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By Melissa Henriquez
Every Sunday morning as I practically drag my 6-year old out of bed to go to Hebrew School, Iâ€™m reminded of the final scene in â€śMy Big Fat Greek Weddingâ€ť when Toulaâ€™s own daughter has turned six and is begrudgingly headed off to â€¦ where else?!Â Greek school.
Like Toulaâ€™s daughter and Toula before her, and Toulaâ€™s mother before her (and so on and so forth) my daughter knows she must to go to her own version of Greek School â€” she just doesnâ€™t â€śwantâ€ť to.
Personally, I began Hebrew School in third grade. Because I wish Iâ€™d started earlier, we enrolled my daughter when she started kindergarten last fall.Â I wanted her to have a better sense of Jewish community than I did growing upÂ and an earlier start to Jewish learning. Since Hebrew School goes from 9:15 a.m.â€“12:15 p.m.Â every Sunday for all ages, itâ€™s admittedly a hefty time commitment for the short-attention-spanned kindergartnersâ€“but it is what it is. Fortunately for us, Hebrew School overlaps when my (Catholic) husband normally goes to mass, anyway, so itâ€™s not that my daughter is missing much family timeâ€“and itâ€™s given me precious, special one-on-one time with my 3-year-old son.
Itâ€™s not that she doesnâ€™t like Hebrew School once sheâ€™s thereâ€“she has adorable little friends, they sing, they have music class, they bake and participate in a mini-service. They do art projects and learn their Hebrew letters, colors and numbers. She learns about Jewish customs, history and holidaysâ€“and I love that now she peppers me now with questions about Judaism. Because sheâ€™d learned about Passover and the Jewsâ€™ exodus from Egypt, she asked me if I was a slave because I was Jewish (hoo boy!). I love seeing her little mind work and how she asks me who else in her world is Jewish, as well as who is not (her grandpa, her daddy, 99% of her friends).
But letâ€™s be honest: while being Jewish is something I take deep pride in, it isnâ€™t easy by any means. And itâ€™s definitely not easy for a 6-year-old kid who just wants to stay home in her PJs, read, color and ride her bike on Sunday mornings, especially when all of her friends from school are Christian, and only a handful are regular Sunday church-goers.
I know first-hand how hard it can be to be â€śdifferentâ€ťâ€“to be one of just a few Jewish kids in my school and the only Jew among my close friends. I remember the pangs of sadness I felt having to miss a huge cheerleading competition in eighth grade that fell on my bat mitzvah day. I desperately wanted to be in two places at once, but could not.
Looking ahead, I know my daughter will face similar situations; itâ€™s inevitable that Jewish life and sports/activities will at some point collide, and Judaism will often need to be the priority, as it was for me. As I grew into adulthood, I came to appreciate the significance of those sacrifices, and I hope she will, too. But whatever she thinks or decides about Judaism as an adult, I want her to at leastÂ understandÂ it, and thatâ€™s why weâ€™re doing this.
This first year of formal religious school has been a real adjustment for our little family, and Iâ€™d be lying if I said we werenâ€™t all looking forward to summer break when we will have free Sunday mornings again. But all in all, I wouldnâ€™t change a thing. Itâ€™s been a great learning experience and Iâ€™ve been thrilled at the beginnings of her Jewish education. And come September, I think our soon-to-be-first-grader will be excited to go back to a familiar school where she has a newfound sense of belonging.
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
MelissaÂ HenriquezÂ is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now liveÂ in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (6) and Ben (3).Â By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs atÂ Let There Be LightÂ (est. 2008).Â Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
I grew up in the same town where I currently reside. I remember going to high school with only a handful of other students who called themselves Jewish. I knew that raising my family in my hometown meant we would have to go to the very small synagogue in the next town over or if we wanted to be part of a larger community, we would need to drive 20 to 30 minutes north or south to more Jewish areas to find that.
It never crossed my mind that we would run into the issue of being the minority in what I thought would be a simple search for a preschool. Admittedly, I was a bit late in my search, thinking that with a baby due at the end of August and the school year starting in early September, I might want to hold off on sending my daughter to preschool to avoid her having too many changes at once. It turned out that she really wanted to go to school, so who was I to keep that from her?
With the limited openings available to those of us who started our search late, I found that there were very few secular schools with openings. There was one within walking distance, but it only had openings for the afternoon session, which I thought may not be ideal for a still-napping toddler. My daughter toured the school with my stepmother and they both absolutely loved it. But I was unable to make it to the tour and was still apprehensive about sending her to school during prime nap time.
