Save Some Water for the Fish

Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing.  We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend.  Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because he’s peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing.  So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

And then this morning happened.  Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that we’d sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning.  When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes.  As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation.  Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earth’s resources.

There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation.  He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea).  He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell.  So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.

fish tank

“Ruthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.”  She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom.  I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.

“Look, Mommy,” she said, “the fish have plenty of water.”  I am guessing my classmate didn’t have a fish tank in his house.

So we keep trying.  As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the “3 more minutes” pitch is over.  The saving water for the fish story isn’t working.  Anyone have a better idea?

Two holidays in one? I’m not so sure.

There was a time when Eric and I shared a love for The O.C. In the days before OnDemand, one of the most romantic things that my future husband ever did was to take copious notes of the 2004 season premiere when I was stuck at a community meeting that night and couldn’t watch it myself. It was a nighttime soap opera filled with hyperbole and totally unrealistic situations, the kind of show that I should be embarrassed about loving. But I admit it proudly, we were serious fans.

Chrismukkah Seth Cohen

Even though I think that the prominence of the Cohens, the lovably complex interfaith family at the center of The O.C.’s drama, probably helped gain some ground for Jewish/Christian partnerships overall, I cringed when Seth Cohen asked the world to embrace Chrismukkah in the Winter of 2003. I’m going to show my cards here: I don’t believe that the answer to “The December Dilemma” is to combine holidays. Its not because I want to deny either Christmas or Hanukah – its quite the opposite. I love both holidays – and I love how marrying into a Christian family means I’ve had 14 years to get an inside view of how joyous Christmas is. But the holidays are so profoundly different – especially in their level of import to the religions of which they are a part – that to me combining them feels like a disservice to them both.

Chrismukkah definition

I have been reminded of my conflicting love of The Cohens and unease for the Chrismukkah they popularized as a new combination of holidays is coming up this year. With the first night of Hanukkah occurring on Thanksgiving, everyday folks, community leaders, and yes, makers of merchandise, have begun to proclaim 2013 the year of “Thanksgivukkah.” I first started hearing about the “holiday” via a mouthwatering post of Thankgivukkah recipes on BuzzFeed. It’s hard to object to a holiday that boasts sweet potato bourbon noodle kugel and pecan pie rugelach. From that first post, it seems to have caught on like wildfire….there are t-shirts, limited edition menorahs, a website (put up by Manischewitz), a Facebook page, and even a block party in LA. Not to mention a piece on this site about navigating the convergence of both holidays with Jewish family and those who do not celebrate Hanukkah.

So am I ok with it? Its growing on me….this idea that it is phenomenally rare (read this article to see just how rare), that there are totally great menu possibilities, and that my family will conveniently all be together to light the menorah for the first time (like many interfaith couples I’m sure, we usually spend Thankgiving with our Jewish family and Christmas with our Christian family, so Thanksgiving is already kind of a Jewish family thing). And part of my objection to combining Christmas and Hanukkah is that it forces an importance on Hanukkah that isn’t consistent with the rest of the religious calendar – making it easy to breeze over a true understanding of either Christmas or Hanukkah.

But Thanksgiving and Hanukkah might fit better together – they are both based on lore that don’t necessarily create something new (like a whole new religion!) but allow people to pause in a time of turmoil to consider new hope. And since we usually eat well before sundown but don’t light the candles until sundown, hopefully they’ll be a moment to pause in between and talk to our kids about each holiday, separately. And, finally, now that I have kids and am navigating life in a multi-generational, multi-faith family where the absolutes of my pre-kid 20’s seem a little fanciful, maybe I’ll soften up on Chrismukkah, too. No promises, Seth Cohen.

Better than Date Night

Hands raisedAs I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkin’s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month.  But I’m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that it’s important, right?  With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.

I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish Federation).  At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, “What is the best kept secret about PTJL?”  We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: “Its better than date night,” she said, “because unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.”

Now, I love date night, and I won’t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the town…and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment.  But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what she’s saying.  First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.

When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us “the rules” of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me).  Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us “the rules” wouldn’t be very Jewish.  Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents.  It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be.  We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.

That in and of itself was pretty great.  But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters.  And it turns out we really like learning together.  To hit a pause button every week and do something totally different…it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing.  And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.

So here’s my multi-pronged pitch.  First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year.  If you don’t live in Boston, or PTJL’s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse.  It doesn’t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well.  [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.]  So I hope everyone’s had a good back-to-school month for your kids.  And I hope you get back-to-school, too.

My Resolution to Unplug

A warning to you, kind reader: You have read this story before. It’s about unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your family. It’s not a new idea, in fact I know I’m late to jump on the train. But it’s also about resolutions, and Shabbat, so hopefully I can bring in a little something new to the conversation. And if not, please indulge my unplugging declaration, and a Sweet and Happy New Year to you.

