Take the Dilemma out of December

Family of snowmenLast year, Hanukkah came early (remember that once in every 77,000 years Thanksgivukkah Celebration?). Back then, I blogged about how the early Hanukkah was a special gift for interfaith families, allowing those of us who are a union of Christian and Jewish traditions to more easily separate the December holidays and focus on each individually.

This year is a bit more typical, with Hanukkah starting on December 16 and ending on Christmas Eve. With six weeks to go before we dust off the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), I think we have just enough time to keep December from being a dilemma. Like many things in parenting, and life, your best chance to make this happen is to start planning now.

The December holidays are a wonderful time. The lights, be they candles in our windows or lights around our trees, are beautiful. The music is joyful, and the food is both plentiful and sweet. Families and friends are together in celebration, filling homes, street corners and hearts with love and togetherness. The themes of our holidays remind us about some of religion’s most important lessons – faith, hope and the potential for miracles.

The December holidays can also be challenging. Expectations are high, and as parents we are often harried in our attempts to make magic for our children. Feelings of loss sting a bit more strongly for those of us missing a loved one, or out-of-touch with someone with whom we’d like to be in touch. With Christmas movies at the box office and schoolyard chatter a flurry with talk of gifts to be received, there can be a special tension for those of us whose families try to integrate multiple traditions.

I imagine that even if you and your spouse grew up next door to one another, going to the same house of worship and marrying after a long high school courtship, you can find yourselves mismatched in your expectations for December. For interfaith couples of any stripe, these mismatched expectations can be amplified. And for parents for whom being of different faiths doesn’t feel like a big deal from January to November, December puts their different backgrounds front and center. Even if you stand firmly grounded in your personal choices about religion, your kids are bound to throw you off base with a question about why you do or don’t do the same thing as another family they know.

Today, I would like to advocate that you make a plan. It does not need to take up all of November, but better an hour of planning in November than four hours of frustration in December. Here is what I propose.

Buy a bottle of wine. Or better yet, call a sitter. Carve out an hour of time with your partner to talk about what your Hanukkah through Boxing Day calendar will look like, and what you’d like it to be. If you’re not sure, look around your community or online for articles, classes or friends who can help you plan to make the time a period of fun, giving, relaxation and maybe even a little learning.

Some questions that I have seen come up for our family and others during this time, in case you don’t know where to start:

  1. Do we want to exchange gifts? For both Hanukkah and Christmas, or only for one?

  2. How important is it that we light the menorah for eight nights? If the answer to this means you’ll need to have a menorah in multiple locations or on a destination vacation, how will that happen?

  3. Do we feel strongly about what grandmas and grandpas give (or don’t give) to our kids?

  4. How do we want to talk to our kids about Santa Claus? What about the Christmas tree that we do (or don’t) have?

  5. How would you like to talk with your children to help them understand your choices in relation to the choices of their cousins’ families? Their friends’ families?

  6. And most important, of course, what do you want to get out of this holiday season for yourself, and how will you make it happen?

Do that, and then call your own parents. Talk to them about what they hope for, and share what your own hopes are. If you can’t do that, at least share your feelings with whomever will help make the holiday spirit bright for your family.

And then have fun. Eradicate the dilemma from your December, and bring on the holiday cheer. And let me know how it all works out.

A Meditation on Rules: My Shavuot Postscript

Rules

Boatright Family Rules (Draft Form). Rule # 10 says "Be Kind to Other People"

Shavuot came at an interesting time in our parenting journey this year. In addition to cheese blintzes, the main event on Shavuot is a commemoration of when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and the Torah. It is a holiday to renew our commitment to the Torah, to study on the Ten Commandments, and to celebrate the many stories and mitzvot that the Torah contains. This celebration of the rules that G-d gave to us at Mt. Sinai fell at a time when the role of rules in our family is at the forefront of our interactions.