My search had to broaden. The Jewish preschools, like the Jewish communities, were quite a drive from my house, so it seemed unlikely for that to work out as we readjust to life with a newborn again. A highly recommended preschool in our area with morning openings just happened to be a Christian preschool. I scheduled a tour and reached out to the InterfaithFamily Facebook group, â€śRaising a Child with Judaism Participants and Alumni,â€ť to ask whether other parents would send their children to a preschool of a faith other than Judaism and what kinds of questions they would ask on a tour.
The post had some lively discussion and I found that resource very helpful in gathering my thoughts, both before and after the tour. I went into the tour thinking I would be OK with the education if the religious component was strictly value-teaching. When speaking with the director, I asked whether theyâ€™d had students of other faith backgrounds in their school before. The comforting answer was a â€śYes, weâ€™ve had Hindu and Jewish students in our school before.â€ť
We started moving through the motions of a typical day, and while my daughter happily played and worked on a craft with the other children, I asked about prayer time and the Bible stories that they read. It turned out that the Bible stories were sometimes familiar ones like Noahâ€™s ark, but at other times, they pull from specifically Christian liturgy. They also do an annual Christmas pageant and talk about the story of Easter. I left the tour thankful to have had the opportunity to ask those questions, but feeling unsure about the school.
I went home, talked to my husband about it, and thought it over. Yes, even if we chose a secular school, she would be exposed to Christian holidays. We are an interfaith family, so she will be exposed in our own familyâ€™s celebrations as well. However, teachings of Jesus would not be a part of a secular schoolâ€™s curriculum. With that in mind, I scheduled a second tour of the neighborhood school with afternoon openings. My daughter jumped right into all of the activities again, already feeling like this was a familiar place. My husband and I asked lots of questions and they were all answered the way we hoped. It felt right, despite the fact that it would mean missing naps two days a week. We took home the registration paperwork and I got started on it right away, so we would not miss out on the few remaining openings.
In the registration packet, I was thrilled to find a questionnaire on celebrations and holidays. The questions were excellent, with sensitive wording and dug much deeper than I would have expected. The questions included the following:
What special days do you celebrate in your family?
This put my mind at ease. I answered each question thoroughly, probably with more detail than the school is used to, but this was of utmost importance in my preschool search. I want my daughter to understand and appreciate that other families may have different celebrations and beliefs than we do and I want her to be able to share some of our traditions with her new friends. This school will allow for both, and to me, that is the perfect setting for her first few years of schooling.
I recently discovered the secret to motivating my son to go to religious school. I stumbled upon it. Hours after Hebrew school last Tuesday while we were eating dinner, my son spilled the beans.
â€śI had a really bad sinus headache at school this afternoon and felt crummy. I almost went to Nurse Julie to ask her to call you and tell you that I couldn’t go to Hebrew and that I needed to go home. But I was really looking forward to seeing Josh, so I decided to deal with it.”
Wow! Impressive. Typically, an ailment would not need to be that bad to ask for a Hebrew school pass. But knowing that he would see Josh, his best friend from camp, trumped a headache and the pain that is known by Jewish children everywhere as Religious School. The bonds of friendship formed at Jewish summer camp were more powerful than I thought. Jewish summer camp was the gift that kept on giving.
Study after study has shown the power of Jewish camp on creating strong Jewish identities in participants. The Greenbook, published by the Jewish Funders Network to inform the conversation of the role of Jewish camp in fostering Jewish identity says,
â€śSimply put: Jewish camp works to help create a more vibrant Jewish future. Those who experienced summers at Jewish overnight camp are far more likely as adults to be engaged in the Jewish community. The 2011 Camp Works study compared adults who participated in Jewish overnight camp as children to Jewish adults who did not have a Jewish camp experience. The study found that those who attended Jewish camp areâ€¦55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 37% more likely to light Shabbat candles regularly, 21% more likely to feel that being Jewish is very important to them.â€ť
What the study does not say is that camp can motivate your children to want to go to Hebrew school, but apparently, it does that too! If it is possible to love camp more than I already do, I do.
When my son returned from camp, I suspected that this summer had been different from the previous four. The connections to friends seemed deeper. After all, he had now been with, for the most part, the same group of boys for five years. And he had discovered three years ago, that several of his camp friends lived in Dallas and went to our synagogue. Summer plus seeing each other twice a week at temple had created a tight bond between these boys.
