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.

 

Community: It’s What Makes Camp Special

My feeling that the community is what makes camp special was reinforced when we dropped-off our son.

Last summer I wrote about that sometimes-indescribable element that makes Jewish summer camp special (See Jewish Summer Camp’s X Factor). I said that I thought Jewish summer camp’s specialness came from its sense of community and that feeling was recently reinforced when my husband and I brought our son to camp last week.

On the two-hour drive home after drop-off, my husband and I talked about camp and what makes the one we’ve chosen for our son such a wonderful experience for our family. As we talked, one word kept coming up: community.

We all have many communities that we are a part of including neighborhoods, synagogues, workplaces, schools, volunteer organizations, social media, and ethnic and cultural associations to name a few. But while my family finds connection and fellowship through many of these outlets, there is something unique about our son’s camp community. As a camp staffer recently said in a blog post, “We have one of the most welcoming communities I have ever been a part of.”

Now, this is not an advertisement for my son’s camp, but I do think our experience is worth considering as you look at and evaluate camps for your child. Here are several things that make our son’s camp community remarkable:

1) Community is built before opening day. A connection to camp is nurtured months and weeks before a child (and family) arrives for the summer. New families are matched with existing camp families in their area who have children in the same age group. The seasoned campers act as buddies for the freshman, welcoming them into the camp family and getting them excited for the summer. The families form relationships too and parents of existing campers become a resource for first time moms and dads.

Another way community is created pre-camp is through The Jewish Agency for Israel’s summer shlichim program. This program places Israeli young adults in staff positions at Jewish summer camps in various countries including the United States. My son’s camp brings the Israeli staff to the US several weeks before the start of summer for training.

When the Israeli staffers arrive, they spend two to three days with a camp family before traveling to camp for training and summer prep. This creates a beautiful home-camp connection. The families welcome the Israeli staff to Texas and the camp community, and in the 48 to 72 hour period, relationships are formed between the counselors and the families, deepening everyone’s bond with camp.

We have been a host family for the past two years. It has been a great experience, especially for our son who greeted “our Israelis” with huge embraces on opening day.

2) Camp is for children and families. One thing that impresses us about our son’s camp is that the experience is a family affair. While there is a tremendous focus on developing a child’s relationship to other campers, counselors, and the camp itself, the camp also works to make the entire family a part of the community.

Camp starts on a Sunday, which allows parents to drop off their kids. This gives families a chance to experience the beginning of camp together, to visit the facilities, and meet the staff and other parents. Because of this opportunity to participate in the start of camp, we have developed relationships with the families of our son’s bunkmates and stay in touch with them throughout the year.

On opening day, parents and campers reconnect in the field outside the camp gates while they wait to check in. In between lines of cars are clusters of parents and children, greeting each other with hugs, talking, laughing, and catching-up on each other’s lives. Parents are encouraged to stay for lunch to continue the bonding. I think my husband and I had as much fun on opening day as my son did!

3) Audacious hospitality is practiced. One of the most notable things about our son’s camp is its welcoming spirit. Hospitality is embedded in the camp’s DNA and is embodied in the phrase, “Welcome to camp!”

The family guide begins with “Welcome to GFC.” Counselors and campers yell out, “Welcome to camp” in videos. Staff and volunteers from the camp committee greet you with a hearty “Welcome to camp” when you arrive. Campers welcome visitors in the same way, without a counselor asking them to.

You might think that this phrase sounds canned and insincere, but it’s neither. It’s simply genuine hospitality practiced regularly, by many people, and in many ways. And it’s contagious.

At lunch on opening day, my husband and I sat with a couple that was sending their child to overnight camp for the first time. Neither parent grew-up in Texas or had a prior connection to camp. When they told us this we said, “Welcome to camp!” We shared with them what we love about the place, and introduced them to “our Israelis” and other people we knew who stopped by our table. I’m sure that if their child continues at camp, that one day this couple will welcome another new family in the same way.

This community is a big reason why we chose this camp for our son. We like the super-sized (or Texas-sized) Jewish welcome, as do many kinds of Jewish families including inmarried, intermarried, multi-cultural, LGBT, and more. There is something special about hearing someone say, “Welcome to camp!”

As you evaluate camps, consider more than the facilities, philosophy, and cost. Think about community. It’s what makes camp special.

Community is created pre-camp when Israeli staff arrive before the start of summer and stay with a camp family, creating a home-camp connection.