At 5, Ruthie is in a period where her primary developmental focus is to test the boundaries of the world around her. This manifests itself in a constant engagement with Mom and Dad’s rules, as she uses her (of course exceptional) intellect to try to sneak around rules, to push the boundaries set out for her, and sometimes to ram head-first against a decree that Eric and I think is completely non-negotiable. As we try to support her through a series of transitions–the end of the school year, the beginning of an unknown summer camp, and the anticipation of kindergarten–what I hear in her words is a complete disdain for rules, but what I see in her behavior is a need for structure even more than she’s needed before.

So in the middle of a somewhat involved parenting moment, Shavuot rolled around. I was lucky to take the girls to two wonderful Tot Shabbat services the week before and after Shavuot, where they (and I) got two different perspectives on how to celebrate the holiday. And my mind was soaking it all up, particularly when we talked about the Ten Commandments. I spent a lot of the week of Shavuot thinking about those rules, and about what they provided to the Jewish people. While the commandments are not simple to follow, they are reasonable. They give us a framework to use in relating to one another and to G-d, and a lens for understanding “right” and “wrong.” For the most part, they do not confine our every movement, but they do give us enough direction to frame the way we interact with the world.

So Shavuot seemed like a great way to hit a reset button and try to redefine the role of rules in our family. A wonderful parenting expert recommended to us that we rein in the rule-pushing by restarting with a set of family rules that the four of us make together. The weekend after Shavuot, Ruthie, Chaya, Eric and I sat down to make 10 family rules.

They are not exactly like the Ten Commandments, in that they did not come from G-d, or even from a single authority figure, but they came from all of us thinking collectively, in our case an important step for helping Ruthie feel like she has a role in defining her world. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not steadfast–they reflect a moment in time, and hopefully we can conquer these 10 as we all have some mastery and our family changes.

But they do apply equally to all of us, just like the Ten Commandments. And I hope that they show Ruthie that rules do not confine her every movement, but provide enough direction to guide her in interacting with the world, and hopefully even to find a feeling of safety within that. And for us, Shavuot marks a new start on rules, just as it has for the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years.

Welcoming the Stranger (to Judaism) at the Passover Table

As the calendar begins to hint at the end of a very long winter, a lot of people are thinking about having more time in the sun and packing their winter coats into storage.  I’m excited about those things, too, but I also have a little case of Passover fever. I love Passover for many more reasons than I’ll write about today. Today I want to talk about the guest list. As I plan my big April dinner party, I am not only thinking about the menu and the order of the seder. I am also thinking about the strangers, the people who come not knowing what the seder means to me, and the opportunity Passover grants to share that meaning.

Passover is my favorite holiday. My birthday falls right around the beginning of Passover, and as much as I complained as a kid about putting candles into Passover brownies instead of “real” cake, I’ve always loved that there is a big gathering of people I love right around my birthday.  In cold years like this one, especially, I appreciate that we have a day on the calendar where, rain or shine, we can announce our readiness for spring and rebirth.

Red WineAs an adult and often the seder planner and leader, I have also come to appreciate Passover for the way that it lends itself to sharing my own Jewish beliefs with friends and family, Jewish and not Jewish. On Passover, rather than inviting someone to a synagogue or a text study to learn what Judaism means to us, we invite them into our homes, to a great meal with plentiful wine and lots of good conversation.

During the seder we are commanded to invite the stranger into our home. We could debate the meaning of this phrase for days, but to me the first step of observing that is to think about who might be alone that night, and give them a call. My next step is often to consider who is a stranger to Judaism who might want to know a little bit more about both the religion and what it means to our family.

The seder encapsulates so much of what is most important to me about my Jewish practice. It demands thoughtful engagement, asks us to wrestle with difficult ideas, and spurs countless conversations. With storytelling as the primary tool, the seder reminds us to look to our past to inform our present and instruct us about the future. It includes a call to action and tikkun olam, to continue to work to make the world a better place. The seder also provides space to celebrate what we have, to sing and laugh and play games together. And, of course, there’s all of that food and the wine I talked about before.

