The Lord of the Rings’ Passover Connection

The third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy triggered a discussion about Pharaoh and Passover.

My son Sammy and I have a tradition – we read a novel together on the weeknights during dinner. Usually, the book has themes or ideas that are targeted to a child several years older than Sammy, making it helpful to have an adult with whom to discuss the book. Over the years, we have read the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit to name a few.

The other night, we were nearing the end of The Return of the King, the last book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We had reached the part when the primary protagonist, the hobbit Frodo Baggins, returns to his homeland, the Shire, after succeeding in his quest to destroy the One Ring of power. He finds that the area has been taken over by the evil wizard Saruman who was defeated during the War of the Ring by Frodo’s companions.

In an act of revenge, Saruman enslaves and oppresses the hobbits and moves to destroy the natural beauty of the countryside. When Frodo discovers what he has done, he confronts him and orders him to leave the shire forever. But the other hobbits want Saruman to be killed for the murderous and villainous acts he has committed. Frodo will not allow it, saying, “I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way.”

As Saruman leaves, he passes Frodo and stabs him with a knife. Frodo is wearing an armored coat, so the knife breaks. Even though Frodo is unharmed, a group of hobbits lurches forward trying to kill Saruman, but Frodo stops them. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

As I read this section, Sammy interrupted. “I can’t believe he didn’t kill Saruman!”

“Do you think he should have killed him?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, and paused to think about his answer.

“Consider the situation in the context of Passover, which we’re about to celebrate,” I said. “Do you think drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea changed Pharaoh’s evil ways?”

“Probably not,” Sammy said. “Killing all of the firstborns didn’t either and it also punished innocent Egyptians.”

“You’re right. As we think about the plagues and fate of the Egyptians at the sea, we have to ask, does one crime justify another? Frodo doesn’t think so, he says it’s useless and doesn’t heal anything. His language suggests that he believes it just perpetuates anger and hate.”

“I think Frodo was right to show mercy to Saruman because I think if the hobbits killed him, then Saruman would have been allowed to escape from his crimes,” Sammy said. “By letting him go he has to live without the power he once had and with the knowledge of what he has done. This is, in a way, a punishment too.”

“I agree, and I think Frodo and Saruman recognize this also.”

“How so?” Sammy asked.

In answer to his question, I read the next section.

Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!’

“Saruman is like Pharaoh in that his heart is so hardened that he has lost all ability to change, and, therefore, any chance at ever really being free. Sometimes making someone carry the burden of their wrongful actions is the harshest punishment,” I said.

After dinner, I could tell that Sammy was still considering our discussion, and I suspect that he will continue to think about it over the next few weeks as we celebrate the holiday. The convergence of epic high fantasy and Torah has made the issues and questions raised in the Passover story more relevant to his 9-year-old world. That is a good thing. Because the more he sees how his everyday secular life intersects with his Jewish life, the more salient Judaism and his connection to it will be.

I did not plan to link the fictional narrative created by Tolkien to Passover or Judaism. It just happened. The key to making these kinds of Jewish connections is in recognizing and being open to these opportunities, and then seizing them when they present themselves.

Welcoming the Stranger (to Judaism) at the Passover Table

As the calendar begins to hint at the end of a very long winter, a lot of people are thinking about having more time in the sun and packing their winter coats into storage.  I’m excited about those things, too, but I also have a little case of Passover fever. I love Passover for many more reasons than I’ll write about today. Today I want to talk about the guest list. As I plan my big April dinner party, I am not only thinking about the menu and the order of the seder. I am also thinking about the strangers, the people who come not knowing what the seder means to me, and the opportunity Passover grants to share that meaning.

Passover is my favorite holiday. My birthday falls right around the beginning of Passover, and as much as I complained as a kid about putting candles into Passover brownies instead of “real” cake, I’ve always loved that there is a big gathering of people I love right around my birthday.  In cold years like this one, especially, I appreciate that we have a day on the calendar where, rain or shine, we can announce our readiness for spring and rebirth.

Red WineAs an adult and often the seder planner and leader, I have also come to appreciate Passover for the way that it lends itself to sharing my own Jewish beliefs with friends and family, Jewish and not Jewish. On Passover, rather than inviting someone to a synagogue or a text study to learn what Judaism means to us, we invite them into our homes, to a great meal with plentiful wine and lots of good conversation.

