Counting our Blessings on the Last Shabbat of Summer Vacation

Happy Labor Day weekend!  Every year, I anticipate Labor Day weekend with both a smile and a bittersweet taste in my mouth.  It always brings some kind of fun celebration, but in so doing it marks the end of summer (a particularly big deal for those of us who live in New England).  Unlike last year, when the Jewish New Year collided with the start of the school year, we still have a few weeks to go before Rosh Hashanah.  But for parents of school-aged children, Labor Day marks a transition into another kind of new year.  A new year of earlier school day wake-ups, school uniforms to keep clean, and new groups of teachers, parents and children to get to know.

We have had a lot of fun this summer.  It was Ruthie’s first summer at real “big kid” day camp, and a huge developmental period for Chaya.  We had a great vacation in Maine, and a lot of weekend adventures.  We made wonderful memories with family and friends.

As I prepare to for this last summer weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to count some of the blessings of the summer, and think about how I might carry them into the next three seasons.  Here are some things I’ll remember:

  1. Every once in a while, its okay to stay up late to sit around the campfire, or run around like crazy monkeys with a gaggle of cousins.
  2. Every once in a while, it is good to go to bed early to make up for the late nights.
  3. Try not to sweat the sand in the bottom of the backpack.  It is a measure of how great the day has been.  And as long as you are careful it won’t ruin your plumbing.
  4. Similarly, relish the mud on your face.  Cake some more on, while you are at it.
  5. Never underestimate the power of a breath of fresh air.
  6. Don’t let the rain scare you from going outside.
  7. Every nook and cranny can be a stage for singing “Let It Go,” as long as you have a vision for it.

Those are a few of the gifts from our summer.  What are yours?

Mourning, Consolation and Joy

The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister.  In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan.  Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat.  It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation.  After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year.  It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment.  It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.

When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn.  The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags.  There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint.  When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake.  There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.

Sisters discovering a new farm for picking blueberries together. Credit: Eliza Berman

But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much.  There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present.  The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on.  My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake.  I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could.  My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.

And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends.  Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character.  While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities.  They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car.  And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.

One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future.  Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Sticking with Israel During Violent Times

The following is a guest post by Marsha S.

*Names have been changed

My husband Charlie is a non-practicing Catholic and I am Jewish. From the get-go, we agreed to raise our children Jewish, which left the onus on me to further their religious identity and education. At my urging, Charlie agreed to travel to Israel this summer for our eldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. While Charlie was in full support of the education, ceremony and trip, he was essentially “going along for the ride.” Prior to leaving, I was concerned that our impending travels might be boring or “too Jewish” for him.

Boring turned out not to be an issue. Shortly before our departure, tensions were rising between Israel and Hamas. There were localized riots and violence, but at the time, we had no idea how quickly it would all escalate to a full-scale war.

After much planning, we arrived in Israel, and spent the first couple of days unwinding in Tel Aviv. We then spent another day or two getting to see more of the country, while gaining a better understanding of the mindset of the Israeli people. Up until this point, the increasing violence hadn’t touched us directly.

Then we arrived in Jerusalem. That evening, while leisurely strolling through Mamilla Mall, an air raid siren went off. We had no idea what that meant, or what to do. We saw civilians and soldiers all running in one direction. We were herded into a bomb shelter, still having no idea what was going on. It was terrifying, to say the least. Eventually, the “all clear” was given, and life resumed. It wasn’t until afterward, when we were able to connect with friends and get online that we learned Hamas’ rockets had reached Jerusalem, but were intercepted by Israel’s blessed Iron Dome.

Western WallTwo days later, we were at the Western Wall when another air raid siren went off. Once the alert is sounded, you have between 15 and 90 seconds to seek shelter. More people running; this time in all different directions. A large group of soldiers appeared out of nowhere, and were running as well. This time, we huddled under a doorway as we heard explosions all around us. As it turned out, some of the explosions we heard were rockets being intercepted above us, but some were firecrackers being shot up simultaneously. My guess is that someone was just trying to scare everyone even more.

Two days later, rockets were again fired in our direction, and everyone gathered in the stairwell of our hotel until the all-clear was given. At that point, I was very concerned about our safety, and mentioned to my husband that I thought we should discuss the possibility of heading back to the States early.

I was surprised and moved by his response. He said, “We CAN’T leave now. We need to see this through. If Jews ran away every time someone tried to hurt them or persecute them, there wouldn’t be any of you left. I wouldn’t have a family! It’s important that we stand in solidarity with the Israelis right now.” I was inspired. We had only experienced a few days of this kind of fear, but there are too many Israelis who live this nightmare continuously.

During the following week in Jerusalem, we met several locals who expressed their gratitude for our presence as tourists during this tumultuous time, and collected a few friends along the way. A highlight was spontaneously singing and dancing with soldiers at The Wall on Shabbat. That spoke volumes to me about the people of Israel’s passion and determination to keep “living” despite their pain.

