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Motherâ€™s Day is coming, in case you havenâ€™t stepped foot in a commercial district recently. With it comes a whole host of emotions. You can hear them in casual conversations and read about them all over the blogosphere. Today, I want to put a stake in the ground in favor. In three strokes, let me try to convince you that Motherâ€™s Day is worthwhile.
Reason # 1: It’s a freebie for most Interfaith couples (or maybe couples of any stripe). Â
One reason you likelyÂ came to this websiteÂ is because you are questioning how to make it â€śworkâ€ť as an interfaith family. For all the joy of our religious holidays, building any kind of tradition different than the ones you grew up with can bring anxieties, bumps and challenges. Hereâ€™s a holiday that doesnâ€™t belong to any religion, at least not in its observance today. It is a bunch of Americans getting together with families or friends and celebrating the mothers in our lives. For most of us, it will be a holiday both you and your partner grew up with, even if you grew up in different corners of the country with entirely dissimilar faith perspectives. So take this gift of a holiday that you hopefully can celebrate equally with all of your families.
Reason # 2: Itâ€™s not all about Hallmark. Â
I get the sentiment that we shouldnâ€™t orient ourselves (or our spending) to something created by a corporation. Or, I should say, I sort of get it. First, if you donâ€™t like the Hallmark stuff, celebrate the amazing true stories of the women who gave Hallmark the ideaâ€”activistsÂ Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe. Second, perhaps less inspirationally, I ask you to consider this from my personal history. My mother took advantage of the opportunityÂ to celebrate almost every holiday she could get her hands on. Having grown up that way, well, it’s not all that bad. For those of us who are lucky enough to have the means to afford the basics, is there really a better way to spend your spare change than on a small gesture for someone about whom you care? Is there any danger in heeding the calendar as a reminder to spend time with the person or people whose mothering means a lot in your life? Â Maybe Hallmark popularized this holiday, but I hold them harmless. Sometimes we need reminders to do the most basic but important things.
Reason # 3: It takes a village to raise a mother.
Four years ago, my mother passed away just before Motherâ€™s Day. There are no words for the awful of that week. I suspect that the confluence of these two dates will always bring me a little pain. I appreciate there are people who feel all kinds of loss on Motherâ€™s Day. I understand some of it wellâ€”anger atÂ losing a cherished relationship and frustration for the things you never had time to share. I also know there are some kinds of loss I canâ€™t entirelyÂ understandâ€”lossÂ for unsatisfying relationships with mothers who are alive but arenâ€™t in our lives, bereavement for mothers we never got to know, deep grief for children we didnâ€™t get to parent. I grant all of those grievers license to feel through their Motherâ€™s Days however they need.
But for those of you still open to my treatise, I offer this. My success with my girls is in part due to how I have been mothered through my parenting journey. I cannot celebrate my mother how I wish I could. But I can celebrate mothers I hold most dear. My own list of people to celebrate includes my grandma, the glue of generosity and love that holds my family together; my mother-in-law, who has taken me even closer under her wing since I lost my mom; my motherâ€™s dear friends, who have tried to lessen the pain of not having her around; and my aunt, who upon my insistence can be the grown-up when I fumble through a skinned knee. I applaud my sisters who are mothers, who are both just plain amazing people and are always teaching me new ways to approach motherhood.
There are a lot of other people I want to list, but you get the idea. Motherâ€™s Day is a chance to recognize the hard work of mothering and give a high five to the people whose motherhood you applaud. However it works for you, I hope you have a wonderful Sunday.
Recently,Â two important Conservative rabbinic opinions came down that probably rang out strongly with their followers. For the rest of us,the announcement quietly gathered steam until it called out across the masses in the weeks leading up to Passover: the Rabbis declared kitniyot (Hebrew for legumes) as Kosher for Passover.Â
In what felt like overnight to me, a group of Jewish leaders told us AshkenazisÂ (Jews of German or Eastern European descent) that it was no longer necessary for us to belabor the possibility that a farmer who wasnâ€™t Jewish had mixed wheat in with the lentils, and that as long as we stay away from chametz, legumes are fair game. Much to my surprise, after 20+ years of label reading and black bean-shunning, I feel mixed about an easier Pesach.
I am not a Conservative Jew. I am a Reform-leaning Jew held in the warm embrace of a Reconstructionist community, so I am homing on two bases, neither Conservative. But this seems like a big deal, since I have owned this more â€śconservativeâ€ť practice since college. Also, to have such a public overturning of a centuries-old practice feels like a challenge for everyone, Conservative or otherwise.
