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Last week was my mother’s yahrzeit, the observance of the anniversary of her death. For someone who wasn’t raised in a Jewish household, or in a Jewish-but-luckily-not-bereaved household, yahrzeit is one of those traditions that you don’t really know about until you have to. There are public parts of observing yahrzeit, but the most powerful and probably widespread component is a private ritual in the home – a tiny glass candle burning for 24 hours, commemorating a day that you need to study up to remember, since it is the Hebrew calendar anniversary of a person’s death, not the Gregorian calendar date. It is traced to Talmudic times, and references a biblical verse about the human soul representing the lamp or flame of God.
When I light my mom’s memorial candle, there is a part of the ritual that is about bringing her into our home through the candle’s flame. Even more than the reminder of her spirit that the candle symbolizes, what is meaningful to me is the act of yahrzeit. When I light the candle, and watch the flame climb down the wick, placing it in a window, I bring my mom into myself, going through the steps I watched her take as a daughter who lost a parent early in her adult life.
I have very vivid memories of my mom lighting the yahrzeit candle for her father when I was a girl. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew the sacred moment when my mom was by herself with the flame of the candle every year, and felt the spirit of the candle flame holding court in our house for 24-hours every spring. Over time I have learned the ways that this act was one way she expressed her duty and gratitude as a daughter. Lighting the candle on her father’s yahrzeit expressed her obligation to remember, to make space for him and their relationship on the same date every year, and to keep the reminder of loss alive for 24 hours.
The obligation was also uniquely her own. While we shared many aspects of our Jewish practice and our emotional lives in my household, my grandfather’s yahrtzeit was an individual tradition. Following in her footsteps, I make it my own, too. With my mom’s memorial anniversary within days of Mother’s Day each year, I spend lots of time with Eric and the girls talking about my mom, visiting her grave, and doing special things that remind us of her. But lighting the candle is my own moment. It is my own personal obligation, and I think there is a power in holding it as an individual tradition, and having my girls understand that it is a part of remembering their grandmother that is my responsibility.
Last week, I snuck a moment to myself just after the girls’ bedtime, lighting the memorial candle in its small glass jar. I took the moment not only to reflect on my loss, but more importantly on my mother, and on what it means to be a daughter. I remember all of the life she breathed into me, all of the ways she made me into the person I am. I remember that it is my obligation to hold onto her spirit in this world, and to weave her memory into the ways I live my life.
I’ll never know know how important it would be to my mother that I light the candle every year. What I do know is that when I do it I am honoring her in the way I watched her honor her father, which means something to me.
Several 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.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that we’d need to bring in a mohel from who-knows-where, if we happened to have a baby boy. Would we have to ask someone to drive in from Atlanta, three hours away? Or perhaps Charlotte, a mere two-and-a-half?
When we found out that the baby would be a girl, we breathed a sigh of relief on that score, at least. Understanding what happened at a baby naming, though, seemed much more complicated than the task assigned to a mohel.
I had dozens of questions for my husband, though, about baby namings for Jewish girls. What happens at them? Did it require synagogue membership, or a rabbi? Were there set prayers or actions to follow? The lack of clear guidance on what to do in such a ceremony baffled me, given my greater familiarity with baptism and the UU baby-welcoming tradition which often feature a rose in addition to water. Our nearest local Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led by a retired cantor and an active layman who served as the group’s unofficial rabbi. We attended Friday night services sporadically in the fellowship hall of the local Catholic church. The Jewish community had just celebrated a milestone by purchasing a Torah, housing it in an ark-on-wheels in the priest’s personal study.
When Laurel was born several months later, the community was thrilled to host her baby naming. I seemed to think that a naming needed to happen soon after a baby’s birth, so we scheduled ours for a few weeks after she was born, despite her somewhat premature arrival. Relatives from both sides of the family poured in from across the country to celebrate the arrival of their first grandchild, first great-niece, and newest second cousin once-removed (etc).