The final day of our trip arrived: the day of our son’s Bar Mitzvah. It was a beautiful and intimate ceremony atop Masada; just magical. For the grand finale, Charlie gathered our small group together with our arms around each other, and told us all how moved he was by our adventures during the past two weeks. He said that he never understood how special Israel was until he came to know the country and her people firsthand. He said how proud he was, not only of our son the Bar Mitzvah, for all of his hard work and preparation, but of all of us for seeing the journey through, and celebrating life despite so much ugliness around us.

I am ever grateful to Charlie for recognizing how powerful a trip like ours would be to his Jewish wife and children, and as an added bonus, he ended up being just as moved as we were by the whole experience! On the flip side, I found that traveling with my Catholic husband made me appreciate the Christian holy sites in a whole new way.

I highly recommend an interfaith all-family trip to Israel. Regardless of one’s religion, any traveler can sense how sacred the space truly is. I feel even closer to Charlie after experiencing such high highs and scary lows together in our mutual Holy Land. Oh, and if you go, don’t miss out on hummus and shwarma from a street vendor. THAT experience is close to holy in its own right!

Do I Need to Censor the Word “Jeez?”

My 9-year-old son, Sammy, was bursting to tell me something after his robotics class the other day. I assumed it was about his class activities, so I was surprised when the first thing he told me was this:

“I was working with my partner to design something in a computer program and I made a mistake. I said, ‘Oh, jeez’ because I was annoyed that I needed to redo my work. My partner says, ‘Don’t speak The Boy’s name in vain!’ I looked at him like he was crazy. All I said was ‘jeez.’ I didn’t say Jesus or Jesus Christ, but that’s what he thought I meant. I also didn’t understand why he used ‘The Boy’ to refer to Jesus.”

I have to admit, I was as dumbstruck as Sammy, and I rolled my eyes at this only-in-the-Bible-Belt moment. When I shared the story with my husband, who was raised in a Christian home, his reaction was the same. Neither of us had ever heard anyone take offense to the word “jeez” or use “The Boy” to describe Jesus. Our Christian family and friends have always used “jeez” in the same way that Sammy did–to express surprise or annoyance.

I never imagined that we might have to censor a word that we felt was simply an innocent expression of shock or frustration. I could think of many other four-letter words that Sammy could use to express the same emotions that I’d never want to come out of his mouth.

But I’m also a Jew. I know that words can have negative and hurtful meanings. I reconsidered my give-me-a-break response.

Maybe Sammy did say something offensive. Maybe “The Boy” is a common way to describe Jesus. I decided that since we live in the Bible Belt, I had better find out. I headed for the dictionary and computer to see what I could learn in hopes of preventing us all from making any more offensive remarks.

Various dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster defined “jeez” as an interjection used as a mild oath or introductory expletive used to express surprise, astonishment, disappointment, etc. All of the entries noted that it was a euphemism for Jesus first used in the 1920s. I understood why Sammy’s partner thought using the term was taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I also found a discussion on LDS.net, a site affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ about whether or not to chastise a person for saying “jeez.” Some commenters believed they should because Mormons are taught to avoid the use of any sensitive words or similar sounding substitutes in speech including gosh, dang, shoot, jeez, etc. Others felt that they should only admonish people when the words are said with intent to offend.

One person said if the speaker does not consider the word “to be a shortened form of taking the name of the Lord in vain, but instead” considers it a nonsense “exclamation then there is” no reason to chastise.

But someone else pointed out that all substitute words are offensive including gee whiz, geez, goodness, and jeepers because they are based on the offensive word. After reading the debate, all I could say was, “Oy vey.”

Regarding the use of “The Boy” to refer to Jesus, I found nothing. There was a religious school lesson plan on the LDS website called “Jesus Christ was a Child like Me.” The purpose of it was “to strengthen children’s desire to be like Jesus Christ by increasing their knowledge of Jesus’ childhood.” Maybe that’s where the term came from. Or maybe it came from the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. In Trinitarian Christianity, God is referred to as “The Father.” Since “boy” can mean “son,” it follows that “The Boy” could mean Jesus.

After spending a good portion of the day trying to understand the reaction of Sammy’s partner, I decided that you could go crazy trying to scrub your speech so that no group is offended. Since that is nearly impossible to do, especially for a child, it made me ask: Where do we draw the line? How do we, with our limited knowledge of every religious, ethnic, and cultural group, know what is and is not disrespectful? How do we, in a hypersensitive environment, prevent ourselves from being forced into silence by our fear that we might offend someone?

I don’t know the answers. But I do know that I don’t want my child to be afraid to speak.

I’m not going to tell Sammy never to use the word “jeez” given the context in which he used it. But I am going to reinforce what we’ve taught him about offensive speech: don’t use stereotypes, don’t use speech that attacks an individual or group on the basis of a trait or characteristic, don’t use language to disparage or intimidate, apologize if you unintentionally offend someone and learn from the incident.

In the meantime, I told Sammy that the next time he gets annoyed or frustrated in class, just say, “Oy vey!”