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Eight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with me for more 25 years of Hanukkah celebrations. It looks as if the last scrap of wrapping paper is finally in the recycling bin, and for what feels like the first time in eight days, I have found a moment of stillness. As I remember this year’s celebration of miracles, I am thinking about some of the modern miracles and gifts we have enjoyed since we recited our first blessings nine days ago. Here are just a few things I am thankful for this year…
1. I am thankful for the miracle of 8 mornings. So much about life feels especially precious and fragile these last few weeks, and I am so grateful for the days I have had to wake up with my family and discover what the day holds.
2. I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summer’s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.
3. I am thankful for two little girls that have adopted those menorahs as their own, one for each, and for the miracle of hearing centuries-old blessings pouring out in their sweet voices.
4. I am thankful that my husband has spent the last 16 years perfecting his latke-making skills, and for the gift of the perfect homemade latke (crisp on the outside, warm and gooey inside) from his griddle on my plate.
5. I am thankful for the gift of my family’s annual Hanukkah party, and not only for the good fortune we have to exchange gifts with one another, but for the miracle of the warmth and love I feel in their company.
6. I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this year’s celebration a special occasion.
7. I am thankful the blessings that my family who is not Jewish calls to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, and that they will share a Christmas greeting call with my Jewish father in 11 days.
8. I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Eric’s family next week….and
9. I sure am thankful for the gift of 11 days to recover from Hanukkah and rebuild my energy to share in some Christmas cheer.
Happiest, happy holidays!
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I was supposed to celebrate my birthday, which fell on the seventh night of Hanukkah with my husband Cameron and son Sammy. We were going to light the hanukkiah, exchange gifts and go out for a sushi dinner. The plan sounded ideal to me–I love Hanukkah, sushi and spending time with my guys.
But the celebration did not turn out as planned. The night before, as we were getting ready to leave to go to Sammy’s string concert at school, we got a message from the dad of one of Sammy’s friends with a last minute request. Could Sammy come to his older son’s
Apparently, cousins with children the same age as Sammy’s friend just cancelled, and Sammy’s friend was not going to have anyone his age to hang out with at the reception. He would love Sammy to be his running mate for the evening.
It would have been easy for me to call back and say, “I’m sorry, Sammy can’t make it. We have plans,” or “It’s my birthday tomorrow and we are celebrating as a family.” As a parent, I could have made an executive decision. But I did not. I shared the invitation with Sammy and let him decide. I knew we needed to start to loosen the strings that tied Sammy to us and empower him to make decisions for himself.
Sammy’s reaction to the invite was excitement followed by a blank stare. “It’s your birthday tomorrow,” he said. I could tell he was worried that the decision he wanted to make would upset me.
I said, “There will be many more birthdays and Hanukkahs to celebrate together. If you want to go to the bar mitzvah, you should go.”
I realized that now that we were in the tweenage years there would be many more of these types of requests–requests that came with choices. I also knew that as commitments go, a quiet Hanukkah and birthday celebration were small. There would be times when the answer had to be “no.” Call it a good parenting day, but intuitively I knew that saying “yes” now was like putting money in the bank. It would make the necessary “no’s” easier to take.
Sammy said he wanted to go. I called the friend’s dad and told him that Sammy would love to celebrate with their family.
As we drove to the strings concert, I told Sammy that I would be happy to go with him to the bar mitzvah service and then he could go on the bus to the party with the other kids. “No thanks,” he said. “You don’t need to.” My little boy was now an independent 11-year-old.
Saturday night, Cameron dropped off Sammy and another friend who was invited at the bar mitzvah service. He walked them into our synagogue, got them seats and left. They were now responsible for navigating the evening themselves.
Later, as Cameron and I celebrated my birthday over dinner, we talked about how this was Sammy’s first “night on the town” without us. And the various parenting questions that arose when you entered this stage—should you send them with a phone and if so, what are the appropriate usage guidelines; in the absence of anything illegal or dangerous, when do you rescue your child from a situation and when do you make them stick it out—dominated our dinner conversation.
We knew we were entering rookie territory. As we toasted the occasion and I reflected on the year ahead, I realized that it would be a year of learning, learning to parent to a way more suited to Sammy’s new stage of life, and learning to let go.
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I have always loved the holiday season, and celebrating Hanukkah as an interfaith family brings with it an extra dose of joy. When I was a child, my mother insisted that we wait until after my birthday, which falls in the first week of December, before any celebration of Christmas could commence. She wanted to make sure we didn’t detract from the first December holiday, my birthday, before moving onto the one with far greater hoopla.