At the baby naming ceremony for our first daughter
We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the community’s oldest member, and everyone’s eyes were alight with wonder at this dual celebration of someone at the very start of their life, and someone else whose life had lasted for a remarkably long time, and who remained quite spry besides.
The ceremony opened with an affirmation of our choice to raise Laurel in the Jewish tradition (see, I didn’t think I was mistaken), as well as our identity as an interfaith family. In the ceremony, we expressed our desire to welcome Laurel into the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. The congregation said the Shehecheyanu, and Ben and I said a Brachah for bringing her into the covenant. We wrapped Laurel in her grandmother’s tallit as L’Dor v’Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurel’s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her father’s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her mother’s side.
After the formal blessings, we brought out one of our menorahs, a brass, silver, and bronze affair with arms that could be arranged in a row, or in a circle. We arranged the arms in a circle, and relatives from all sides of the family read pre-assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible about light coming into the world, as if to emphasize the new light that shines with the birth of any baby.
Several years later, our second daughter was born, even more premature than the first. We didn’t hold a baby naming ceremony for her until almost six months after she was born. We were not yet affiliated with any synagogue in the area, so we held Holly’s naming at home, and conducted the ceremony ourselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rabbi could come to our home to do the ceremony, but my Jewish other-half assured me that really, we could just do it ourselves – say words and prayers that would enter her into the wider Jewish community of the covenant. Relatives who lived far away “attended” via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic church’s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.
We had the baby naming ceremony for our second daughter at our home.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. I’ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sister—“I-love-you-Holly-I’m-so-glad-you’re-my-sister”—in front of her assembled relatives. The main difference was that we asked each guest to say a few words of welcome to Holly as they lit a tea light, rather than the pre-arranged readings using the menorah. We also chose a version of L’Dor v’Dor taken from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.
Looking back on it, I am glad we held the ceremonies in the way that we did. Both ceremonies upheld our decision to give our children a Jewish identity, and I did not feel too strange about not doing something ritualistic to include each baby in Unitarian Universalism. After all, it was difficult enough to coordinate the schedules of so many scattered relatives for one ceremony, that I cannot imagine how we might have tried to fit in a second baby-welcoming ceremony in another tradition as well!
As someone with an enduring academic interest in ritual, it feels right that we held ceremonies for welcoming our children. If learning about Jewish baby-naming ceremonies taught me anything about ritual, they gave me an appreciation for the flexibility of tradition. Our ceremonies reminded me of the ways in which something (like religion or ritual) that can seem hallowed by time can actually be quite ad-hoc, adapted to the moment, while still feeling like something time-honored.
Inside of the dome of the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome).
As the end of the school year approaches, my family is actively planning our summer vacation. This year we’re traveling to Santa Fe for art, culture and hiking.
As I’ve done since my husband and I began traveling together before we married, I’m researching the various landmarks, historical sites and things to do at our destination. I’m also looking at how we can incorporate Jewish heritage into our trip.
Often we think that we must travel to Israel in order to explore Jewish life and history. But, Jewish heritage, like the heritage of other faiths especially Christianity, exists the world over.
For example, when my husband and I traveled to Europe, we visited many famous churches and cathedrals, but we also stopped at Jewish cultural sites. In Paris, we visited the renowned French Gothic cathedral Notre Dame on the same day we walked through the nearby Jewish Quarter in the Marais district.
While walking the streets of the Pletzel, the Yiddish name of the Jewish district, we stopped at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. The museum, housed in the 17th-century mansion known as the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, presented the 2,000-year history of the Jewish community in France and positioned French Jewry in the broader context of Judaism as a whole. It featured magnificent ritual objects from across the ages, tombstones from the Middle Ages and Judaic art from various periods, and it depicted Jewish life in Paris during Emancipation and at the beginning of World War II.
In Rome, we toured the Vatican and the remains of the Jewish ghetto, Great Synagogue, and Jewish Museum. We viewed Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel and discovered that it wasn’t the only magnificently painted ceiling in a Roman religious institution. The ceiling and interior of the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome) were magical. The inside of the square aluminum dome had a rainbow and trees, and the ceiling was a rich blue with gold stars that looked brilliant against the massive 50-foot free-standing ark.