Some people who are not Jewish probably identify some of those elements as the good parts of their own culture or faith as well. On top of that, the seder is chock full of universal themes. The story of enslavement and redemption is one common across many groups. The reliance on faith for hope and wisdom about how to be better people is something that draws countless parallels. A structure for welcoming and celebrating spring is something in which we all can participate. As parents, the seder reminds us of our dual responsibility to be both models and teachers, a practice that extends into the entirety of the job of raising children.

For me, the seder is one of the best parties I’ll have all year. The kitchen is a mess, the table overflowing with food, and the china makes its annual appearance. What better time to open up my home to our interfaith circle of family and friends, and to invite those who are strangers to Judaism to pull up a chair and join in the party.

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.

The Most Religious Thing I Have Ever Done on Christmas

My grandfather and me in 1975 at my Jewish family's Christmas celebration wearing our matching gifts.

Christmas is a week away and many interfaith families are busy with preparations for their family celebrations – buying gifts, packing for travel to relatives, baking, decorating, and shipping presents. This makes many in the Jewish community nervous.

They worry that engagement in this Christian holiday will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and will make it less likely that Judaism will be passed on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish; a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.

Many interfaith families like mine agree with the point that a home should have one religious identity, and that is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying as Jews does not mean that we ban Christmas from our homes or decline to participate in the holiday activities of our extended families.

What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is technically a religious holiday, although it is not considered to be the most important by the Church. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.

According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 December Holiday Survey, 88% of us celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts; we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, and spend time with relatives. Most of us celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish kid growing-up in a Jewish family.

My childhood Christmas included a tree in my home, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. It was a period when everything slowed down, and was a convenient time for my family to reconnect with out-of-town relatives we did not see on a regular basis.

I thought that my family’s celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it was not “our” holiday. So, I assumed, when I met Cameron that I would experience a more religious observance. After all, my in-laws’ faith is very important to them.

My father-in-law is a graduate of theology school and a layman in the Episcopal Church, and my mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas or Christmas Eve (too many “C&Es” – people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter).

What I have learned since joining the Larkins, is that just because a family is Christian does not mean that their observance of a Christian holiday is religious. The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component; no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas.

Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkin’s Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.

So the concern in the Jewish world about interfaith families’ religious observance of Christmas made me cull through my memories for my most religious Christmas moment. What I realized is that the most religious thing that my family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.

When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, we observe, the holiday, religiously after our secular Christmas. If we are in Dallas, Cameron, Sammy, and I light the candles at sundown in front of our tree often with Jewish friends. If we are in Vermont, we kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and nephew. Sammy, Cameron, and I say the prayers in Hebrew and our not Jewish extended family read the blessings in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our family Christmas celebration.

I wish more Jewish academics; leaders, professionals, and laypeople took the time to understand the significance or lack thereof that Christmas has in the lives of many interfaith families choosing Judaism. Instead, they assume, like I did, that because Christmas is a religious holiday any observance of it must be religious too.

They also assume that all intermarrieds are the same; we all raise our children in two faiths or none at all, and allow our children to choose their religion when they are older. Therefore, celebrating holidays from different faiths must be syncretic and confusing. But just as there are different kinds of in-married families – secular, cultural, ritually observant, and somewhere in between – there are different kinds of intermarrieds including ones who have a solely Jewish identity.

For interfaith families like us who have chosen Judaism, and nurture their Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement; what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life. Just as the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity does not call into question the family’s Christian identity.

For dual-faith or no-faith families observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I do not know; I am not one of them. All I can say is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish (interfaith) household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. So excuse me for rolling my eyes at the prognosticators who predict that Jewish continuity is in jeopardy because people like me are celebrating Christmas.

The most religious thing our family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.