My mother mastered the art of see-no-holiday and hear-no-holiday. If we chanced to see a Christmas tree on a car’s rooftop during the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would gleefully declare, “I don’t see anything!” When we heard the first Christmas carols on radios or loudspeakers, she’d call out, “I can’t hear anything, can you?” My mother always meant well with this gesture, even if it flew in the face of my own very real excitement about the coming Christmas season.
Only after my birthday, a few days into December, could we get out our own decorations, choose our tree, or play Christmas music on the stereo at home. My family continued this tradition well into my adulthood, such that even this year, my brother (who has been married for several years) apologized to me during our usual Thanksgiving phone call: “I think we’re going to get out the holiday decorations before your birthday this year.” I laughed, thinking it sounded like fun.
The first Hanukkah I celebrated with my Husband (then-boyfriend) began November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. We lit a small travel menorah in a hotel in Chicago, where we’d come to celebrate both holidays with his family. For once, I didn’t have to wait to celebrate a December holiday! I didn’t even have to avoid, as usual, Black Friday shopping, since I needed to finish buying gifts for my boyfriend well in advance of the busiest shopping day.
Now that I have celebrated over a decade and more Hanukkahs with Ben, I am used to the ebb and flow of the Hanukkah calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts on a great day, the evening of December 6, far enough into December to allow a few more days to shop and prepare, but not so late that we light the lights of both holidays at the same time. I skipped Black Friday shopping this year, but on Saturday I remembered that with Hanukkah starting in a week, perhaps I really should have joined the throng on the busiest shopping day of the year.
When we celebrate two holidays in my interfaith family, we hang white lights and blue lights and multi-colored lights all across the doorways in our home, and along the tops of bookshelves and curtain rods. Christmas-colored lights line the shelf on which we place our menorahs. We break out Jewish-star emblazoned Hanukkah place mats with matching blue napkins, and join them with green-and-red place mats and napkins. We bake paper-thin butter cookies in shapes appropriate for both holidays, and we make sour milk sugar cookies with colored icing. When I was a child, we called these red-and-green cookies “Santa Clauses and Christmas trees,” but now we’ve added blue-and-white menorahs, dreidels and six-pointed stars to the mix as well.
Giving the cookies the awkward name of “Santas and dreidels and menorahs and trees” is the closest we come to a December holiday mashup. Despite the holidays falling in such close proximity, we don’t hang dreidels on our tree, or call it a Hanukkah bush. We give each holiday its own separate identity as best we can, although this might seem difficult when the holiday books stack together and the red-and-green towels on our oven door hang right next to blue-and-white ones. Two holidays make for twice the festivities.
This year Hanukkah starts early, and my daughters reap the benefits of being in an interfaith family. They’ll compress a month’s worth of anticipation into a week’s worth of waiting. As we wait, we’ll tell the stories of Hanukkah as best we can, giving this holiday its own weight and emphasis. After Hanukkah ends, our daughters will still have more than a week of renewed anticipation as they wait for Christmas Day. They’ll dream and wonder about Santa Claus, and we’ll talk, too, about the birth of the historical Jesus, as best we can.
We unpacked our holiday boxes the weekend after Thanksgiving. I wish I could show you my mother’s face from our Skype call when we told her we were unpacking the boxes. Her expression relaxed, I’m glad to say, when I explained that Hanukkah started next weekend.
Before we unpacked our two holidays’ decorations, Ben wanted to know if I felt sure I was OK with it: After all, my birthday isn’t until later in the week.
“I’m sure,” I said. “The kids are excited, and truth be told, Hanukkah starts in a week, and I’m excited too!”
Do you prefer an early or late Hanukkah? How does your holiday season double the festive feeling?
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Over the years, Hanukkah, a minor celebration that isn’t even in the Torah, has become the unofficial national holiday of the American Jewish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was promoted as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. Since then, many individuals and communal leaders have fought against the “make Hanukkah big” movement and urged Jewish families to refrain from embracing the idea of Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas.
But the reminders of Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status have not stopped its growth. What once was an eight-day festival has evolved into a six-week season. And many Jewish families are using the holiday to reafﬁrm their Jewishness in a big way. Instead of small electric menorahs in windows, they’re putting a Jewish twist on non-Jewish holiday decorations and traditions, declaring in a loud and proud way, “I’m Jewish!” For interfaith families, this increase in Hanukkah festiveness allows parents from other backgrounds to indulge their love of all-things-holiday while honoring their commitment to building a Jewish home.