So here’s my story:

I am not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to change – quite the opposite, as my resume reflects a career in pursuit of change.  It’s just that when it comes to resolutions, I think people have a tendency to set their sights too high, to pick a goal for a 12-month period that is rarely sustainable for more than a few weeks.  Change is an iterative process, and if we’ve never done something very well before, it is rare that we can go from not doing something to doing it well every day. By setting ourselves up like that, by saying “I am never going to lose my temper with my kids,” instead of saying “I’m going to remember to breath more deeply when little Frankie gets me frustrated,” we fail to set up enough small victories to keep fuel in our tanks. In measured steps, I think anything is possible, but in huge bounds, as least for me, the hit rate is not always as good.

Cell phoneThis year, there’s a change I really want to make. Technology, especially in the form of Eric’s and my pretty little iPhones, is getting in the way. It all started out rather innocently – when Ruthie was a baby, I started taking my phone out more and more to snap pictures of her – she was so phenomenally, well, phenomenal, and I loved being able to take a snapshot and immediately send it off to her grandparents or her dad. When Chaya was born, it seemed harmless to hand the iPhone over to Ruthie to play a shape-sorting game so I could buy five minutes and finish nursing in peace. And when we try to track down two or three friends at the hectic gate at the zoo, its great to have the tool of texting to save five minutes of searching with two hot kids hanging around my neck.

But despite its innocent beginnings, it is still getting in the way. Too often I catch myself taking the phone out to snap a photo of the girls and accidentally being caught up in an email that really could wait until nap time for a response. Or I complain about not having time to talk with Eric, and then get distracted by a news alert on the phone during our ten minutes of quiet together before bedtime. So how can I blame Ruthie for asking for a video more than I think she should, or begrudge Chaya’s fascination with the lit-up screen of the phone when the alarm sounds in the morning?

It’s not that the touchscreen has no place in my girls’ development – I believe that their comfort with technology will play a role in their future academic and professional success. And in my own childhood memories, anything that parents forbid became an obsession, so I think parenting around technology should be about limit setting rather than prohibitions. Truthfully, though, after reading lots of blogs and articles about unplugging (see introductory note), I don’t know what those limits should be.

So here’s our resolution, or perhaps experiment: This year, we are unplugging on Shabbat. Eric and I started talking a couple of months ago about the technology issue, but unplugging every day sounds like a bound to me, something so grand that we’d quickly fall short and taste progress-deterring failure. I started to ponder a middle ground – a set of small steps – and as the High Holidays approached, I realized that that small step is handed to me by Jewish tradition. Shabbat is not just a day of rest – it is a chance to practice a different way of living, and a different way of being as a family. So committing to do something differently 1/7 of our year is a natural thing to do as a Jew, and a great way to try on this no-technology thing.

I am not a dummy, and I know that tons of Jews have been doing this forever – that many believe we are not fulfilling the commandment by using electricity at all on Shabbat. But we are not becoming Shomer Shabbos – that’s not where we are as family, or as Jews. So rather than saying to my kids “Cell phones and computers off because we don’t use any electricity on Shabbat,” I am going to try this on: “Cell phones and computers off because we are going to be together as a family on Shabbat,” to sing our own songs, tell each other our own stories, play games that require sharing a game board or using our bodies.

I see this experiment as twofold. First, I hope it lets us see how we like life without technology, and to inform what the best limits are for our family. As I said before, I don’t anticipate our final rule will forbid technology, but I hope that living without it for a controlled period every week will help us figure out how much we’d like to live without it over the course of a whole week. And second, I hope it will teach us some new things about how we want to be on Shabbat. Maybe we’ll hate it and decide we want to be on our phones all of Shabbat…or maybe we’ll love it and next year will decide to turn something else off for 24 hours.

The initial rules are no cell phones, no Internet, no TV – landline is OK.  We’ll see how it goes, and hopefully I’ll let you know on this blog.

What do you think? Have you tried this, or do you have a different resolution? How do you make Shabbat a different day than the other six?

New School, New Year

Save the DateThis year, we won the lottery. The school lottery.  We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthie’s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.

When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthie’s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near Bat Mitzvah age, and will spend her time at synagogue in childcare eating honey sticks and making a paper shofar.

As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.

Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.

I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.

I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).

As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though “regular” life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.

Remembering Mom (and Grandma) on her Birthday

This week we marked my mom’s birthday.  She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration.  Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.

Family photo

Grandpa, my girls and me at Halibut Point, one of mom's favorite places

One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning.  The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times.  When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless.  When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.

I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday.  The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself.  It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.

Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax.  As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday.  But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything.  Birthdays are very special in our family because of her.  Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me.  I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get.  And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.

I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller.  It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself.  It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma.  I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me.  And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:

I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma.  In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life.  Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real.  She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan.  The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.

But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me.  Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me.  She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring.  She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make).  She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow.  She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity.  I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.

