Honoring my Promise to my Grandfather

Sammy and I with my 96-year-old grandfather in October. We had a special visit.

About a month ago, I visited my 96-year-old grandfather at his skilled nursing facility in New Jersey while in the area for a family event. It was Shabbat morning, my favorite time to go see him.

My grandfather and I have always been very close. As the oldest grandchild and the only girl, we share a special bond that is different from the one he has with my brother and male cousins. I make it a point to spend time with him whenever I go east to see my family, and I always bring Sammy.

It is important to me to visit with him, even though I am not certain that he knows me or that Sammy is his great-grandson. My grandfather has dementia. On some visits, he does not seem to connect our smiling faces to any name or person that he can recall, but is just happy to have some visitors. On others, I can see that he recognizes me when I walk over.

But even with the uncertainty of his response, I still go and I still bring Sammy. I do not do this out of obligation, or because Jews are commanded to visit the sick. The mitzvah Bikur Cholim, a concept I learned from my grandfather when I was a young child, and he took me to visit his infirmed and elderly parents, tells us to be with someone who is ill because the presence of a loving and kind person is a gift that can lighten the burden of illness.

No, I do not perform this mitzvah because I am told to. I go to visit him because I love him, and I have a deep desire for him to know Sammy as best he can and for Sammy to know him, even though the man he will know is not the vibrant grandparent I remember. But I want Sammy to have some connection to the person he hears about in stories and sees in pictures.

I also go with Sammy because I want my grandfather to hear about my son’s life and our home, our Jewish home. See, I made a promise to my grandfather 12 years ago when Cameron and I became engaged that my children would be raised as Jews, even though Cameron was not one. I remember the conversation.

“Janey, will your children be raised Jewish?” my grandfather asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Cameron and I have agreed to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews.”

“Oh, okay. Is he going to convert?”

“No, I didn’t ask him to.”

“Okay. Well maybe one day he’ll decide to,” my grandfather said.

“Maybe.”

I understood my grandfather’s questions and his hopes. He was the oldest son of observant Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father was a chazzan, a cantor, who grew-up at the Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, in Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Judaism was a central part of his upbringing and identity, and Jewish continuity was important to him, especially given that intermarriage was widespread in my family.

He watched his son, my uncle; marry a woman who was not Jewish; as well as several of his brothers’ children. With my engagement, another generation was continuing the pattern. While some of my intermarried relatives raised children within Judaism, others had no connection to Jewish practice or community, or any other religion either.

As someone who was a young adult during World War II and the Holocaust, my grandfather understood that every Jewish child was precious to the community, and he did not want our family’s connection to the faith to disappear. He wanted some assurance that someone would pass on our tradition.

I know that he was glad to hear that Cameron and I would have a Jewish home, but I think that while he hoped for the best, he believed, like others in my family that our promise was empty and that little action would be taken to fulfill our commitment. Unfortunately, shortly after Cameron and I were married, my grandfather’s mental health began to decline. By the time Sammy was born, he had been moved from assisted living to the nursing facility’s memory unit.

He has never been able to experience or appreciate the central role Judaism has in our home. Yet, regardless of my grandfather’s mental state, I still want him to know that Cameron and I have kept our promise.

When we visit with him, I talk about the many things he and I have done together, and about my synagogue involvement and holiday rituals. I share with him Cameron’s commitment to and engagement in our Jewish home.

Sammy sings him Jewish holiday songs in Hebrew and tells him about his Jewish day school. He talks to him about his Jewish summer camp and his kippah collection that his not Jewish grandmother has crocheted for him. And because Sammy loves sports as much as my grandfather once did, especially tennis, he talks sports too.

I do not know if any of this means anything to my grandfather, but it is important to me that I demonstrate that I have honored the commitment I made to him, and show him, in whatever way possible, that his hope for a Jewish future is being realized through Sammy. So we will keep visiting, I will keep talking, and Sammy will keep singing Jewish songs.

My grandfather and me at my second birthday.

A Shabbat Gift

Our cantor, giving the participants in the congregation's Women's Retreat a musical gift on Shabbat morning.

I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.

As I approached the location of my congregation’s Women’s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and “Shabbat Shalom.”

As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.

As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameron’s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.

Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.

After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.

At one point in the service, our female cantor said, “I have a Shabbat gift for you.” She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing “May I Suggest” by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.

