Lechayim… To Our Children

The Indians called it “firewater,” others call it shnapps, and around the world it’s called whiskey. But no matter what you call it, this writer doesn’t find anything tasty about the beverage. He doesn’t know the difference between vodka and scotch, enjoyable whiskey from a brandy, and a single malt from a bourbon. They all taste bitterly the same. Other than the time I became inebriated as a teenager on Purim thinking it would be geshmak and then regretting it, and aside from the occasional lechayim at a simcha, I avoid the stuff, preferring instead an ice cold Snapple or a glass of orange juice. But apparently I am in the minority. Judging by the way people gravitate to a bottle of Johnny Walker, Guinness and Glenlivet – or is it Glen Livet? – these spirits are quite popular all around.

Over the years, I have collected articles that I found interesting and instructive. One such article about the production of whiskey, written by Shimon Breitkopf, appeared in Mishpacha magazine and contained numerous interesting facts. He was part of a group that visited distilleries in Scotland to find out about the kashrus of various beverages, and there are some points there that were quite enlightening.

In Scotland, they are very proud of the whiskey they produce. And they well should be, as they have been doing it for a thousand years. Diageo is the name of the world’s biggest manufacturer of whiskey, with distilleries all over the country. It produces some of the most famous brands, like Smirnov, Johnny Walker, Baileys, Guinness, and others. The hotels in the vicinity of the plants are packed with visitors who come to observe how their “water of life” is manufactured.

You don’t have to be an expert to know that the taste of the beverage is affected by the barrel that it is stored in for so many years. The type of wood and the vessel’s history have a major impact on the taste of the whiskey. For this reason, most distilleries produce their own casks. These are assembled from old casks (posing a kashrus problem), and then the interiors are charred to produce a smoked flavor and to absorb any remaining residue.

The atmosphere inside these plants is very guarded to maintain a certain purity in the air. Visitors to the bottling plants feel like they are on a military base. They must don special clothes, protective goggles, and reflective vests, for unwelcome elements brought in from the outside can adversely affect the taste of the product. One visitor asked if he could smoke and was met with a loud Scottish guffaw. Of course, the water used, the air, and the entire environment are all key factors in the whiskey’s flavor.

Why, you wonder, would one write about whiskey, such a mundane topic, when we just concluded the most spiritually elevating period of the year? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to learn about shnapps closer to Purim? It is precisely because of the importance of this period that our topic is so relevant, for it is the beginning of another school year. All the school supplies have been bought, the necessary seforim acquired, and after the Yomim Tovim, things have settled down. Now comes the grind of another year of study, with our children hopefully experiencing growth and success.

There are looks of anticipation on the faces of parents and students. They hope for a year of hatzlacha and aliyah. Of course, there is the secret feeling of apprehension for some about what the new school year might bring. Will the child take to the new rebbi or morah? Will they fit in with the rest of the class? Most certainly, we all need siyata diShmaya, but these are some tips that we can extract from the production of shnapps that we can apply to helping our children succeed throughout the coming school year.

The Scots are proud of their thousand-year legacy of producing whiskey, and we are proud of our mesorah of over three-and-a-half millennia of the transmission of Torah from generation to generation. We strive for our most cherished possessions, our children, to become well-versed in Torah and follow in the ways of Hashem on the roads that were paved by our forefathers. The Scots are serious about their product and are meticulous in every step of its creation. Surely, when it comes to our producing the next generation of Torah Yidden, we have to be careful of various factors in order to be successful.

As mentioned before, three of the major components in producing a fine whiskey are the ingredients, the barrel, and the environment. The key ingredient in the making of a successful student is the child himself. Before he steps into school in the morning, it is important that at home he is well prepared for the coming day. A successful day begins with the night before. What time is the child going to bed? It is so paramount that the student get a good night sleep and is well rested for the next day, for children who are tired become jittery, their attention span is compromised, and they cannot absorb the lessons in the classroom.

Today’s parents and grandparents are products of American yeshivos and are very much tuned in to the success of their progeny. They have high expectations of the schools and their children. But higher standards demand parents’ contribution as well. It is of utmost importance that parents see to it that children go to bed on time. Yes, families are larger and it’s harder to keep tabs on when the kids go to sleep. But if we are truly interested in our children’s success, we will go the extra mile to ensure that they are well rested.

With the growth of the Jewish community, bli ayin hara, there is a proliferation of simchos, making for a lot of travel and late nights. Of course, we don’t want to miss family simchos, but at the same time we have to be aware that the travel and late nights take a toll on students. As a rebbi, I find that a late-night simcha affects a talmid for a couple of days, and an out-of-town simcha even longer. There is no clear solution to this, and every situation is different, but one thing is clear: There has to be some consideration for the class performance of our children the next day.

