Make Shabbat the New Family Dinner

  

shabbat_tableSeveral months ago, I read Jennifer Senior’s All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior’s book is one of the few that examines the effects of children on their parents. How does parenthood affect our marriage, our work, our lifestyle, and our happiness?

Much of the book resonated with me, especially the chapter about the lengths parents go to develop their children so they can compete for spots at top colleges or athletic scholarships. Senior writes how this concerted cultivation has resulted in overscheduling and excessive parental involvement and contributed to the decline of real family activities such as meals.

One mother explains to Senior that, “homework has replaced the family dinner.” The reason for dinner’s displacement is that kids “tell you stuff” when you sit and create something together, and many parents don’t cook anymore. Given the amount of time they spend schlepping kids to activities it’s easier to do takeout. Senior wonders if the time spent in family study hall might not “be more restorative and better spent” doing things that create family bonds, “the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories.”

When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Shabbat. Shabbat is all about restoration, connection, rituals, stories, and creating warm memories. On Friday evenings, we give thanks for time together and the food we eat, we remember through stories–Jewish and personal–our connection to community and heritage, we take a break.

But even though Shabbat is a simple solution to the problem Senior describes and only requires a once a week commitment, many of us still struggle to do it. We’re busy with work and after school activities. We don’t have time to set a nice table or cook a meal. Our children would rather attend a high school football game or professional sporting event. I can relate.

When my son Sammy was in preschool, Shabbat was magical. On Friday afternoons, he and I baked challah. In the evenings, we gathered as a family, sat at a nicely set table, and said the prayers. Following the blessing for boys, my husband and I each whispered a special message in our son’s ear, and we shared with each other our favorite part of the week.

But as my son has grown, my family’s once magical Shabbat has lost some of its glow. We no longer sit down for a family dinner every week. When we do, our once carefully set table now looks like the one we eat at every weeknight: papers and magazines are pushed to a corner, and nondescript placemats and napkins decorate the surface. Our challah is store-bought, and my family who is starving and a little grumpy, requests the fast version of the blessings.

Because our Shabbat practice no longer seems special, it would be easy for us to surrender to our hectic schedule, to say we can’t celebrate, to abandon our flawed observance. But each week, we find ourselves trying to honor our ritual in some way.

During football season, if Sammy’s school is playing at home, we light the candles and bless the challah before we go as a family to the game. In the spring, if we have tickets to see our local minor league baseball team on a Friday night, we wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” as we enjoy America’s pastime.

But it’s when we do enjoy a real Shabbat dinner, even a thrown together one, that we remember the power of this ancient ritual. Over long discussions of the week’s Torah portion that encourage us to talk about life, politics, history, sports, and other subjects, we reconnect. During after dinner walks or family board games or while sitting by a fire, we relax.

Whether spent at the dinner table or the ballpark, these few hours help us to recharge, bond and create memories. That’s the magic of Shabbat.

At the end of the chapter on concerted cultivation, Senior suggests that parents make dinner the new family dinner. I love the idea but know that in my home, family dinner isn’t going to happen every weeknight. But I can make family time happen on Shabbat.

So, stop saying, “You can’t,” or “You’re too busy.” Find a way to celebrate Shabbat. You might just find that it becomes your new family dinner even if dinner is a hot dog at the ballpark.

How to Raise a Jewish Dog

  

howtoraiseajewishdogTwo-and-a-half years ago, when we got our dog Brady, my son asked if an animal can have a religion. The question was only half-serious. He knew that pets didn’t actually practice a faith, but he wanted the dog to have a religious identity anyway.

But what would that identity be? My son and I are Jewish, my husband is not. We have an active Jewish home and consider ourselves more Jewish than interfaith. Since Brady was delivered to us on a Friday night in December shortly before the start of Shabbat and the day before the start of Hanukkah, we were convinced that his religious identity was preordained. Brady would be Jewish.

But neither of his canine parents were Jewish. So, we gave Brady a bath and called it a mikveh. Now he was officially a Jewish pup and like any child being raised in the Jewish faith, he needed a Jewish education.

My mother-in-law purchased a dog-training book for us at a “Friends of the Library” sale–How to Raise a Jewish Dog. The book offered tips for training dogs from the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary. Apparently, the rabbis were renowned for their ability to teach owners how to create unbreakable bonds with their dogs.

