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We are sitting in the aftermath of a riveting, polarizing election. It has been all too easy to lose sight of the common humanity of those with whom we disagree. Recently, Anne posted a link to one of her Wedding Blog posts that has become relevant once again. However, I‚Äôd like to focus on a different aspect of this, because it is no longer just about Anne and me- now it is about Jack.
The children of interfaith relationships have an enormous advantage in today‚Äôs world. They are exposed to two people who hold differing religious views while still loving each other. That exposure will hopefully result in our children recognizing that the people with whom we agree may not have all the answers, and that those with whom we disagree have valid and valuable viewpoints.
How do we pass the values of respect and acceptance on to our children? Half of that challenge requires regular demonstrations of love ‚Äď hugs, verbal declarations, and the like, between the parents themselves, and between the parents and the children. The other half, no less important, requires respectful discussion of points of disagreement. We shouldn‚Äôt disregard the differences in our faiths; rather, we should openly communicate as to why we disagree, and what we see differently, and most importantly that we still love each other in-spite of these differences. By combining these messages, we communicate that conflict can be healthy only through respecting people who hold different worldviews from you.
The past few years have seen a dangerous rise of hatred, pointing fingers, name calling, and evil. Many people are constructing ever-thicker social bubbles and shutting out those with whom they disagree. We, as interfaith parents, are in a prime position to raise our children that will reverse these trends. This gives me enormous hope for our future generation.
Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families ‚Äď and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first¬†Friday¬†“family service,‚ÄĚ but at most Shabbat services at Sam‚Äôs synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” program¬†on Sunday¬†mornings.¬†In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents‚Äô synagogue earlier this month.¬†Upon arriving, I noticed that Jack¬†was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.¬†We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.¬†I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which is¬†much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.¬†Even during¬†Friday¬†night¬†services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like families¬†with young children are always present at Catholic churches.¬†During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.¬†During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.¬†Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass are¬†anything but distracting,¬†saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogue¬†match what you‚Äôve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith‚Äôs continuity for the next generation?
Sam and I have been together for almost five years, but Jewish memorial services and sitting shiva are still a new ritual for me. ¬†Attending memorial services and shiva are a completely different experience with Jack.
The first time I went to sit shiva with Sam, was about a year and a half ago. I had several questions for Sam, “What do I wear? Do we bring anything? Will I have to say anything?” I forced Sam to stop at a kosher bakery on the way, because I come from a family that never goes anywhere without food. From the moment we walked in the door, without knocking or ringing the doorbell, I felt very awkward. The prayers were in Hebrew, and some¬†Yiddish, and I didn’t know what to say to the family. I had only met this gentleman once before, very briefly at our wedding. I couldn’t contribute to the stories or memories of him, so I just sat there quietly and listened. Little did I know, that these stories would hold a dear place in my heart, as we would name our first born after this gentleman- Great Uncle Jack.
Because our Jack is still very young, we have not taken him to many shiva calls or memorial services. As much as we would like to be there for the family, we feel that some things would be inappropriate to take Jack to, at his young age. Because Jack is so loud and very active, I stay home while Sam pays our respects. We don’t want to draw attention with an infant, when the focus should be on the grieving family and memories of the deceased.
This rule flew out the window when a dear friend of the synagogue passed away. Sam would normally leave work for an hour or so to attend the daytime service, but this time, he had an important meeting that he could not miss. This family was close to us and we wanted to be present for them. So I packed up my very active and very loud 8-month old and a plethora of quiet toys and headed to the synagogue.
Throughout the service, Jack wanted to play. The toys kept him occupied until he wanted¬†to talk and sing along. We normally take Jack to Friday night services, so he is used to the noise, people, and music. Friday night services are a much more joyous occasion, so I don’t mind when Jack sings or talks along; however, I thought it was inappropriate for him to talk and sing during the memorial service. I stepped out into the hall with Jack a few times, as to not completely disrupt the service with his cooing and babble. Afterwards, we gave our condolences briefly to the family and left before a full on baby-meltdown occurred.
