Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!

The Power of Reading

This year my parents hosted their 44th annual Passover seder. I’m not old enough to have been to them all, but the only year I didn’t attend was when I was living in Israel. Thus, for me, this is how Passover seder is “done.” It’s the seder that I grew up with. I distinctly remember the first time I went to a different seder and realized that there are other ways of observing this Jewish tradition.

Many years ago my family started holding our seder on the Saturday night during Passover. Although not always the traditional first or even second night seder, it is ours. This year our seder took place on the sixth night. By bringing family together on the weekend, we are able to max-out the dining room that each year stretches into the living room, setting places for 29 people (not including Elijah). The Haggadah was the same as it always is with the additions over the years for Miriam’s Cup, a contemporary Dayeinu, and some other assorted embellishments.

However this year was different from other years because my niece (the only of her generation) is nearly 21 months old and now able to interact with all of us. Upon her birth, I enrolled my niece in PJ Library — an amazing program that sends a free Jewish book to children every month. My sister-in-law brought the most recent edition, and a current favorite, Company’s Coming: A Passover Lift-the-Flap Book.

What’s special about this book? The flaps make reading fun. The message is straight-forward. It walks the young reader through the elements of preparing for Passover, setting the table, and the items on the seder plate. Since we were setting the table while my mom read to her, it was fitting to show the actual items as they appeared in the book. We made reading come alive even more than the lift-the-flaps.

My favorite part was how she embraced the kippah. She put it on my dad’s head. She put it on her own head. She even put it on the dog’s head! Bless her heart; the dog was so patient, never moving while this adorable little girl dressed up for the seder. (Need proof? Check out the adorably cute photos below!)

If you have (or know) a little one, consider signing up for PJ Library. You may not love every book as much as my family loves this one, but I’m sure you’ll find a gem of your own. In the Bay Area, sign up online or visit their site to find the PJ Library nearest you.


Purim: Not Just for Kids

A few years ago, I went to my niece’s bat mitzvah and was delighted that they had a Mardi Gras theme. The room was decked out with tents, each one housing costumes for the guests. With lots of beads and masks, partygoers went into the tents and came out looking mysterious. I thought it was cute to celebrate Mardi Gras at a bat mitzvah. Then I realized it was all about Purim.

It was amusing to see the merriment. Guests were joking about characters from the Megillah, the Book of Esther that’s read on Purim: The beautiful queen Esther, the “starter wife” Vashti, the silly king Ahashverosh, the villain Haman, and the wonderful hero Mordechai.

I was so amused to think of the Purim story and see some similarity to Mardi Gras. If you took Mardi Gras and mixed it with Halloween, it would look something like Purim. Purim is a fun-filled holiday with a wonderful story of good guys, bad guys, kings, and queens — and it has a kind ending. But I had always thought of it as a holiday for kids.

This year, our synagogue is putting together a Purim program using popular music. It is based on “Saturday Night Fever” and a cast singing mostly Bee Gee’s music. Songs like “Jive Talkin’” (to Ahashverosh) and “More Than a Woman” are turning out to be quite adaptable to the holiday. I had thought that so many aspects of Judaism were for kids, but our community is having fun merging music from the 1970s with the ancient story of love and rescue. And the kids are getting a lesson in American culture, singing the infamous song by Kool & the Gang, “Celebrate Pu-rim come on!”

If you are looking for a fun Saturday night party with modern themes, and maybe some alcohol, check out your community’s Purim festivities. There are events for young and old, hip and square, kids and adults, everyone! You might just have a blast! Now if you will excuse me, I have to go dust off my disco shoes…

Rethinking the Bar or Bat Mitzvah

A rabbinical student recently wrote a post for Kveller called Ban the Bar Mitzvah. In the post, he argues that bar and bat mitzvahs generally fail for four main reasons. They don’t accomplish much, they aren’t part of Jewish tradition or continuity, the money parents pay for the bar/bat mitzvah keep synagogues afloat which would otherwise drown, and it makes parents look like hypocrites since their children are learning skills and taking part in ritual and worship that adults don’t know or regularly take part in.

The article was posted just as the Reform Movement is beginning their “bnai mitzvah revolution”, hoping to help children and families find more relevance in the process and prayer services, and as a larger attempt to retain youth in congregational life after the bar/bat mitzvah is over.

There have been dozens of posts written in response on how to re-imagine the bar/bat mitzvah. Many argue that the bar/bat mitzvah may seem to be all about a lavish party, but in reality it can be a transformative experience for the child and family. College students look back at pivotal Jewish experiences of their youth and name having a bar/bat mitzvah as being a top, identity building time. Others have pointed out that the time the child spends with clergy one-on-one and in small groups preparing for this rite of passage is priceless. Family education is part of many congregational programs as children prepare for bar/bat mitzvah, offering parents the opportunity to explore topics that perhaps will (re-)kindle interest in worship, learning, or performing mitzvot (commandments).