As we move into the holiday season, here are some ideas for boldly sharing the light of Hanukkah. Share the creative ways you make the Festival of Lights special in the comments section.
Hang Hanukkah on the Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: Wreaths and door decorations are not just for Christmas. Pinterest, Etsy, and eBay have many Hanukkah wreath styles and ideas for making your own. From rustic Jewish stars with lights to evergreen wreaths with Hanukkah garland and dreidels, there are many pre-made and make-your-own options. My neighbor hangs a Hanukkah banner on her front door and highlights it by placing an evergreen garland mixed with Stars of David on the surrounding doorframe.
Shine Some Light on Your Jewish Identity: Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, yet holiday lights have always been associated with Christmas. But in recent years, some Jewish families have decided to make holiday lights their own. A Christian friend, who is raising Jewish children with her husband, and loves holiday lights, decorates the outside of her house with blue and white LEDS. For those that like lawn ornaments, there are lighted Hanukkah characters and symbols including pre-lit Jewish dogs and dreidels, and 8-foot lighted inflatable menorahs.
Wear Your Jewishness on Your Sleeve (or Pants or Chest): Represent the Jewish tradition and stand out from the red, white and green crowd in cozy Hanukkah PJs, leggings, t-shirts, and underwear. Have some real holiday fun in an ugly Hanukkah sweater and menorah hat. Spin around your office Christmas party in dreidel socks.
Rock it Like a Maccabee: While you may not find any local radio stations that play only Hanukkah songs for six-plus weeks, there is plenty of great holiday music to get you in the Festival-of-Lights-spirit. Tune into Jewish Rock Radio on your computer or mobile device. Check out the Jewish A Cappella group the Maccabeats singing “Candlelight,” the Hanukkah version of “Dynamite,” and “All About That Neis.” Listen to “Miracle” by Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu. Explore the music of Jewish rockers Dan Nichols, Rick Recht and Josh Nelson, and the Kosher Gospel of Joshua Nelson.
Deck Your Halls With Stars and Dreidels: Dress your mantel with silver tinsel and modern star garland. Hang Star of David paper lanterns. Add some festiveness to your home by dangling Hanukkah ornaments throughout. Add a Jewish twist to an advent with Hanukkah countdown bags that hang over the fireplace. Use Hanukkah tablecloths, napkins and dishes for the entire holiday. Get more ideas online.
Eat Like A Champ: Hanukkah follows the traditional Jewish story of “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” So, eat like a champion. Expand your holiday menu beyond latkes and donuts. Make different kinds of Hanukkah cookies and share with family, friends and coworkers. Enjoy a holiday breakfast with dreidel muffins and dreidel-shaped pancakes, or use your Hanukkah cookie cutters to make holiday-themed challah French toast. Bake Star of David cupcakes for a yummy dessert. Get creative with your traditional foods. Try squash or root vegetable latkes. Think outside the brisket and chicken box.
This week, Ruthie came home from Sunday School with Shabbat. In a box. With a combination of resources from Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the creativity of her religious school principal, the box was filled with Shabbat crafts, ritual items, and ideas for making Shabbat a crafty family affair.
I imagined a calm and civilized Shabbat craft session after school next Friday before Shabbat begins. However, as I watched Ruthie and Chaya exuberantly dive into the box before I even got a chance to take my coat off, I decided to let them take control of both timing and crafting. They made quick work of decorating challah covers, painting a decorative kiddush cup, and rolling beeswax candles. Ruthie raided the spice drawer and returned from the kitchen with a sweet smelling Havdalah spice bag. Impressed by their efforts but a little disappointed by the lack of available teaching moments in their artistic frenzy, I crossed my fingers that their Shabbat enthusiasm would last the whole six days between Sunday morning and Friday dinner time.
So far, so good. Every time a new visitor has come to our house, Ruthie has sprinted into the dining room, returning with a pile of challah covers to show off to our guest. I have caught Chaya singing “Bim Bam” quietly in the regular litany of songs she sings when no one else appears to be listening. They are excited for Shabbat.
I also have a new hope for the items from the box. The craft projects engaged the girls in thinking about Shabbat – What are the ritual items? Do the kinds of candles we use need to be special in some way? What is different about Shabbat dinner and Havdalah? In this way, the box accomplished what it was supposed to, I think, teaching more about Shabbat through age appropriate activities.