Another important factor is the nutrition a child gets and the kind of foods he eats. Sweet cereals are most popular amongst kids, but many children are affected adversely by the excess sugar. Nor is white bread a good choice, as it is quickly converted by the body into sugar. This, too, can make a talmid jumpy and inattentive. The amount of nosh that kids bring to school reaches new highs every year. Usually, they are laden with sugar and food coloring, which contribute to kids being hyper. Again, it is much easier to ignore this, but then we can’t at the same time have high expectations of our children.

We mentioned that the barrel in which the whiskey is stored contributes to the flavor of the drink. This is, of course, the case with the spiritual development of our children. What are the flavors and the influences that they absorb from the home? What is spoken about and what is considered important? A student may learn the loftiest hashkafos and middos in school, but then he comes home and hears different messages, as there is more of an emphasis on material matters than on ruchniyus or the manner of talk leaves something to be desired. Then the child is getting mixed signals. The home is not working in consonance with the school, and the child’s success is compromised.

What are the children doing in their spare time after all school responsibilities are taken care of? Are they busy with technological gadgets? Assuming that this activity is totally “kosher,” how good is it for the development of their cerebral cells? The games they play are exciting and hold their attention. What happens when they have to concentrate on the lessons in class and have to look into a sefer, where the words don’t move around like the movement of a video game? Will they be able to focus? Even in the secular world today, it is a known fact that one of the many adverse results of modern technology are the negative effects it has on focusing amongst both children and adults.And what about the books our children are reading? Today, there are many novels sold in bookstores with Jewish names and exciting plots. We assume that if it was written by a Jewish author, then it is fully acceptable. All too often, though, the novel may be full of intrigue, but it does not contain Torah values and, in a subtle way, conveys quite the contrary. Torah is not a subject like all other subjects. It is very delicate and requires being learned amidst a spirit of purity and kedusha.

 Even if the book is totally kosher, excess reading relaxes the brain. When a boy has to look into the Gemara, which requires intense focus, he may lose interest. Of course, we cannot banish all recreation, and it is important for children to relax, but we must be aware of what they are doing and monitor it. Books that stimulate the mind, contain Jewish history, and especially stories of our gedolim are most conducive for the desirable flavors we want our children to absorb. Of course, we want them to have relaxation, but we don’t want to put their brains to sleep and compromise their focus on areas that require more concentration.

Here is another important point to be learned from the production of whiskey. Different drinks contain different ingredients in varying amounts. While they may be produced in the same plant, the various products are obviously not meant to taste the same. We tend to think that if a group of children are attending the same school, they should basically perform at the same level. But no two children are exactly alike. Although they all sit in the same classroom throughout the day and are friends with one another, there can be considerable differences between them. They may vary in natural ability, reading skills, comprehension, temperament, and ambition to achieve. No two children of the same family are exactly alike.

It is therefore important that we have realistic expectations of each child as an individual. You can’t expect the ingredients of a vodka to taste like brandy and it is the same with our children. Each one has different buttons to push in order to bring out the best in them. Undoubtedly, the beverages are monitored to see if they are progressing in taste. It would be foolhardy of a distillery to just store the beverage in barrels for twelve years or more and then expect that at the given time they will automatically have the desired taste. For they might be in for an unpleasant surprise. It is the same with our children. We must have an awareness of how they are progressing. And if we feel realistically that they should be doing better, it is prudent to contact the rebbi or morah to see what can be done to benefit the child’s growth.

Yes, whiskey is a valuable commodity in Scotland and they handle it with the utmost care. Likewise, both parents and teachers must remember that the children are our most valuable commodity. They are the future of Klal Yisroel and their fruits will be enjoyed for eternity. We must handle them with tender loving care. There is also a major difference between whiskey and our children. Whiskey has no feelings, but our children and their parents do. We, rabbeim and moros, must remember how precious our own children are to us and how sensitive we are when they are having some difficulties. Our talmidim and talmidos are their parents’ treasure and our spiritual children. They must be cared for with the same sensitivity for their feelings and that of their parents.

Finally, another premier point not mentioned in the whiskey article but so significant in chinuch: After all of our efforts are invested, we must daven to Hakadosh Boruch Hu that our children develop properly and shteig in Torah and avodas Hashem. The Chofetz Chaim cherished his mother’s siddur, its pages stained with the tears she shed davening for her children’s success. When the Brisker Rov, a master mechanech, was asked what the key to his success was, he answered, “Tehillim, Tehillim, and more Tehillim.” Our work is just hishtadlus. It is Hashem who delivers the results.

So let’s drink a lechayim as we welcome the new school year with a tefillah on our lips that it is indeed a successful one. And while we’re at it, let us resolve to do everything in our power to enhance our children’s ability to flourish and be happy. Let’s learn from the Scots, who are so vigilant when it comes to their cherished shnapps, a pleasure for the moment. Shouldn’t we be at least as dedicated to our children’s nitzchiyus?