There is a case to be made for sending your child to any camp, Jewish, secular, near, or far. When a kid is at a camp that is the right fit for him or her, camp is magical. As someone who spent summers at a YMCA camp and now sees Jewish summer camp, I feel there is something uniquely magically about Jewish camp, something that creates a deeper community connection. And I could not be happier that we chose a regional camp rather than sending our son to one farther away because shared year-round experiences, including religious school, enhances the community connection. Something made clear to me last Tuesday night.
Jewish camp and the community connection it creates are getting my son to Hebrew school without complaint. Thatâ€™s a benefit of the Jewish camp experience that any parent who has driven Hebrew school carpool can cheer.
This past year was our first year with both girls in Sunday school. We had a steady rhythm of Sunday mornings at Temple and monthly Shabbats with other families with young children. It was a nice addition toÂ our school year schedule. Without planning it, though, along with taking the summer off from school, we accidentally took the summer off from Temple.
I say accidentally because it wasnâ€™t planned, and I didnâ€™t even think about it as a thing we were doing. Over the course of the summer, though, when I bumped into â€śTemple friends,â€ť I felt a pang of longing for a community that is becoming a big part of our lives. This community is special because we all chose the congregationÂ as a pathÂ to explore common values, and, for the families in our religious school cohort, we all chose it to help us raise our kids with those values.
Like any group of Jewish people Iâ€™ve ever been a part of, we donâ€™t all agree on every element of practice. And like my own family, we werenâ€™t all raised Jewishly. Also, the way we practice is not always parallel with the way we were raised, Jewish or otherwise. But we have all agreed to try to figure things out together, and to shepherd a Jewish identity for our children.
Another piece of this longing I felt is because while we didnâ€™t take the summer off from being Jewish, as we welcomed the relaxing pace of summer, we also let loose on Shabbat. Late nights out or traveling replaced the ritual more than we might have preferred, but for better or worse for a few weeks we traded it for other adventures.
I love the loosening of schedules and predictability in the summer. I savor the long days and the opportunity to lengthen our mornings and evenings. I also appreciate the time to be together as a family away from our local communities. But I also miss some of the touchstones that ground our family – things like knowing we will be home for Shabbat, and even more so now, knowing weâ€™ll see some friendly faces on Sunday morning.
So while we stumble our way to get back to school, I am also looking forward to getting back to synagogue. I look forward to seeing old friends, to meeting new ones, and to the rhythm that practiceÂ helps put in our lives.
“Thirty miles north of Lakewood” is usually what we say when we talk about where we live. Lakewood, NJ, is the largest pocket of Orthodoxy around us, and many Orthodox Jews know someone (or rarely have more than two degrees of separation from someone) who lives in Lakewood.
Thirty miles north of Lakewood is a Catholic pocket of New Jersey. We live within walking distance of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The priests at this church are known throughout the dioceses of Philadelphia and Trenton. Our entire neighborhood is Catholic. We’ve sat with our next-door neighbors at church. The neighbors’ kids go to the St. Mary’s school. There is a family on our block that has been going to St. Mary’s for two generations. I see schoolchildren walking to and from school, from our front porch. Unfortunately when Jack becomes of school age, he will not attend St. Mary’s school, because we are raising him Jewish. I often wonder what it would be like for him, being the only Jewish kid on the block in a very Catholic neighborhood.
Will Jack be able to use this as a way to strengthen his own faith? Will his neighborhood peers question his faith? We would like Jack to have the freedom to struggle or wrestle with his own faith; after all, he is a child of Israel (Gen. 32:28). We would love for him to be able to explain why he believes what he believes, and why he observes Jewish rituals. This may be the first experience that some of the neighborhood kids have with Judaism, which puts a lot of pressure on Jack and meâ€”the Catholic mom who is raising her son Jewish.
Because Jack will probably be the only Jewish kid on the block, will this cause scheduling and other conflicts? Jack won’t attend the Catholic school down the street; he won’t be in classes with the neighborhood kids or part of the same school-based extra-curricular activities. He will probably have different days off of school than the neighborhoodÂ kids. Will this cause him to be excluded? Will it make him feel “different?” And will that cause a rift in playgroups or will his friends be interested in learning about his school and his activities?
Thirty miles north of Lakewood there will be a small Jewish boy growing up in a Catholic neighborhood. Itâ€™s not the first time, but it is for us.