Perhaps the point of the Banning Bar Mitzvah blog post was to force us to re-think why we spend so much time, effort and money around this one- or two-day affair. Children spend countless hours in tutoring to prepare for their day. When “successful,” the preparation and effort stays with a young person for years and years to come. Families are touched deeply. “Mitzvah projects” (projects focusing on community service and/or social justice in the child’s local community or in the world at large) have left an impact and sometimes are continued long after the synagogue service and party are over. However, if we want the bar/bat mitzvah to be more meaningful, then perhaps we should look at how we bring family members who aren’t Jewish to this sacred time. There are educators and clergy who spend special time speaking to interfaith families about the role for their family members who aren’t Jewish and who work creatively and with empathy and openness to involve parents and grandparents, from both sides of the family, in the service.

One great way that parents can find more meaning in this process, especially if they didn’t grow up having experienced bar/bat mitzvah personally, is to access our online resources around this theme. We will share eight sessions which will teach you more about the meaning of the worship service and rituals and which can help you think about how to bring deeper spirituality and connectedness to this process for your pre-teen. We suggest parents access this material as early as when your child is in 4th grade and you are starting to wrap your heads and hearts around what this can all mean. If you would like log-in information to look at this course content, just email me, Rabbi Ari, at arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Bedtime Routines

I joined the team at InterfaithFamily just 9 weeks ago and am excited to share the resources of this fantastic organization with the San Francisco Bay Area community. There are so many aspects of my work that I find valuable for me individually, in my extended family, and in my professional life.

As I reflect on the resources of InterfaithFamily and share examples of the work that we do with friends and strangers on the street, I often site one of the sessions of our class, Raising a Child with Judaism.

Attending graduate school for a Master of Arts Degree in Jewish Education taught me that routine in the classroom (and in life) is important. Working with children for the past 20 years, I know from experience that setting the tone for what comes next can make all the difference in the success (or failure) of the next activity.

I have an 18-month-old niece and have been in awe of my brother and sister-in-law for over a year. Why? Because from about the age of 5 months, at precisely 7:00pm every night, they carry my niece to her crib, put her down and walk away. That’s it. She’s down for the night. They make it look so easy!

I know it’s not easy. Over the summer on an extended visit, I learned there was more to it than the magic hour of 7:00pm. I witnessed their evenings and learned the secret to their success: routine and expectation. For my niece, dinner followed by playtime, then a bath followed by quiet time leads to successful bedtime at 7:00pm, sharp.

What does this have to do with InterfaithFamily? I encourage parents raising young children to take our online class, Raising a Child with Judaism. The class is designed to help parents explore Jewish traditions that may fit into their existing lives. We don’t have answers to all of life’s secrets; but we can help you find connections that are meaningful to you.

I hope that one day in the future InterfaithFamily/Your Community will expand into Southern California and that my brother and sister-in-law will take the class. If they do, they will learn more about Jewish bedtime rituals like saying the Shema and Hashkiveinu. They may try on the ritual as part of their bedtime routine. It may even “fit” and next time I visit perhaps I’ll say the Shema with my niece. It may not “fit” and I accept that. I look forward to sharing other Jewish experiences with them throughout her life.

I encourage everyone to learn a little more, explore Jewish life, and try on something new. Happy 2013!

The Power of Prayer – Helping Children through Anxiety and Stress

I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.

Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.

After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.

In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.

We Must Be Doing Something Right

Yesterday my 8-year-old son came home and told my husband a troubling story about a comment another child made to him at his after school program.

Apparently, during a conversation with some other children, my son mentioned that he was Jewish. This other child said “Yeah, well, Jewish people are weird.” At this point in hearing the story, I think I began holding my breath. My initial reaction was, “Oh no, I’m not prepared to deal with this yet! What do I say? How do I help him deal with this?” Panic set in. I asked my husband what he had said to our son when he told him. My husband’s response was to acknowledge that the other child was ignorant and probably didn’t know any other Jewish people — and left it at that.

This morning I asked my son about the comment and how he reacted. He said he told the kid, “DUDE, that’s not nice! Saying that hurts my feelings.” WHOO HOO! I was so proud of him for standing up for himself and told him so. Then he told me he didn’t understand why the other child had said this. “Aren’t Jews exactly the same as Christians?”

Ignorance is a hard concept to explain to an 8-year-old. We talked a bit more about how there are people out there who sometimes don’t like you because you believe something different than they do. You should listen to what they have to say and, if it’s said because they don’t know any better, then you have to stand up for your beliefs like he did with this child.

If anyone has had any similar experiences, or has any advice on how to talk to children about these issues, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, I’m just proud of my son for standing up for himself!

Customize Your Hanukkah Celebrations

Our friends over at Jewish Holidays in a Box just posted this to their blog. And, because it’s now November 1, and, because there’s less than 6 weeks until Hanukkah, and, because the post is filled with great ideas for all sorts of families, we’ve decided to cross-post it here. (It was written by marketer/teacher/writer Ellen Zimmerman, who founded Jewish Holidays in a Box to support families who want to lead more joyous home holiday observances with less stress.) Enjoy!

Making your own Hanukkah menorah can be easier than you may think!

Our expanding, diverse family just expanded again. Mazal tov to the newlyweds! So as each Jewish holiday rolls around, I wonder what this huge mix of ages, interests, and backgrounds might enjoy.