Put a Menorah on It

Hanukkiah

Last week, Linda K. Wertheimer wrote for the Huffington Post about how a local grocery chain warmed her heart with a grocery bag featuring a menorah and a Hanukkah greeting.  It’s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit.  And I had two responses – first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community “put a menorah on it” as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences.  After reflecting for a moment, though, I think I get where Wertheimer is coming from, and I can see how her shopping bag can open a door to appreciation and hope.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Then today it happened. The gesture was ever so simple. There, on one side of a local grocery store’s paper shopping bag was a picture of a menorah and the words, “The Wilson Farm Family Wishes Your Family Happy Chanukah!” On the other side of the bag, the greeting was “Happy Thanksgiving,” with a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie. Wilson’s, based in Lexington, a Boston suburb, is an old-style farmer’s market that grew into a large grocery store. They always have been careful to pay homage to Jewish holidays with Jewish-related foods, but I’ve never seen them put Hanukkah on a shopping bag.

Somewhat environmentally conscious, I had taken a reusable grocery bag to the store, but when I saw the Hanukkah bag, I couldn’t resist. I asked for one and gushed about how I couldn’t wait to show it to my 5-year-old son.”

Reaction # 1: Ugh

In her article, Wertheimer talks about feeling like her Jewish lens was invisible in the rural Ohio town where she grew up.  My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag.  30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community.  In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews.  Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a “holiday tree,” and put a star on top of it. To decorate the tree, the school asked us 7 Jews to color in paper menorahs, as our friends sat beside us and chose from a variety of Christmas symbols for themselves.  And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place.  But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual “holiday show,” a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.

And that was the end of the story.  Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions.  With this childhood chip on my shoulder, for years I have bristled at the menorah amidst the Christmas decorations as a weak gesture towards understanding the richness of my faith.

Reaction # 2: Not so fast, Jessie

Fast forward those 30 years, and maybe I can see things a little bit more through Wertheimer’s eyes.  One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting “Happy Diwali” on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity.  Maybe the storyline of the December dilemma could be more of a jumping off point, pushing us to open ourselves up and recognize the multitude of interesting, important, and often joyful holidays that happen for different religious groups throughout the year.  What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each other’s cultures, in place of all of the disharmony and bad news delivered through the media every day?

Another thing hit me through the celebratory tone of Wertheimer’s article.  I’ve always been hung up on the idea that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, so trying to acknowledge it along with Christmas is a misaligned attempt – why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing.  Hanukkah may be minor on the Jewish calendar, but it is beautiful. The lit Hanukkiah in the window makes the same gesture as the Christmas tree, to provide more light and invite warmth and cheer into our homes.  As the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, why not focus on every opportunity we have for more light?

So I think I say Thanks for the Hanukkah bag.  What do you think?

Transgression, Repentance and Forgiveness on the Tennis Court

Sammy

Sammy, on a happier day, after winning his first tennis tournament

I had no intention of writing two posts on the High Holidays, but something happened the other day while playing tennis with Sammy that was in sync with the spirit of the season.

Sammy has been playing tennis since the age of four. He has progressed from group lessons to private lessons twice a week. He truly loves the sport and started to play competitively last year. His game has improved exponentially and there is no longer a need for Cameron and me to take a little off our strokes when we hit with him.

But while Sammy has become hard to beat, we are still bigger, stronger and more experienced. No matter how close the games are, more often than not, one of us is on the winning side. This is hard for Sammy. We don’t care if we win, but Sammy has an intense desire to beat us.

When I was a kid I too wanted to beat my parents. Winning against them symbolized a kind of independence. It said I wasn’t a baby; I was strong enough to beat an adult. So I understand Sammy’s pursuit of victory. I just don’t like it when the intensity with which he pursues his goal leads him down the path of unsportsmanlike behavior. This is what happened the other day.

