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.

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.

My Son’s Circumcision

When our second child, a boy, was born, my (Jewish) husband was adamant that he be circumcised. Everyone has their own baggage, and I’m far from exempt from that.  I grew up without a dad; I was dead certain that I wanted my children to have an active, involved and dedicated father.  I didn’t want them to have just one parent, so it was vital to me to respect him as a parent.  This was his son as much as he was mine, and it was that absolute for him.  He would be circumcised.

It’s one thing to blithely agree to something and then realize how incredibly hard it’s going to be.  Like daycare – of course, my kids would go to daycare and I’d work full time, right up until I actually HAD a child and the thought of leaving them for eight to nine hours a day was devastating.  It was the same situation with the circumcision.  Yeah, sure, we can do that, right up until I’ve got this tiny little boy – AND YOU WANT TO CUT OFF HIS LITTLE PENIS?!?!  And if I was struggling with the concept, explaining it to my non-Jewish family was even harder.  The whole idea of having a party where we’d cut off the tip of his penis and then have bagels was beyond their comprehension.

But cut it off we did.  I reminded myself over and over again that this was my husband’s child as much as mine.  That I had to respect Marc’s traditions and his right to make decisions for our child if I truly wanted him to be an equal parent with me.

First let me back up.  My son was a challenging baby.  To this day, six years later, I know of no other child who was as miserable as my little baby was for the first several months.  Colic and reflux were a part of it, but part of it was just who he was, he doesn’t like change – and the whole concept of starting his life here just made him furious.  He cried all the livelong day, unless he was nursing.  Or in the swing – he loved his swing.  But mostly he cried and nursed. He only slept when I held him, and only stopped crying when he nursed.  He was horrified if anyone other than me tried to hold him, screamed unmercifully if people looked at him for too long, and being the center of attention made him nuts.

So I was a wreck on the day he was going to be circumcised.  To put it mildly.  I was an experienced mom, he was my second baby, and I’d had literally decades of childcare behind me – but I was worn out, sleep deprived, and out of mind with confusion and frustration and this overwhelming love for this boy child.  Voluntarily hurting him (and that’s the only way I could see this) was so hard.  So incredibly hard. My mother, sister, stepfather and cousin had all come early to our house.   We lived in a second floor apartment, and it was literally the hottest day of the summer so far that year.   We had no air conditioner, and the apartment was wall to wall people.  I couldn’t stop crying.  The baby couldn’t stop crying (because the mohel didn’t want me to nurse for the two hours before the ceremony, and he was furious at the thought of a pacifier).

All of my husband’s female relatives assured me that I shouldn’t be there, the mothers never watch.  But I couldn’t NOT be there.  This was my child.  This was my baby, and if I was going to allow this to happen to him, I couldn’t let him do it without me there to support him.  So I sat in the room just off of the dining room, where everyone had gathered.  My father-in-law held the baby, and my poor confused stepfather gave him little bits of a sweet wine and it was over super fast.  They handed him back to me immediately, and he stopped crying the instant I touched him.  He nursed gratefully and went immediately back to sleep.

The man who performed the circumcision passed away a few months ago.  It wasn’t that I knew him well, I had never met him before and only saw him a few times since then.  But he was there, on one of the most challenging and painful and ultimately rewarding days of my life.  You know how sometimes you bond to your baby the first time you meet them, and sometimes it takes a bit? I loved my baby from the beginning, but on the day that he was circumcised, I knew absolutely and without question that I was his mother and he was my son, and that when he hurt, I felt it more than I could have imagined.  It was the beginnings of a relationship that, to this day, continues to shock and amaze me, to teach me and stretch me and astound me.  Rest in Peace, Stuart Jaffee, and thank you for your part in my son’s life.

That being said – when we found out that our next baby was a girl, the first thing I thought in the ultrasound room was thank God we don’t have to have her circumcised.