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Despite being part of a Jewish family for the past decade, I have never celebrated Shavuot. After the excitement of Passover, it’s never been a holiday that I’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, “Well, let’s see,” 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, “Yay, another holiday! More good food to eat! This is so exciting!”
For any holiday, my husband (a self-confessed foodie) usually thinks first of the foods one eats for the holiday. I’ve lost track of the number of times he’s explained that, for him at least, “Jewish holidays are all about food!” This fact is, I expect, a major link to tradition for him as a modern Jewish person. I have learned not to start with “what do we do at the holiday?” but with “what do we eat?”
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 we’ll be thinking about the three things this book mentioned: first, sweet dairy foods, second, the Torah, and third, the Book of Ruth. I don’t know if we will go to a synagogue or celebrate at home, but I know we’ll be focusing on these three things.
First, sweet cheesy foods, which in my husband’s culinary lexicon apparently means blintzes. For a second embarrassing admission, I have to admit I’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 we’ll be set. After all, I can make a crepe-like pancake, and since I can make a mac ’n’ 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 we’ll stay up all night. There are bedtimes to observe, after all, with cranky-child consequences. But I do think we’ll take the opportunity to tell our children—likely while eating our blintzes!—the story of Moses receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after leaving Egypt at Passover. We’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? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Finally, there’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 grandmother’s name is Ruth, and it’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 that’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. We’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.
This week was my
I may be wrong, but I’d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” It’s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in today’s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and D’var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you weren’t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
The following is a guest blog post by Jodi S. Rosenfeld
The rules are right there in the Shema.
You know, in the Ve’ahavta part, where it says: These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you’re sitting in your house, when you’re walking by the way, and when you’re lying down, and when you’re rising up. On and on it goes. These are the Torah’s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.
But that line about teaching God’s commandments diligently to our children? That’s a specific directive to us parents. Whether we are raising kids in an interfaith home or in one with two Jewish adults, the expectation is clear–teach the kids about Judaism and teach them with diligence! This makes me anxious.
Think about the endless list of lessons “good parents” are supposed to be sure to impart to their children: good manners, respect for others, healthy eating habits, general knowledge of the world. I remember, when my now-10-year-old was in about his sixth month, people started asking me if I was teaching him baby sign language. My heart would pound. I would think, in list fashion: I’ve started solid foods; I’ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read “Goodnight Moon” every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for music…must I teach him sign language too? It seemed like one more task in an overwhelming, unending series of parental responsibilities.
As I thought about how I wanted to teach my children about being Jewish, I decided to start with Shabbat. We began lighting candles every Friday night in the manner our Rabbi had taught us–all of us “gathering the light” by sweeping our hands above the flames three times and then covering our eyes while we said the blessing. As my children became old enough to join us in these rituals, I found that my personal behaviors had changed. I would gather the light, then, rather than cover my eyes, I would peek. Just as a toddler playing hide-and-seek might open her fingers to peer out between them while counting, I was peeking at my kids! Rather than enjoying the serenity of that darkened moment of prayer, I was staring at them–were they covering their eyes? Were they saying the blessing? (I know they know this blessing!) It had become my weekly parenting test: Were my kids doing Judaism right? Had I diligently taught them how to observe Shabbat?
This was not working for me. I had come to dread that sundown moment of disappointment if say, they were poking one another instead of focusing on the holiness of the moment. I started to call them out on it. “You were not covering your eyes!” to which they would reply, “Mom, how could you know we weren’t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?”
Touché. Smart kids.
And so this is what my kids taught me about their Jewishness: they would learn by watching me. If Shabbat blessings were important to me, eventually they would see that they were important. If I became engaged in the community of our synagogue, they would find value in that community. If I continued to peek, the jig would be up.
Now, this is how I do Judaism with due diligence–at home, I focus on what is meaningful to me: lighting candles, eating Challah on Friday nights, hosting family meals for the holidays. My kids watch. And participate. And learn.
As I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkin’s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month. But I’m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that it’s important, right? With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.
I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Boston’s Jewish Federation). At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, “What is the best kept secret about PTJL?” We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: “Its better than date night,” she said, “because unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.”
Now, I love date night, and I won’t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the town…and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment. But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what she’s saying. First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.
When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us “the rules” of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me). Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us “the rules” wouldn’t be very Jewish. Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents. It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be. We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.
That in and of itself was pretty great. But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters. And it turns out we really like learning together. To hit a pause button every week and do something totally different…it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing. And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.
So here’s my multi-pronged pitch. First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year. If you don’t live in Boston, or PTJL’s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse. It doesn’t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well. [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.] So I hope everyone’s had a good back-to-school month for your kids. And I hope you get back-to-school, too.
I am so excited. It is back to school time. Not for Sammy, he’s been in school since late August, for me.