A Meditation on Rules: My Shavuot Postscript

Rules

Boatright Family Rules (Draft Form). Rule # 10 says "Be Kind to Other People"

Shavuot came at an interesting time in our parenting journey this year. In addition to cheese blintzes, the main event on Shavuot is a commemoration of when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and the Torah. It is a holiday to renew our commitment to the Torah, to study on the Ten Commandments, and to celebrate the many stories and mitzvot that the Torah contains. This celebration of the rules that G-d gave to us at Mt. Sinai fell at a time when the role of rules in our family is at the forefront of our interactions.

At 5, Ruthie is in a period where her primary developmental focus is to test the boundaries of the world around her. This manifests itself in a constant engagement with Mom and Dad’s rules, as she uses her (of course exceptional) intellect to try to sneak around rules, to push the boundaries set out for her, and sometimes to ram head-first against a decree that Eric and I think is completely non-negotiable. As we try to support her through a series of transitions–the end of the school year, the beginning of an unknown summer camp, and the anticipation of kindergarten–what I hear in her words is a complete disdain for rules, but what I see in her behavior is a need for structure even more than she’s needed before.

So in the middle of a somewhat involved parenting moment, Shavuot rolled around. I was lucky to take the girls to two wonderful Tot Shabbat services the week before and after Shavuot, where they (and I) got two different perspectives on how to celebrate the holiday. And my mind was soaking it all up, particularly when we talked about the Ten Commandments. I spent a lot of the week of Shavuot thinking about those rules, and about what they provided to the Jewish people. While the commandments are not simple to follow, they are reasonable. They give us a framework to use in relating to one another and to G-d, and a lens for understanding “right” and “wrong.” For the most part, they do not confine our every movement, but they do give us enough direction to frame the way we interact with the world.

So Shavuot seemed like a great way to hit a reset button and try to redefine the role of rules in our family. A wonderful parenting expert recommended to us that we rein in the rule-pushing by restarting with a set of family rules that the four of us make together. The weekend after Shavuot, Ruthie, Chaya, Eric and I sat down to make 10 family rules.

They are not exactly like the Ten Commandments, in that they did not come from G-d, or even from a single authority figure, but they came from all of us thinking collectively, in our case an important step for helping Ruthie feel like she has a role in defining her world. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not steadfast–they reflect a moment in time, and hopefully we can conquer these 10 as we all have some mastery and our family changes.

But they do apply equally to all of us, just like the Ten Commandments. And I hope that they show Ruthie that rules do not confine her every movement, but provide enough direction to guide her in interacting with the world, and hopefully even to find a feeling of safety within that. And for us, Shavuot marks a new start on rules, just as it has for the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years.

Make Jewish Behavior Contagious, Hire Jewish Babysitters

 

One of Sammy's favorite babysitters recently returned from a semester in Israel. When he's old enough, Sammy wants to do a similar program.

One of the things I’ve learned about being a parent is that while my husband and I are our son’s primary role models and key influencers of the choices he makes, raising a child is a communal effort. Teachers, coaches, siblings, camp counselors, clergy, extended family, babysitters, and peers play a part in shaping who and what our child will become.

Cameron and I often talk about how fortunate we are to have found many excellent teachers and coaches for our son Sammy. Over the years, they have helped to nurture his love of learning, bolstered his confidence and self-image, and reinforced the values and behaviors that we work to instill at home. 

But some of the most influential people in Sammy’s life are not the adults or family members he interacts with, or even his peers, but rather his teenage and young adult babysitters. For Sammy, our first and only child, these young people are like older siblings and the influence they exert on him is significant.

This isn’t surprising. Recent research has shown that older siblings are often more influential than parents. While many studies focus on how bad behavior by older siblings foreshadows similarly bad behavior by younger ones, findings also suggest that older siblings’ good behavior can be just as contagious.

We’re lucky, the kids – well kids to me – who sit for Sammy are mensches. A mensch has rectitude, dignity, and a sense of what is right. It is a person to admire and emulate. What makes this Yiddish word a fitting description of our sitters is that they also all happen to be Jewish.

The hiring of Jewish babysitters was coincidental. We were connected to them through friends, teachers, rabbis, and acquaintances at our synagogue. This access to teens and twenty-somethings with strong characters and a desire to earn a few dollars watching children has been a fringe benefit of temple membership.

Over the years our sitters have shown Sammy how to interact with adults and children in positive ways, be responsible, respectful, and goal- and achievement-oriented. They have nurtured his love of reading, architecture, and sports; and encouraged creativity and physical activity.

