My New Year’s Resolution: Improvement Not Perfection

A lesson on caring for our world before a park cleanup made me realize I wasn't doing all I could to fulfill my responsibility to be a guardian of the earth.

If you’ve read some of my blogs related to Sukkot and Tu Bishvat or articles in the InterfaithFamily article archive, you know that the environment is an issue that my family and I care deeply about. We have an organic vegetable garden, use earth-friendly cleaning products and buy local meats and produce whenever possible. We keep our house warm in the summer and cool in the winter, and support environmental organizations such as Jewish National Fund. I drive a small hybrid car and like any good tree-hugger, my favorite shoes are an old pair of Birkenstock sandals that I occasionally wear with socks in the winter.

Given our passion for the environment, you can imagine how excited we were when we learned that the family mitzvah project for our son Sammy’s religious school class was a park clean up at White Rock Lake. White Rock Lake is the Central Park of Dallas.

The morning of the event, we grabbed our yard gloves and bug spray, and headed to our synagogue to meet our group. Before we left for the park, one of our rabbis led us in a discussion about our responsibility as Jews for caring for the earth. After discussing some Jewish texts, she asked the kids to share what they would do if they saw trash on the ground. They all said that they would pick it up and throw it away.

Then she asked if they would pick up the trash if it were gooey and dirty. Most children still said yes because they would have a nabber-grabber or plastic bag with them to use to grab the sticky garbage. These kids were not going to admit easily that there were times that they might not pick up trash. The rabbi then asked what they would do if they didn’t have nabber-grabbers or bags.

Knowing that there is often a contrast between what people say about themselves and actual behavior, the rabbi shared a story about herself. She talked about how when she walks her dog in her neighborhood she often sees garbage along the side of the road. She tries always to pick it up, but sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she walks past the sticky Gatorade bottle even though she knows she shouldn’t.

After her story, we headed to the park. I parked my Prius next to my rabbi’s. As we were walking to get our cleanup instructions and materials, I told her that I was also guilty of not always picking up the trash I see when I walk our dog.

I explained that while I have the best intentions if the dog hasn’t gone to the bathroom, I worry that I won’t have enough bags to clean up his waste. I tell myself that I’ll pick up the garbage after he goes when we’re on our way home, but often we don’t walk the same way. I feel bad when I do this, but I do it anyway.

Admitting my own lapses in environmental stewardship was easier after hearing someone that has moral authority admit that they make the same mistake. As I confessed, my rabbi nodded in understanding and I realized that others shared the moral dilemmas of dog walking.

As we worked to clean up the park, I thought about the morning’s discussion. I knew I could and should do more to live my earth-loving values and picking up trash when walking the dog was an easy way to do it. I resolved to increase the frequency of my trash pick up.

Later in the day, I shared my resolution with Sammy. I thought it was a good opportunity to model the concept of teshuva, repentance. I even explained the action I would take to meet my goal of increased garbage pick up: bring more bags to ensure that I had enough for garbage and poop.

Sammy thought my plan was good but asked if I was going to separate recyclables. “It’s better to recycle if you can,” he said. And what about dog waste that other owners neglected to pick up, he asked, “Are you going to clean up that too?”

Walking the dog was becoming more morally complicated by the minute. I thought this must be why people walk by garbage and dog poop–there are too many ethical decisions to consider.

But I didn’t want too many moral choices to stop me from fulfilling my responsibility to be a shomrei adamah, guardian of the earth. So, I decided to keep it simple. Separate trash from recyclables when possible; otherwise place it all in the trash and pick up dog waste if I had enough bags. Focus on maximizing the amount of garbage I pick up.

Three weeks into the implementation of my resolution, I’m happy to report that I have increased the frequency of trash pickup when I walk our dog. I’m not perfect, but my goal is improvement not perfection. And that is exactly what Judaism asks of us.