Sammy had won the first set 6-2. I was up 2-0, 40-30 in the middle of the third game of the second set. I could see Sammy’s frustration building at having easily given-up the first two games. Now I had the chance to take a 3-0 lead if I won the next point.

I served, he returned the ball and after a short rally he hit it out. Sammy didn’t like the call but instead of asking if I was sure that the ball was out, he exploded, “That ball was in!”

“It looked clearly out to me,” I said. “It landed in the green space behind the baseline.”

“No it didn’t! It was in,” he yelled. “You’re a cheater! You just called it out so you could win!”

“Sammy, I’m your mom. I love you. Why would I cheat?”

“You do cheat!” he shouted before he started to serve the next game.

 As I waited for his serve, I hoped that hitting the ball might help him work out his anger and frustration.

“Zero serving three,” he said. “But it should be deuce!”

“Out,” I called when his serve landed wide.

“I don’t even know why I play with you. You make me so frustrated. I hate you!” Sammy screamed. This insult was followed by a cry of “Uggh,” as he fired his next serve.

The serve was a bullet and the force of the shot made me think that he was channeling his emotions into better play. But I was wrong. I soon saw that rather than raising his game he was spiraling into a complete meltdown. After I won the set, I suggested that we go home and continue the match the next day.

Sammy protested and I agreed to play more, but after the first game of the third set I decided I had enough of Sammy’s unsportsmanlike behavior. The tantrum wasn’t working itself out. It was time to set some boundaries.

“I’m done,” I said.

“What!”

“I’m tired of listening to you use hurtful language. I’m tired of you throwing your racquet and whacking the fence. I’m going home,” I said in a calm, but stern voice as I picked up balls.

Sammy walked over, sat at the net, put his head in his hands and cried. I went over and sat too. “Can I give you a hug?” I asked.

“No! I don’t deserve one,” he mumbled.

“Sometimes when we’re angry and frustrated a hug is exactly what we deserve,” I replied. “I may want to believe this because I’m your mother, but I don’t think that you really meant what you said today. Your words and actions were your anger and frustration speaking.”

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed.

“I know you are. Listen, I’m your mom. I love you. I will never cheat you. I’m also human and humans are flawed. Sometimes I’ll get the calls right and sometimes I’ll make mistakes – just like you. But I’ll always try my best to make an honest call.”

Sammy inched closer. We hugged. “I’m really, really sorry,” he said.

“I know. Sometimes we say things that we know are wrong or that we don’t mean, but because we are so emotional we can’t seem to stop the words from coming out. I know you didn’t mean what you said. I forgive you.” I gave Sammy a kiss and then said, “I love you – always.”

I didn’t intend to make our tennis game a High Holiday teachable moment. It just happened to be a reminder that as we seek to return to wholeness we not only want God’s forgiveness, but also each other’s. 

New School, New Year

Save the DateThis year, we won the lottery. The school lottery.  We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthie’s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.

When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthie’s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near Bat Mitzvah age, and will spend her time at synagogue in childcare eating honey sticks and making a paper shofar.

As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.

Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.

I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.

I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).

As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though “regular” life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.

Does God Really Care About What We Eat?

I won't be asking for forgiveness for enjoying lobster rolls this summer.

As the High Holidays approach, I’ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when I’ve been my best self and those when I haven’t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As I’ve gone through this psychological housecleaning I’ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.

I’ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are well…minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?

As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holiday’s food restrictions. Sammy said, “We’ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Some years I’m good at making sure we keep it, and others years I’m not. It’s always easier when we’re home. Since we’re away I’ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.”

“I don’t think God cares,” replied Sammy. “I don’t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I don’t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.”

At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point – eating matzah instead of bread on Passover won’t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.

Then I found an article, “A Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,” that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless “universal spirit.” Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, “I’ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of God… I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.”

After re-reading Pitts’ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy – care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if we’re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.

So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year I’ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I don’t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.

Finding God

Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.

My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.

I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.

For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.

Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.

This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)

But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.