The results of the activities mean something more. Now, when we set the Shabbat table, the girls will physically own the space. The dishes may be ones Eric and I acquired long before they were born, and we may assign drinking glasses based on breakability and appetite. But the challah cover they see, hopefully covering the challah they have baked, will be theirs. The candles we light together were rolled between their own fingers. In these very concrete ways, often the ones most obvious for children their age to grasp, the holiday requires, and engages, something from everyone around the table. Because of this, I can’t wait to set it this Friday!
This week, InterfaithFamily is celebrating its important work and the leadership provided by InterfaithFamily Founder Ed Case and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston President Barry Shrage in making it possible for more of us to #ChooseLove without needing to decide between love and a Jewish life. Leading up to Thursday’s celebration, I hope you have had a chance to read IFF’s own Liz Polay-Wettengel’s “An Open Letter to Judaism from an Interfaith Family” on Medium this week, as well as Molly Tolsky’s great response on Kveller. In her essay, Liz Polay-Wettengel speaks some honest and difficult truths about her family’s path to, with, and outside of Judaism as an Interfaith family. Molly Tolsky underscores the importance of Liz’s piece, and shares her own experience, one that rings true to so many of us, of how often Interfaith couples are whole-heartedly raising their famililes Jewishly, even while there are those in our community who still decry “the problem” of their couplehood.
I am lucky that my family’s story is not filled with the denials, closed doors or simple no’s described in these two pieces. A huge reason for this is based in a single exchange I had with InterfaithFamily, with Ed Case specifically, eleven years ago.
When Eric and I were engaged in Los Angeles in 2004, we knew we wanted to be married by a rabbi. We also knew we wanted opportunities for members of both of our families to be involved and engaged in the wedding ceremony. We had taken an Introduction to Judaism class together and had shul-shopped a bit, but we didn’t have one rabbi we knew we wanted to marry us. My parents lived in Newton, where IFF’s founding and national office is located, and they knew a little about Ed Case and IFF. They encouraged us to check out the IFF website, and I was happy when I first poked around to find a link about “Seeking a Rabbi.”
I emailed the IFF general email with a request for some ideas about rabbis in Los Angeles who would be open to marrying us. Ed Case quickly wrote back with a list of potential clergy, at least a dozen long. We started working our way through the list, setting up interviews, and eventually found a perfect fit – a wonderful rabbi named Allen Freehling with whom we both easily connected.
A list of names in an email might not sound like much, but when I compare it to the stories my peers shared this week, I am reminded of our great fortune. Wedding planning is a huge endeavor, and the process lays a foundation for your identity as a couple. If the very first step in this process is to encounter a set of “no’s,” it can derail both your planning and your spirit. Because IFF had actively engaged in assembling lists just like the one Ed Case emailed to me, we had a long list of Yeses to send us down a path that encouraged both our pursuit of Judaism and our identity as an Interfaith family.
This week, I am thankful that IFF was available to Eric and me to support our establishment as a family. Every week, I am grateful for the resources of this organization and the communities it creates to continue this support. I hope you find it helpful to you in some small or large way, too. If you are anywhere near Boston on Thursday, I’ll look out for you at IFF’s #ChooseLove celebration.
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacher’s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls “jokes,” except they’re actually words “out of the mouths of babes” which sound funny to adult ears, but often mean more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: “I speak English, Chinese and Spanish.”
Laurel: “I speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.”
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meant “Hebrew,” of course, and “Christian” isn’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 book 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 one’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 “speak Jewish.” I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parents’ 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.
She’s learning, too – I think – that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the “language” of Judaism, and the other to the “language” 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 – 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 daughters’ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the “languages” they’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, she’ll grow in her understanding of the “languages” present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Holly’s room as I was putting her to bed. “I want to sing the Shema to my sister,” Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurel’s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt she’ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
What “languages” 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?
What do a disappearing groom, a witch in a milk bottle, a demon that writes Mezzuzot, and a clay giant have in common? They’re all part of Judaism’s rich but rarely discussed centuries old tradition of ghost stories, superstitions, and spooky tales. That’s right; Jews go “Boo!” too.
Ancient rabbis and Jewish thinkers, Kabbalists, and Talmudic scholars all dabbled in demonology, and there was a serious Jewish belief in the supernatural dating back to biblical times. Because Judaism always co-existed with other tribes and races, it was influenced by and incorporated beliefs and practices of the surrounding cultures including speculation about the existence of supernatural beings. In Babylonia, Jews were influenced by the Chaldean and Persian belief in good and evil spirits, and this became a feature of Jewish ideas about supernatural beings. In Europe, Jewish demonology took the form of superstition mirroring Teutonic, Celtic, and Slavic practices. Following are a few examples of Jewish characters fit for Halloween.
