1 Family, 4 New Year Celebrations, 0 Resolutions

  

By Jessica Melwani

Today, my family is ringing in the New Year for the fourth time in 2017.

In January, we reveled with champagne and caviar.

In February, we received homemade turnip cakes and lai see—festive, cash-filled red envelopes customary for the Chinese New Year—from my husband’s 97-year-old Chinese nanny, who also raised my Indian mother-in-law in Hong Kong and is now our surrogate grandmother.

In September, we ate apples and honey, and cheered as my 2-year-old greeted my parents with a joyous, “Shana tova,” a phrase he brought home from his Jewish nursery school.

And finally, today we celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. We are marking the triumph of good over evil in spiritual lore, the unofficial start of another new year. We’ll say puja, or prayers, around the house—particularly in my home office, to appeal for a prosperous year. And we’ll accept my mother-in-law’s annual delivery—an aromatic, seven-vegetable curry—along with her challenge to guess the mystery produce, which typically ranges from run-of-the-mill potatoes to exotic (but easily identifiable) lotus root.

Until this year, it never even occurred to me that four celebrations to observe one phenomenon—the passage of time—could be considered, well, a lot. And it’s kind of confusing to boot, especially for my 5-year-old, whose birthday just happens to fall on January 1st.

It took a while to convince Baby New Year that the noisemakers and fireworks from the rest of the world didn’t herald the auspicious occasion of his birth. I thought we were good once he accepted that, but this year’s multiple New Year celebrations threw him for a loop.

Admittedly, when he asked how there could be four new years in a single one, I went about the discussion all wrong. I started explaining the scientific concept of time—how it takes the earth 365 days to orbit the sun, and how different cultures developed their own calendars to mark each day’s passage thousands of years ago. That didn’t go over so well.

“But doesn’t the earth orbit the sun at the same speed everywhere in the world? Why would people end up with different calendars and different New Years?” he asked.

Ummm, did I just get schooled in astronomy by a 5-year-old?

Clearly, I was incapable of delivering a cogent, scientific argument to a kindergartener and needed to consider the emotional case—what our various New Year celebrations meant to me, personally—before I could convince him they weren’t all redundant to his “double special day” on January 1st.

So, for the first time in a while, I paused to really think. I stopped packing lunches and paying bills and punching away at emails on my phone to sit down and reflect on how lucky my family is to usher in four new beginnings over the same 365-day period.

I’ve given up on as many New Year’s resolutions as I’ve made, every year another failed attempt at meeting some arbitrary metric: lose five pounds, meditate for 10 minutes a day, keep my inbox at zero. But what if having a New Year’s celebration every few months meant we didn’t have to make resolutions at all anymore?

What if we took the start of each cultural calendar year as an opportunity to set smaller goals and take stock of all the little victories we’d ordinarily overlook?

What if I spent some time during the Rosh Hashanah school break talking to my kids about what we’d done over the past couple of weeks to be kind, and what we could do in the days before Diwali to be even more thoughtful or caring?

What if, during Diwali, we considered all the new and interesting experiences we’d had since Rosh Hashanah, and brainstormed other cool things we wanted to try before New Year’s Day?

And what if, on January 1st (after blowing out my son’s birthday candles, of course), we considered what we’d done since Diwali to make ourselves proud, and what we could maybe try harder at before collecting our little red envelopes for Chinese New Year?

What if these four calendars—my family’s multicultural forcing mechanism—reminded us to be both grateful and excited for all the small things we experience every day?

In the course of our busy lives, we too rarely take the time to reflect on the mini-milestones of the recent past or contemplate those that lie just within reach. But I’ve got four opportunities on my 2018 calendar to help me do just that, and I plan to use this new approach to explain the relationship between them to my kids.

How lucky for me that those opportunities just happen to involve bubbly champagne, crispy turnip cakes, sweet apples and fragrant curry.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.

Traditions are Languages, Too

  

Kids learning at schoolTraditions are languages, too.

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?