Ending the Shabbat Protests

Ruthie's Homemade Challah

Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.  Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, it’s the kind of challenge I’ve longed for in contrast to what’s been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.

Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates “an event” even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.

But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.

In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didn’t want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didn’t get very far at first. “Because it’s stupid.” “Because I don’t like the prayers.” “Because I am hungry.”

And then, finally, an answer I could work with:

“I don’t want to be Jewish, Mommy.”

Ouch. That hurt. But I didn’t want to let on just yet.

“Why, Ruthie?”

“Because I don’t understand the prayers. We don’t say them in English, and I don’t know what we’re saying.”

Aha!

“Could we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthie’s request.

Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.

The Challenge of Sharing The Bible with Younger Kids

In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity.  A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos.  Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.

A sampling of The Brick Testament

The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale.  As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noah’s ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoah’s palace.  Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – he’s made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.

About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases.  She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own.  I figured there couldn’t be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire.  But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isn’t all sunshine and roses.  There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I don’t feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.

Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesn’t, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating mom’s tree.  And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament.  Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husband’s children.  And there’s bad stuff in these stories because there’s bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.

Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people.  I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I can’t keep them from knowing hardship firsthand.  But if I can give them tools to know that scary things don’t need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job.  When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people.  If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, we’ll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but we’ll also need to talk about it for a while.  And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.

In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that “There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.” There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.

Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready.  But for now,  I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smith’s newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.

Save Some Water for the Fish

Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing.  We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend.  Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because he’s peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing.  So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

And then this morning happened.  Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that we’d sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning.  When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes.  As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation.  Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earth’s resources.

There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation.  He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea).  He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell.  So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.

fish tank

“Ruthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.”  She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom.  I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.

“Look, Mommy,” she said, “the fish have plenty of water.”  I am guessing my classmate didn’t have a fish tank in his house.

So we keep trying.  As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the “3 more minutes” pitch is over.  The saving water for the fish story isn’t working.  Anyone have a better idea?

Better than Date Night

Hands raisedAs I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkin’s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month.  But I’m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that it’s important, right?  With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.

I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish Federation).  At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, “What is the best kept secret about PTJL?”  We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: “Its better than date night,” she said, “because unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.”

Now, I love date night, and I won’t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the town…and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment.  But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what she’s saying.  First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.

When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us “the rules” of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me).  Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us “the rules” wouldn’t be very Jewish.  Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents.  It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be.  We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.

That in and of itself was pretty great.  But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters.  And it turns out we really like learning together.  To hit a pause button every week and do something totally different…it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing.  And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.

So here’s my multi-pronged pitch.  First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year.  If you don’t live in Boston, or PTJL’s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse.  It doesn’t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well.  [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.]  So I hope everyone’s had a good back-to-school month for your kids.  And I hope you get back-to-school, too.

Back to School, Back to Family

Books from my much-loved Sunday morning adult education class.

I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.

Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.

It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.

But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.

When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.

As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.

I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.

Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.

For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.

Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.

This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening  our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.

But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.

Meet the Stretelech

My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns.  They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.

My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of  American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.

So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers.  One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.

One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun.  And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.

For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.

Saying “No” to Hebrew Day School

My kids attend a Jewish daycare/preschool program full-time, and they’ve blossomed under the Jewish instruction. Also, I’ve come to appreciate the support it gives me as a parent trying to raise Jewish children. There are Shabbat songs and Israeli folk dances and Shavuot art projects that are unknown to me because I converted as an adult. I like that my kids have something to add to our observance; when we sing songs for Friday night dinner, I love that they teach me about a shabbat dinosaur knocking on the door.

Since Eli will begin Kindergarten in the fall, our local Hebrew day school has started its sell on why our son would be a great fit for their school. In many ways, he is a perfect fit. But we won’t be sending him to the Hebrew day school, and instead he will attend a secular private day school. One that doesn’t teach about Shabbat dinosaurs knocking on the door.

I hadn’t really thought about how public our decision would be, until friends, day school staff, and congregants began to call us on the phone or cornered us in hallways and asked us to consider the Hebrew day school. Suddenly I’ve felt defensive about my decision, and I didn’t know how to respond without it sounding like I was saying, “My child is too good for this school.”

So my husband and I put our heads together and formulated a response that focuses on Eli’s best interests and stays far away from discussing why the Hebrew day school is NOT in his best interests. Hopefully people won’t believe that this is an indictment of the Hebrew day school. I don’t know if it will work. People are sensitive to these issues.

We are not turning our backs on Judaism or our local community, nor do we discount all we have learned from the past 3 years at a Jewish daycare. Still… I know it feels like a betrayal to some people, even though our decision was never meant to be.

Here we go again

It is that time of year again.  The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees.   Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved.  Thanksgiving seems like a million years away.  But the conversation about Christmas has already started.  Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.

In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity.  They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian.  That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit.   I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it.  (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)

Usually, I get no response.  This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers.  She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year.  The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric.  I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade.  What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.

I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular.  I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal.  But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah.  What about the Muslim kids?  Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma.  But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me.  Why do we have to do this?  I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree.  Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.

So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers.  I used to get fired up about it.  Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools.  But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that.  I guess I am tired of trying.  Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.

There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year.  (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)

Bring a Friend to School Day

As a parent, you never know the unintended benefits of signing your kids up for extra-curricular activities like sports, dance, gymnastics, etc.  In our case, we sign our boys up for things we think they will like, things that fit into our budget and our schedule.  My 7-year-old who is a sports fanatic – thanks in part to me and my husband – usually likes to do things that are sports related.  This fall we signed him up for a floor hockey class at the JCC.  He loves ice hockey and follows the Bruins obsessively – we DVR the games for him at night and then he watches them when he wakes up in the morning – he is a very early riser.  The floor hockey class fit our budget and it was at the JCC on one of the days he goes there for the after-school program.  The unintended benefit of this hockey class is that he met three adorable Jewish boys who all go to Jewish day school.  Three more Jewish friends to have playdates with and to identify Jewishly with.

On Martin Luther King Day, he was invited by these three boys to “bring a friend to school day” at their Jewish day school.  It is a great marketing tool for the school because all the public schools are closed and families who might be thinking about sending their kids to the school get a day to see what it’s all about.  It was also great for me because I didn’t have to arrange for childcare or take the day off from work! 

All kidding aside, I went to Jewish day school from 4 – 6th grade.  Jewish day schools typically do half the day in Hebrew (prayer, Hebrew, Torah study, holidays, etc.) and half the day in English (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.).  To this day, any prayer that I sing in services or any blessing that I know by heart and certainly any Hebrew that I can read, are all due to my days at Jewish day school.  I don’t think my husband and I ever considered it for our kids for a few reasons: cost is one and another is that the public schools in our area happen to be pretty good.  Additionally, since my husband isn’t Jewish I didn’t think he would be comfortable with that kind of school – although I know that many intermarried couples choose Jewish day school in part to educate their kids as well as themselves. 

There were many positive takeaways of “bring a friend to school day.”  Our son tried something totally new, with new friends, in a new environment, with not a lot of advanced knowledge about what to expect that day.  My husband and I were so proud of him for trying all of these new things and he was also very proud of himself – the best unintended benefit by far.

Milestones

Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”

As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.

But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.

“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.

That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?

What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?

As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life -  after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be.