In Prague, the Jewish Quarter with the Jewish Museum, Ceremonial Hall, Old-New and Spanish Synagogues, and the old Jewish cemetery, captivated us while the Church of St. Nicholas dazzled. In Budapest, we spent time at St. Stephen’s Basilica and investigated my ancestral roots at the grand Dohany Street or Great Synagogue.
This summer, in Santa Fe, we plan to investigate the Jewish influences in the city from iconic churches to art. We look forward to finding the Hebrew inscription for the name of God above the entrance to St. Francis Cathedral. Some people believe the engraving is a tribute to a Jewish benefactor who helped finance the construction of the church. We are also excited to learn how Judaism mixed with local culture.
Travel provides a wonderful opportunity for interfaith families to explore the Jewish and not Jewish religious and cultural traditions of an area. It shows us how Judaism intermingled with general culture offering new insights and context to the Jewish experience. It reminds us, and our children, that there is more to Jewish history than persecution and Israel. When we mix in stops at synagogues, Jewish museums, and other venues with visits to sites important to other faiths, we get a fuller picture of the world. We also develop a richer sense of Jewish heritage.
This summer, as you travel with your family, bring some balance to your sightseeing. Visit breathtaking cathedrals and churches as well as Jewish points-of-interest. Before you go, check out the travel website Jewish Discoveries to find lesser-known areas of Jewish culture. Use your trips to learn more about your family’s background and deepen your family’s connection to Judaism.
Ark and blue ceiling with gold stars in the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome)
Emily’s 19-person seder brought enjoyment to a gathering of 19 friends and family
Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac n’ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.
“I am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,” she said.
“Oh, that must have been fun,” I replied.
“Yeah, it was tons of fun!”
“What other holidays do you celebrate?” I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.
“We also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,” she continued, “but we have Christmas too,” she said, “because my mommy is Christian.”
“Oh, really?” I replied. “That’s interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,” I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldn’t call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack, what do I say! I’m much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, but… how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old!
I continued to play along with the conversation. “I suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. She’s a very, very liberal Christian,” I added. “And she celebrates Christmas, yes.” Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.
When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year. We’d only been dating for a few weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his father’s holidays.
This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.
I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.
When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least that’s how I remember the conversation going. We’d just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, “I’ve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.”
I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. “Really? You’d do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,” he told me, “meaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. I’m so glad you’re open to this!”
Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. I’ve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would “honor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.” This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say we’re going to raise our children as solely Jewish!
That’s funny, I find myself thinking. I thought we’d agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didn’t I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?
Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, children who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, children who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.
At least, it sounds confusing to me. I’m not sure it’s confusing to our older daughter. It’s simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, “I’m the only Jewish kid in my school.” I’m not sure that’s quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewish—and whether she’d say it this way or not, she knows, too, that it’s not quite that simple.
There are times in life when we’re in the zone. We’re so involved in performing or participating in an activity that we get lost in the experience. Other times, we’re more of a participant-observer. We’re engaged in the action or event, but we have enough distance from what is happening that we can study or reflect on what is going on at the moment.
I had a participant-observer experience at the PassoverSeder we attended this year. We celebrated the first night of the holiday at our friend’s house. We met this family when we first moved to Dallas. The wife and I were in a Mommy & Me class together at the JCC. We were kindred spirits and both intermarried Jewish women raising Jewish children with the support of our not Jewish husbands. We became close friends quickly and navigated the joys and challenges of intermarriage and observed holidays together.
Over the years, our families had celebrated Passover with each other so many times that we had a holiday routine. We read a Haggadah for young families. The adults and kids ate at separate tables. The same friends and family filled the seats. But this year there were several changes to our typical ritual. We graduated to a Haggadah for families with elementary and middle school age children. The adults and kids sat together at one long table in my friend’s living room. There were new faces seated among the usual suspects.