By Melissa Henriquez
Growing up in a small, rural town in northern New Jersey in the â€™80s, I never had perfect attendance in school. Not because I was sick or because my family took vacations outside the school calendar, but rather because every fall, I needed to take two days off in observance of the Jewish holidays.
Unlike my friends who grew up in one of the predominantly Jewish parts of our stateâ€”where schools are closed for the High Holidaysâ€”I was one of about six Jewish families in our entire school district. So for us, school was definitely open and the High Holidays were consideredÂ excusedÂ absences (but still counted as absences), which meant Iâ€™d never have perfect attendance.
Of course, what I share today as a sore spot of my youth seems beyond frivolous now at 36 and a married mother of two. But at the time, it really bothered me. I already knew I was â€śdifferentâ€ť from the other kids.
Sometimes I really loved being unique. For example, my bat mitzvah was the first one my friends who weren’t Jewish had ever been toâ€”it was their inaugural exposure to Judaism and, not surprisingly, it was happily met with rave reviews. After all, whatâ€™s not to love? Thereâ€™s the party and the fancy dresses and the DJ and the neon necklaces and Shirley Temples.
Yet, other than the fact that I missed some school days each fall, or that I attended Hebrew School and had a bat mitzvah (whereas they all went to CCD at the same Catholic church and had confirmations), my religion remained a very personal thing for most of my childhood. It wasnâ€™t until I was getting ready to look at colleges that I realized finding a school with a large Jewish population was going to be really important to me.
I didnâ€™t want to be the only Jewish kid on the block anymore.
And so I accepted an offer from American University in our nationâ€™s capitalâ€”affectionately dubbed â€śGay Jewâ€ť (or at least it was called that when I attended, 1997-2001!).Â At American, I found myself part of the crowdâ€”religion often came up in conversation (as did politics, internship opportunities and study abroad plans). Suddenly, being JewishÂ bondedÂ me to others. And later my freshman year, I even dated an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy) for a few months.
I finally felt like I belonged atÂ AU, like I was among my people. And though the university didnâ€™t close for the High Holidays, many professors canceled class, either for their own observances or because they recognized many students would be going home to their families. Instead of being singled out at American, I feltÂ accepted, not having to explain at length why I couldnâ€™t present a group project on Rosh Hashanah. It was justÂ understood.
So you can imagine I was none too happy when I learned Iâ€™d have to take PTO for the Jewish holidays, as at this particular company, sick, vacation, personal and religious holidays all fell in one PTO bucket. It didnâ€™t seem fair to me when Iâ€™d be perfectly willing to work Christmas Day and Christmas Eveâ€”which were considered company holidays.
It was a poignant reminder that, once again, I was back to being in the minorityâ€”even in a culturally, religiously, ethnically diverse city like Washington, I still had to â€śexplainâ€ť myself.
Years later, when my husband (who isn’t Jewish) and I moved to Kalamazoo for his job, I told my parents, â€śGREAT. Iâ€™ll be the only Jew in Kalamazoo!â€ť And it sure felt that way for a while. My one Jewish friend here was my friend Dana in Chicago, two hours away. But then my husband introduced me to his new colleague, Emilyâ€”and said, half-kidding, â€śSheâ€™s JewishÂ andÂ has curly hair, too; youâ€™ll be best friends!â€ť
And he was right. She is one of my best friends, to this day.
When the ad agency I worked for was acquired by a global marketing firm a couple years ago, one of the best changes to come out of the acquisition was that now religious holidays are counted as personal days, versus PTO. Though Iâ€™m still the only Jew in our Kalamazoo office, I no longer feel â€śalone,â€ťÂ or like I have to explain myself, knowing this is an across-the-board policy.
Which brings me to present day. Our 5-year-old daughter Maya is really into the Jewish holidays, traditional foods and singing the songs Iâ€™ve taught her. She can begin Hebrew school this coming fall, and Iâ€™m excited to begin her formal Jewish educationâ€”but I know how small the Jewish community is here in Kalamazoo. Itâ€™s just a tad bit larger than my hometown community was, and I worry about how sheâ€™ll feel, being one of just a few Jewish kids in her elementary school.