This accidental Jewish babysitter pool also has, through their actions and choices, fostered Sammy’s connection to Judaism. These Jewish teens and young adults show Sammy that there is more to living Jewishly than services, religious school, and holidays; and demonstrate that there is Jewish life post-bar mitzvah.

For example, our teen sitters have all continued or are in the process of continuing their Jewish education through confirmation. They attend or attended Jewish summer camp. They play baseball in the JCC Maccabi Games, a yearly Olympic-style sports competition for Jewish teenagers in North America. They travel to Israel.

One is active in his campus Hillel and is a founding member of a Jewish fraternity at his university. Another teaches in our synagogue’s religious school, sits on its board of directors, and is involved with the temple’s young adult group.

Hearing about all of these Jewish experiences is making an impression on Sammy. He tells us that he wants to engage in Judaism in similar ways.

When one of Sammy’s favorite sitters told us he would spend the spring semester of his junior year on the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program, Sammy announced that he would do the same. After this teen returned home and shared his experience, it intensified Sammy’s desire to go.

Listening to another talk about participating in the staff-training program at the Jewish summer camp that both he and Sammy attend caused Sammy to state that he too will be working as an Avodah when he is old enough. Knowing that another teen that helps us will be traveling to Israel with his family next summer on our synagogue’s trip is one reason why Sammy is eager to go.

I love that Sammy has Jewish young people to look up to because, as a kid, I didn’t. I lived in a town with only a handful of Jews, didn’t go to Jewish summer camp, and didn’t have any Jewish babysitters.

The closest person in my life to a Jewish older sibling was my youth group advisor, who was married with young children. While he encouraged me to participate in youth activities, taught me the importance of social justice, and nurtured my connection to Israel, he was not participating in Jewish activities that could be part of my Jewish experience in the near term.

I also didn’t meet him until I was in high school. Sammy has had young Jewish role models in his life since age four, exposing him to Jewish activities that he will have the opportunity to do in the coming years–youth group, Israel, confirmation, working at Jewish summer camp, and participating in high school and college programs. He plans to be very busy.

With all of the talk in the Jewish community about encouraging Jewish engagement, maybe what we need is a corps of Jewish babysitters who play the role of older siblings for our children. I know that I worry less about Sammy making Jewish choices when he gets older because of the teens that help us.

If you want to make Jewish life contagious, ask your Jewish friends, acquaintances, and fellow temple members if they know any Jewish teens or young adults interested in babysitting. It will not only give you the opportunity to spend an evening with your spouse or partner, but it will also be an investment in you children’s Jewish future.

Double Booked: Every Day, Mothers’ Day

The following is a guest post reprinted with permission from Julie A. Silver and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

By Julie A. Silver

Julie's familyOn Mothers’ Day, my wife Mary and I went on a hike at Will Rogers’ State Park near our home in Los Angeles. We left our two year old home to nap, dropped off our nine year old for a horse-back riding lesson, then took the first hike we’ve taken together in years. I was thirsty from the moment we ascended, but Mary shared her water with me and, as always, made me laugh along the way.

When we reached the top and took in that gorgeous 360 degree view of downtown LA, the magnificent mountains and the shining ocean, I thanked God for this place that supports our family: two working mothers in an interfaith marriage who aren’t exactly spring chickens with two very young daughters. And interfaith isn’t limited to our respective religions. Mary loves the Mets and I love the Red Sox. Mary loves camping and I enjoy clean sheets. Mary loves cats and I’m allergic. I could go on. The bottom line is that despite our differences, we’ve built a life and filled it with kids, family, friends, fun and I’m exhausted just writing about it.

I also might be lying about being allergic to cats.

For the last 25 years, I’ve been a traveling singer/songwriter. I can’t imagine doing anything else. My work requires both constant connections with people and long stretches of solitude—and let me tell you it isn’t easy, but it is precisely this tension that pushes me forward in everything I do.

Mary Connelly has had a long and successful career in television and comedy and has been the Executive Producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show since its beginning. Every day she walks with grace and confidence through an industry that is the polar opposite of mine. You know, a little gray hair and a few wrinkles around the eyes can kill a woman’s career in Hollywood. In my world, gray hair gives you status. Wrinkles show you’ve been laughing. Glasses mean you’ve been studying. My people celebrate age and wisdom; not so much in the fleeting world of entertainment. But Mary’s creative fingerprints are all over that show in its compassionate outreach and its sense of fun—like the woman herself, always of service to someone in need.