Maybe those changes made me listen more carefully and observe more closely, or maybe I was simply more attentive on that particular evening. Whatever the reason for my heightened awareness, I saw several things that made this Passover different from others. I noticed that a regular Seder attendee, who brought her new boyfriend, was more relaxed and contented than she was in years past. I noted the good behavior of a usually mischievous young guest. I marveled at my husband’s and my friend’s husband’s Hebrew skills.
It was this last observation that grabbed me the most. How had I not noticed before how well both of these men pronounced and enunciated Hebrew words? Was this facility with Hebrew new or had it been there for a while, and I missed it?
After more than a decade of living a Jewish life, I knew that my husband and my friend’s husband could recite, in Hebrew, most of the Friday evening Shabbat blessings. And I knew my husband had participated in Havdalah enough times that he could sing the prayers. But the Hebrew words that were part of their assigned Haggadah readings weren’t familiar. Yes, there was transliteration. But transliteration was a pronunciation, not enunciation, tool. These guys pronounced the Hebrew clearly and crisply with the right emphasis.
Maybe the language skills of my husband and my friend’s husband stood out to me because of how different they were from many of the Jewish guests. Both husbands read the transliterated Hebrew with confidence. Many of the Jewish participants read the Hebrew hesitantly, mispronouncing words and using incorrect articulation. Several times during the Haggadah reading, these guests acknowledged that they had not done much Jewishly since their bar or bat mitzvah.
The scenario demonstrated how repeated exposure to Hebrew and frequent involvement in Jewish life can positively affect Jewish fluency regardless of someone’s religious background. It also highlighted why the usual rhetoric about intermarrieds—they are less likely to raise Jewish children or associate themselves with Jewish practice—isn’t universally true. Rather, it illustrated how a focus on engaging interfaith families benefits Judaism.
As the children at our Seder recited the Four Questions, a fifth question came to mind. Ma Nishtantah? Why are Jewishly active interfaith families different from other Jewish families? The answer: regular engagement with Judaism.
This year, I’ll be celebrating my 13th Passover with my husband. As a way of introducing myself as a new InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, I want to reflect back on what’s become many years of shared Passover meals. I was happy to share some reflections on the December holidays in a post late last year, and I’m very glad to be starting a regular blog here with InterfaithFamily.
When I mentioned it to my husband, Ben, he was surprised to hear that we have shared 13 Passovers together. We met in graduate school for religious studies in 2001, and were married in an interfaith ceremony in 2005. I was raised Episcopalian, but have been involved with Unitarian Universalism for about 15 years; Ben grew up in Reform Judaism. We had our first daughter in the fall of 2009; at 5 1/2 she is a delight, and full of questions. Our younger daughter is just shy of 2 years old, and looks just like her older sister.
For my first Passover with my then-boyfriend, we traveled from our graduate school program to North Carolina, where Ben’s brother lived at the time. I would be meeting his family for the first time, and I worried endlessly about what to wear, what to say, what to do, and how to help. The mood at that first Passover was at times both joyous—as when my boyfriend’s family got out of their chairs and started to twirl each other in circles during “Dayenu”—and nerve-wracking, when the conversation turned to the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I remember sitting through that conversation, terrified to say anything, lest whatever I said be the wrong thing to say. We used a homemade haggadah that my boyfriend’s father had created and recreated over the years, photocopying, cutting and pasting together his favorite versions of songs, poems, stories, and images. The obvious love that went into preparing the text for the meal impressed me, and gave me an early window into why Passover had always been my then-boyfriend’s favorite holiday.
Ben’s family dances joyfully to “Dayenu” at our first seder together.
For several years, I enjoyed learning about the Passover tradition Ben had enjoyed with his friends from college. Every year, a large group of twenty-somethings descended on someone’s vastly rearranged living room for a raucous seder involving jello Manischevitz shots, “death-by-matzah” (matzah covered in butter, brown sugar, and melted chocolate), plenty of good food and excellent camaraderie.