While Iâ€™ve always been proud of who I am and love our faith and its teachings, I remember that hard-to-explain, nagging feeling of not belonging growing upâ€¦ and it plagues me. Though I know as parents, we shouldnâ€™t project our emotions onto our kids, itâ€™s hardÂ notÂ to when experience is tainting how we feel. Fortunately, the synagogue we will be joining has a lot of young families and even some interfaith families like oursâ€”so I am sure we will get some guidance from those who have gone before us. But itâ€™s hard living in a community where we really are a minority.
Itâ€™s my hope that I can instill in her that being â€śdifferentâ€ť is what makes her specialâ€”what makes her (and our family) interesting and unique. We might have to explain ourselves to some people, especially living here in the Midwest in a city without many Jewish families, but thatâ€™s OK. Who knows, maybe sheâ€™ll find her place in college, just like her mama did.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
MelissaÂ HenriquezÂ is red-headed Jew from Jersey who married a wonderful dark-haired Catholic guy from El Salvador. They met in college, endured several years of long-distance love, married in 2006 and now liveÂ in Michigan with their two wonderful children: Maya (5) and Ben (2).Â By day, she is a marketing manager at a global marketing agency and by night she blogs atÂ Let There Be LightÂ (est. 2008).Â Melissa’s writing has been featured on Babble.com and The Huffington Post.
By Rebecca Rolland
MyÂ daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (sheâ€™s begged). Still, weâ€™re late starting to look at options. I canâ€™t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the researchâ€”my vise-grip on â€śhow things should beâ€ťâ€” has gotten in the way.
Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be tooÂ critical.Â Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.
My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my motherâ€™s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledgeâ€”hardly the only story I want to pass down.
â€śLetâ€™s check it out,â€ť I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. Weâ€™d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines and a balance of strictness and care. At least thatâ€™s what the website says.
In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a â€śhigh-qualityâ€ť program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income and need less welfare assistance than a control group.
And yet, I know that a childâ€™s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his â€śecological systems theoryâ€ť developed in 1979, describes how everything in a childâ€™s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a childâ€™s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.
No pressure, I tell myself.
When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didnâ€™t have to be the one I passed down. My pastâ€”and the culture surrounding itâ€”could be a source of joy, of learning and of life.
Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. Itâ€™s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. Itâ€™s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.
We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldnâ€™t have predicted. In attending a JewishÂ preschool, Sophieâ€”blonde and blue-eyed like her fatherâ€”will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for HavdalahÂ and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, Iâ€™m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.
The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschoolâ€”and without finding this oneâ€”we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: as we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, Iâ€™m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacherâ€™s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls â€śjokes,â€ť except theyâ€™re actually wordsÂ â€śout of the mouths of babesâ€ť which sound funny to adult ears, but often meanÂ more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: â€śI speak English, Chinese and Spanish.â€ť
Laurel:Â â€śI speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.â€ť
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meantÂ â€śHebrew,â€ť of course, and â€śChristianâ€ť isnâ€™t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her bookÂ The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding oneâ€™s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed â€śspeak Jewish.â€ť I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parentsâ€™ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
Sheâ€™s learning, too â€“ I think â€“ that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Judaism, and the other to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus â€“Â or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughtersâ€™ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť theyâ€™re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, sheâ€™ll grow in her understanding of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Hollyâ€™s room as I was putting her to bed. â€śI want to sing the Shema to my sister,â€ť Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurelâ€™s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt sheâ€™ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
Â What â€ślanguagesâ€ť do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?
In mid-April, I joined an army of Instagramers around the world on a journey called The 100 Day Project. The project was a â€ścelebration of process that encourages everyone to participate in 100 days of making.â€ť To participate, you simply committed to do one thing every day for 100 days, and then to post a picture of that thing on social media. Â After learning about the project from a college classmate (#100spotsforsitting), I launched #100TrueSleepers, a photo journal of what sleep really looks like in my house.
My project, inspired by my interest in one of the biggest themes from my parenting life, uncovered some deeper revelations about how big 100 days can really be. This week, most of us will transition from the long days of summer into the excitement of September and the introspective spirit of the High Holidays. At this important moment, I wanted to share some reflections from my project to encourage us all (myself included) to pay attention to at least one small thing everyday, as a reminder of how our children, and we as parents, grow every single day, whether we notice it or not.