During the seder we are commanded to invite the stranger into our home. We could debate the meaning of this phrase for days, but to me the first step of observing that is to think about who might be alone that night, and give them a call. My next step is often to consider who is a stranger to Judaism who might want to know a little bit more about both the religion and what it means to our family.

The seder encapsulates so much of what is most important to me about my Jewish practice. It demands thoughtful engagement, asks us to wrestle with difficult ideas, and spurs countless conversations. With storytelling as the primary tool, the seder reminds us to look to our past to inform our present and instruct us about the future. It includes a call to action and tikkun olam, to continue to work to make the world a better place. The seder also provides space to celebrate what we have, to sing and laugh and play games together. And, of course, there’s all of that food and the wine I talked about before.

Some people who are not Jewish probably identify some of those elements as the good parts of their own culture or faith as well. On top of that, the seder is chock full of universal themes. The story of enslavement and redemption is one common across many groups. The reliance on faith for hope and wisdom about how to be better people is something that draws countless parallels. A structure for welcoming and celebrating spring is something in which we all can participate. As parents, the seder reminds us of our dual responsibility to be both models and teachers, a practice that extends into the entirety of the job of raising children.

For me, the seder is one of the best parties I’ll have all year. The kitchen is a mess, the table overflowing with food, and the china makes its annual appearance. What better time to open up my home to our interfaith circle of family and friends, and to invite those who are strangers to Judaism to pull up a chair and join in the party.

The Blessing of the Broken Garage Door

The tarnished mezuzah on our front door has been on our doorposts in four states.

We have a mezuzah on the front door to our house. It is a lovely silver object that my mother gave to me and Cameron when we lived in New York. It has journeyed with us from the Big Apple to the doorposts of our homes in Connecticut, Ohio, and Texas. After more than a dozen years, it has accumulated the worn and tarnished look of a family heirloom.

I don’t think about or notice the mezuzah that much because we live in a house with an attached garage. We park our cars inside and enter our home through a door that connects the garage to our laundry room and kitchen. We mostly use the front door to let in visitors. Because of this, the mezuzah is more a sign to others that we are Jewish, than a reminder to us of our connection to Judaism or our responsibility to follow God’s commandments.

In preschool, Sammy even asked why we didn’t have a mezuzah. I said, “We have one,” and I took him to the front of the house, opened the door and pointed to the mezuzah.

“I didn’t know we had one,” he said, “because we never use the front door to come into the house! I think we should get a second one to put on the door near the garage because that is the way we come in. Then we can touch it. You know that you are suppose to touch it when you pass it, right?”

“Yes, I know that.”

Touching a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a room is a Jewish custom rather than a commandment. Many people place a hand on it when passing; others kiss the hand after touching it because they believe the holiness of the mezuzah transfers to the hand.

The tradition first appears in the Talmud in a story about a Roman convert to Judaism, who tells Roman soldiers that God protects the departure and arrival of his servants. The custom is also a reminder of love for God, the sanctity of the home, and God’s mitzvot.

I was glad Sammy was learning about Jewish traditions. I was also happy to add a mezuzah to the door from the garage into the house. I took Sammy to our synagogue’s gift shop and let him select one. He chose a wood mezuzah painted in vibrant colors.

The mezuzah Sammy selected for the entryway from our garage.

I asked a rabbi friend to help us hang it. He came over with his family and together we held a Chanukat HaBayit, the ceremony for hanging a mezuzah. We affixed it to the entry from the laundry room to our kitchen at a level that Sammy, then four-years-old, could reach. (The ceremony name sounds like Hanukkah and comes from the same root. Both mean dedication. Chanukat HaBayit is Dedication of the Home.)

Once the mezuzah was up, Sammy touched it when he passed. But after awhile, I stopped noticing if he continued to do so. I paid as much attention to this mezuzah as I did to the one on the front door. Usually, I was busy thinking about other things as I entered the house.

But then, a few weeks ago, a spring on our electric garage door broke. Cameron could not get the part to fix it, so we needed to park on the street in front of our house until the door was repaired. As soon as we began using the front door, I saw that when Sammy entered the house he tapped the mezuzah as he passed through the entryway. I didn’t say anything; I just assumed it was something that he did at his day school and that sometimes he remembered to do it at home.

But then I noticed that he touched it every time he entered the house. The consistency of his mezuzah “high-five” made me conscious of touching it myself.