We joined the family for shiva that evening. Again, Jack wanted to explore and sing throughout the prayer service. It was difficult to keep him (relatively) quiet in a living room full of friends and family. Afterwards, other members of the synagogue came up to us and said, “Jack is such a great reminder of L’dor V’dor (generation to generation),” “Don’t try to hush him, he is exercising his voice and may his voice always be heard,” “There’s nothing sweeter than hearing baby babble at services, the noise is more beautiful than the cantor’s singing” (sorry, Cantor).¬†To those of you who said those wonderful things, thank you!
I think I get so caught up in him trying to sit quietly that I forget that babies will be babies. They will talk, cry, fuss and babble. To me, it feels like Jack is a disturbance; but to others, this sweet and beautiful noise is a reminder of the next generation. This reminder of the next generation was¬†very poignant as we went with little Jack to Great Uncle Jack’s unveiling¬†yesterday.
Before Jack was born, I¬†thought¬†I prepared as much as I could for his bris. With the help of my mother-in-law, Pennye, we compiled a list of invitees, researched kosher caterers, and created to-do lists.¬†Pennye bought paper goods, readied the room with tables and folding chairs, and lots of gauze pads. She also¬†explained the ceremony to my parents so they would know what to expect. (I also had to do some research myself, as I had never been to a bris before.)
Once Jack was born, we were able to set a date for the bris (which takes place on a baby’s eighth day), and she and Sam created the order of the ceremony, finalized the details with the mohel, and gathered RSVPs.¬†Everything was prepared, except me. Nothing could have fully prepared me for that day.
I wasn’t mentally prepared to be one of the centers of attention just three days after coming home from the hospital after giving birth. My brain was mush after a week of not sleeping and trying to adjust to this new lifestyle. All I could think of was whatever Jack required at the moment. Why is he crying and how do I make him stop his crying?¬†Is he hungry? Why is he not eating? Should I swaddle him? Rock him? Change his diaper? There was minimal spare room in my brain to make small talk with the 60+ guests during the bris.
I also wasn’t spiritually ready to hear the mohel (the Hebrew word for someone who performs a ritual circumcision) explain that our son was to be raised Jewish. Part of me¬†knew¬†that our son was to be raised Jewish. I had even said these words out loud. Sam and I had discussed this at length. We came to the conclusion that Jack was to be Jewish and I was comfortable with that decision. But, when the mohel started talking about how this ceremony physically marks Jack as a Jew, for¬†first time it finally sunk in. Our child will not be Catholic; he will not be receiving the sacraments (baptism, first holy communion, etc.). He will not share my spiritual journey or that of my parents. Rather, Jack will be on a similar spiritual path as Sam, one that, despite many discussions and much private study, is still somewhat foreign to me.
Finally, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear those painful screams of my first born, as the mohel performed the physical act of Jack’s circumcision. At that moment, I had escaped to the darkness of my bedroom, and was convulsing in tears, wanting it to end. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to hold him, feed him and tell him that I would protect him from all the harm and dangers in the world. I wanted to create a protective bubble around him, so that he would never ever get hurt again. Instead, the experience made me feel alone and helpless.¬†My body felt like a wreck after the birth, my mind was mush, and now my heart was breaking.
After the mohel finished, Sam brought Jack to me so I could feed him. The three of us shared a quiet moment together before I wiped my tears away, mustered up a smile and brought Jack back to the party, where he was passed around and photographed like a prized possession. I spent the rest of the party making small talk with whatever space was left in my brain.
Looking back, the ceremony was beautiful. Sam’s extended family was there to celebrate, including Jack’s great grandmother, great grandfather and great-great aunt.¬†Jack’s namesake’s daughter spoke wonderfully of her father and wished all of Uncle Jack’s best qualities to be passed on to little Jack.¬†My parents and some of my siblings were in attendance, supporting our decision to raise Jack as a Jew.¬†We even honored both sets of parents during the ceremony. It was wonderful to have everyone here upholding the oldest Jewish tradition, and I have no regrets about our decision to do so, though I wish I could have been more prepared.