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    Hansen’s Law

    Shabbat Candles, lithograph by Sandu Liberman

    Pesach, when the Haggadah talks of parents whose children ask, “What are the testimonies and the statutes of the Torah?”, is the tailor-made occasion when observers of Jewish life get a reminder of Hansen’s Law which says, “What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember”.

    This “principle of third generation interest”, formulated by the American historian Marcus Lee Hansen in a 1938 essay, “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant”, has been widely debated and criticised, but in Judaism it seems to have special pertinence.

    Once upon a time the Jewish world was full of froom grandparents who strictly observed the practices of Judaism (or so it is claimed; the reality was rather more patchwork).

    In many cases the families migrated to the New World, gave up the old level of observance and lived on memory: “My father was so froom, he davened all day, he was never without a Hebrew book in his hand, he kept every detail of Shabbat.

    “My mother worked day and night to keep a kosher home, she lit Shabbat candles with tears in her eyes, she didn’t know much Hebrew but she insisted that we say the b’rachot with her.

    “Our parents didn’t have any money but material things weren’t important to them.”

    The son started off keeping very little but at least remembering, and then even the remembering went and the Jewish future was at risk.

    Recently, Baruch HaShem, a miracle has occurred and the risk has receded because the grandchild has begun to rediscover the ways of their froom grandparents and even surpass them.

    Parents these days are often shaken up and complain about how orthodox their ba’al t’shuvah (“returner” or “reversioner”) children have become.

    But in many ways the intergenerational family dynamic has turned tense. The children are frequently rather intolerant of their parents’ laxity; the parents are frequently intolerant of the new standards their children have adopted.

    No-one can insist that others suddenly drop the way of life they think right, but surely both sides can work out a pattern of mutual tolerance, and surely the parents can make a gesture towards their child.

    I recollect the day when a parent complained to me, “My daughter is making a fuss. She insists that I should light Shabbat candles! What shall I say?”

    My answer was, “Do it, and say ‘Thank God’ that that’s what your daughter wants – to show her love of the Almighty. Think how much worse it could have been!”

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