One afternoon after school, Sammy asked if I knew why he was touching the mezuzah when he entered the house. “Because it’s Jewish tradition?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but that’s not why I’m doing it,” he said.

I expected a typical Sammy response, one that would offer some profound nine-year-old insight into this old Jewish custom. I was wrong.

“I’m doing it because we’re having a ‘who can touch every mezuzah that they pass contest’ at school.”

“Oh,” I said, a little disappointed in the mundaneness of his explanation. I guess these are the games kids at day school play. I asked, “Do you think anyone will know if you touch the mezuzah at home?”

“No, but I don’t want to stop because then I might forget when I’m at school and lose the game.”

The more I thought about Sammy’s rationale for touching the mezuzah, the more I realized that he was forming a habit. A habit can be defined as an acquired behavior that becomes nearly, or completely involuntary. While we often take habitual actions for granted, they are the things that provide comfort to us in the midst of the uncertainties of life.

The Jewish habit that Sammy was forming through the game might not be deeply meaningful or important now, but one day, it might take on a more significant meaning. During high and low points in his life, touching the mezuzah might remind him that he’s not alone, that he’s part of the larger Jewish community; or that his home is sacred, a refuge, a sanctuary; or that something bigger than us exists in the universe.

Observing the consistency of Sammy’s mezuzah tapping made me consider in a conscious way my own Jewish behaviors; how they sustain me and provide a measure of predictability in the craziness of daily life. Watching Sammy caused me to be more mindful of my habits. I guess that was the hidden blessing of the broken garage door.

Ending the Shabbat Protests

Ruthie's Homemade Challah

Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.  Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, it’s the kind of challenge I’ve longed for in contrast to what’s been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.

Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates “an event” even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.

But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.

In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didn’t want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didn’t get very far at first. “Because it’s stupid.” “Because I don’t like the prayers.” “Because I am hungry.”

And then, finally, an answer I could work with:

“I don’t want to be Jewish, Mommy.”

Ouch. That hurt. But I didn’t want to let on just yet.

“Why, Ruthie?”

“Because I don’t understand the prayers. We don’t say them in English, and I don’t know what we’re saying.”

Aha!

“Could we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthie’s request.

Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.

What Would Esther Think?

Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful and intermarried heroine of Purim.

Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.

As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?

Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).

The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.

Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.

But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.

When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.

Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.

Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.

Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.

She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.

She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.

After the Tough Questions About Sochi Were Answered, the Scantily Clad Women Arrived

What do these two things have in common? Both are reminders that soon, my little boy will not be so little anymore.

The other day I felt good about how I handled Sammy’s challenging political questions about the Sochi games. We discussed Jonathan Pollard when Edward Snowden came up again in conversation. We talked about the parallels between Russia’s anti-gay policies and Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy during a discussion about the price paid at an auction last year for Jesse Owen’s gold medal. In fact, I was feeling so good about having managed the Winter Games’ teachable moments that I began to think that it was time for some parental high-fives.

Then three tanned and topless females wearing only thong bikini bottoms and big smiles appeared in my mailbox. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue had arrived. I knew that many men anticipated the arrival of this once-a-year celebration of women frolicking in the sand and surf, but as the mother of a 9-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was neither filled with anticipation for what was inside this magazine nor was I celebrating it.

But the arrival of these women on my doorstep was my fault. I was the one who during Sammy’s school magazine fundraiser said it was okay for him to get the “regular” edition of Sports Illustrated (S.I.), in addition to S.I. for Kids. I thought reading about sports would be better than surfing the Internet for sports news. I forgot that the swimsuit issue was part of the subscription package.

I cancelled my subscription to S.I. 26 years ago, before heading to college. See, I too was a sports-crazy kid. I would read my weekly sports bible lying on my bedroom floor. I studied the swimsuit issue with a mix of amazement (women really looked like that!) and curiosity (was it possible to visit the exotic locations in the pictures?). I had a good idea what was inside the 50th anniversary edition.

But on this day, I did not look at the magazine with amazement or curiosity. I looked at it with a mother’s eye, a Jewish mother’s eye, and thought, there’s no way my kid is looking at this. I try not to be a helicopter parent, and I work to embrace the blessing of the skinned knee, but I’m still a mom that wants to shelter her son from some things for as long as possible – like barely clothed women with long legs and big breasts.

