Providing quality experiences to enrich the lives of the community at large with award-winning preschool programs, summer camps and a wide array of enriching activities. JCC Chicago provides the opportunities to bring Jewish values to the lives of everyone from infants to adults.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful and intermarried heroine of Purim.
Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.
As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?
Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).
The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.
Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.
But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.
When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.
Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.
Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.
Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.
She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.
She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.
What do these two things have in common? Both are reminders that soon, my little boy will not be so little anymore.
The other day I felt good about how I handled Sammy’s challenging political questions about the Sochi games. We discussed Jonathan Pollard when Edward Snowden came up again in conversation. We talked about the parallels between Russia’s anti-gay policies and Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy during a discussion about the price paid at an auction last year for Jesse Owen’s gold medal. In fact, I was feeling so good about having managed the Winter Games’ teachable moments that I began to think that it was time for some parental high-fives.
Then three tanned and topless females wearing only thong bikini bottoms and big smiles appeared in my mailbox. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue had arrived. I knew that many men anticipated the arrival of this once-a-year celebration of women frolicking in the sand and surf, but as the mother of a 9-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was neither filled with anticipation for what was inside this magazine nor was I celebrating it.
But the arrival of these women on my doorstep was my fault. I was the one who during Sammy’s school magazine fundraiser said it was okay for him to get the “regular” edition of Sports Illustrated (S.I.), in addition to S.I. for Kids. I thought reading about sports would be better than surfing the Internet for sports news. I forgot that the swimsuit issue was part of the subscription package.
I cancelled my subscription to S.I. 26 years ago, before heading to college. See, I too was a sports-crazy kid. I would read my weekly sports bible lying on my bedroom floor. I studied the swimsuit issue with a mix of amazement (women really looked like that!) and curiosity (was it possible to visit the exotic locations in the pictures?). I had a good idea what was inside the 50th anniversary edition.
But on this day, I did not look at the magazine with amazement or curiosity. I looked at it with a mother’s eye, a Jewish mother’s eye, and thought, there’s no way my kid is looking at this. I try not to be a helicopter parent, and I work to embrace the blessing of the skinned knee, but I’m still a mom that wants to shelter her son from some things for as long as possible – like barely clothed women with long legs and big breasts.
At the risk of sounding like my parents, kids grow-up so fast. I want to preserve Sammy’s innocence for as long as possible. I’m glad he still thinks kissing in movies is gross – he covers his eyes when Aragorn smooches Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and like that he has “girls who are friends” instead of girlfriends.
With this in mind and because Sammy was at school and had not yet seen that S.I. arrived, I hid the magazine in my office under legal pads and file folders and anything else I could find. I’m not proud that I took his mail or that I wasn’t truthful when Sammy said, “I wonder why I didn’t get Sports Illustrated this week.” As a Jewish parent, I know I should be working a little harder than I am to model walking in God’s ways.
But, come on, I think a little wiggle room should be granted on the eighth and ninth commandments for moms and dads who need to bend the rules in the name of responsible parenting. I mean sometimes a mom has to do what a mom has to do.
I fudged the commandments to protect my child, and to prevent him from breaking the tenth commandment – thou shall not covet. I knew the photos in the magazine might lead to lots of coveting of swimsuit beauties, including Israeli model Bar Refaeli who was featured in the former cover girl section. As I looked at the picture of her, I imagined Sammy using the line, “But she’s Jewish,” to convince me to let him hang her poster in his room. As if somehow being Jewish would negate the fact that she wasn’t wearing much clothing.
The arrival of this magazine really sent me into a tizzy in a way that questions about Putin, terrorism and gay rights in Russia did not. Why? I’m not naïve. I know that some day soon Sammy will be thinking and looking at girls as more than just friends. I know that, in a few years, he will be a teenager with raging hormones.
I was reminded of all these things that as a parent, I wished to put off, when the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Date Assignment Request Form arrived in the mail. Realizing that the teen years and all the developmental changes that they bring were not as far off as I liked to think triggered my mama bear response to the magazine. Taken together, the two items made me realize that, in three, years, my little boy would not be so little anymore.
At the same time that Sammy is called to the Torah to accept his obligation to fulfill Jewish laws and be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), he will be becoming more interested in bodies and sexuality – things that I find more difficult to discuss than politics. But I can’t stop the turning towards adulthood. It is coming, in many ways and sooner than I want.
I know this, but I still want to prolong Sammy’s innocence as long as I can. Which is why, I deposited the magazine in the recycling bin. I’m not yet ready to address the challenging topics raised by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But I know I need to do it. I just need some additional time to think about what to say.
You know, in the Ve’ahavta part, where it says: These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you’re sitting in your house, when you’re walking by the way, and when you’re lying down, and when you’re rising up. On and on it goes. These are the Torah’s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.
But that line about teaching God’s commandments diligently to our children? That’s a specific directive to us parents. Whether we are raising kids in an interfaith home or in one with two Jewish adults, the expectation is clear–teach the kids about Judaism and teach them with diligence! This makes me anxious.
Think about the endless list of lessons “good parents” are supposed to be sure to impart to their children: good manners, respect for others, healthy eating habits, general knowledge of the world. I remember, when my now-10-year-old was in about his sixth month, people started asking me if I was teaching him baby sign language. My heart would pound. I would think, in list fashion: I’ve started solid foods; I’ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read “Goodnight Moon” every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for music…must I teach him sign language too? It seemed like one more task in an overwhelming, unending series of parental responsibilities.
As I thought about how I wanted to teach my children about being Jewish, I decided to start with Shabbat. We began lighting candles every Friday night in the manner our Rabbi had taught us–all of us “gathering the light” by sweeping our hands above the flames three times and then covering our eyes while we said the blessing. As my children became old enough to join us in these rituals, I found that my personal behaviors had changed. I would gather the light, then, rather than cover my eyes, I would peek. Just as a toddler playing hide-and-seek might open her fingers to peer out between them while counting, I was peeking at my kids! Rather than enjoying the serenity of that darkened moment of prayer, I was staring at them–were they covering their eyes? Were they saying the blessing? (I know they know this blessing!) It had become my weekly parenting test: Were my kids doing Judaism right? Had I diligently taught them how to observe Shabbat?
This was not working for me. I had come to dread that sundown moment of disappointment if say, they were poking one another instead of focusing on the holiness of the moment. I started to call them out on it. “You were not covering your eyes!” to which they would reply, “Mom, how could you know we weren’t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?”
Touché. Smart kids.
And so this is what my kids taught me about their Jewishness: they would learn by watching me. If Shabbat blessings were important to me, eventually they would see that they were important. If I became engaged in the community of our synagogue, they would find value in that community. If I continued to peek, the jig would be up.
Now, this is how I do Judaism with due diligence–at home, I focus on what is meaningful to me: lighting candles, eating Challah on Friday nights, hosting family meals for the holidays. My kids watch. And participate. And learn.
When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.
Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious. As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass. The Valentine’s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.
My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life. This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life. She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.
So Isabel’s first American Valentine’s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentine’s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier. We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.
Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course). But that was a minor happening in the day’s festivities.
When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away. Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls. When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.
I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day. They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending. They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be. They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.
But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each other’s lockers.
That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.” But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way. So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too. Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue. We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate. And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal. Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about editing the scary stuff from Bible stories when I read them to my 5-year-old. I acknowledged that the time when she starts understanding the scary stuff, both in The Bible and in real life, is fast approaching. However, for as long as I am in control of the stories, my first instinct is to try to find an age-appropriate way to tell them, and at this age what feels most appropriate is a telling without violence. Since I wrote that post, the universe has reminded me that the notion of control is a luxury, and often an illusion.
About a week after my post, Melissa Schorr wrote a lovely reflection on protecting childhood innocence in The Boston Globe Magazine. In the article, she talks about the heartache she felt when she had to explain the Holocaust to her 8-year-old before she was ready to do so. The piece is also about coming to understand her parents’ choice to shield her from evil as a child, and the rare gift of being able to do so.
In response, KJ Dell’Antonia wrote a piece on The New York Times website about how she discusses tragedy with her kids. Dell’Antonia argues that if you want to choose how tragedy is explained to your kids, you can’t wait for the right time. She points out that there rarely is a time that will feel right, and that we often don’t have a say in the timing of our kids’ discoveries. The article encourages parents to seize opportunities to talk about tragedy when they arise.
Reading these, I first wondered if my declaration to protect my child from Biblical evil was a wimpy one. But I don’t think that that was the point. These two articles remind us that we aren’t really in charge of everything our children see and hear. Because of this, we need a strategy so that when our kids ask tough questions we know what we want to say, and aren’t deciding in the heat of the moment.
And then, on Friday, something awful happened. A 14-year old boy fatally shot his 9-year-old brother inside their Boston home. I do not know the intimate details, but I do know that it is a terrible tragedy. My heart breaks for the boys’ family and friends.
