One of my twins urges us, after every meal, to offer him dessert. What started as a “desserts on Shabbat, weekends and holidays” and “dessert is a sometimes food” became ”let’s have dessert after nearly every lunch and dinner,” all summer long. He has a sweet tooth. He can often sway us with temptations. It’s hard to resist.
My other twin is often self-limiting when it comes to food. He eats lots of fruits and vegetables, gets full quickly, and often tells his brother, “no, it isn’t a dessert night.” He’s sometimes a little too much into self-denial. It’s a weird sort of sibling pressure and a complicated dichotomy to manage as a parent.
Recently, I studied page 53 of the talmudic tractate Ketubot (marriage contracts). Dr. Sara Ronis offered an introduction from My Jewish Learning. She highlighted an episode in this page of Talmud that describes just how tricky peer pressure can be. It’s a complicated story, so I’m going to summarize Dr. Ronis’s account. Rav Pappa’s son is marrying Abba of Sura’s daughter. They’re writing up the ketubah. Rav Pappa invites his colleague, Yehuda bar Mareimar, along. Abba is a person of limited financial means and Rav Pappa talks through all the potential financial constraints without letting his colleague get a word in edgewise. Then Rav Pappa insists Yehuda should come inside for the ketubah writing.
Yehuda sits silently. Abba feels worried that Yehuda is angry with him. Abba feels pressured and writes an enormous amount of dowry into the marriage contract. It’s all the money he has. Then Abba says (paraphrasing here): “What, you still won’t talk? I have nothing left!”
Yehuda sees the damage and finally speaks up. “Well, don’t act for my sake, this isn’t OK with me.” Then Abba says to Yehuda, “OK, I’m going to retract this.” Then the kicker comes. Yehuda responds (again paraphrasing): “I didn’t speak up so you would be ‘that kind’ of person who retracts a legal document.”
Essentially, this story is a tragedy about social pressure. Even silence can wreck things when a person is very sensitive to peer pressure and power dynamics.
In the great dessert debate at my house, I’ve observed how variable brothers who love each other can be when it comes to this kind of pressure. I’ve got one twin like Rav Pappa (talks a blue streak, seems occasionally clueless and sometimes applies pressure when it comes to dessert) and another kid, maybe like Abba, who is overly self-conscious and senses his parents’ hesitancy. He feels the social pressures so strongly that he overdoes it and self-limits sometimes even when the dessert is offered.
Over the High Holy Days every year, we’re listing a whole slew of sins and failures. Even though the landscape has changed and some of us may be streaming services rather than attending in person, the liturgy doesn’t change. Some of us feel heavily concerned and pressured to repent for the community for every sin on the list, even the ones that well, frankly, we couldn’t possibly have committed. Others of us are not engaged or aware of the pressure, possibly still out in the metaphorical synagogue hallway during services, still trying to cut deals or make potential business connections with others.
It used to be, in a pre-pandemic world, in many congregations, that women would wear new clothing and new hats, in a “see and be seen” Jewish New Year version of the Easter Parade. The pressure to dress up in a certain way is another kind of social pressure.
Perhaps the first step towards understanding the complexity of our social pressures and how to manage these interactions is to recognize that they exist. Once you “see” some of these issues, it’s hard to un-see them. We can then begin to reflect on how to manage the pressures and do better.
I’ll be honest. Although I love dessert, I also have the self-limiting guilty dessert tendencies. Finding that “middle ground” between the all-dessert-all-the-time routine and the “we don’t deserve dessert’” is a path we all may struggle to find. Acknowledging this dynamic and saying out loud that Twin A should stop pressuring us to eat sweets and Twin B should allow himself a scoop of chocolate ice cream sometimes – this is part of speaking and observing this aloud.
When my kids attended Chabad preschool, their birthday parties included cupcakes with lots of icing and a special moment. Each year, the teacher would ask my twins what new mitzvah (commandment) they would take on to celebrate their new age. Like Rosh Hashanah, it was a new year and a chance for self-reflection. The answers of 2-, 3- or 4-year-olds were typically funny ones, but the social pressure was realistic and pushed them towards doing good things. It was often something like, “I’m going to be nicer to my brother” or “I’m going to try to hit people less when I’m angry.”
Sometimes I wonder if we, as adults, could use the pandemic changes to step back, recognize the social complexities around us, and treat Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur differently. It’s a whole new year, like those preschool party mitzvah choices. We might experience vastly different things from social situations. We may be heavily influenced by powerful people like Yehuda bar Mareimar. Perhaps we’ve been overexcited and clueless like Rav Pappa. Or, like Abba of Sura, we lose everything because we feel pressured to do things against our own best interests.
Here’s to a meaningful, restful and contemplative holiday, full of love and, yes, good food, including – moderate amounts of – dessert. Wishing you a sweet, honey-filled and happy 5783!
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.