Rais­ing Raf­fi: The First Five Years

  • Review
By – June 6, 2022

Kei­th Gessen’s series of linked essays about first-time father­hood will res­onate with any­one who has raised a child, give pause to those who antic­i­pate doing so, and fas­ci­nate those who do not expect to have this par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence. Before the birth of his son, Raf­fi, becom­ing a par­ent seemed to Gessen akin to a trip to out­er space — excit­ing in con­cept, but will one ever real­ly go, and what does one actu­al­ly do when one arrives?

The read­er accom­pa­nies Gessen and his wife, Emi­ly, on this glo­ri­ous, ter­ri­fy­ing, often unnerv­ing, but always com­pelling, jour­ney as their squirmy, noisy infant begins to devel­op a per­son­al­i­ty and a style of his own, neces­si­tat­ing growth and a new world of under­stand­ing on the parts of his par­ents. Raf­fi becomes a charm­ing­ly ram­bunc­tious tod­dler and, lat­er, a ver­bal and inter­est­ing child. Each day is a new adven­ture and a chal­leng­ing learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty for both par­ent and child. Dif­fer­ing parental approach­es and expec­ta­tions arise and each deci­sion made is fraught with myr­i­ad pos­si­ble con­se­quences, each one loom­ing large. Dis­ci­pline issues are con­sid­ered — how much, what style, which meth­ods work bet­ter than others?

A school is cho­sen with care and with an attempt to bal­ance both per­son­al and soci­etal con­cerns. Gessen is a Russ­ian speak­er whose par­ents brought him from the Sovi­et Union in 1981 when the Unit­ed States Con­gress passed leg­is­la­tion that encour­aged Jew­ish emi­gra­tion from the Sovi­et Union, tied to trade agree­ments between the two nations. He care­ful­ly con­sid­ers the pros and cons of bring­ing his son up bilin­gual­ly and, ulti­mate­ly, choos­es to do so. When the COVID pan­dem­ic aris­es, it cer­tain­ly affects all seg­ments of soci­ety but has unex­pect­ed twists and a very par­tic­u­lar set of chal­lenges for new par­ents who are already scram­bling to find their foot­ing in an unfa­mil­iar world.

Gessen is unfail­ing­ly thought­ful and ana­lyt­ic as he describes his dai­ly life in an engag­ing and forth­right man­ner. He makes it clear that life with a child isn’t all obsta­cles and chal­lenges, although there are plen­ty of those; there’s a lot of fun, as well. Still, the respon­si­bil­i­ties are weighty even dur­ing the best of moments. He pro­vides no firm answers, but his expe­ri­ence encour­ages oth­er new par­ents, reas­sur­ing them that this daunt­ing task is worth­while and ful­fill­ing. He focus­es on the use of instinct and com­mon sense (although he read many par­ent­ing advice books), and he acknowl­edges his many frus­tra­tions and mis­takes, although it is very clear that even the mis­steps were made with love.

This is a jour­ney and an evo­lu­tion as read­ers watch Gessen devel­op into the father he wants to be. As they watch, they smile, they sigh, they admire, they shud­der (just a bit), and they enjoy watch­ing Raf­fi grow through his father’s lov­ing eyes.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions