Teaching An Attitude of Gratitude

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 Journal about 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?

The Challenge of Sharing The Bible with Younger Kids

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.

How a Tin Can and Piece of Paper Taught me to Speak for the Trees

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.

Jewish Values in a Multi-faith World

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.

I Heart my In-Laws. What is Wrong With me?

As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.

In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”

But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.

I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?

I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.

The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.

I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.

My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.

Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.

The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.

Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.

We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.

My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.

While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.

But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.

I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.

This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.

It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.

I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.

My Christmas stocking recognizes my faith.