A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Thinking Like a Jew

A family member of my husband’s, whom I’ll call Devorah, recently told me that although I may have converted, ”you will never think like a Jew.” At the time I didn’t say anything. This woman is an elder and I respect her opinion. But later I kept running that sentence through my head, and I realized it struck a nerve. Is she right? As an adult convert, will I never “think” like a Jew? And by extension, will my children never think like Jews, either?

After ruminating for days, I decided to ask my husband about Devorah’s comment. He explained that Devorah believed that I converted out of a sense of duty to him, rather than on my own terms. I thought back to my conversion process and it struck me: I had kept the process intensely private, and I sat before the beit din (rabbinic court) and had my mikveh (ritual bath) only one week before my son was born. In Devorah’s mind, I was Jewish for the sake of my children.

Rather than being upset with an elderly relative with whom I had never explained my conversion process, I realized that I needed to work on becoming comfortable discussing my beliefs and my very real reasons for converting. And I needed to be discussing it with both my non-Jewish relatives and my husband’s Jewish ones. This will be difficult for me. I came from a family where we didn’t discuss faith or religion, and we certainly didn’t discuss individual belief in the context of religious doctrine. My discomfort with discussing faith is rooted in not having any prior experience talking about it, and I have to explore how to do that. Additionally, I need to learn to share my beliefs with my children and teach them to verbalize what they believe. Not because I want them to fit into any particular doctrine, but because I never want a comment like “you don’t think like a Jew” to silence them.