Photo of my grandmother

One of many beautiful pictures of my mom

While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind.  So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.

Reason # 1: Why Being Interfaith is a Plus

When you are a mixed-faith couple, you loose the ability to assume from the get go.  The question is not when we celebrate Yom Kippur, with whose family will we break fast?  We need to start from more basic questions: Will we celebrate Yom Kippur? Will we both fast? And now that we have kids, how will we celebrate with our kids?

This inability to assume, and therefore the need to have an intention about our practice, is one of the greatest things about being from different faiths. In my marriage and co-parenting, I think this sometimes gives us a leg up, and its something that I wish was celebrated more.

When my husband and I were first thinking about marriage, we went to meet with a rabbi who ran a course for interfaith couples. Before he told us about the class, he asked us if we thought we’d have a Jewish home. We told him we thought so, but we hadn’t figured everything out yet. With this in mind, he recommended that rather than taking his interfaith class, we take his Intro to Judaism class, to figure out if we were going to be an interfaith family or a Jewish family (he had marriage classes for both).

ParentingSo we took the class. It was a great class. We learned that we loved to study together.  And the class triggered a long series of conversations, about what holidays we wanted to celebrate, and how, about how we imagined marking life cycle events, and, at the core, about what it meant that we would create a home and life together, a nuclear family that melded the two individual histories we brought to the coupledom.

[As an aside, InterfaithFamily has a great online workshop for interfaith couples called "Love & Religion" that you can learn more about here.]

This is where the “leg up” comes to bear. All pairings, whether you were raised next door to one another or in different countries, bring two separate perspectives on life to the table when they marry. In an interfaith pairing, the separation between the perspectives is pronounced, highlighted by the difference in two easy to identify components of family history. This can be a gift – a gift in that the differences shout out to us, and demand attention. For Eric and me, it meant the dialogue about how “he” and “I” would become “we” started before our engagement, before we were thrown into trying to make a wedding that was fun for everyone (it was!), building a home together, and raising kids. It demanded a way to talk about things, to identify difference, and to navigate it.

I’m not saying we’re perfect at it, but sometimes in same-faith couples, the differences are subtle, and they whisper until they need attention, often coming as a surprise. While our life together is not without our share of these surprises, I am thankful, particularly as we try to parent a 4-year-old who is as strong-willed and self-determined as I know I was at 4, that the interfaith dynamic of our relationship made negotiating differences a part of our life and commitment from day one.

Being interfaith is often talked about as a challenge, a barrier that separates you from the rest of the community. While I won’t deny the challenges, I think perhaps we have a few positive things we can teach to those who “in-marry.” Can you name some others?

Nice to Meet You (and why I almost didn’t become your IFF blogger)

Jessie and her daughters

My name is Jessie and I am very excited to have my very own blog on InterfaithFamily. My bio will tell you some of the following: I live in Boston with my charming husband and my two (fascinating, and almost always charming) daughters. I was raised in a Reform Jewish home, and my husband was raised Protestant. We are raising our children Jewish.

I look forward to sharing some thoughts about our life as a family for two reasons. One is because we are always retooling, reassessing and renewing our path, and I hope to explore that with others who might be doing the same. Second, I think that the fact that we were raised in two faiths has strengthened our relationship and spirituality, and is generally a plus – an often-unsung bonus of being “interfaith” (more on that in future posts, which I hope will be helpful to you).

Today, though, I wanted to start out by reflecting on this concept of being an interfaith family, something that I have been pondering for a few years now. Because of the two reasons I just described, I love the idea of blogging here. But I almost didn’t answer IFF’s call for bloggers, because after 8 years of marriage, interfaith doesn’t fit right for me.

In common definition, I guess “interfaith” is a category we inhabit, but it doesn’t feel like it tells our story. Eric and I agreed early on that as parents that it was our responsibility to choose one religion, and to partner in weaving that tradition into our family life (something I also hope to talk about with you). So we are Jewish, but of course nothing is straightforward.

I think the best explanation of my family is that we are a Jewish home in a loving multi-faith family. I am lucky that my husband and I have come from two great families with strong values and dedication to being families, and maintaining those connections has always been at the forefront of our decision-making. Our extended family includes a multitude of spiritual practices, both within Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), and Christianity (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Christian). We have family members who don’t practice any religion. And we have some family members who practice more than one faith in their home. So the bottom line is that we deal with lots of questions that are often categorized as “interfaith,” but I don’t use that term for my nuclear family.

Because our story is multi-layered (whose isn’t?), so is my goal for my children. I hope that they will grow up as Jews with a deep respect and curiosity about the faiths of our family members, an ability to help grandparents and cousins and friends celebrate religious holidays with joy, and an understanding that all people of faith are struggling with the same questions – what it means to be a good person, how to find purpose in life, and how to connect with others.  I’m looking forward to reflecting on that with you.