We were skeptical about the rabbis’ approach, which used child-rearing techniques employed by Jewish mothers of previous generations–guilt, shame, passive aggression, sarcasm and Conditional Unconditional Love. As we read the book, I could hear my mother’s voice jumping from the page.

The rabbis’ system focused on instilling in dogs the ideas that our parents instilled in us, such as “be perfect or disappoint those who love you” and “you may think you’re smart, but you’re wrong about certain things.” It also promised to develop three important traits of Jewish dogs–an exaggerated sense of his own wonderfulness, an exaggerated sense of her own shortcomings, and an extremely close relationship with his master.

The book was cute and clever, filled with neurotic, nervous, intellectual Woody-Allenesque prose. I even imagined Allen playing the dog-training rabbi in a film. But we didn’t want a neurotic Jewish dog. We wanted a dog that was just Jewish.

As we thought about how to do that, we realized that we didn’t need a book or a trainer. We already had one of the best methods for creating Jewish identity–Shabbat. Since we had a regular home practice, we didn’t need to learn new commands or systems. We just needed to keep lighting the candles on Friday night.

To make Brady feel part of our ritual, we blessed him when we blessed our son. In the beginning, the touching and blessing made Brady growl, but he enjoyed getting a piece of challah after we said the Hamotzi. Soon he realized that giving thanks for and getting bread followed the blessing for children. The growling stopped.

Routine is a great teacher of humans and dogs. Brady now knows what is going to happen when he sees us set the table for Shabbat. As we begin the home rituals, he sits close and watches as we light the candles. He accepts the blessing for male children and sits as we recite the Kiddush and Hamotzi, eagerly anticipating the challah. As we give him a piece of Shabbat deliciousness, we wish him Shabbat Shalom.

If you want to raise a Jewish pup–four-legged or two-legged–forget about the books and trainers, guilt and sarcasm. Just celebrate Shabbat.

A Halloween Postscript: Why Opposition to Trick-or-Treating Won’t Strengthen Jewish Identity

  

I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.

This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.

As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.

Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.

Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.

According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.

Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.

I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.

We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.

We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).

These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.

Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.

Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.

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.

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

  

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Happy Second Birthday to My Little Dancer

  

My little Chaya turned two this month.  Two is a lot of fun. She is developing language at lightening speed, and even though I feel that Eric and I already know her better than anyone else (except, I must admit, her sister Ruthie), it feels as if I get to meet her anew every time she throws another new sentence together. She is just learning how to make a joke, and she loves figuring out how to make us laugh. She is firmly committed to figuring out her place in the world, which sometimes means she shows a glimmer of a “terrible two’s” tantrum, and can be a bit bossy, but overall is just a fascinating study in human development. And on that note, in honor of her birthday, I wanted to share a little story of a deliciously 2-year-old thing she did at Shabbat this month.

A few weeks ago, we were stuck in the throes of a typical Friday night. The girls were both exhausted, and attempting to eat their way through the kitchen cabinets in a race against my ability to get a balanced dinner on the table. Eric was home just a few minutes past his planned arrival time, which was hardly a disaster but meant the dog still needed to go out and the table wasn’t really set. I could hear the sound of chaos in our dining room, and was trying to figure out how to transition us into a peaceful welcoming of our Friday night.

I decided to try something different. Instead of attempting to commandeer everyone into their seats at a nicely set table, I waited until everyone was in the general vicinity of the dining room, made my Shabbat-commencing-confirming eye contact with Eric, and lit the match for the candles. Aha. I had everyone’s attention. I lit the candles, covered my eyes, and began to say the blessing.

Just as the blessing came out of my mouth, Chaya started to dance. I gave up on peeking and just uncovered my eyes. We all looked over at our smallest family member, who was watching the candles with a huge grin on her face, dancing to the melody of the blessing.

It may be a little trite, but this two-year-old was trying to tell us that Shabbat is something about which we should be dancing. More than that, it felt like a bit of a parenting victory. I often feel like when I start a ritual I never know how long it will take to stick, or even if it will stick. This goes across the board, from something as big as Shabbat or as small as teaching the girls to put their clothes in the hamper when they’re dirty. When Chaya danced, it felt like I wasn’t teaching her about Shabbat – she got it, and in her own way, even better than what I tried to teach her.

I doubt Chaya is going to dance every week, or even that I can transition our house from chaos to commonality every Friday like I did that week. But I am thankful for a two-year old who teaches me to see things in new ways, and whose gifts to me will always outnumber what I give to her.