We also have amazing childcare—women who take care of our daughters like they were their own when neither Mary nor I can be around. With that said, I like to say that Mary works Monday through Friday and I work Friday through Monday, but the truth is Mary is gone 12 hours a day during the week. I’m a full time Eema. My day is a mix of driving kids, writing, studying, practicing, taking care of my business, setting up play dates, singing to Katie, piano lessons, paying bills, managing the house, and fulfilling my deepest calling, being a “Dance Mom.”

When I’m away, Mary becomes a single parent. She does the errands, cooks, and takes care of our home and our daughters. While I’m out singing at synagogues across the globe, my Catholic wife drives Sarah to Hebrew School on Sundays. She’s got to deserve something for doing that alone, right? Like a cat? We’ll see.

To be sure, Mary and I are together on this: We want our girls to be of service; to give of themselves and to embrace life’s challenges. We want them to find loving partners who will climb to the top of the mountain beside them, share their water with them and make them laugh so hard they spit it out onto the trail. And when they get to the top, out of breath and exhausted, we want them to look around and love that view.

Julie Silver is one of the most celebrated and beloved performers in the world of contemporary Jewish music today. She tours throughout the world, and has been engaging audiences with her lyrical guitar playing, her dynamic stage presence, and her megawatt smile for over 25 years. Silver lives in Southern California with her partner Mary Connelly, a highly successful Executive Producer and their delicious daughters, Sarah and Catherine.You can follow her on Twitter at @JulieAnnSilver or visit her website at juliesilver.com.

Jewish Summer Camp: The Questions You Should Be Asking

Camper and counselorThinking of sending your kids to Jewish summer camp (this year or in the future)? Not sure where to start or what you might want to keep in mind about the experience of your child, a child of interfaith parents? It’s possible you haven’t considered any of these questions yet, but a camp that may seem warm and fuzzy may not be the most schooled in how to project an open and welcoming atmosphere to interfaith families.

Here’s what Jane Larkin, InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, Jodi Bromberg, IFF President and Lindsey Silken, Editorial Director, suggest asking the camp director. (Of course, you’ll want to adapt these questions as appropriate for your family.) And once you’re ready to start searching for a welcoming camp, our resource page can help.

1. Do you welcome children of interfaith families at your camp?

2. Does the camp require that the child is being raised Jewish?

3. Can dual-faith or secular interfaith children qualify? What about children who are in the process of converting to Judaism? Does it matter which parent is Jewish?

4. Do you have a definition of who is considered Jewish by the camp and who is not? How is that communicated to staff and campers?

5. What’s the percentage of interfaith campers and counselors at your camp?

6. What training or education do administrative staff get on working with interfaith families?

7. What training or education do counselors or CITs get on working with interfaith families?

Counselor and camper8. What programming is specifically done regarding Jewish education, ritual or practice? (Ask yourself: How “Jewish” do you want your child’s experience to be? There is a wide range of options.)

[Related questions to consider: Is the camp kosher or kosher-style? Is there Jewish education? Israel education? How frequent is it? Do the children pray? When? What about Shabbat? Is the camp aligned with a Jewish denomination or movement? Are Jewish clergy on staff? Are they welcoming and accepting of interfaith families?]

9. Will I receive information on what my kids are doing each week, including any Hebrew words that they are learning (or any other Jewish education), so that I can understand and participate?

10. Do you do specific outreach to children of interfaith families, or anything specific to ensure that they are welcome at your camp? And what will you do to ensure that my children are welcome at camp?

11. What philosophy does the camp emphasize? For example, Jane’s son Sammy’s camp places a strong emphasis on personal growth and positive self-image. They accept Jewish kids of every race and ethnicity, from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds including many who are from interfaith homes, with learning differences, etc. The camp’s philosophy indicates that a significant amount of energy goes into making a broad spectrum of Jewish kids feel comfortable.

A few suggestions for parents:

1. Visit the camp. Go the summer before you are ready to send your child to see the camp in action. Take your child with you. Ask if the camp offers a family retreat weekend during the school year that your entire family can attend. The whole family can get a taste of the camp experience: see if they are comfortable with the Jewish aspect of the camp and meet other prospective camp families. Many families do this and friends their child makes during the weekend often plan to attend camp together or request to be in the same bunk during the summer.