Several years ago, I received a call from my friend Renee who is a teacher at our congregation inviting me to participate in a new class. She was going to be teaching a pilot of a Florence Melton Adult Mini School curriculum called Foundations of Jewish Family Living. It was designed as a course to help parents understand how Jewish values influence daily life. It was going to be taught on Sunday mornings during religious school hours.
It sounded interesting, but my first inclination was to say no. Sunday was my day to sleep in, food shop and practice yoga. I wasn’t interested in committing to something that felt like an obligation. I had enough of those.
But the course material sounded interesting, and Renee is a friend and excellent teacher. I was torn – guard my Sunday me-time or do something to indulge my intellectual curiosity. I chose to take the class, but not because I had a burning desire to expand my Jewish mind. While I love learning, I made my decision because of Renee. A personal invitation from a friend is hard to turn down.
Dr. Ron Wolfson, in his book Relational Judaism, says that people “come to synagogues…and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they…stay for relationships.” I came to adult Jewish education because of relationships and have stayed for the same reason.
When I arrived on the first day of class, I found old friends and new faces, Jews and those who are not Jewish, born Jews and Jews-by-Choice. A diverse group united by the common theme of parenthood, and the shared goals of raising good, decent children within Judaism and creating more meaningful lives.
As we studied together this varied group bonded as we shared deeply personal stories, debated ideas, offered each other inspiration and saw the world – Jewish and otherwise – through each other’s eyes. We expanded each other’s minds, but also each other’s hearts. After 10 weeks we were more than classmates, we were like family.
I began to look forward to getting to the room that was my new Sunday morning home because I enjoyed both the social and intellectual aspects of the class. I wasn’t alone, others felt similarly connected, and after completing the parenting curriculum we decided that we wanted to continue to learn together.
Over the past two-and-half years, we have explored the Jewish experience in America, Judaism’s denominations and the challenges they face, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We have also deepened our connection to one another supporting each other during the good times – births, celebrations, conversions, new careers and moves – and bad – deaths, illness and job loss.
For the transplants among us we have become, in a way, each other’s Dallas family; and for the Jews-by-Choice and those who aren’t Jewish among us we have become each other’s Jewish family. But it is not just familial ties that have kept us together. The freedom to choose what we learn has been an important factor too.
Rather than being limited to topics selected by synagogue leaders, we have been allowed to select the subject matter we study. This ability to indulge our group’s Judaic curiosity has resulted in a classroom filled with people who are excited to learn and eager for discussion.
This combination of community and learning has been a powerful force in strengthening our connection to our congregation, and made a large organization (Temple Emanu-El has over 2,500 families) smaller. I suspect that the engagement and relationships developed through our class are an example of the Relational Judaism Dr. Wolfson speaks of.
But whatever you call it, it is one of the things I look most forward to each week. Now after the summer break, I am eagerly anticipating getting back to school and to my family. We have a lot to catch-up on.
The Jewish calendar year is described as a spiral. While we may return to the same point every year, hopefully we’re a bit wiser, more compassionate and understanding. How do we reach higher every year? By learning of course.
We can learn the hard way…through life’s tests and challenges. We can also learn the more gentler way. We can take a class, or read a book or listen to a lecture online. There are awesome ways to learn Torah online. The Torah gives us our foundation for life. It is through the lessons of the Torah we learn how to be good humans.
By learning we can prepare ourselves for life’s tests (and they are ongoing!). We may get angry when something happens, but then a light goes on. We stop ourselves a few seconds later, take a breath, maybe even recite a little prayer.
I have much to learn about life, and one of my night time prayers is that I live up to my potential and fulfill my life’s mission. I hope by learning, I will gain clarity.
What do you do to learn? Are you a student for life?
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.
I just read Teaching the Why? by Rabbi Ari Moffic, which appears on the Networking Blog here at InterfaithFamily.com, an intriguing piece posing some very interesting questions. Is it possible to teach culture and meaning? As we teach the “what”—make challah, make latkes, create the most beautiful tzedekah boxes—when does the “why,” the deep-rooted meaning come in? Do we take for granted that it is there? Do we take for granted that personal connections are being made?
I want my children to make those personal connections and integrate what they do Jewishly with who they are as people. As their mother, I take responsibility for making the connections possible and supporting their success. I do not believe this can be outsourced by sending William and Sarah to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp and other Jewish activities. I do send them to Hebrew school and Jewish day camp as wonderful supplements for Jewish infusion, but I don’t rely solely on them to make them feel Jewish. My children feel Jewish because of the home we have created. Mezuzahs don our doors. The Sabbath bride is a welcome guest in our home each week. We sing songs and pray together at religious services in our synagogue each week. In other words, we live Jewish lives.
When I made the commitment to raise our children in the Jewish tradition, I realized that I would be making a commitment to live a Jewish life. Not knowing exactly how that would play out at the time, it was a pretty big leap of faith. One that meant I would look pretty Jewish for a long time. I do this to support Jewish fluency in my children, as Rabbi Moffic talks about in her piece.