On Saturday, I took Ruthie with me to a community meeting. The meeting was not about the incident, so the speaker caught me off guard by beginning the meeting with a report on the shooting and a moment of silence in remembrance of the young boy.
On our way home, Ruthie asked me what the man said about the boy and the gun. So I recounted the facts that I knew she had already heard in a direct way – that a boy was playing with a gun, and another boy was shot. I waited to see if she had a response. She asked me why there was a gun in their house, and I told her that some people have guns in their houses, but that guns are very dangerous, and that kids should never ever play with them. I reminded her that I work with a lot of Moms who are trying to help protect kids from guns. She was done with her questions and shifted the conversation to the rules around gunplay at school, and we had a great conversation about how we both feel about gunplay.
As we pulled into our driveway, I felt the ache that Schorr described about the potential for Ruthie’s childhood bubble to shrink, even with me trying to blow new air into it at the other end. Ruthie seems fine – she got the facts she needed, and she seems much more nervous today about the Louis Sachar teacher who turns children into apples than about guns.
I still think I might edit The Bible stories for a little bit longer, since I hope to nurture my girls’ early romance with them before jumping into the tougher parts. But I am going to try to be ready for those moments that I need to seize, when the best way to make my girls feel secure is to tell them difficult things in the context of what they mean for our lives. All the while, I will be trying my best to be a reliable primary source as they try to make sense of the world.
Sammy and I have been talking about more than sports during the Sochi games.
On Thursday night, Cameron was working late and instead of reading the next chapter in The Lord of the Rings: The Returnof the King after dinner, Sammy wanted to watch coverage of the opening day of the Olympics. Sammy, a huge sports fan, had been eagerly anticipating the start of the games.
While Thursday was the official start of the Winter Olympics, there was not much to watch. We saw the preliminary rounds of slopestyle snowboarding and the team competition in figure skating. With a lack of events to cover, I assumed NBC would fill their primetime coverage with travel and culture stories, and athlete profiles designed to whet viewers’ appetites before Friday’s Opening Ceremony.
But instead of the fluffy filler, we found ourselves listening to Bob Costas talk with David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The New Yorker, and Vladimir Pozner, a Russian-American journalist about the hot political issues surrounding the games – LGBT rights, Edward Snowden, terrorism. I thought Sammy would be uninterested in these more adult segments of the show, but that was not the case. He was as engaged in the discussion of current events as he was in the early rounds of the ice skating and alpine competitions.
Some background on Sammy. He is a very curious child, and he loves to learn. While sports, Legos, and reading are particular passions, he wants to know more about most things.
Not surprisingly, Sammy fired off a bunch of questions. “Why does Putin want to let Snowden stay in Russia? Why are they worried about terrorism? What kind of anti-gay laws did Russia pass?”
So much for powering down our brains before bed while watching skaters twirl and snowboarders jump. This was going to be a thinking kind of night.
“I guess Putin thinks Snowden has valuable information on the American government,” I replied to the first question. “They are concerned about terrorism because there is an area in Russia called Chechnya where some residents want full independence. There has been fighting on-and-off since the 1990s. Sometimes the people who want to separate from Russia do things that hurt innocent people like attack theaters or schools. They do this in order to put pressure on the Russian government to recognize them as an independent state. The have a lot of security at the games because they want to keep everyone safe,” I said.
On to question number three. “Do you remember what I told you the word gay is sometimes used to describe?” I asked. Sammy shook his head no. “The word gay is sometimes used to describe people who love someone of the same gender,” I said.
“Like George and Alex?”
“Right, like George and Alex.” George and Alex are our good friends, who happen to be a same-sex couple. Sammy feels very close to them. When we talk about marriage equality or gay-rights cases before the Supreme Court, we relate the discussion to George and Alex so that Sammy understands how these issues affect people in our life.
“So, what the journalists are saying is that Russia is not friendly towards people who are gay,” I continued. “There is a lot of discrimination, and recently, the Russian government passed laws that essentially make it illegal for anyone to suggest or promote that people in same-sex relationships have equal rights.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” he said. But before Sammy could ask any follow-up questions, figure skating came back on. I was saved from giving other details for the moment, but not for long. Sammy often thinks about things for awhile. I knew additional inquiries would come over the coming days.
After Sammy had gone to bed that night, I found that his questions stayed with me, and I thought about the many parallels to events in Jewish history. Snowden reminded me of Jonathan Pollard; the Jewish-American civilian intelligence analyst convicted of passing classified information to Israel.