For the first time at Rosh Hashanah dinner, for example, we used Bugles (the salty, crunchy snack food) to pretend that we were blowing the shofar, through a series of tekiahs, shevarims, and teruahs. Everyone at the table, except the baby, played along.

One Passover, we wrote new lyrics to a popular tune (“You Are My Sunshine”) as a welcome-to-our-Seder song, then played it on banjo and guitar. We handed out song sheets, so everyone could sing along with us at what might have been the first-ever bluegrass Seder.

As you think about celebrating Hanukkah this year, what does your family care about most? And how can you draw on their talents and interests to create a rich, multi-textured holiday? Do you have:

  • Avid bakers?
  • Younger kids who love to color?
  • Older kids who can make truly fabulous decorations?
  • Photographers and videographers?
  • Woodworkers?
  • Lego-loving kids and adults?

There are endless ways to draw on their unique abilities – from simple, quickie projects to more complicated ones. In bringing them into the preparations through their passions, you add to the joy.

Hanukkah cookies, quick or fancy

If you have bakers in your group, find a recipe for classic Hanukkah sugar cookies or just slice some rounds from ready-to-bake cookie dough. To decorate, use blue and silver sprinkles, a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, or colored sugar.

Or use the fun and easy stained glass painting technique: mix egg yolk with a little water and add a few drops of food coloring to small batches of the yolk mixture. Provide new watercolor paint brushes for each bowl and watch the creativity bloom. After the cookies are painted, pop them into the oven.

Got ambitious and experienced bakers? Try making your own jelly-filled doughnuts, sufganiyot. (Try this yummy-sounding recipe for sufganiyot.) [For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that this is far above my current abilities. One day. Maybe.]

Capturing the moments

Ask family photographers and videographers to preserve holiday prep, candle lighting, and games. For example, budding videographers can capture, then edit a three-minute show featuring baking, table setting, drawing, and present wrapping. Invite them to present their show one evening after you light the candles.

We haven’t gotten organized enough to do this ourselves, but I want to start getting a group shot at family gatherings. The key is planning ahead to identify a place in the house where everyone can fit into the shot, get the camera and tripod ready, and review how to set the timer. Is the best moment at the beginning, before the flow of food and games and candles? Or with everyone surrounding platters of hot latkes, just before they’re served? If you have a technique that works for this, please share. I love the idea of taking an annual shot that becomes a Hanukkah history of your family.

Building with Legos and wood

If you’re a Lego-loving family, check out these two posts from the remarkable Joanna Brichetto to make a lightable menorah and a flameless menorah.

Do you have a passion for woodworking and some tools? You can make your own wooden menorah. My husband experimented with a prototype using a piece of red oak, but you could make it from a piece of a 2 x 4. Here, he drilled holes for the nuts with a Forstner bit, then glued nuts into the holes. To create the shamash (the higher candle), he used a piece of 7/8-diameter wooden dowel. First, he drilled a 7/8” hole in the wood to hold the dowel, then glued in the dowel, and finally, drilled a hole in the top of the dowel for the nut. (NOTE: This prototype is far from perfect. And I apologize to my husband for showing it here. See how one of the holes cuts into the beveled edge? I didn’t, but he sure did. Still, you get the concept. He donated the other, more perfect menorahs he made to soldiers serving abroad.)

Want some other ideas? Just do an online search for “make your own menorah.”

Decorating for Hanukkah

All of these are ways to call out the artistic spirit of your family.

  • Coloring pictures
  • Making a huge banner
  • Creating a centerpiece
  • Assembling a long, colorful paper chain
  • Stringing colorful ribbons around the room

In our Hanukkah in a Box , we provide coloring pages, plus orange, blue, and white curling ribbons to make your home festive, as well as other decorating ideas. We also include Hanukkah napkins. Just dressing up your dinner table with these says, “It’s a party!”

In our Hanukkah Games Box , we have a menorah cut-and-color activity that little hands can color and “light” every night. There’s also a design-your-own banner that can end up a dramatic six-foot-long piece of art, suspended from ribbon. It can be decorated simply, just with crayons. Or it can be masterfully designed and layered with fabrics, buttons, glitter glue, holographic papers, origami, markers, or any other design tools that your artists prefer.

Musicians lead a songfest

If you are lucky enough to have singers or musicians in your midst, you can do a little advance prep and get them a CD of Hanukkah songs or sheet music. Music teachers will often help recommend music at the right level of complexity. Or explore www.jewishmusic.com. I’ve purchased some of my favorite books of Jewish and Israeli music from them, like “Harvest of Jewish Song” and “The Ultimate Jewish Piano Book.”

Your musicians can then lead the group in singing the classic tunes and introduce you to new songs.

Got songwriters? Ask them to come up with new lyrics to a tune everyone knows or pen a whole new creation to unveil.

Bottom line: you can showcase many of the talents in your family to make this a DIY Hanukkah, filled with warmth and bright memories.

For more free holiday ideas, sign up at www.JewishHolidaysInABox.com.