Emilio sits on Scotta's shoulder. Scotta stands nearby. All smile with mountains in the background
Adam Berman (right), Alex Scotta and son Emilio near Calafate, Argentina, April 2017

The new Jewish dad: involved, hands-on, open-minded

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Dad comes home after a long day at the office to find dinner on the table and the kids washed and scrubbed, ready for bed. He pats them on the head before loosening his tie, pouring himself a martini and settling into his easy chair in front of the TV.

If that 1950s stereotype ever existed, it rarely does today, and it has little in common with the Jewish ideal of fatherhood. Here are portraits of four Bay Area Jewish dads who take an active role in parenting and work to impart Jewish values and tradition to their children.

The Daddy Handbook

Steven Moss had a trick up his sleeve. A dad trick.

When his daughter, Sara, was little and would balk at something, Moss just turned to a higher authority.

“I would say things like, “It’s in the Daddy Handbook! You have to do this!” he said.

It usually worked, and after a few years, the imaginary Daddy Handbook took on mythic status in the San Francisco household where Moss lives with his daughter and wife, Debbie Findling. Sometimes Sara would ask to see this all-knowing book. Moss always told her it was “for dads’ eyes only,” but in the back of his mind, he knew that one day he’d have to write it himself.

Now Sara is 16 and the Daddy Handbook exists as a real book, published by the Potrero View neighborhood newspaper where Moss, an environmental policy analyst, is the publisher.

moss hold a baby while attempting operate a laptop computer
Steven Moss, holding infant Sara in one hand, figures out how to type with the other.

The book offers anecdotes from the parenting life, from heartwarming moments like the time Sara bought her dad a stuffed Eeyore toy to replace one he’d cherished as a child but had lost long ago, to lighthearted but slightly terrifying stories, like the time Sara’s stroller went careening down a steep San Francisco street. Throughout, it straddles the line between memoir and how-to guide, including tips for getting kids to floss their teeth or learning how to say “I don’t know” when you can’t answer a difficult question.

Moss grew up in Palo Alto in a secular Jewish household. Born in 1960, he was parented in a very different way from the modern, San Francisco model of playground etiquette and dads with diaper bags.

“There’s a very different understanding of men, really, and men as fathers,” he said.

His parents loved him, of course, but the hands-on style of fatherhood just wasn’t the way things were, for anyone he knew.

“Dads were remote,” he said.

cover art for "The Daddy Handbook"Moss has tried to replace that with as much active parenting as possible, using patience and empathy as a guide in things like letting Sara direct their urban rambles.

“I have a very different relationship with my daughter than I have with my parents, or my father,” he said.

Stories of his own childhood suffuse the book. In the Daddy Handbook he tells a story about the way he fell into the habit of overindulging his daughter with candy because there never was any when he was growing up, a factor of having parents who lived through the Depression.

Moss is also conscious of being an older parent — he was 40 when Sara was born. But he finds it hard to imagine having been a father earlier.

“I might have been more fun,” he mused. But, he added, “I would have made a lot more mistakes.”

He cheerfully acknowledges his missteps in the Daddy Handbook, but doesn’t dwell on them. Moss is also a strong believer in teaching children to question and probe, and to have open-ended conversations that challenge accepted notions.

“I do think the way we approach parenting is very Jewish,” he said.

Jewishness suffuses their family life. Sara is finishing her sophomore year at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, while Findling works at the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, a private foundation with a strong presence in the Jewish community.

Moss started writing Daddy Handbook stories when Sara was only 4 and stopped around the time of her bat mitzvah. “It seemed like now it’s her story to tell,” he said.

Honoring that now-older Sara while still cherishing the memories of a younger Sara is a balancing act that Moss feels is a natural part of parenting, where fleeting moments can only be captured in retrospect.

“There’s almost a weird pre-nostalgia baked into the raising of a kid,” he said.

Now that the book is out, Sara has to deal with people reading about her childhood interest in things like elephant poop.

“I think she likes it a lot, and she’s embarrassed by it,” he said.

Asked to describe her father in three words, Sara is succinct.

“Funny, charming, and dumb.  He’s my dad…,” she wrote in an email.

And that’s good enough for Moss. He may have moved on from needing to flaunt the Daddy Handbook, but the effects of fatherhood — those are for keeps.

“It completely changed my understanding of myself and my understanding of the world,” he said.

The hard road to gay fatherhood

Adam Berman and Alex Scotta knew that becoming fathers wouldn’t be simple.

“It’s not easy to become a dad when you’re in a gay couple,” Berman said.

The two men, who met at a tennis tournament in 2007, decided in 2013 that they were ready to start a family, and they knew it would take time.

There was the obvious issue of biology, while adoption, both international or in the U.S., carried risks. Finally the couple decided on surrogacy. What was expected to be a simple process turned into a bureaucratic nightmare, but resulted in the birth of their son Emilio, now 3½ years old and a cherished member of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.

three hands clasp each other, each one with with beads that spell out Daddy, Papa and Emilio
Daddy, Papa and Emilio — bracelets for the whole family

“Every day there’s a moment I’m reminded of the journey that brought us to today,” said Scotta. “Every day there’s some point I look at him like, ‘Holy Moly!”

Berman grew up in Los Angeles in a Reform home. While not particularly religious, he loved the singing and excitement he found at temple.

“I knew I would want to expose my child to all the great things I experienced growing up Jewish,” he said.

Emilio has just finished his second year at Emanu-El’s preschool, where Jewish traditions are part of everyday life.

“It’s so cool for me to see Emilio, who already knows the blessings and the songs,” Berman said.