2. Let your child experience overnight camp before they go to overnight camp for the summer. Many of the camps—especially those affiliated with a denomination or movement—offer weekend youth retreats for children, usually in third to fifth grade. These are kid-only experiences with camp staff. They are not billed as “check-out camp” but rather youth retreats so they are a mix of experienced campers and kids going for the first time. These outings are opportunities for children to “live” camp for 48 hours. If a child comes home excited about the experience, it is a good indication that they are ready to go to camp, and that the camp is a good fit.

3. Camp can be expensive. Determine what you can afford. If you need additional help, there are scholarships available for first time campers and some camps offer assistance for interfaith families. We recommend learning about Foundation for Jewish Camp’s programs: BunkConnect (matches eligible families with affordable camps) and One Happy Camper (need blind grants of up to $1,000 for first-time campers).

4. Does your child have a specific passion? Jewish summer camps have become hip to specialization. There are now Jewish sports, art and sci-tech focused camps. Today kids can have an interest-specific and Jewish camp experience at the same place.

If you have questions we didn’t cover, please comment below or email us at editor@interfaithfamily.com and we will do our best to answer them, or find the answers for you from a camp expert. 

Finding a Way to Embrace the Fifth Child

The five children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, one silent and one with interfaith parents.

The other day, I received an email from an organization that supports unaffiliated and intermarried Jews encouraging me to recognize the “fifth child” at my seder. Curious about who the “fifth child” was I opened the note.

The message highlighted how Passover has long been a holiday that pushes Jews to acknowledge critical Jewish and non-Jewish issues of the day. Using the haggadah story about the four children – the wise, wicked, simple, and silent, as a foundation, the email suggested that seder facilitators explore the questions and challenges faced by a fifth child – a child of intermarriage.

A discussion guide was included, but before I opened it, I felt myself grimace – something about the child from an interfaith home being labeled the “fifth child” made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I knew that the material was developed with the intention of making Judaism more welcoming and I assumed that the language was scrutinized to ensure that it wasn’t offensive or exclusionary. So, why was I bothered by it? What rubbed me the wrong way?

As I considered the language of the email, I realized that a part of my discomfort stemmed from the use of the term “fifth child.” It called to mind, the negative connotations sometimes associated with “step-child.” It felt that children like my son, who come from interfaith homes, were being labeled as “other,” outsiders, not part of the larger Jewish family.

But, I didn’t want to dismiss the material based on my initial reaction, so I put aside my feelings and continued reading. After an overview of the number of Jewish children being raised in interfaith homes, the guide suggested that leaders ask seder participants, “What does the child of intermarriage ask?” The child of intermarriage asks, “What is my place in all this?”

I thought, Sammy and the other children of intermarriage in my circle would never ask this question.

I knew that they wouldn’t ask it because they already believed that the Passover story was their story. They didn’t question their place among the Jewish people. They were all raised, from birth, in single-faith Jewish homes, in a supportive temple community. They all attended Jewish preschool, and now participate in religious education and youth activities. They were sure of their Jewish identity in part because of the commitment to creating a Jewish family made by their not Jewish mom or dad.

Suggesting to these children, who come from Jewishly engaged interfaith families, that they might not have been a part of one of the defining moments in Jewish history, would be inappropriate and confusing. It would cause them to question what they see as their place among the Jewish people.

As I read further, I saw that one of the goals of the piece was to reassure children of intermarriage who were uncertain of or insecure about their Jewishness, that they, like all Jews regardless of age, background, upbringing, or parentage, had a place in the Exodus. When I realized this, I understood that this discussion was not intended for children like my son, who feel wholly Jewish and have strong Jewish identities.

Still, what I didn’t like about the content was that it reminded me that many Jews still considered a child like mine to be outside of the Jewish community. The supplement touched a sore spot that I assumed, because of our high level of Jewish engagement, no longer hurt. I thought that after a dozen years of living an interfaith and Jewish life, that I had developed a callus. Apparently, my religious skin is not as thick as I thought.

But, after considering the information some more, I found the supplement’s value. I saw how it could encourage thoughtful and constructive dialogue about interfaith relationships, and how it could start a conversation about the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage in communal forums such as committee meetings and outreach workshops, and at holiday tables with participants from diverse Jewish backgrounds, affiliations, and observance levels. I saw how, if used in the right setting, it could produce robust discourse.

One of the things that helped to change my feelings was an article I found on Chabad.org explaining the four children. Included in the essay, was the concept of a fifth child. It quoted the denomination’s former leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who said 37 years ago, that there was “another kind of a Jewish child,” one who was absent from the seder, not interested or not aware of the Exodus or Torah. Schneerson went on to state that this child presented the biggest challenge to the Jewish community but that regardless of how difficult it was, every effort should be made to bring the absentee child to the seder table because “no Jewish child should be forgotten” or “given up” on.

