought us to the synagogue when we were young, and then bring us back to the synagogue after they are gone.

As adults we learn that memories are what nourish us. There is no need for a Parent Doll when we have parent thoughts. And that lesson best begins when we are young.