Those songs and rituals are familiar to Berman, but for Scotta it’s been a learning experience. Born in Argentina, he was raised Catholic — a faith that he jokes he “gave up for Lent.” His church experience was the opposite of the joy he sees in his son at temple.

“I appreciate so much my son’s privilege to grow up with that element,” he said.

Now both Scotta and Berman are part of the community at Emanu-El in the way only devoted parents can really be — volunteering at the preschool’s matzah-making station on Passover, for example.

“They’re mensches, both of them,” said Tamara Neuhaus, whose daughter is one of Emilio’s best friends.

Scotta, who runs a private catering company, and Berman, executive director of emerging initiatives at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, split up their schedules so that both have one-on-one time with Emilio. Right now they’re in the middle of a monthslong trip that will take them from Argentina to Europe, giving Emilio a chance to see more of the world.

Emilio was born in India, but what was supposed to be a two-week trip for Berman to pick him up and take him back to the U.S. became a tangle of problems that was projected to take years to resolve, if at all. Berman flew to India and was able to start caring for Emilio right after birth, but it required the intervention of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Department of Homeland Security, among others, to help the couple bring their son back to San Francisco — which they did, six months later.

“It was a miracle, really,” Berman said. “It is a miracle.”

The rocky start only increased the couple’s determination to be the best fathers they could be. Since then, the lessons of fatherhood have kept coming: from being confronted with a job at which they absolutely couldn’t afford to fail, to realizing their child has, as Scotta puts it, “a terrific fashion sense.” Parenting has taught them not only about their son but about themselves, too, and opened their hearts in unexpected ways.

Sharing fatherhood, with everything it entails, has drawn the couple closer.

“It’s been an incredible journey that I wouldn’t change for anything,” Scotta said. “And I certainly wouldn’t choose a different partner to do it with.”

“Around 30” grandchildren

A father with 13 children probably knows a thing or two about parenting in today’s world.

“You can’t impose anything on anyone the way you used to in the old days,” said Rabbi Yosef Levin, 61.

Instead, Levin, executive director of Chabad of Greater South Bay in Palo Alto, says you have to use love and empathy to show the beauty of living a Jewish existence, to “share the joy.”

With his oldest child 35 years old and his youngest only 14, he’s had a lot of experience with young people — so far, his grandchildren number “around 30.”

“My mother told me that you’re not supposed to count,” he joked.

Levin believes that helping a child live a Jewish life starts with showing them how wonderful it is; instead of talking about “we have to do this,” he recommends changing it to “we get to do this.”

“It has to be presented in a very positive and uplifting way,” he said.

Not only is that his advice for parents, it’s how he raised his own children, according to his eldest son, Rabbi Avrohom Levin. Avrohom remembers one year when his father was building the sukkah in the yard on a hot sunny day. The boy was helping, and he looked up to see his father sweating as he raised the walls.

“With a big smile, he said, ‘Sweat from doing a mitzvah washes away all of our sins!’ ” Avrohom Levin said.

That moment stuck with him as an example — one of many — of how his father found beauty in living a Jewish life, while along the way inspiring his children to do the same.

“It’s such a beautiful thing, I automatically want to do it,” said Avrohom Levin, who works at the Rabbinical College of America, a Chabad-Lubavitch institution.

a huge family poses for a wedding portrait
Rabbi Yosef Levin (gray beard, next to the bride, his daughter Fraidy) with his whole mishpocha at the 2015 wedding

In addition, Yosef Levin believes in surrounding children with Jewish books, prayers and ideas, and for parents, embracing “parenting by example” and showing enthusiasm for a Jewish life. Consistency, he added, is also key. Inevitably, children will question the rules and requirements at some point, but that’s normal, and parents need to empathize.

“If a kid is rebelling, understand why the kid is rebelling,” he said.

That can be anything from rejecting a certain prayer to feeling left out at school. Once when Levin was teaching 8-year-olds, he spent a long time talking to them about their feelings of sadness caused by Christmas celebrations they saw at school and at friends’ homes. That didn’t go down so well with the parents, at first. But Levin then went, as he puts it, “all out” on Jewish holidays, and soon the kids weren’t missing Christmas at all. It’s that kind of empathy, he says, that lets children know their concerns are valid.

“That’s true education, to really put yourself in the child’s place,” he said.

If parents show their children Jewish values, children will be able to choose to live by those values.

“Empower the kid, give the kid tools, and let them make the decision,” he said.

Levin was born in England to parents who escaped anti-Semitic persecution in the former Soviet Union. He attended yeshivas in Israel, France, New Jersey and New York. He and his wife, Dena Levin, came to Chabad of Greater South Bay (formerly Chabad Palo Alto) in 1980, where they raised their children.

For Avrohom Levin, growing up the eldest son of a community leader meant seeing a man who was very busy but always had time for his children, from including them in his work in the community to answering their questions, and even taking them to the redwoods on a Sunday — all things that have inspired Avrohom Levin in his own journey as a father and as a Jewish leader himself.

“He was there for us,” Avrohom Levin said.

For his part, Yosef Levin said he is “gratified” that all 13 of his children have chosen to commit to a Jewish life.

As a Chabad rabbi, Yosef Levin is used to talking to Jews who may not be observant but still want to pass something on to their children. But Levin said reducing Judaism to “culture” without a connection to God isn’t enough to preserve one’s heritage. He says it’s important to understand the fundamental connection between daily rituals and the divinity of Torah as a gift to the Jewish people.

“Judaism is more than culture, it’s identity, it’s essence,” he said.

But Levin feels these challenges are worth it, and can be overcome through the same kind of patience and respect he used as a father to his own children — that, and one more special thing.

“The first ingredient of education is love,” he said. “A lot of love.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.