The Numbers:13 Project
It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites. Numbers 25:13
When I think about all the people I knew when I was a kid, it is pretty amazing to me how many of them had parents – fathers, most usually – who were businessmen. In the small neighbor where I grew up, there was a doctor, a cop and an ad exec, but mostly the dads owned businesses. Our middle-class community depended on the market for glass containers, lighting, kosher meat, uniforms, gemstones and, in our family, office supplies and furniture.
Almost all of my friends went to college and almost none of them entered the family business. Some (like my sister) tried for a while, but most (like my brother and me) never had much interest in the “shop.”
I never did a scientific survey (nor even an unscientific one), but my two grandfathers made their way through this world working with their hands, and their children showed no particular interest or aptitude for that aspect of securing a livelihood. I am certain that you live in circumstances that benefit from my grandfathers’ trades, but I am equally certain almost none of you have contemporaries who followed in their footsteps.
The notion that children would follow their parents into the family business used to be pretty usual. You only need to look to the last names conferred on families with working-class origins when surnames began to emerge to know how prevalent it was to be defined by the family business. Smith, Porter, Wagner, Carpenter – these are very transparent English names. Schechter (butcher), Schumacher (cobbler), Weiner (vintner), Dayan (judge) are names common in the Jewish community with origins in European languages.
(Of course, there are other origins of surnames. Slaves often had their enslavers’ names imposed on them. Many cultures, including Jewish culture, used the name of a family elder as the last name. Geography often identified a family. And so many others.)
The process of choosing a profession has changed multiple times over the thousand years or more of identifying family names. But it is a pretty radical notion to consider that my livelihood could be defined by family heritage. My ancestors landed on these shores with the surname “Melamedmen.” It is a Hebrew-Yiddish mash-up that means, literally, “teacher-man.” In the hierarchy of Jewish scholarship, the “teacher-man” was a generalist, usually providing the foundation of basic Jewish literacy to children. While we have plenty of Jewish educators in our extended family, none of us wound up in the (honorable!) profession of teaching Bible to fourth-graders.
Speaking of the Bible, I imagine the “pact of priesthood for all time” mentioned above seemed like a pretty sweet deal back then. For certain, the responsibility of tending to the ritual life of the people by maintaining their right relationship with God was profound. But the priests were sustained by the rest of the people (as part of their home tribe of Levites) and enjoyed the privileges of office. They were limited in their choices for marriage and could not own real property, but the family business was secure and sustained.
But “all time” continues today. The designation of “priest” is preserved among the Jewish population by surnames that are remarkably accurate, diluted though the lineage may be. Any variation of Cohen, Kahn or Katz (an abbreviation of “righteous priest”) indicates a legacy of priesthood. Unless the name was adopted to replace an undesired surname, anyone whose family legacy includes this name is in some way presumed to be in the pact of priesthood for all time – the family business.
We live in an entrepreneurial world. Though work has undeniable dignity, the notion that you are assigned a form of labor by something or someone external to your own efforts is the stuff of tyranny or dystopian novels. My parents and grandparents were proud of the family businesses, but they never expressed the expectation that any of their offspring would follow in their footsteps.
I carry a title that reveals my career choice to the world. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked if any of my children were going to follow me into the rabbinate, the “family business.” I never responded as many rabbis do with “I hope so” or as some rabbis do with “I hope not.” They followed the values they learned from my wife and me and have found a way to serve and sustain, each in their own idiom, as the generations did before them.
Our American culture sometimes tries to assign expectation to the children on the basis of their parents’ professions. In entertainment, politics, big businesses and sports especially, a marquee name is not only bankable, but definitive. But having a parent who was a senator, a point guard or a real estate magnate is no guarantee of anything other than fame. There are no more pacts of profession for all time.