May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life… (Werner, 2001)

Cantor Niren’s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.

The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.

When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.

After my “me-day” spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.

As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. “Hi buddy!” I said. “How was the day with Daddy?”

Cameron and Sammy

Cameron and Sammy capturing the gift of father-son time in a self-portrait.

“Hi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddy’s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,” Sammy said.

“Wow, sounds like you’ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?”

“Well, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?”

“Of course. I’ll see you at home later.”

Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, “This was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!”

Seeing Sammy’s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameron’s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.

Me-day
My “me-day” was spent with many wonderful women.

I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Women’s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the program’s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.

The Maccabee on the Mantel

Mac, our Maccabee on the Mantel.

The other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, “Is it really that time again?”

It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving – holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailers’ shelves – now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.

For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.

In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.

My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.

Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.

So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a children’s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.

Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.

Our dog Brady loves spending time with Mac too.

Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.

Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.

The Extended Influence of Camp

Sammy with "our Israelis" Tal and Gilad. Two weeks ago, Gilad was in Dallas to help Sammy celebrate his 9th birthday.

Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.

The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammy’s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.

Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.

The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.

Prior to one of Sammy’s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”

We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.

During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.

With Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. “Yes!” he said with a celebratory fist pump.

It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.

No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.

I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child – help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.

Why We Chose Judaism

According to the new Pew Center survey of Jewish Americans, 45 percent of intermarrieds are raising their children Jewish or partially Jewish by religion. That is great news since the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that only one-third of intermarrieds choose Judaism in some way.

But simply knowing that that the number of us living Jewishly has increased is not enough for me. I want to know why. Is it because of outreach efforts, changes in policies that have made some organizations more accepting of interfaith couples or a larger number of clergy who will officiate at interfaith weddings? Is it that more mixed faith couples are finding relevance in the history, culture, values, beliefs and observances of Judaism? Maybe the driver is something else.

Whatever it is, inquiring minds in the Jewish community should want to know. Why? Because if we want to build meaningful relationships with interfaith families or develop initiatives that entice families to explore Jewish life than we must understand what excites families like mine about Judaism and what attributes make religious connection important to us.

So in the interest of creating a better understanding of what drives intermarrieds to engage Jewishly, I want to share why Cameron and I have chosen a Jewish identity for our family. I recognize that our home is a sample size of one. But I hope that by sharing the drivers of our engagement that it will encourage other interfaith families to join the conversation and make their voice heard.

So here are the reasons we chose to be Jewish:

1. Community: A large part of why we decided that we would have a Jewish identity is because of community. When Cameron and I were dating we would often discuss how we should approach faith in the context of intermarriage. I wanted a Jewish home; Cameron wanted to celebrate both traditions. I needed to make a case for Judaism. While I could not provide a spiritual reason for having a Jewish family except that I did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, I did feel strongly about Jewish peoplehood.

I explained that there is a bond that unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. This connection is expressed in the Hebrew phrase, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.

Cameron accepted the idea that there is more to being Jewish than faith and on the night he agreed to raise our children as Jews he said, “In our society you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. We could do nothing in our home and our children would think they were Christian. There is more to being Jewish than just religion. For our children to be Jewish they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”

2. Deed vs. Creed: Modern Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief is another reason we chose a Jewish identity for our family. While I believe that there is something larger at work in the universe, Cameron is less certain that a divine presence exists. Since Judaism teaches that doing good deeds is more important than believing in a certain idea about God, there is no pressure to conform to or accept a specific religious belief.

Cameron was raised in a home that took its responsibility for serving the larger community seriously, so the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, was attractive to him. Regardless of what we each believed about God, we shared a view that our purpose is to make the world a better place. Judaism provided us a framework to teach this idea to our children.

3. One Family, One Identity: Before Cameron and I got engaged we struggled to resolve our faith in the home dilemma. We read books that presented various interfaith arrangements from pursuing one to conversion to raising children in two religions to joining the Unitarian church. But it was a class on interfaith relationships at the Center for Religious Inquiry in New York City that helped us to find a solution. A rabbi and a rector taught the course, and one evening they impressed upon us the importance of choosing one religion.

“Your child is asked to make a winter holiday art project. She can make only one,” said the rector. “She must choose red and green paper to create a Christmas theme or blue and white for Chanukah. It appears that this is a simple choice, but for a child being raised in a home with two religions, with no clear religious identity, this is not a choice between colored papers, it is a choice between mommy and daddy. And that’s a decision no child wants to make.”

