Newspaper columnist Maureen Dowd gave voice to millions of parents when she wrote recently that she worried about her ten-year-old nephew. He idolizes disgraced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who is now accused of protecting a player who assaulted young children. Dowd wrote movingly of the difficult conversation her nephew’s parents were planning to have with him: of the difficulty in breaking the news that a popular “idol” is less praiseworthy than was once thought.

This echoed remarks I heard recently, that parents all across the United States were forced to try to explain to their children the bizarre reasons for another celebrity divorce. In both cases, I was left with a strange feeling that I was out of step with much of America.

I was left with a strange feeling that I was out of step with much of AmericaFor my kids don’t know who these celebrities are, and my husband and I have no intention of telling them. And, while my kids and many of their friends do enjoy sports and music and the latest books, my husband and I have also chosen to limit their access to much of popular culture. Closely related to this, we have worked hard to help them look for heroes outside of the performers and athletes who dominate today’s headlines. The people we teach them to admire are not individuals who command much time on the nation’s televisions.

The Jewish Home

This feeling of difference is rooted in Jewish history. In ancient times, the Jewish people worshipped G‑d all together, at one central location: our holy Temple in Jerusalem. In Hebrew the Temple was called the “Beit Hamikdash”—the “House where things are made Holy”—and the Torah teaches us that G‑d’s presence was stronger there than anywhere else on Earth. Each day, Jews brought offerings to G‑d in the Temple, and basked in His presence together.

In the year 70, the mighty Roman Empire destroyed the Beit Hamikdash, and the Jews of that generation faced a dilemma. How could they continue to worship? How could they continue to host G‑d—to provide a home for His presence here on earth—without the Temple? The rabbis of the time reassured their fellow Jews: the Beit Hamikdash may be destroyed, but each of us can make a smaller Beit Hamikdash, called a mikdash me’at—a little House of Holiness—in our own home. By creating a Jewish atmosphere, each of us can transform our homes into a mini-Temple: a place where we worship G‑d, and where the divine presence can reside.

What does this mean in practical terms? For me, it means that a lot of the craziness that passes for “famous” these days doesn’t make it inside my front door. No celebrity magazines. No gossip about the latest star to go into rehab. We try to maintain the attitude that our home is just too important to bring these things inside. Actually, we go a bit further than many Americans: we don’t even watch television. I know there are some very good educational shows that we’re missing, but both my husband and I recognize that there are times we are too tired to make the effort to guide our children’s viewing habits, and we worry that our kids would end up watching some programs with less-than-exalted messages that we’d like them to avoid. Overall, we try to make our home a place where people act with dignity: where we engage in behavior that elevates, rather than the opposite.

It is human nature to want to look up to peopleJewish educator and author Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller explains this concept beautifully in her book More Precious than Pearls, which discusses the famous Jewish poem “A Woman of Valor,” recited in Jewish homes each Friday night. The poem describes the ideal Jewish woman, as a metaphor for the entire Jewish people. The woman of valor (really, the Jewish people) is a businesswoman; she works tirelessly to provide for her household, she is G‑d-fearing, she is loved. The imagery is puzzling, though. The poem describes her throughout as a merchant: she is “like merchant ships; she brings her bread from afar.” What does the poem mean in describing the ideal Jew as a trader, bringing bread from “afar”?

Rebbetzin Heller provides a penetrating answer. The bread that is described in the poem isn’t only physical bread: it refers not only to physical nourishment, but also to spiritual sustenance. And in describing the trading with foreign merchants that the ideal Jewish woman performs, the poem is saying that we can indeed bring bread from “afar”—meaning, from the wider culture—so long as we are discerning traders: as long as we make good deals, importing only that which strengthens us, and leaving that which weakens.

How are we to know what aspects of culture to import into our homes? What will make us stronger, and what will have the opposite effect? Here is where the Jewish definition of “heroes”—as distinct from how that word is seen in the outside world—can help us.

When Maureen Dowd describes a football coach as her nephew’s “idol,” the word sets (Jewish) alarm bells ringing. Idol is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as “an image used as an object of worship” and also “something visible but without substance,” like an apparition. It has religious connotations, and denotes a very strong devotion to something or someone who doesn’t really merit it.

It is human nature to want to look up to people. Children, in particular, have a need for heroes. They tend to see the world as black and white, and long for “good guys” to admire. But Jewish tradition cautions us to keep our values grounded: to admire people who are notable for their good deeds, instead of for superficial, or even salacious, reasons.

Jewish Heroes

When my husband and I were first looking for a school in which to enroll our children, we visited the Jewish school that we eventually selected. The classrooms were just as cheerful and busy as those in the public schools we had attended as kids, but one difference between this Jewish school and the schools we knew from our own experiences struck us right away. Each time the person showing us around took us into a classroom, the students inside would rise to their feet as a gesture of respect. At first we were surprised, but the school official explained to us: Judaism teaches us to honor those older than us, to honor our parents, and to honor those who excel in learning and good deeds. The school was merely inculcating those values.

Judaism teaches us to honor those older than us, to honor our parents, and to honor those who excel in learning and good deedsThat made such an impression on me. My kids were very young at the time, and I resolved to try to make our home one where these timeless Jewish qualities are the ones that are admired. Several years on, I’m still trying. I make an effort to mention examples of good deeds, to get my kids excited about the many examples of selfless behavior, caring and actions on behalf of others that fill our community. To admire the neighbor who works with handicapped children. To laud the woman who cooks lunch for our synagogue each week; to congratulate the local rabbi who volunteers his time to tutor local kids in Jewish subjects. Sometimes we’re out of step with the news that’s fueling the national conversation, but I feel good that the “heroes” my kids are learning to admire are people who try to make the world a better place.

As a Jew, I’m aware of what my home can become: a place of holiness, a successor to the Temple in Jerusalem. And, as in the poem “A Woman of Valor,” I am a merchant: constantly evaluating what gets let in, what helps us enrich—not undermine—our holy space.