The discussion of terrorism made me think of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the terrorist acts committed by Israeli and Palestinian groups in their struggles for statehood. The actions of organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas are well-known, but the operations of the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization are less familiar to some. (The Irgun believed that it was justifiable to use any means necessary, including acts of terror, to establish a Jewish state. Irgun operations included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946 and the Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948, which killed over 100 residents of a Palestinian Arab village.)
My mind moved from terrorism to gay-rights and the parallels to the many periods of persecution that populate Jewish history – slavery in Egypt, near annihilation in Persia, battles for religious freedom against the Seleucid and Roman Empires, the Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms, Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism. And what about Hitler’s attempts to exclude Blacks and Jews from the competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?
It was clear to me that the hot topics surrounding the Sochi games were issues Jews had seen play out before. I considered how to connect current events to Jewish history in a way that did not ignore the complexities, but was still understandable to a grade-schooler. I decided to use the parallels to teach Sammy about his heritage, remind him of the values we aspire to live by, and explain how we can learn from the past in order to work towards a better future.
Sammy’s Sochi questions have not yet resurfaced, but when they do, I am ready for a detailed discussion. These Olympics offer more than outstanding feats of athleticism. They present an opportunity for a Jewish history and values lesson.
We started our Shabbat ritual, in part, to teach Sammy to count his blessings, big and small.
On our flight home from our Christmas visit with Cameron’s family in Vermont, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journalabout raising children to appreciate things big and small, and the tangible benefits of giving thanks including a more positive outlook on life, less depression and higher GPAs. I could not help but think how the story’s placement was perfectly timed.
Sammy had just spent the fourth quarter of 2013 collecting presents. In October, he turned nine. While he did not have a birthday party (he celebrated with one friend at a hockey game), he did acquire enough gift cards to buy himself an iPad mini and a Rainbow Loom.
Hanukkah arrived in November, and the eight nights of lights also included eight nights of books and tennis equipment. Gifts that nourished Sammy’s mind and supported a healthy activity seemed like less materialistic choices.
In December, Santa’s sleigh arrived at my in-laws filled with colored rubber bands for the Rainbow Loom, Legos, books and merchandise from the fan shop of his favorite NFL team. There were plenty of trinkets in Sammy’s stocking too.
There were moments during these months when, Cameron and I surveyed Sammy’s celebratory loot and felt as if we were losing the battle against consumerism. We questioned whether our efforts to raise a child who appreciated all that he had – material and otherwise – were futile.
But then we would hear Sammy say with a mix of genuine appreciation and excitement, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much. This is awesome!” These exclamations of thankfulness were typically accompanied by a hug or a post-celebration phone call or email to the gift-giver.
Cameron and I smiled. Maybe, Sammy was absorbing the concept of appreciation. Maybe the things we have done to cultivate an attitude of gratitude did have a positive affect.
Cameron and I understood early on that appreciation and thankfulness were not innate qualities, but rather learned virtues. We recognized that, as parents, it was our responsibility to be teach and model these behaviors.
We began a regular Friday night Shabbat ritual, in part, to help us fulfill our responsibility for nurturing Sammy’s (and our family’s) gratitude muscle. Given our hectic weekday schedules, it was hard to commit to meaningful family dinners Monday through Thursday, and while we tried to model the qualities that we wanted Sammy to develop on a daily basis, we felt it was important to reinforce our family values in a significant way.
Shabbat gave us the opportunity to elevate the act of expressing gratitude from a simple thank you said in response to another’s action to a ceremony that reminded us to be appreciative of all that we had. It taught Sammy to give to others through the collection of tzedakah, and to be grateful for more than just material things.
Blessings for the candles, wine, challah, and all present reminded us to be thankful for having each other in our lives, the opportunity to spend time together, and the food we eat. In difficult periods, such as when Cameron closed his business due to the economic downturn or illness in our extended family, our practice of sharing the good things that happened to us during the week reminded us that even in tough times we still had many blessings.
Over the years, Cameron and I have seen, through Sammy’s actions, flashes that have given us hope that our efforts to instill a gratitude attitude are working. We have seen glimpses of it in the thank you’s Sammy says during the holiday gift-giving season and the reports of his politeness and good manners from teachers and other parents, and we have witnessed it in his deep desire to give to others who are less privileged.