The Rebbe, as he was known to his followers, makes a valid point, one that may be even more valid today given the number of unaffiliated, “Just Jewish,” or non-traditional – interfaith, LGBTQ, multicultural – Jews. Yet, sadly, there are some who want to forget or give-up on Jewishly different children, especially those from interfaith homes.

What the fifth child is really about is welcoming the stranger (see Jessie Boatright’s recent blog), and making a place for part-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, or Jewishly unengaged interfaith children at seder tables in order to encourage them and their families to explore Judaism or live a more Jewish life. That is a message I can embrace. The haggadah supplement isn’t the right fit for my Passover guests, but I’m no longer bothered by it.

Valentine’s Day: Embracing a Non-Jewish Family Tradition with my Whole Heart

When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.

Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious.  As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass.  The Valentine’s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.

My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life.  This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life.  She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.

So Isabel’s first American Valentine’s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentine’s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier.  We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.

Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course).  But that was a minor happening in the day’s festivities.

When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away.  Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls.  When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.

I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day.  They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending.  They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be.  They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.

But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each other’s lockers.

That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.”  But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way.  So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too.  Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue.  We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate.  And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal.  Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.

Put a Menorah on It

Hanukkiah

Last week, Linda K. Wertheimer wrote for the Huffington Post about how a local grocery chain warmed her heart with a grocery bag featuring a menorah and a Hanukkah greeting.  It’s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit.  And I had two responses – first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community “put a menorah on it” as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences.  After reflecting for a moment, though, I think I get where Wertheimer is coming from, and I can see how her shopping bag can open a door to appreciation and hope.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Then today it happened. The gesture was ever so simple. There, on one side of a local grocery store’s paper shopping bag was a picture of a menorah and the words, “The Wilson Farm Family Wishes Your Family Happy Chanukah!” On the other side of the bag, the greeting was “Happy Thanksgiving,” with a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie. Wilson’s, based in Lexington, a Boston suburb, is an old-style farmer’s market that grew into a large grocery store. They always have been careful to pay homage to Jewish holidays with Jewish-related foods, but I’ve never seen them put Hanukkah on a shopping bag.

Somewhat environmentally conscious, I had taken a reusable grocery bag to the store, but when I saw the Hanukkah bag, I couldn’t resist. I asked for one and gushed about how I couldn’t wait to show it to my 5-year-old son.”

Reaction # 1: Ugh

In her article, Wertheimer talks about feeling like her Jewish lens was invisible in the rural Ohio town where she grew up.  My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag.  30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community.  In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews.  Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a “holiday tree,” and put a star on top of it. To decorate the tree, the school asked us 7 Jews to color in paper menorahs, as our friends sat beside us and chose from a variety of Christmas symbols for themselves.  And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place.  But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual “holiday show,” a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.

And that was the end of the story.  Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions.  With this childhood chip on my shoulder, for years I have bristled at the menorah amidst the Christmas decorations as a weak gesture towards understanding the richness of my faith.

Reaction # 2: Not so fast, Jessie

Fast forward those 30 years, and maybe I can see things a little bit more through Wertheimer’s eyes.  One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting “Happy Diwali” on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity.  Maybe the storyline of the December dilemma could be more of a jumping off point, pushing us to open ourselves up and recognize the multitude of interesting, important, and often joyful holidays that happen for different religious groups throughout the year.  What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each other’s cultures, in place of all of the disharmony and bad news delivered through the media every day?

Another thing hit me through the celebratory tone of Wertheimer’s article.  I’ve always been hung up on the idea that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, so trying to acknowledge it along with Christmas is a misaligned attempt – why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing.  Hanukkah may be minor on the Jewish calendar, but it is beautiful. The lit Hanukkiah in the window makes the same gesture as the Christmas tree, to provide more light and invite warmth and cheer into our homes.  As the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, why not focus on every opportunity we have for more light?

So I think I say Thanks for the Hanukkah bag.  What do you think?

The Maccabee on the Mantel

Mac, our Maccabee on the Mantel.

The other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, “Is it really that time again?”

It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving – holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailers’ shelves – now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.

For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.

In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.

My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.

Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.

So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a children’s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.

Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.

Our dog Brady loves spending time with Mac too.

Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.

Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.