It doesn’t ask us to be perfect; it simply asks us to commit and work to change our behavior in order to live more responsible and humane lives. As we move from the season of atonement into the season of rejoicing, my trash pick plan is, in a small way, helping me to do that. And that’s worth celebrating.

The Evolution of an Awesome Rosh Hashanah Observance

A game at our first Rosh Hashanah party

When Sammy was little, everything about being Jewish and celebrating Jewish holidays was “awesome.” His love of all things Jewish stemmed, in part, from his loving and joyful experience at the preschool at our synagogue. It also came from a conscience effort made by me and Cameron to make religious engagement enjoyable.

As I wrote in Rosh Hashanah Party for the New Year, Cameron and I felt that when we were children faith was more serious than fun. We believed that this more formal approach to religion was one reason many in our generation were less religiously engaged as adults. In my own family, I had siblings and relatives–inmarried and intermarried–who celebrated Jewish holidays because they felt obligated to; not because they found them meaningful or fulfilling.

We wanted Sammy to have a different relationship with faith. We wanted him to see the joy in Judaism, so we tried to create fun and memorable celebrations. These holiday observances had a strong community component in order to help nurture Sammy’s connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.

When Sammy was in preschool, we decided to host a Jewish New Year party. We created a carnival-like atmosphere in our backyard for Sammy and our friends’ families to enjoy. We had games and holiday crafts and apple and honey-themed treats.

We had an apple beanbag toss, a kid-safe version of bobbing for apples using Nabber Grabbers, and a Pin the Apple in the Tree game. There were Rosh Hashanah-themed coloring pages, a Design Your Own Apple Tree craft, and apple-shaped cookies to decorate. It was a lot of work, but it was, in the words of my then-preschooler, “awesome.” Our friends and their kids also loved it; so much so, that we decided to make it an annual event.

After several years of our Rosh Hashanah backyard carnival, Sammy and his friends outgrew the crafts and games. Our party had become too babyish. When Sammy told me this, I was a little shocked. He was still my little boy. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he stopped wearing diapers? How could he be too old for coloring pages and the beanbag toss?

However, the fact was that he stopped wearing diapers four years earlier, and sports were now much cooler than Pin the Apple in the Tree. Sammy asked if we could replace the little kids stuff with gaga. Gaga is an Israeli variation of dodgeball that is played in an octagonal or hexagonal shaped pit and is popular at US Jewish summer camps and day schools.

So, in order to maintain the awesomeness of our Rosh Hashanah party, we turned our backyard into a gaga pit. Doing it was a real sign of Cameron’s love for me and Sammy. Cameron derives much pleasure from working in the yard, and he sacrificed his grass for his Jewish family. I could tell that it took a lot of emotional energy for him to remain calm as he watched the lawn disappear inside the large space we used for the pit.

Once we established gaga as the party activity, I thought we had found a way for the tradition to grow with the kids, but Sammy and his friends were one step ahead of us on the coolness ladder. Last year we were told that gaga was out (Cameron was thrilled!), and choose your own adventure (or activity) was in. We adapted again.

We moved the party to a park in our neighborhood and invited our friends for coffee, juice and sweet (in honor of the New Year) breakfast treats. Some families brought their dogs and others brought balls. The kids played Frisbee, basketball, baseball and other games they invented; the adults spent time catching up.

The celebration was…awesome, and it was about what it has always been about: sharing the holiday with our community, creating happy Jewish memories for our family and friends, and helping Sammy and his friends learn to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than simply obligation.

When we host our annual Jewish New Year celebration this weekend, it will again follow the freedom-to-do-what-you-want model, and I imagine that we will stick with this format for a while now that Sammy is moving into the tween years. But then again, it might change. If I’ve become hip to anything over the past few years, it’s that we must evolve to remain awesome. Just as we sometimes need to rethink our celebrations in order to keep them relevant to the next generation.

Counting our Blessings on the Last Shabbat of Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

Mourning, Consolation and Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.