The year after we married, Ben and I hosted a large Passover seder at our new home in New Jersey. My mother’s siblings and some of their children lived in the area, creating a 13-person seder at which the only Jewish attendees were my new spouse and his parents. Thankfully, I am blessed with in-laws whose company I enjoy greatly, and the two mothers also like each other, which went a long way to create a joyous, rather than stressful, occasion. Ben adapted his family haggadah to be intelligible and approachable for the seder’s many gentile participants.
Two years later, Ben and I found ourselves living in rural North Carolina, in a town where the tiny Jewish population consisted almost entirely of retirees. We started hosting annual seders with some of our friends, all of whom were not Jewish and unfamiliar with the Passover seder. Ben had fully embraced the idea of the seder as a time when all people should experience the feeling of freedom that the ancient Israelites experienced in the Exodus, and I entered into that spirit gladly. Some friends came back year after year, looking for another taste of Ben’s family recipe of Sephardiccharoset, or amusing renditions of songs like “Clementine” translated into verses about Passover. Perhaps, like me, they waited for the hilarity of these songs to die down, so that the peace offered by singing “Oseh Shalom” at the end of the seder could rise to the surface, and giving the evening with a sense of tranquil wonder. If peace is a type of freedom, that moment of peace always set my heart free to celebrate as a fellow traveler with the Jewish people.
Moving Passover to the living room. Baby Laurel sits on her grandmother’s lap.
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, I announced my pregnancy to our friends by drinking non-alcoholic wine at the seder, preferring that to the overly sweet taste of grape juice. Once Laurel was born, she added an increasing level of chaos to a meal that seemed, to her, to drag on for too long before real food appeared. Suddenly, matzah crumbs were everywhere, and one year, a haphazardly-thrown plush pull-toy plague ended up in someone’s water glass. We moved our seder from the dining table to the couches, allowing our increasingly mobile child, and our friends’ children, to enjoy themselves as we attempted to stay on track with the haggadah. Each year, Ben streamlined the haggadah more and more to make up for her small attention span and growling stomach.
When Laurel was three, we moved from North Carolina to the suburbs of Chicago, and our seders changed yet again. Some of Ben’s extended family live nearby, and and the past two seders became family affairs, painted with memories of too much pepper in the gefilte fish, or the year the power went out and the seder became a candle-lit night to remember.
Now, after over a decade of attending and hosting seders, I pitch right in. I know the recipes, and I know the main prayers. Last year we attended a seder at the home of some of Ben’s extended family, and I found that I know the traditions well enough to feel comfortable at someone else’s seder. It reminds me that even within families who celebrate the same holidays, traditions vary and the emotional tenor of an event can change with the hosts.
This year’s seder will present perhaps the biggest challenge yet. We’re hosting, and we expect to have 19 guests. Between my 22-month-old baby and my husband’s great aunt, who is in her 80s, our seder runs the gamut of ages and experiences. I am not quite sure if all of the guests will have chairs to go with the pillows on which they will recline, but I do know that I am excited to once again be a beloved stranger within the gates for a night that truly is like no other.
This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary. I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. I’ve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But that’s not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.
I may be wrong, but I’d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” It’s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in today’s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and D’var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
The dress. Stepping aside from my interest in creating a post-feminist framework for my girls where a woman’s appearance isn’t such a big deal (referenced in my last blog post), I will say that a lot of my memories are about the dress. But it’s not about buying a dress because I needed to look pretty. It was the dress as a symbol of passage. My mother and I spent hours and hours shopping, and my father got involved, too. The conversations were not about whether or not I was pretty enough, they were about looking “grown-up,” finding a costume that was respectful of traditions and appropriately mature, but also comfortable. And it meant lots of one-on-one time with Mom, which made me feel pretty special, since I was the oldest of three. Whether or not the dress achieved the goal was yet another story, but the learning was in the process.