The story shocked us into thinking about our situation from a very different point of view. Rather than focusing on the compromises and feelings of adults, it made us see a child’s perspective and asked us to consider how our decision would impact our future children. Neither one of us could think about putting our child in the position described. After the discussion Cameron told me that he was comfortable with raising our children as Jews because being Jewish was about more than faith.

I would love to know why other 45-percenters chose a Jewish identity for their family. I would also like to know why 55 percent of intermarrieds made a different choice. I believe that we need to go beyond the numbers to learn what is driving behavior so that we can more effectively engage interfaith families. Because let’s face it, with almost 60 percent of recently married Jews choosing a partner from outside the faith the future of Judaism depends on bringing more families like mine into the tent.

Back to School, Back to Family

Books from my much-loved Sunday morning adult education class.

I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.

Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.

It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.

But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.

When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.

As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.

I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.

Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.

For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.

Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.

This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening  our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.

But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.

Pray for Rain

The drought and high temperatures have caused large sections of our pond to evaporate.

My family is looking forward to Sukkot after the serious work of the Days of Awe. As I wrote about in my essay Beyond the Lulav and the Etrog, it is an easy holiday for my interfaith family to embrace. It emphasizes the concept of gratitude, a universal sentiment that is prized by many faiths and people, including those who subscribe to no religious tradition, and it directly connects to my family’s daily life.

We are avid vegetable gardeners and Sukkot is the perfect opportunity for us to express appreciation for each other’s work maintaining our garden space – Cameron turns the compost and prepares the beds, and I plant and weed with Sammy’s assistance. During the holiday we give thanks for the produce we produce and the elements of nature that enabled us to grow such a delicious bounty.

This year we are especially thankful because Texas is in the third year of drought with most of the state experiencing severe to extreme conditions. We see the effects of the water shortage in the cracked soil surrounding our tomatoes and okra, and in our dry rain gauge. We also notice the impact of the weather on our neighborhood pond, which has large areas where most of the water has evaporated.

Recently, while walking our dog near the pond Sammy gasped when he noticed the water level. “Mommy, look at the pond!” he exclaimed. “There is almost no water in some areas. What’s going to happen to the ducks, geese and herons if the water gets lower? Someone needs to do something!”

“I heard someone the other day ask if water can be pumped in, but that isn’t feasible because of the city water restrictions and the energy it will require. We really need rain,” I said.

Sammy was quiet the rest of the walk and I could tell he was thinking. When we got home he said, “I’m really worried about the water. We need to do something. What can we do to make rain?”

“Short of cloud seeding which is a method used to increase precipitation, not much. We could pray for rain…actually, that would be an appropriate thing to do during Sukkot. Have you learned about the Water Drawing Ceremony?” I asked.

“No.”

“According to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year when God judges the world for rainfall. The Water Drawing Ceremony, conducted in ancient Israel each morning during the holiday, asked for God’s blessing for an abundant rainy season,” I explained.

“What was the ceremony like?”

“It was very joyous. Water was brought from an area near Jerusalem in a golden flask to the Temple’s Water Gate. The shofar was sounded and the water was poured over the altar.”

“Well, I learned to make rain at camp,” he said demonstrating the hand and foot sounds designed to mimic a rainstorm. “But that’s not a ceremony and let’s face it, it won’t fill the pond with water.” He thought for a moment and then said, “I know, the next time it is supposed to rain we can put buckets outside in different areas of the yard and collect rain. Then we can bring the buckets over to the pond and pour the water into it helping to fill it up again. It can be our own Water Drawing Ceremony!”

Water used to connect one bank of the pond to an island. Today little water remains.

“I like that idea,” I said.

“Me too,” Sammy replied. “I feel better knowing that we’re going to help.”

This year as you celebrate in the sukkah and give thanks for the abundance that fills your plate remember the precious natural resources that helped to make your meal possible. Show some appreciation for them too and please, don’t forget to pray for rain.

Transgression, Repentance and Forgiveness on the Tennis Court

Sammy

Sammy, on a happier day, after winning his first tennis tournament

I had no intention of writing two posts on the High Holidays, but something happened the other day while playing tennis with Sammy that was in sync with the spirit of the season.