At the risk of sounding like my parents, kids grow-up so fast. I want to preserve Sammy’s innocence for as long as possible. I’m glad he still thinks kissing in movies is gross – he covers his eyes when Aragorn smooches Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and like that he has “girls who are friends” instead of girlfriends.

With this in mind and because Sammy was at school and had not yet seen that S.I. arrived, I hid the magazine in my office under legal pads and file folders and anything else I could find. I’m not proud that I took his mail or that I wasn’t truthful when Sammy said, “I wonder why I didn’t get Sports Illustrated this week.” As a Jewish parent, I know I should be working a little harder than I am to model walking in God’s ways.

But, come on, I think a little wiggle room should be granted on the eighth and ninth commandments for moms and dads who need to bend the rules in the name of responsible parenting. I mean sometimes a mom has to do what a mom has to do.

I fudged the commandments to protect my child, and to prevent him from breaking the tenth commandment – thou shall not covet. I knew the photos in the magazine might lead to lots of coveting of swimsuit beauties, including Israeli model Bar Refaeli who was featured in the former cover girl section. As I looked at the picture of her, I imagined Sammy using the line, “But she’s Jewish,” to convince me to let him hang her poster in his room. As if somehow being Jewish would negate the fact that she wasn’t wearing much clothing.

The arrival of this magazine really sent me into a tizzy in a way that questions about Putin, terrorism and gay rights in Russia did not. Why? I’m not naïve. I know that some day soon Sammy will be thinking and looking at girls as more than just friends. I know that, in a few years, he will be a teenager with raging hormones.

I was reminded of all these things that as a parent, I wished to put off, when the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Date Assignment Request Form arrived in the mail. Realizing that the teen years and all the developmental changes that they bring were not as far off as I liked to think triggered my mama bear response to the magazine. Taken together, the two items made me realize that, in three, years, my little boy would not be so little anymore.

At the same time that Sammy is called to the Torah to accept his obligation to fulfill Jewish laws and be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), he will be becoming more interested in bodies and sexuality – things that I find more difficult to discuss than politics. But I can’t stop the turning towards adulthood. It is coming, in many ways and sooner than I want.

I know this, but I still want to prolong Sammy’s innocence as long as I can. Which is why, I deposited the magazine in the recycling bin. I’m not yet ready to address the challenging topics raised by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But I know I need to do it. I just need some additional time to think about what to say.

 

Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Confessions of a Peeking Parent

The following is a guest blog post by Jodi S. Rosenfeld

The rules are right there in the Shema.

You know, in the Ve’ahavta part, where it says: These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you’re sitting in your house, when you’re walking by the way, and when you’re lying down, and when you’re rising up. On and on it goes. These are the Torah’s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.

Kids learningBut that line about teaching God’s commandments diligently to our children? That’s a specific directive to us parents. Whether we are raising kids in an interfaith home or in one with two Jewish adults, the expectation is clear–teach the kids about Judaism and teach them with diligence! This makes me anxious.

Think about the endless list of lessons “good parents” are supposed to be sure to impart to their children: good manners, respect for others, healthy eating habits, general knowledge of the world. I remember, when my now-10-year-old was in about his sixth month, people started asking me if I was teaching him baby sign language. My heart would pound. I would think, in list fashion: I’ve started solid foods; I’ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read “Goodnight Moon” every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for music…must I teach him sign language too? It seemed like one more task in an overwhelming, unending series of parental responsibilities.

As I thought about how I wanted to teach my children about being Jewish, I decided to start with Shabbat. We began lighting candles every Friday night in the manner our Rabbi had taught us–all of us “gathering the light” by sweeping our hands above the flames three times and then covering our eyes while we said the blessing. As my children became old enough to join us in these rituals, I found that my personal behaviors had changed. I would gather the light, then, rather than cover my eyes, I would peek. Just as a toddler playing hide-and-seek might open her fingers to peer out between them while counting, I was peeking at my kids! Rather than enjoying the serenity of that darkened moment of prayer, I was staring at them–were they covering their eyes? Were they saying the blessing? (I know they know this blessing!) It had become my weekly parenting test: Were my kids doing Judaism right? Had I diligently taught them how to observe Shabbat?

This was not working for me. I had come to dread that sundown moment of disappointment if say, they were poking one another instead of focusing on the holiness of the moment. I started to call them out on it. “You were not covering your eyes!” to which they would reply, “Mom, how could you know we weren’t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?”