When he was seven, Sammy decided he wanted to purchase prayer books for a synagogue in need, so we found, with the help of a friend who works for the Union for Reform Judaism, a new congregation in Texas that needed siddurim. Sammy donated money he saved to the temple and his action inspired an anonymous donor to match his contribution.
While we count these actions as proof that our appreciation cultivation program is working, we occasionally see Sammy being tugged by materialism. He is envious that his friends have video entertainment systems and impressed by the size of some of his classmates’ homes.
At moments like these, we remind Sammy that there is more to life than the acquisition of stuff and remind ourselves that thankfulness is like a muscle. To remain strong, it requires regular exercise at various levels of intensity.
In our house, we nurture our feelings of appreciation through light activity five to six days a week, but pick-up the pace on Shabbat. Our Shabbat ritual is the ultimate workout for our gratitude muscle. What is yours?
In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity. A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos. Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.
A sampling of The Brick Testament
The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale. As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noah’s ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoah’s palace. Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – he’s made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.
About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases. She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own. I figured there couldn’t be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire. But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isn’t all sunshine and roses. There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I don’t feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.
Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesn’t, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating mom’s tree. And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament. Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husband’s children. And there’s bad stuff in these stories because there’s bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.
Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people. I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I can’t keep them from knowing hardship firsthand. But if I can give them tools to know that scary things don’t need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job. When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people. If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, we’ll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but we’ll also need to talk about it for a while. And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.
In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that “There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.” There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.
Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready. But for now, I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smith’s newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.
A Jewish National Fund Blue Box similar to the one my grandfather kept on his desk.
This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees. Often referred to as Judaism’s Earth Day, it is a time when Jews renew their commitment to care for the earth, celebrate nature and anticipate the renewal of the natural world.
The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s “Crying Indian” public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, ‘People start pollution; People can stop it.”
As a child, I took the campaign’s message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.
Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”
But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparent’s home and at my synagogue.
When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparent’s house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfather’s office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop – a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.
But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?
I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.
The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.
The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfather’s Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.
You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.
The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.
Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.
We do this because, in today’s fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care “a whole awful lot.” This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.
Our Blue Box with certificates for trees we have planted in Israel in Sammy's honor.
I work at a Jewish organization, and at a recent meeting a colleague questioned what we mean when we talk about our work being driven by Jewish values.
“Sometimes when we say that, what I hear is that we think Jewish values are better than others,” she said, “and I am not so sure that is true.”
Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly
She was speaking specifically about our commitment to the 5th commandment, to “honor thy mother and father,” since we work with seniors. She went on to describe how she has watched the adult children of non-Jewish residents of our communities take great lengths to visit their parents, to bring them groceries and ensure that they are happy, healthy, and not alone. Her story reminded me of my own in-laws’ tremendous efforts to care for Eric’s two grandmothers, an impressive and beautiful endeavor that I have been humbled by over the last several years. Don’t these things prove that the values of many different cultures and religions can be pretty great, too, my colleague wondered?
The short answer to her inquiry is that my agency’s commitment to Jewish values is not an assertion that those values are better than others. It is simply what we follow because of who we are and our organization’s history. Our president has written some really wonderful pieces to this point on our website (read this or this). But I was struck by her question not as a colleague, but as a parent in an interfaith family who faces this question all the time.
I know I’ve spoken before about the challenge that we face alongside all interfaith parents who have chosen a single faith for their kids–to teach our children our chosen religious framework while lovingly sharing how the different religious lenses of our extended family are good, too. This can be hard with young kids, who often do best when things are packaged up in neat boxes with clear boundaries.
As much passion as I have for Judaism, I know, as my colleague pointed out, that Jews do not have a monopoly on good values. When Eric and I were first engaged and some Jewish friends or family members asked if I was worried about our different religious backgrounds, I would answer with the very true statement that despite some differences, our families raised us with very similar values. It is hard to encapsulate something so core to my being in a blog post. But here are some of the things that were firmly embedded in both of us through our upbringings: to honor your parents, to nurture your family and familial relationships, to be kind, to give back to the world, to find a path to spirituality, and to maintain a sense of humor (this last one might not be found in either the Torah or the New Testament, but it is certainly a part of the codes by which we live).
This is a tremendous oversimplification, but the common threads are what made it easy for us to fit our lives together. And it’s one of the most important things I need to impart on my girls–that following, and hopefully loving, Judaism doesn’t mean you think others’ beliefs are inferior. What’s more, if you dig beneath the surface, we often share more than we don’t, and those commonalities are what build the families and communities that will hold them up throughout their lives.