On one side of my emotional spectrum is the urge to listen. For almost as long as Iâ€™ve practiced the ban on kitniyot, Iâ€™ve known it to be based more on an abundance of caution than on biblical clarity. Iâ€™ve also known it to not be the healthiest choice for my body–I will never forget the time I had to have a blood test during Passover and the doctorâ€™s dismay at my abysmal iron levels (made worse because I was a vegetarian at the time). I assured her theyâ€™d bounce back after the holiday, which they predictably did. So enough already–life without the kitniyot ban sure sounds easier, and the argument for it is thin at best.
On the other side, there is a part of avoiding kitniyot that I find adds even more meaning to the eight days of Passover. Perhaps I am too much of a glutton for punishment, but I like how additional rules increase my mindfulness about this time being different. I am not a huge bread eater, so avoiding kitniyot added another layer to the way I paid attention to what I was consuming, which, in turn, made me think even more about the why of the holiday. In incorporating kitniyot into my diet, I feel like I need to find a new way toÂ ensure the same quality of mindfulness I have had in the past several years.
In the middle is the way I hold this change in my role as the Jewishly-raised partner in my interfaith marriage. There is something in this that feels a little funny. Â Because our Judaism originated from my background, I often assume the role of leader or teacher. I can get my head around this when we observe Shabbat, fast on Yom Kippur or with almost everything related to Passover. But when a panel of rabbis picks something that Iâ€™ve suggested my partner do as a part of being Jewish and says â€śOops, not really,â€ť I feel a little like I tricked my family into something unnecessary. I know it is not that cut and dry (Eric assures me it isnâ€™t), but I am reminded that advocating for the Jewish choice for our household comes with some additional responsibility to shine a good light down the Jewish path.
This week, with a little hesitation, I have decided to stop worrying about kitniyot. Halfway through the holiday, it turns out my belly feels betterÂ off without an additional layer of forbidding myself kitniyot. I am curious, though â€“ what did you decide to do?
As I gazed out the airplane window on our flight between Dallas and Houston, I thought about my parenting choices. Specifically, my decision to allow my son to skip the first night of Passover for a sporting event. I never thought Iâ€™d be that kind of parent. Judaism and its continuation were too important to me.
As the Jewish half of an interfaith couple, Iâ€™d always taken the responsibility of Jewish identity building seriously and my husband supported me every step of the way for almost a dozen years. We practiced Shabbat weekly. Celebrated Rosh Hashanah over two days with a dinner, service, tashlich and another meal. Observed Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre dinner followed by services and break fast the next day. Honored Sukkot, Tu BiShvat, Purim, and Hanukkah with holiday foods and festivities. Marked the exodus from Egypt at two Passover seders, one at a friendâ€™s and another at our house.
The marking of Jewish time through holiday celebrations has been a big part of our life, and we found a way to evolve our observances as our son grew from an infant to a toddler to a grade schooler, so they remained relevant and balanced our Jewishness with our secular life. But now that our son was in middle school, and in the early stages of puberty, there seemed to be an increasing amount of flexibility required to live Jewishly and be engaged in the secular, non-Jewish world.
During football season, our Shabbat practice has been modified so we can mark the end of the week and go to the Friday night football game at our sonâ€™s school. Our Rosh Hashanah observance has been adapted to minimize the amount of school missed and allow for enough time to complete homework. Iâ€™ve gladly modified many of our other rituals and practice so that our son could see that practicing Judaism was compatible with non-Jewish life and his American identity.
From the beginning of our Jewish journey as an interfaith family, my husband and my goal has been to make Judaism fun and relevant so that our son chooses to practice it in adulthood out of love and connection, not obligation. Weâ€™ve never wanted him to resent being Jewish. And thatâ€™s why we were flyingÂ to Houston for the Texas State Age Group Championships for water polo instead of sitting at our friendâ€™s seder table.
Our son has been playing water polo for a year on his schoolâ€™s sixth grade and under team. Over the past 12 months, heâ€™s improved enough that he is now a starter. This year, the team is undefeated, having won every game in the North Texas League in the fall, winter and spring seasons and every non-league tournament theyâ€™ve played. When he was selected by his coach to go with the team to the state tournament, it seemed particularly cruel to make him stay home because it conflicted with Passover. He and his team had worked so hard to get so far. We were not going to make this a Sandy Koufax moment. Instead, I said Iâ€™d find a way to adapt our observance.