The party. My party was a luncheon at the temple. It was a big and wonderful production. While I have mixed feelings about how big is too big for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party, I will say that if you take away the high-priced disc jockey and the gorgeous catering, my real memories are of the warmth of having everyone I knew and loved under one roof. This only happens a very few times in any person’s life, and I feel lucky that I had the unique experience of a Bat Mitzvah to make this happen an extra time for me. And perhaps it is not about being an adult, but I would argue there are very few things that make you feel as solidly grounded in the universe as being in a room full of family, familiarity and love.
The expression of individualism. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an important moment during which a child makes an individual journey within their community. The one-on-one tutoring with my cantor, studying and planning, and reading my D’var Torah in front of a room full of people, all demanded an inner focus and ability to differentiate myself from others in the crowd. If you can remember back to your pre-teen years, this is not something many of us were trying to do at that particular moment in time. Being forced to say “Here I am,” at 13 wasn’t just about preparing religious life, but for everything from planning my wedding to prepping for a professional presentation. It was a big deal for me.
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you weren’t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
If you or your Jewish partner is like me, you remember your childhood Passover seders as long and boring affairs. There was no child-friendly Haggadah, toy plagues, or jumping around as everyone sang “Frogs here! Frogs there! Frogs were jumping everywhere.” Maybe there was a kids’ table, which was acknowledged only when the youngest was asked to recite the Four Questions.
As an adult, whether you are Jewish or from another background, you may have wondered, why can’t Passover be fun? The answer is, it can be. The holiday can retain its serious and important message and be enjoyable. It just takes a little creativity.
When my son was a toddler, I thought a lot, about how I wanted him to view Judaism. As an intermarried Jew raising a Jewish child, I wanted him to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than obligation. I didn’t wanted his childhood memories of faith to be the same as my husband’s or mine–more serious than fun.
Because of our early experiences, my husband and I shared the feeling that it was important to make the holidays and Judaism enjoyable in order for our son to develop a strong connection to the Jewish faith. I only needed to look at my own extended family to see what a lack of positive religious experiences did to a person’s desire to continue to be observant when they reached adulthood. A Jewish relative, who inmarried, observed the holidays out of obligation and not because he derived any fulfillment from the experience.
My husband and I believed that by increasing the fun quotient of holidays when our son was young we could make the celebrations more memorable, without diminishing their significance. We felt this was especially important for an interfaith family because by creating positive Jewish experiences year-round, we avoided the need to pack a full year’s worth of Jewish identity building into December.
So, we spiced up our Passover observance. When our son was a toddler, we read Passover children’s books and sang the holiday songs learned in preschool. We told the story of the Exodus using a Shalom Sesame coloring book. I photocopied the pages and let the kids at our seder color them while the adults read the story. We read Sammy Spider’s First Passover and Dinosaur on Passover instead of reading a traditional Haggadah. We used a child-friendly seder printed from the Internet. As our son got older, we watched the many Passover parodies on YouTube.
We didn’t worry that how we told the Passover story was unconventional. After all, we were simply commanded to tell the story. Contrary to what Jewish parents of a certain generation thought, there was no rule to how it was told. A Haggadah wasn’t required nor did a seder need to be the same as our mothers’ or mother-in-laws’. We were free to do what we wanted.
As you get ready for Passover, think about how you can create happy memories by celebrating the holiday in a slightly different way. Work to nurture your child’s connection to Judaism so that it will be the foundation for observance later in life. Use a less traditional approach to connect members of your family from different backgrounds to the holiday. Remember the words of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna (Jewish Oral Law codified about 200 CE.), “For only the lesson enjoyed is the lesson learned.”
Below are a few suggestions for injecting some creativity into your Passover celebration. Use them or come up with your own.
Introduce nontraditional elements into you ritual. Watch Passover-themed parodies of popular songs. Distribute toy plagues to all guests. Read a children’s book. Draw parallels between the Exodus and contemporary life – political and personal.
Sing or play contemporary children’s and Jewish Passover music–go beyond Dayenu. Check out The Maccabeats, The Fountainheads, ShirLaLa Passover, and Six13.
Make matzah pyramids and decorate them gingerbread-house-style.