Two things about sleep have intrigued me ever since I became a mother. First, I love to watch my girls sleep. It is not that I prefer it to when they are awake, it is just that I love seeing the peace of a day well lived on their faces. The second is a dialogue Iâ€™ve always wanted to explore in a more public fashion – that bedtime parenting can be really tough. My kids have never been easy sleepers, and I sometimes wonder if the popularity of sleep training and related techniques makes us less inclined to be honest about what really happens in our homes on the path from dinnertime to dreamland. I launched #100TrueSleepers as the intersection of these two ideas.
During the course of 100 days, my photos narrated drawn out bedtimes, moments of frustration, and how much of a superhero Eric is for saving the bedtime hour most nights. I also got to share some great shots of my girls holding hands asleep, looking completely peaceful, and entirely beautiful.
During the process of showing up every day to take my pictures, I discovered a third and powerful thing. As I captured my girlsâ€™ sleeping moments, I also paid closer attention to the space of each day. I often heard a certain line in my head as I posted the pictures, a psalm I came to understand from Barbara Myerhoffâ€™s Number Our Days, a fantastic book I studied in college:
â€śSo teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.â€ť
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Psalms Chapter 90, Verse 12
This idea,Â that wisdom is gained in the counting of individual days, gained more and more resonance as my 100 days accumulated.
Often, the way I track time is driven by milestones and deadlines, and not by individual days. The theme of a week or a month is a project deadline, a new school year, our weekend away – major events that we plan for, and build up to. By picking a way to significantly note each day, I began to understand how much all of those milestones can be attributed to one 24 hour period, or three, or even 100. Taking that moment to catalog each photo, I also could take note of the magic of that day, and even in what had changed from one, or two, or 10 days ago.
Some amazing but smaller things happened in those 100 days – the girls changed how they liked to sleep, where they slept, and which lovies were theÂ best sleeping companions. I was able to count the number of nights I missed entire evenings with my family (8), the nights we all slept away from home (22) and the night the girls put themselves to sleep all by themselves (Night #100).
Some big milestones happened for each girl – Ruthie lost her first two teeth and learned how to read her sister bedtime stories on her own. Chaya grew out of her nap AND her pacifier. And some big and unexpected things happened, too. Ericâ€™s Nana passed away, a huge loss. And we moved out of our condo, the first place both girls called home, and into a new house, something we never would have predicted on Day One.
I finished my 100 Day Project about a month ago, and I decided to take a break from the every day of it. The project was a lot of fun, and has given me pause – to look more closely at how the days add up into the story of our journey as a family. It is a wonderful reminder to take into the new year.
Driving home from school the other day, Ruthie began singing â€śMa Tovuâ€ť to herself in the back seat. She repeated it a couple of times alone, and then I decided to try to sing it back to her. But after I got the first two lines out of my mouth, she stopped me.
â€śNo, Mommy,â€ť she said, frustrated, â€śYou sing it like this!â€ť
And she began again, more confidently, singing something that sounded very much the same to me as what I had sung, but was clearly different to her. Her tune, her way.
This interaction felt powerful as I reflected back on the end of Ruthieâ€™s first year of Sunday School. Up until last September, most of the influences on Ruthieâ€™s religious identity had come from, or at least occurred in the presence of, Eric or me. But in September, when we dropped her off with Morah Naomi for the first time, what being Jewish means for Ruthie began to happen on her own, in a way that is connected, but miraculously independent, from us.
Ruthie is a child who generally enjoys school, and she has relished in getting new knowledge at Sunday School each week. She loves the chance to share our familyâ€™s practices with her class, and to learn her own things to bring home to us. This spring, she particularly enjoyed her class â€śtripâ€ť to Israel (not an actual trip!), and is still slowly doling out tidbits about the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea or even the way that Israelis take a midday break for lunch and family every day.
Exploring her Judaism in this way has also encouraged her to articulate her interfaith identity independently, too. She knows that not all of her friends from Sunday School celebrate Christmas with their families, and she thinks sheâ€™s pretty lucky that she gets to do that. She asks lots of questions about the faith of our family members and close friends, trying on different ways of fitting herself into the world.
A few weeks ago, we had a conversation that went something like this:
â€śMommy, when I am a grown-up, and I get to pick if I am Jewish or Christian, well, Iâ€™ll probably be Jewish but I am not sure, anyway, I am going to have a cat.â€ť
Ruthie has only taken her first steps on a lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. At this moment, I am so grateful that it started off with a zeal for learning, an open heart, and curiosity about what it means to make her way in the world with a loving family that includes different faiths. I hope that we can both continue to choose love and embrace the learning journey. As always, I am glad to be along for the ride.