When we reached our destination, we had a non-traditional holiday meal at a Mediterranean restaurant. I asked that we all eat Passover-friendly food in honor of the holiday even though it meant forgoing the fresh baked pita that looked delicious. While we ate, we each shared our thoughts on freedom.
I canâ€™t say it was the most fulfilling holiday experience, but at least it was a holiday experience. When we return from Houston, weâ€™ll have a traditional seder at home on the fourth night of Passover.
I have no idea if the choices weâ€™re making are showing our son how he can embrace his heritage in a way that is compatible with his secular life or if the message he is getting is that practicing Judaism isnâ€™t that important. Maybe in years to come he will forgo Jewish observance because it doesnâ€™t fit neatly into his schedule, or maybe he will have the tools and creativity to find a way to engage in Jewish ritual even when faced with competing items on his calendar.
As with so many things in parenting, I wish I had a crystal ball that could show me the future. Since I donâ€™t, I need to go with my gut instinct which tells me that making choices that will make our son resent being Jewish is not the answer. I hope my gut is right.
Easter and Passover, in my experience, donâ€™t create the same kind of difficulties as their winter counterparts, Christmas and Hanukkah. The Easter/Passover question fails to inspire the same degree of emotion as questions over the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in an interfaith familyâ€™s home. Still, each spring my family finds a new Easter/Passover balance, emerging from the little details of each celebration.
At the first PassoverÂ sederÂ I celebrated with my then-boyfriendâ€™s family, I remember the welcome in my future in-lawsâ€™ eyes as they told me that they hoped that all participants at their table would feel as if they, too, that very night, had been liberated from bondage. Although I came from a different background and different tradition, a seder in their home became a universal event, open to all who would experience the mystery of moving from suffering to joy.
Through the years, I learned that the seder at my in-lawsâ€™ house emphasized Earth Day, springtime, rebirth, reawakening and the joy of a new life, manifested in this world, here and now in this life. My spouse and I carried these themes into our own seder celebrations that welcome both family and friends. Like the wedding couple that breaks the glass as a reminder that even at a time of joy, brokenness remains in the world, each year at the seder my family recallsÂ tikkun olam,Â Judaismâ€™s message of healing the worldâ€™s broken places.
Although Iâ€™d been raised in a liberal Episcopalian environment, for me Easter had by then come to mean a springtime celebration of rebirth. Some years I attended Unitarian Universalist Easter services, singing â€śLo the Earth Awakes Againâ€ť in place of â€śJesus Christ is Risen Today,â€ť and thinking of my much more devout friends who mocked this seemingly watered-down springtime sentiment.
Passover, though, was anything but watered-down, especially after four cups of wine. It remains my husbandâ€™s favorite holiday, and as the better chef in our household, he delights in planning the menu, doing and re-doing theÂ haggadah and making sure that we have to extend our dining room table past its maximum capacity for the celebration to feel complete.
As Iâ€™ve experienced Passover with my extended family for the past 14 years, Passover makes a certain kind of sense. Each year,Â matzahÂ still tastes good for at least the first five days.Â Matzah breiÂ with smoked salmon and maple syrup, matzah served with leftoverÂ SephardicÂ charosetÂ (a delectably mortar-like concoction of dates, figs, nuts, spices and honey) and matzah granola liberally doused with honey and maple syrup, seem like the foods of heaven for the first few days. The leftover bottles of wine help wash the crumbs down when the matzah starts to lose its once-a-year appeal.
Beyond the food, Passover promotes a message of rebirth and liberation that aligns with both the anticipated return of springtime as well as good solid social justice.
Given all of this, each year I happily ceded the springtime holiday sensibilities to the Jewish half of my interfaith family (something Iâ€™ve never quite been able to do in December).
Passover became a rebirth I could sink my heart, and even my teeth, intoâ€”at least, until I provided grandchildren for my Easter-celebrating parents.
Once grandchildren came on the scene, suddenly my parents and grandparents wondered about chocolate bunnies, Easter eggs, gifts in pastel wrapping paper and other secularized symbols of the springtime season (and sometimes, even, if weâ€™d be attending church that year).
My childhood celebrations of Easter started pajama-clad as my brother and IÂ hunted for our Easter eggs, finding them in the closet, the dryer, the washing machine or other odd locations. We changed into fancy pastel clothing and drove to church, where the sweet smell of flowers and the triumphant sounds of trumpets and organ greeted us, after which we returned home to a fancy Easter dinner. We ate chocolate bunnies, dyed pastel eggs and I gave all my much-detested jellybeans to my brother in exchange for a few more egg-shaped Reeseâ€™s Peanut Butter Cups.