Lilith first appears in the Bible in the Book of Isaiah as a dweller in waste places, and the name is often translated as night creature, night monster, night hag, or screech owl. Lilith is known as an ancient witch and Adam’s first wife. According to legend, she is created at the same time as Adam and from the same earth, unlike Eve, who is created from one of Adam’s ribs. Lilith develops her reputation as a fiercely independent woman when she leaves Adam because she refuses to be subservient to him. When God asks Lilith to return to Eden at Adam’s request, she refuses and couples with the “Great Demon,” Samael. She morphs into a kidnapper, murderer of children and seducer of men.
Beginning in the sixth century BC, the first visual depictions of Lilith appear and Jewish magical practices develop bowls and amulets with inscriptions designed to ward off the she-devil that represents unchecked sexuality and an uncontrollable woman. Lilith reminds men of how attraction to another can destroy a marriage and the dangers of marrying an independent female who is wild and sexually liberated.
Today, the Lilith legend is common source material for modern comics and literature, fantasy and horror films where she is often depicted as voluptuous and sexy.
Witch of Endor
Like the Lilith, the Witch of Endor is a biblical character perfect for Halloween. While Lilith is scary, the Witch of Endor is spooky but generally good. The witch can channel the dead in what you might imagine as an ancient séance.
In the First Book of Samuel, King Saul expels, some say kills, all the necromancers, witches, and magicians in the land of Israel. But some remain in the part of Israel called Endor. After the expulsion, Saul is preparing for battle. His trusted prophet Samuel is dead, and he seeks wisdom from God about the upcoming fight with the Philistines. He receives no answer. Desperate for guidance, he looks for another medium to channel the divine. He finds the Witch of Endor, who claims that she can see dead people. She conjures a vision of the prophet Samuel that speaks to Saul. The ghost complains of being disturbed, reminds Saul of his sins, and predicts Saul’s downfall, which happens the next day.
Golems and Dybbuks
Two of the most famous Jewish supernatural creatures are the golem and dybbuk. The golem, like Frankenstein, is a manmade creation. It is made out of clay, and given life and controlled by man. In some stories, the golem develops a mind of its own and does bad things, but Jewish tradition typically describes it as a creature created by a rabbi to serve the Jewish community, often in times of great need. The rabbi forms the creature from earth and brings it to life with his breath and the recitation of words from holy texts. The tale of the Golem of Prague is the most well-known golem story and is often used as the basis for modern depictions of golems and golem-like creatures in literature and culture, especially the fantasy and horror genres.
The dybbuk is an evil spirit from Jewish mythology that attaches itself to a living person’s soul causing mental illness and the creation of a separate and alien personality. Dybbuks are generally considered souls that because of the enormity of their sins are not allowed to transmigrate so instead, seek refuge in the body of a living person. There is even Jewish literature on how to exorcise dybbuks from the possessed and redeem the lost soul or cause it to enter hell. And you thought exorcisms weren’t a Jewish thing! Dybbuks are often found in literature and movies.
Halloween provides the perfect opportunity to share these and many other Jewish stories of ghosts and ghouls, and demons and witches with your family. They allow you to put a uniquely Jewish twist on a non-Jewish celebration. These Jewish tales also provide an opportunity to make Judaism relevant to your children by sharing how Jewish tradition has influenced popular culture. So, give your kids something Jewish to scream about this Halloween. Connect Judaism’s scary stories and characters to modern books and movies and help them make Halloween their own.
Books on Jewish Ghosts, Witches, and Magic:
Ghosts and Golems: Haunting Tales of the Supernatural by Michele Palmer
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs. It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way. This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.
After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich. We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.
I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old. But for Ruthie I had high hopes. She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe. I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.
“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.
“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.
Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice. This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Or she may not – at least not yet. We don’t do our traditions, we practice them. She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.
Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice. Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice. If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river. In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question. Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative in my husband’s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Ben’s great-aunt Elaine.
Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the Days of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Ben’s family shared this sad news.
Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Ben’s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.
My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospital room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.
Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be the end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.
I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.” Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.
This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hug before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always brought desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways that went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!
Elaine’s funeral service at her synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that evening’s Kol Nidre service.
At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldn’t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.
As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” a folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. It’s a powerful song even after the Days of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasn’t, herself, chosen “by brave assent” that this could be her time.
If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or “at-one-ment” as I’ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.
Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.