My children have discovered television. For a long time we never let them watch anything on screens. We tried to keep our phones sequestered away in the bedroom and to play podcasts or musical soundtracks on long car trips. But then my toddler developed asthma and need to sit with a mask on her face breathing in vapors for ten minutes a day, and we found that the moment we turned on a video, she immediately relaxed. She was only two, and we knew she was too young for screen time, but it seemed to be the only thing that worked. Having discovered this magical tranquilizer, we began using it whenever we cut the kids’ nails. And so in spite of our “no screens” policy, at least a half hour a week our kids watch visual content ranging from a symphonic performance by the Israel Philharmonic to Dora and Boots.
“What’s so bad about watching videos,” my kids ask, and I try to explain to them that it’s not that videos are inherently bad – it’s just that there is so much else to do in the space of a day, and watching videos is not at the top of my list. I want them to have time every day to play with friends, to ride their bikes, to run around in the park, to read stories together. If there is time leftover, we can bake cookies. Or learn a new card game. Or draw pictures for their grandparents. The possibilities are endless, but there are only so many hours before bedtime.
The Talmud does not discuss the question of whether parents should let their children watch television – but it comes close. The rabbis ask Rabbi Yehoshua (Y. Peah 1:1), “May a man teach his son Greek?” Greek was the lingua franca of the region, as well as the language of high and popular culture – Greek was spoken in the theaters and circuses that Jews were not supposed to set foot in, and it was the language of Homer’s works. In the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 49b), the rabbis ask if one may teach one’s son Greek wisdom, and some scholars have argued that the Jerusalem Talmud is referring to Greek wisdom as well. In any case, the Talmud’s answer is instructive: “Let him teach it at a time that is neither day nor night, for it is written: And you shall contemplate it [Torah] day and night” (Joshua 1:8). That is, Rabbi Yehoshua does not explicitly forbid the study of Greek – he just tells his students that there was so much else filling up their time. With all the Torah they had left to study, who had time for Greek?
I try to adopt Rabbi Yehoshua’s approach. When my daughters ask me if they can watch a video (or, as they sometimes put it, “Can we cut our nails now?”), I don’t say no. I tell them, “Wait, first we have to finish drawing a welcome sign for our Shabbat guests,” or “Let’s check and see if the dough has risen.” Sometimes we even read a book about the parsha, or an illustrated version of Pirkei Avot – though I wouldn’t say we do that all night and all day.
Last week when we went to the library, the girls picked out a short illustrated biography of Audrey Hepburn, which we read together at bedtime. I told them that Hepburn was a real person, and that she starred in many wonderful movies. “Can we see what she really looks like?” they asked me. And so I went to the bathroom and retrieved my phone. (I got the idea to leave my phone in the bathroom from the Babylonian sage Shmuel, who said that he would only study astrology when he was in the bathroom, since it’s forbidden to study Torah there. That said, he is also the one who boasted, “The paths of the stars are forbidden to me as the streets of [my city of] Nehardea” – which makes me wonder how much time he spent in the bathroom with his astrology books. Surely more time than I spend in the bathroom reading email?)
By the time I returned to the girls’ room, I had found a YouTube clip of the opening scene of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Not much happens in this scene – Audrey Hepburn meanders down Fifth Avenue looking in shop windows and eating a croissant from a paper bag, dressed in an elegant black dress with pearls, her hair adorned with a tiara. But for my daughters it was love at first sight. “She is so beautiful,” Liav told me. “Look, she has no spots on her face like you do, Ima,” Tagel added. “I wish I looked like her. Can I wear her dress when I get bigger? Why don’t you have a dress like that, Ima?”
I looked at elegant Audrey with her diamond tiara and was reminded of the continuation of the rabbinic conversation. Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in the cosmopolitan city of Caesaria, stated in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that “It is permissible for a person to teach his daughter Greek, because it is an adornment (literally a jewel) for her.” I watched my daughters try on their various headbands and hair ribbons, trying to figure out which one most resembled Audrey’s tiara. I saw them trying to imitate her gait, he gestures, her confidence and her cool. And I began to wonder if maybe these moments of watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were an adornment for my daughters too. As a child, I remember trying to puff my sleeves like Anne of Green Gables.” I recall prancing around the house singing “I Feel Pretty,” and pinning my hair into a bun like Mary Poppins. I did not watch a lot of television, but the movies I saw shaped my sense of what it meant to feel beautiful, and what kind of woman I might become.
Even so, there is not much time in our schedule which is neither night nor day. Perhaps the only time is twilight, that liminal time known in the Talmud as bein ha-shmashot, which according to one rabbinic opinion goes by as quickly as “the blink of an eye.” My children’s childhood, too, is going by so fast. My girls who still can’t cut their own nails are already trying on my jewelry and holding heads proudly as if they, too, had impossibly high cheekbones. They are learning, already at age five, the power of feeling beautiful. This is different from being beautiful, which I care about less. As the Talmud teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Blessed are Israel who were created in the image of God. An additional blessing is it that they know that they were created in the image of God.” It is the cognizance of their own beauty that I seek to cultivate in my children – and if Audrey Hepburn can help me out with that, I’m prepared to let my girls spend twilight in her company.