It shouldnâ€™t have surprised me, then, when my daughters looked forward eagerly to our neighborhoodâ€™s egg hunt. Even my husband, whoâ€™d initially and understandably balked at the idea of a Christmas tree in his home, wasnâ€™t alarmed at our children participating in what he called a â€śpagan celebration of springtime,â€ť as out the door they ran, baskets in hand, eggs and chocolate on their minds.
So, Iâ€™ve adjusted each year to a new balance between a childhood tradition that has come to mean considerably less, and an adult tradition that has come to mean so much more. My children happily accept Easter gifts when given, and look forward gleefully to matzah right around the corner (they love matzah!).
Still, I wonder, what does your family do when Easter and Passover overlap? Is it a dilemma in your house? If so, how do you handle it?
When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an â€śall inâ€ť model for a Jewish household. For our future childrenâ€™s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. Â It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Ericâ€™s personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The â€śall inâ€ť model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our familiesâ€™ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Ericâ€™s parentsâ€™ and sisterâ€™s homes. Â
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So hereâ€™s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We donâ€™t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Ericâ€™s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together. Â
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I canâ€™t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something â€śall inâ€ť and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there canâ€™t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this Decemberâ€™s interfaith holiday season:
1. Â Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouseâ€™s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouseâ€™s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my familyâ€™s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.
2. Â Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.
3. Â Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.
4. Â Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).
5. Â Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.
6. Â Answering the persistent queries from my childrenâ€™s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know weâ€™re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).
7. Â Soothing my 6-year-old daughterâ€™s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that weâ€™ll enjoy between now and next December.
8. Â Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our homeâ€™s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plantâ€™s name?
9. Â Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.
10. Â Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldnâ€™t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?
11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughterâ€™s head as she insists on singing the song â€śHanukkah O Hanukkahâ€ť all by herself.
12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, Iâ€™ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.
Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!
I have always loved the holiday season, and celebrating Hanukkah as an interfaith family brings with it an extra dose of joy. When I was a child, my mother insisted that we wait until after my birthday, which falls in the first week of December, before any celebration of Christmas could commence. She wanted to make sure we didnâ€™t detract from the first December holiday, my birthday, before moving onto the one with far greater hoopla.
My motherÂ mastered the art of see-no-holiday and hear-no-holiday. If we chanced to seeÂ a Christmas tree on a carâ€™s rooftop during the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would gleefully declare, â€śI donâ€™t see anything!â€ť When we heard the first Christmas carols on radios or loudspeakers, sheâ€™d call out, â€śI canâ€™t hear anything, can you?â€ť My mother always meant well with this gesture, even if it flew in the face of my own very real excitement about the coming Christmas season.
Only after my birthday, a few days into December, could we get out our own decorations, choose our tree, or play Christmas music on the stereo at home. My family continued this tradition well into my adulthood, such that even this year, my brother (who has been married for several years) apologized to me during our usual Thanksgiving phone call: â€śI think weâ€™re going to get out the holiday decorations before your birthday this year.â€ť I laughed, thinkingÂ itÂ sounded like fun.
The first Hanukkah I celebrated with my Husband (then-boyfriend) began November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. We lit a small travel menorah in a hotel in Chicago, where weâ€™d come to celebrate both holidays with his family. For once, I didnâ€™t have to wait to celebrate a December holiday! I didnâ€™t even have to avoid, as usual, Black Friday shopping, since I needed to finish buying gifts for my boyfriend well in advance of the busiest shopping day.
Now that I have celebrated over a decade and more Hanukkahs with Ben, I am used to the ebb and flow of the Hanukkah calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts on a great day, the evening of December 6, far enough into December to allow a few more days to shop and prepare, but not so late that we light the lights of both holidays at the same time. I skipped Black Friday shopping this year, but on Saturday I remembered that with Hanukkah starting in a week, perhaps I really should have joined the throng on the busiest shopping day of the year.
When we celebrate two holidays in my interfaith family, we hang white lights and blue lights and multi-colored lights all across the doorways in our home, and along the tops of bookshelves and curtain rods. Christmas-colored lights line the shelf on which we place our menorahs. We break out Jewish-star emblazoned Hanukkah place mats with matching blue napkins, and join them with green-and-red place mats and napkins. We bake paper-thin butter cookies in shapes appropriate for both holidays, and we make sour milk sugar cookies with colored icing. When I was a child, we called these red-and-green cookies “Santa Clauses and Christmas trees,” but now weâ€™ve added blue-and-white menorahs, dreidels and six-pointed stars to the mix as well.