Touché. Smart kids.

And so this is what my kids taught me about their Jewishness: they would learn by watching me. If Shabbat blessings were important to me, eventually they would see that they were important. If I became engaged in the community of our synagogue, they would find value in that community. If I continued to peek, the jig would be up.

Now, this is how I do Judaism with due diligence–at home, I focus on what is meaningful to me: lighting candles, eating Challah on Friday nights, hosting family meals for the holidays. My kids watch. And participate. And learn.

Valentine’s Day: Embracing a Non-Jewish Family Tradition with my Whole Heart

When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.

Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious.  As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass.  The Valentine’s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.

My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life.  This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life.  She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.

So Isabel’s first American Valentine’s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentine’s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier.  We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.

Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course).  But that was a minor happening in the day’s festivities.

When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away.  Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls.  When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.

I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day.  They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending.  They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be.  They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.

But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each other’s lockers.

That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.”  But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way.  So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too.  Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue.  We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate.  And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal.  Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.

Sharing the Bad Stuff with Younger Kids, Take 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about editing the scary stuff from Bible stories when I read them to my 5-year-old.  I acknowledged that the time when she starts understanding the scary stuff, both in The Bible and in real life, is fast approaching.  However, for as long as I am in control of the stories, my first instinct is to try to find an age-appropriate way to tell them, and at this age what feels most appropriate is a telling without violence.  Since I wrote that post, the universe has reminded me that the notion of control is a luxury, and often an illusion.

About a week after my post, Melissa Schorr wrote a lovely reflection on protecting childhood innocence in The Boston Globe Magazine.  In the article, she talks about the heartache she felt when she had to explain the Holocaust to her 8-year-old before she was ready to do so.  The piece is also about coming to understand her parents’ choice to shield her from evil as a child, and the rare gift of being able to do so.

In response, KJ Dell’Antonia wrote a piece on The New York Times website about how she discusses tragedy with her kids.  Dell’Antonia argues that if you want to choose how tragedy is explained to your kids, you can’t wait for the right time.  She points out that there rarely is a time that will feel right, and that we often don’t have a say in the timing of our kids’ discoveries.  The article encourages parents to seize opportunities to talk about tragedy when they arise.

Reading these, I first wondered if my declaration to protect my child from Biblical evil was a wimpy one.  But I don’t think that that was the point.  These two articles remind us that we aren’t really in charge of everything our children see and hear.  Because of this, we need a strategy so that when our kids ask tough questions we know what we want to say, and aren’t deciding in the heat of the moment.

And then, on Friday, something awful happened.  A 14-year old boy fatally shot his 9-year-old brother inside their Boston home.  I do not know the intimate details, but I do know that it is a terrible tragedy.  My heart breaks for the boys’ family and friends.

On Saturday, I took Ruthie with me to a community meeting.  The meeting was not about the incident, so the speaker caught me off guard by beginning the meeting with a report on the shooting and a moment of silence in remembrance of the young boy.

On our way home, Ruthie asked me what the man said about the boy and the gun.  So I recounted the facts that I knew she had already heard in a direct way – that a boy was playing with a gun, and another boy was shot.  I waited to see if she had a response.  She asked me why there was a gun in their house, and I told her that some people have guns in their houses, but that guns are very dangerous, and that kids should never ever play with them.  I reminded her that I work with a lot of Moms who are trying to help protect kids from guns.  She was done with her questions and shifted the conversation to the rules around gunplay at school, and we had a great conversation about how we both feel about gunplay.

As we pulled into our driveway, I felt the ache that Schorr described about the potential for Ruthie’s childhood bubble to shrink, even with me trying to blow new air into it at the other end.  Ruthie seems fine – she got the facts she needed, and she seems much more nervous today about the Louis Sachar teacher who turns children into apples than about guns.

I still think I might edit The Bible stories for a little bit longer, since I hope to nurture my girls’ early romance with them before jumping into the tougher parts.  But I am going to try to be ready for those moments that I need to seize, when the best way to make my girls feel secure is to tell them difficult things in the context of what they mean for our lives.  All the while, I will be trying my best to be a reliable primary source as they try to make sense of the world.

Talking Sochi with my 9-Year-Old Son, Sammy

 

Sammy and I have been talking about more than sports during the Sochi games.