Tape bubble wrap to the floors and let kids and adults run and jump on it to simulate the hail plague.
Do a Passover science experiment–place different types of red liquids/wet ingredients in bowls (water dyed red with food coloring, red paint and strawberry yogurt, etc.). Give each child a straw. Ask them to “part” the Red Seas by blowing into the straw over each bowl. Which liquid is easier to move or part? How does the density of the liquid affect movement? If the Red Sea was made of a thick liquid how easy or hard would it have been to cross? Would the Israelites have escaped the Egyptians?
Introduce new foods to the meal. Food is an easy way to honor different backgrounds. Serve a dish that is respectful of Passover dietary rules, but a traditional part of a family member’s or guest’s Easter dinner. Celebrate the ethnic background of those at your table by including Passover dishes from the cultures represented at your seder. Look at the cookbook Entrée to Judaism for ideas.
Borrow from the Easter bunny. Eggs are a symbol of Passover and Easter. Have an afikomen egg hunt. Break the afikomen into small pieces. Place the pieces inside plastic colored-eggs used for Easter baskets. Hide the afikomen-filled eggs. Have the children search for them. Give out Passover candy as prizes.
Before I had daughters, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to raise them. I had been raised with what I considered exceptional feminist ideals, and I planned to do a knock-out job of solidifying my future daughters’ self-image as strong, powerful human beings who could do anything they wanted, for whom gender would be an afterthought.
Of course, as many women more prolific and eloquent than I have written, this is unfortunately still very difficult work and, as I have now found, a lot easier in premeditation than in implementation with actual living daughters. Still, I am trying my very best to both be a model for my girls and to intercept the stimuli coming at them to help them interpret it toward positive self-image development.
I share this as a context for my thinking about this year’s spring holidays. Our family had a very fun Purim. It can be a wonderful holiday, full of jubilant storytelling, costuming and fun. After all, it is a holiday in which we are instructed to party. It celebrates a great triumph – the salvation of our people – with a strong female hero.
But the Purim story is also complicated, and this year I felt these complications as I dwelled on how my girls will learn the story as they grow. There is so much for them to learn from Esther about her great courage, her strategic thinking and her triumph. Simultaneously, there are some real doozies in the story. Esther wins her place by the king’s side not through a respectful, loving courtship, but through a beauty contest. To varying degrees, King Ahasuerus, Haman and Vashti are all sizably complex and challenging for children and adults alike.
I couldn’t take it all on this year, but I tried to start with Vashti. When I was growing up, Vashti was portrayed as a villain, but her primary villainous act was refusing to entertain her husband’s guests on demand. Regardless of what more dynamic layers were beneath the surface in their relationship, on its face this is a pretty bad precedent for my girls’ future empowerment. So how was Ruthie learning about Vashti, and how could I help her reinterpret the traditional storyline?
Ruthie’s class spent three weeks studying Purim. I asked her what she thought about Vashti. She said she thought she was OK. She just didn’t want to dance for the king, which wasn’t a big deal to Ruthie. She told me that King Ahasuerus and Vashti didn’t agree, so they decided to live in different places. That’s pretty good for a start. Later in life, we can talk about how if Ruthie and a future partner have a disagreement, they should try to talk about it and work it out together. But as a baseline, we got a chance to explore together that a woman never needs to do something just because her partner tells her she has to, and that it is OK to leave if you don’t feel safe.
Purim is not unique in its depth of complexities. The ability to interpret, reinterpret and struggle with these stories is part of what makes Judaism so rich. This year’s processing of the Purim story has emboldened me as I approach Passover, the ultimate story-telling holiday. The Passover story orbits around Moses and Aaron, but there are some very dynamic and important women in the story. I am looking forward to sharing Miriam’s story with Ruthie, for having Chaya be the one to put the orange on our seder plate, and for trying to get to know Pharoah’s daughter a little better this year.
I plan to have a lot of years to explore these stories with my daughters, both for the parts which we will carry with us and which we will leave in the Biblical past. I’m looking forward to our next stop, sitting around the seder table together.