Giving the cookies the awkward name of “Santas and dreidels and menorahs and trees” is the closest we come to a December holiday mashup.Â Despite the holidays fallingÂ in such close proximity, we donâ€™t hang dreidels on our tree, or call it a Hanukkah bush. We give Â each holidayÂ its own separate identityÂ as best we can, although this might seem difficult when the holiday books stack together and theÂ red-and-green towels on our oven door hang right next to blue-and-white ones. Two holidays make for twice the festivities.
This year Hanukkah starts early, and my daughtersÂ reap the benefits of being in an interfaith family. Theyâ€™ll compress a monthâ€™s worth of anticipation into a weekâ€™s worth of waiting. As we wait, weâ€™ll tell the stories of Hanukkah as best we can, giving this holiday its own weight and emphasis. After Hanukkah ends, our daughters will still have more than a week of renewed anticipation as they wait for Christmas Day. Theyâ€™ll dream and wonder about Santa Claus, and weâ€™ll talk, too, about the birth of the historical Jesus, as best we can.
We unpacked our holiday boxes the weekend after Thanksgiving. I wish I could show you my mother’s face from our Skype call when we told her we were unpacking the boxes. Her expression relaxed, I’m glad to say, when I explained thatÂ Hanukkah started next weekend.
Before we unpacked our two holidaysâ€™ decorations, Ben wanted to know if I felt sure I was OK with it: After all, my birthday isnâ€™t until later in the week.
â€śIâ€™m sure,â€ť I said. â€śThe kids are excited, and truth be told, Hanukkah starts in a week, and Iâ€™m excited too!â€ť
Do you prefer an early or late Hanukkah? How does your holiday season double the festive feeling?Â
Or at least, this is what my six-year-old daughter Laurel would have me believe. This week, I opened up her teacherâ€™s monthly newsletter, scanning, as usual, for mentions of my own child. The final page usually includes what Laurel calls â€śjokes,â€ť except theyâ€™re actually wordsÂ â€śout of the mouths of babesâ€ť which sound funny to adult ears, but often meanÂ more than they say.
This particular snippet of conversation went as follows:
Classmate: â€śI speak English, Chinese and Spanish.â€ť
Laurel:Â â€śI speak English and Chinese and Spanish and Christian. And I speak Jewish too.â€ť
I laughed, of course, when I read it, and Laurel chuckled, too. She meantÂ â€śHebrew,â€ť of course, and â€śChristianâ€ť isnâ€™t really a language. Yet even as the children in her class oppose English to their lessons in Spanish and Chinese, Laurel knows as an interfaith child that Jewish can be contrasted with Christian, and Judaism has a language which is not English.
Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. Religious studies scholar Susan Friend Harding, for example, argues in her bookÂ The Book of Jerry Falwell, that the way words are used in fundamentalist Christian culture is key to understanding that culture itself. Or, to put it another way, culture functions like a language, and finding oneâ€™s way through an unfamiliar culture is much like learning to speak, write, or understand a new language.
As she gets a little bit older each month, I find it fascinating to see how Laurel learns her way around patterns of tradition and observance. She does indeed â€śspeak Jewish.â€ť I hear her speaking Hebrew when we say blessings for Shabbat. I hear her adorable mispronunciations and as she follows her parentsâ€™ guidance through the words of the Shema, revealing her growing familiarity with the language of Judaism. Even her younger sister Holly, at almost 28 months, tries to say the prayers, which usually results in some very cute utterances.
Sheâ€™s learning, too â€“ I think â€“ that churches and synagogues refer to similar types of places, but are not quite the same. One belongs to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Judaism, and the other to the â€ślanguageâ€ť of Christianity. We, her parents, still dance nervously around the linguistic content of some of these religions: Ben remains as uncomfortable telling the stories of yet another Jewish holiday that exists because of some long-ago military triumph as I am answering her questions about Jesus â€“Â or even Santa Claus. In both cases, we try to treat the topics historically, and to say why Jews or Christians view these things as important. These conversations form one part of our daughtersâ€™ cultural knowledge and understanding, and one part of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť theyâ€™re learning.