On Thursday night, Cameron was working late and instead of reading the next chapter in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King after dinner, Sammy wanted to watch coverage of the opening day of the Olympics. Sammy, a huge sports fan, had been eagerly anticipating the start of the games.

While Thursday was the official start of the Winter Olympics, there was not much to watch. We saw the preliminary rounds of slopestyle snowboarding and the team competition in figure skating. With a lack of events to cover, I assumed NBC would fill their primetime coverage with travel and culture stories, and athlete profiles designed to whet viewers’ appetites before Friday’s Opening Ceremony.

But instead of the fluffy filler, we found ourselves listening to Bob Costas talk with David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The New Yorker, and Vladimir Pozner, a Russian-American journalist about the hot political issues surrounding the games – LGBT rights, Edward Snowden, terrorism. I thought Sammy would be uninterested in these more adult segments of the show, but that was not the case. He was as engaged in the discussion of current events as he was in the early rounds of the ice skating and alpine competitions.

Some background on Sammy. He is a very curious child, and he loves to learn. While sports, Legos, and reading are particular passions, he wants to know more about most things.

Not surprisingly, Sammy fired off a bunch of questions. “Why does Putin want to let Snowden stay in Russia? Why are they worried about terrorism? What kind of anti-gay laws did Russia pass?”

So much for powering down our brains before bed while watching skaters twirl and snowboarders jump. This was going to be a thinking kind of night.

“I guess Putin thinks Snowden has valuable information on the American government,” I replied to the first question. “They are concerned about terrorism because there is an area in Russia called Chechnya where some residents want full independence. There has been fighting on-and-off since the 1990s. Sometimes the people who want to separate from Russia do things that hurt innocent people like attack theaters or schools. They do this in order to put pressure on the Russian government to recognize them as an independent state. The have a lot of security at the games because they want to keep everyone safe,” I said.

On to question number three. “Do you remember what I told you the word gay is sometimes used to describe?” I asked. Sammy shook his head no. “The word gay is sometimes used to describe people who love someone of the same gender,” I said.

“Like George and Alex?”

“Right, like George and Alex.” George and Alex are our good friends, who happen to be a same-sex couple. Sammy feels very close to them. When we talk about marriage equality or gay-rights cases before the Supreme Court, we relate the discussion to George and Alex so that Sammy understands how these issues affect people in our life.

“So, what the journalists are saying is that Russia is not friendly towards people who are gay,” I continued. “There is a lot of discrimination, and recently, the Russian government passed laws that essentially make it illegal for anyone to suggest or promote that people in same-sex relationships have equal rights.”

“Oh, that’s not good,” he said. But before Sammy could ask any follow-up questions, figure skating came back on. I was saved from giving other details for the moment, but not for long. Sammy often thinks about things for awhile. I knew additional inquiries would come over the coming days.

After Sammy had gone to bed that night, I found that his questions stayed with me, and I thought about the many parallels to events in Jewish history. Snowden reminded me of Jonathan Pollard; the Jewish-American civilian intelligence analyst convicted of passing classified information to Israel.

The discussion of terrorism made me think of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the terrorist acts committed by Israeli and Palestinian groups in their struggles for statehood. The actions of organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas are well-known, but the operations of the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization are less familiar to some. (The Irgun believed that it was justifiable to use any means necessary, including acts of terror, to establish a Jewish state. Irgun operations included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946 and the Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948, which killed over 100 residents of a Palestinian Arab village.)

My mind moved from terrorism to gay-rights and the parallels to the many periods of persecution that populate Jewish history – slavery in Egypt, near annihilation in Persia, battles for religious freedom against the Seleucid and Roman Empires, the Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms, Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism. And what about Hitler’s attempts to exclude Blacks and Jews from the competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?

It was clear to me that the hot topics surrounding the Sochi games were issues Jews had seen play out before. I considered how to connect current events to Jewish history in a way that did not ignore the complexities, but was still understandable to a grade-schooler. I decided to use the parallels to teach Sammy about his heritage, remind him of the values we aspire to live by, and explain how we can learn from the past in order to work towards a better future.     

Sammy’s Sochi questions have not yet resurfaced, but when they do, I am ready for a detailed discussion. These Olympics offer more than outstanding feats of athleticism. They present an opportunity for a Jewish history and values lesson.