With the drama of the High Holidays receding into the past, I find myself thinking about the charms and challenges of bringing a toddler to synagogue services.
This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearbyÂ suburb, one thatâs full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didnât attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.
Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtuallyÂ forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time sheâs alsoÂ moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, âMommy, why?â
Given these two facts, I shouldnât have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as âfamily friendly.â We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat onÂ benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang âBim Bamâ over the harmonious strains of a guitar.
Thatâs when the questions began.
âMommy, why are we on benches?â
âThere arenât enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.â
âWhy arenât there enough chairs?â
I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. âItâs a busy night, sweetie.â The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.
âMommy, who are the people up front?â
âWhy are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?â
âWhat is everyone saying? I donât know the words to this song.â (We were singing âLâcha Dodi.â)
âMommy, they said âstars!â I know that word!â This caused particular excitement.
When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.
âMommy, I know this song,â she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. âMommy, are there candles up there?â She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.
At various points, she asked me, âMommy, whyÂ are we sittingÂ outside? When are we going inside?â
On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: âMommy, when is it time for dessert?â She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.
âI donât know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,â I replied cautiously.
âBut I really want dessert,â she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.
âI know,â I replied. âWeâll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.â
My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.
Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, âMommy, how do these people know this song too?â
âItâs a very important Jewish prayer,â I whispered between syllables.
The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, âWhy is everyone being so quiet?â I leaned down and whispered, âShhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.â
âI am being quiet,â she stage-whispered. One moment later: âCan we talk louder now?â Me, still whispering: âNot yet, OK?â
And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when âdessertâ would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.
Iâm an interfaith parent. As an outsider, itâs tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with aÂ remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughterâs constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that âthis night is different from (most) other nights,â at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.
By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had alwaysÂ worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sisterâs incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us?Â I feltÂ torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriateÂ (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my childrenâs participatoryÂ joy.
I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions werenât so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.