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By Courtney Naliboff
Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that I’m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.
Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and haven’t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, we’d be covered.
We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husband’s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His mother’s side is from Guatemala and his father’s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penrose’s presence.
She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.
“This?” she asked.
“It’s my hamsa,” I answered.
“Ham,” she replied, touching it gently.
Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.
“Abue ham?” she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.
“Abuela doesn’t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,” I said. “I wear a hamsa because I’m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because she’s Catholic.”
“That’s right, Mommy’s Jewish.”
“Me joosh?” she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.
“Yes, you’re Jewish too.”
“No, Daddy’s not Jewish.”
Although this was Penrose’s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadn’t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her father’s side of the family.
As a secular humanist, I haven’t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesn’t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but we’re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the island’s first Jewish child, and my excitement—and anxiety—about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be “joosh” other than wearing jewelry. But I wasn’t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.
“To me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,” I said. “We help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.”
She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, we’ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when it’s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when she’s singing “Bow wow wow, whose dog are thou?” she runs through the list of Jewish family members.
Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with “Me, joosh.” It’s not a question for her anymore—it’s become a part of her story.
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.
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.
Before I had daughters, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to raise them. I had been raised with what I considered exceptional feminist ideals, and I planned to do a knock-out job of solidifying my future daughters’ self-image as strong, powerful human beings who could do anything they wanted, for whom gender would be an afterthought.
Of course, as many women more prolific and eloquent than I have written, this is unfortunately still very difficult work and, as I have now found, a lot easier in premeditation than in implementation with actual living daughters. Still, I am trying my very best to both be a model for my girls and to intercept the stimuli coming at them to help them interpret it toward positive self-image development.
I share this as a context for my thinking about this year’s spring holidays. Our family had a very fun Purim. It can be a wonderful holiday, full of jubilant storytelling, costuming and fun. After all, it is a holiday in which we are instructed to party. It celebrates a great triumph – the salvation of our people – with a strong female hero.
But the Purim story is also complicated, and this year I felt these complications as I dwelled on how my girls will learn the story as they grow. There is so much for them to learn from Esther about her great courage, her strategic thinking and her triumph. Simultaneously, there are some real doozies in the story. Esther wins her place by the king’s side not through a respectful, loving courtship, but through a beauty contest. To varying degrees, King Ahasuerus, Haman and Vashti are all sizably complex and challenging for children and adults alike.
I couldn’t take it all on this year, but I tried to start with Vashti. When I was growing up, Vashti was portrayed as a villain, but her primary villainous act was refusing to entertain her husband’s guests on demand. Regardless of what more dynamic layers were beneath the surface in their relationship, on its face this is a pretty bad precedent for my girls’ future empowerment. So how was Ruthie learning about Vashti, and how could I help her reinterpret the traditional storyline?
Ruthie’s class spent three weeks studying Purim. I asked her what she thought about Vashti. She said she thought she was OK. She just didn’t want to dance for the king, which wasn’t a big deal to Ruthie. She told me that King Ahasuerus and Vashti didn’t agree, so they decided to live in different places. That’s pretty good for a start. Later in life, we can talk about how if Ruthie and a future partner have a disagreement, they should try to talk about it and work it out together. But as a baseline, we got a chance to explore together that a woman never needs to do something just because her partner tells her she has to, and that it is OK to leave if you don’t feel safe.
Purim is not unique in its depth of complexities. The ability to interpret, reinterpret and struggle with these stories is part of what makes Judaism so rich. This year’s processing of the Purim story has emboldened me as I approach Passover, the ultimate story-telling holiday. The Passover story orbits around Moses and Aaron, but there are some very dynamic and important women in the story. I am looking forward to sharing Miriam’s story with Ruthie, for having Chaya be the one to put the orange on our seder plate, and for trying to get to know Pharoah’s daughter a little better this year.
I plan to have a lot of years to explore these stories with my daughters, both for the parts which we will carry with us and which we will leave in the Biblical past. I’m looking forward to our next stop, sitting around the seder table together.
My family is one of the many families who benefits from the amazing PJ Library, an extraordinary program that mails free Jewish books and music to 125,000 homes throughout the country. Ruthie enjoyed the program for three years, and last year Chaya got her very own subscription. It is a real gift to have colorful, modern media to use to talk to the girls about different aspects of Jewish life. This week I’d like to talk about Chaya’s current favorite, Tikkun Olam Ted, and how reading it has reminded me how to boil big ideas down into bite size pieces for my young kids.
The book, by Vivian Newman, is about a little boy named Ted, who “is small. But spends his days doing very big things.” Ted got his nickname because of his interest in helping to “fix the world and make it a kinder, better place.” For each day of the week, Ted takes on a different task. What is brilliant about the book, aside from the adorable, colorful illustrations by Steve Mack, is how Ted’s big things are completely age-appropriate for a preschooler. Ted does not heal the world by going to a soup kitchen, running a blood drive, or spending a day with Habitat for Humanity. He does things that any kid could easily do in the course of their daily life – he recycles, he does yard work, he feeds the birds and he remembers to turn off the lights.
Reading this book, I am reminded of my own eagerness as a parent to teach my girls big lessons, and to endow them with a sophisticated toolkit of ideas and approaches to having a full and successful life. I dream of raising them to know how to make good choices, to be resilient, to pursue their passions, and to try to fix the world because doing so is meaningful for them. Before I had kids, and throughout my first pregnancy, I often schemed about how I would engender these traits in them, but I spent more time thinking about a
But it is a long time before those Bat Mitzvahs, and that toolkit will be even stronger if I can start now. Reading Tikkun Olam Ted aloud to my girls reminds me of the significance of the things that they can do independently now, and that those are probably as important as that adolescent reading list. Sure, I’ll keep bringing them to political events with me, and telling them of the bigger things Eric and I do to fix the world in our adult way. But I will also remind them how turning off the faucet really matters, or how re-using yesterday’s sandwich bag actually has a ripple effect on the health of our planet. Judging by how frequently Chaya hands Newman’s book to me, I think she’s already starting to grasp the connections.