When I first wrote for this blog, Laurel at 5 was only beginning to understand what religion or holidays meant, much less that they could come from different backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, national, or secular, or something else entirely. What a difference a year makes, and as little Holly gets older, too, sheâ€™ll grow in her understanding of the â€ślanguagesâ€ť present in our family.
Just last night, Laurel came into Hollyâ€™s room as I was putting her to bed. â€śI want to sing the Shema to my sister,â€ť Laurel said, and she did, beautifully, her sister listening as the language of Judaism washed over her. This morning, the Shema is stuck in Laurelâ€™s mind. She sang it repeatedly, joyfully throughout breakfast, and I have no doubt sheâ€™ll bring the language of Judaism with her to school today.
Â What â€ślanguagesâ€ť do your children speak? With what traditions, knowledges, and practices must they become familiar, in order to speak, think or act in the traditions of your family?
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. Â It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs. Â It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way. Â This yearâ€™s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.
After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich. Â We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.
I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old. Â But for Ruthie I had high hopes. Â She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe. Â I got ahead of myself imagining how sheâ€™d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. Â I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
â€śThrow a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,â€ť I encouraged her.
â€śI want to be a better reader!â€ť she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
â€śSomething you donâ€™t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,â€ť I suggested.
â€śI want to ride my bike without training wheels!â€ť Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Â Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.
Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice. Â This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Â Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Â Or she may not – at least not yet. Â We donâ€™t do our traditions, we practice them. Â She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is sheâ€™ll have the chance to practice it for a long time. Â
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Â Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.
Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice. Â Because it doesnâ€™t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. Â We canâ€™t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. Â So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice. Â If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river.Â In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.
Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, itâ€™s never been a holiday that Iâ€™ve experienced. I am, admittedly, embarrassed to say this. However, in the spirit of blogging about my interfaith family, I announced to the family that this year, we should do something differently! I promptly looked at Ben for suggestions. He said, â€śWell, letâ€™s see,â€ť and walked over to the bookshelves, coming back with a big stack of Jewish cookbooks. Laurel grinned in excitement and fascination, and I could see her thinking, â€śYay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!â€ť
For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. Iâ€™ve lost track of the number of times heâ€™s explained that, for him at least, â€śJewish holidays are all about food!â€ť This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with â€śwhat do we do at the holiday?â€ť but with â€śwhat do we eat?â€ť
To my delight, though, one of our favorite cookbooks (Olive Trees and Honey, a vegetarian cookbook with recipes from around the Jewish world) described not just the foods of Shavuot, but the other practices and traditions as well. As we prepare to celebrate our first Shavuot, I expect weâ€™ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I donâ€™t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know weâ€™ll be focusing on these three things.
First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husbandâ€™s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit Iâ€™ve never eaten a blintz. My friend Scott in college loved them, and piled them onto his plate whenever the dining hall served them. To me, those dining hall blintzes looked like they were swimming in water, or grease, or something else even less desirable, and they therefore lost much of their appetizing appeal. Ben, however, swears that all I need to do is make a crepe and put a sweet cheese filling in it, and weâ€™ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac â€™nâ€™ cheese sauce, I can probably make a cheese filling. Shavuot part 1, check!
For Shavuot part 2, staying up all night reading Torah and studying, I doubt weâ€™ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think weâ€™ll take the opportunity to tell our childrenâ€”likely while eating our blintzes!â€”the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. Weâ€™ll show them our various paperback and hardback translations of the Torah. I wonder what questions Laurel will ask, in her entertaining 5-year-old way. Will she ask what a sacred text is? (Will that even be the language we use?) How will we answer? Will we talk about sacred texts beyond the Torah or the Hebrew Bible? About writing and literature as hallowed activities for the transmission of human knowledge, emotion and experience? Or will those questions come later? Iâ€™m looking forward to finding out.
Finally, thereâ€™s the book of Ruth. If ever there were a story to celebrate in an interfaith family, this would be it. The story has a personal connection for me because my grandmotherâ€™s name is Ruth, and itâ€™s my middle name as well. I love that the Hebrew Bible includes a story of a woman choosing to live a Jewish life with a Jewish family. I love that even in a religious tradition thatâ€™s passed down from generation to generation, the tradition itself preserves a tale of an outsider choosing to become an insider. Ben and I already mentioned the story to Laurel when we first described Shavuot with the stack of cookbooks. Weâ€™ll tell it to her again on Shavuot (probably over blintzes). As the years go by, I expect that both of our children will find many layers of meaning in this story of extended families, the relationships we choose for reasons of love, and the traditions around which we consciously choose to shape our lives.