Sammy has been playing tennis since the age of four. He has progressed from group lessons to private lessons twice a week. He truly loves the sport and started to play competitively last year. His game has improved exponentially and there is no longer a need for Cameron and me to take a little off our strokes when we hit with him.

But while Sammy has become hard to beat, we are still bigger, stronger and more experienced. No matter how close the games are, more often than not, one of us is on the winning side. This is hard for Sammy. We don’t care if we win, but Sammy has an intense desire to beat us.

When I was a kid I too wanted to beat my parents. Winning against them symbolized a kind of independence. It said I wasn’t a baby; I was strong enough to beat an adult. So I understand Sammy’s pursuit of victory. I just don’t like it when the intensity with which he pursues his goal leads him down the path of unsportsmanlike behavior. This is what happened the other day.

Sammy had won the first set 6-2. I was up 2-0, 40-30 in the middle of the third game of the second set. I could see Sammy’s frustration building at having easily given-up the first two games. Now I had the chance to take a 3-0 lead if I won the next point.

I served, he returned the ball and after a short rally he hit it out. Sammy didn’t like the call but instead of asking if I was sure that the ball was out, he exploded, “That ball was in!”

“It looked clearly out to me,” I said. “It landed in the green space behind the baseline.”

“No it didn’t! It was in,” he yelled. “You’re a cheater! You just called it out so you could win!”

“Sammy, I’m your mom. I love you. Why would I cheat?”

“You do cheat!” he shouted before he started to serve the next game.

 As I waited for his serve, I hoped that hitting the ball might help him work out his anger and frustration.

“Zero serving three,” he said. “But it should be deuce!”

“Out,” I called when his serve landed wide.

“I don’t even know why I play with you. You make me so frustrated. I hate you!” Sammy screamed. This insult was followed by a cry of “Uggh,” as he fired his next serve.

The serve was a bullet and the force of the shot made me think that he was channeling his emotions into better play. But I was wrong. I soon saw that rather than raising his game he was spiraling into a complete meltdown. After I won the set, I suggested that we go home and continue the match the next day.

Sammy protested and I agreed to play more, but after the first game of the third set I decided I had enough of Sammy’s unsportsmanlike behavior. The tantrum wasn’t working itself out. It was time to set some boundaries.

“I’m done,” I said.

“What!”

“I’m tired of listening to you use hurtful language. I’m tired of you throwing your racquet and whacking the fence. I’m going home,” I said in a calm, but stern voice as I picked up balls.

Sammy walked over, sat at the net, put his head in his hands and cried. I went over and sat too. “Can I give you a hug?” I asked.

“No! I don’t deserve one,” he mumbled.

“Sometimes when we’re angry and frustrated a hug is exactly what we deserve,” I replied. “I may want to believe this because I’m your mother, but I don’t think that you really meant what you said today. Your words and actions were your anger and frustration speaking.”

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed.

“I know you are. Listen, I’m your mom. I love you. I will never cheat you. I’m also human and humans are flawed. Sometimes I’ll get the calls right and sometimes I’ll make mistakes – just like you. But I’ll always try my best to make an honest call.”

Sammy inched closer. We hugged. “I’m really, really sorry,” he said.

“I know. Sometimes we say things that we know are wrong or that we don’t mean, but because we are so emotional we can’t seem to stop the words from coming out. I know you didn’t mean what you said. I forgive you.” I gave Sammy a kiss and then said, “I love you – always.”

I didn’t intend to make our tennis game a High Holiday teachable moment. It just happened to be a reminder that as we seek to return to wholeness we not only want God’s forgiveness, but also each other’s. 

Does God Really Care About What We Eat?

I won't be asking for forgiveness for enjoying lobster rolls this summer.

As the High Holidays approach, I’ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when I’ve been my best self and those when I haven’t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As I’ve gone through this psychological housecleaning I’ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.

I’ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are well…minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?

As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holiday’s food restrictions. Sammy said, “We’ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Some years I’m good at making sure we keep it, and others years I’m not. It’s always easier when we’re home. Since we’re away I’ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.”

“I don’t think God cares,” replied Sammy. “I don’t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I don’t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.”

At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point – eating matzah instead of bread on Passover won’t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.

Then I found an article, “A Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,” that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless “universal spirit.” Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, “I’ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of God… I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.”

After re-reading Pitts’ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy – care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if we’re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.

So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year I’ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I don’t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.

Finding God

Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.

My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.

I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.

For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.

Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.

This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)

But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.