I think about the mitzvah in Judaism that commands you to teach your child to swim. On a practical level, it is a good skill to have. But I think its deeper meaning calls parents to do everything they can to make sure their children can swim on their own and lead responsible, productive lives. Ensuring our children are well-equipped to go out on their own takes a great deal of personal commitment over many years. We don’t just throw them in the deep end and hope for the best. Learning anything—riding a bike, playing the piano—requires dedication and practice, lots of practice. Supporting my children’s spiritual development goes hand in hand with teaching them how to take care of themselves and others.
My job is to provide the context for the content. Sometimes I am a student. I read a lot. I have taken classes in Judaism and attend seminars and workshops. Sometimes I am an educator. I have taught two challah-making events at our synagogue. (The irony of a Catholic teaching Jewish people how to bake their special bread is lost on no one.) Something that I always do at my challah-making events while the dough is resting is to give a talk about the wonderful gift of Shabbat and how leading a Jewish life translates into leading a balanced life. I always tell the story of the book. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as the People of the Book. How many sides does a book have? You may say six—a front, back, top, bottom, and two sides. But there is one more side, the inside, where the important information for the book lives. We spend all week being busy, living our lives on the outside of the book. On Shabbat, we are called to go inside.
When I started my Jewish journey, I felt it was important. Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the Jewish people have a special covenant with God that will never be broken. I was impressed that my husband is part of this historic tradition. Abraham was the first Jewish person, and here is my husband 5,000+ years later keeping that tradition alive. Wow. It is amazing to think about. But it doesn’t mean I think less of the tradition I was raised in. So why did I make that leap of faith? Because I was raised by a mother who dedicated her life to make sure her children had a developed spiritual maturity as adults. She knew we would be swimming on our own one day and making our own choices. She gave me the skills to learn another language.
As a parent, you never know the unintended benefits of signing your kids up for extra-curricular activities like sports, dance, gymnastics, etc. In our case, we sign our boys up for things we think they will like, things that fit into our budget and our schedule. My 7-year-old who is a sports fanatic – thanks in part to me and my husband – usually likes to do things that are sports related. This fall we signed him up for a floor hockey class at the JCC. He loves ice hockey and follows the Bruins obsessively – we DVR the games for him at night and then he watches them when he wakes up in the morning – he is a very early riser. The floor hockey class fit our budget and it was at the JCC on one of the days he goes there for the after-school program. The unintended benefit of this hockey class is that he met three adorable Jewish boys who all go to Jewish day school. Three more Jewish friends to have playdates with and to identify Jewishly with.
On Martin Luther King Day, he was invited by these three boys to “bring a friend to school day” at their Jewish day school. It is a great marketing tool for the school because all the public schools are closed and families who might be thinking about sending their kids to the school get a day to see what it’s all about. It was also great for me because I didn’t have to arrange for childcare or take the day off from work!
All kidding aside, I went to Jewish day school from 4 – 6th grade. Jewish day schools typically do half the day in Hebrew (prayer, Hebrew, Torah study, holidays, etc.) and half the day in English (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.). To this day, any prayer that I sing in services or any blessing that I know by heart and certainly any Hebrew that I can read, are all due to my days at Jewish day school. I don’t think my husband and I ever considered it for our kids for a few reasons: cost is one and another is that the public schools in our area happen to be pretty good. Additionally, since my husband isn’t Jewish I didn’t think he would be comfortable with that kind of school – although I know that many intermarried couples choose Jewish day school in part to educate their kids as well as themselves.
There were many positive takeaways of “bring a friend to school day.” Our son tried something totally new, with new friends, in a new environment, with not a lot of advanced knowledge about what to expect that day. My husband and I were so proud of him for trying all of these new things and he was also very proud of himself – the best unintended benefit by far.
Where am I? Somewhere between adoption and something else. I don’t know what just yet. But as I pause here wondering which way to go, I’ve had some time to think and most of that thinking has been about the question I asked in my last post, “who am I if I’m not a mother?”
As a person that is not married and has no children I spend a lot of time sitting in the pew watching traditional families (married couples with kids) on their way up to the bimah – baby namings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and wedding blessings (aufruf), wedding anniversaries. Jewish ritual greets traditionals at every turn ready to teach how Torah can speak to them at that particular time in their lives, affirming their place in the community and marking it with congregational celebration.
But what if these events don’t happen in your life? Then who are you? Who am I? I don’t find it surprising that a loss of identity is an outcome of infertility and/or failed adoption because so much of Jewish life is structured by these milestones in traditional family life.
“I love my church and I hate my church” a friend who is struggling with infertility tells me. She sighs and adds, “everything is centered around the kids so I’m an outsider when I most need my community.” The Jewish community is no different.
That’s not to say that I’m not happy for all these families. I am. But couldn’t we be more inclusive? Aren’t there transitions that occur in adult life aside from marriage and kids that cry out for engagement in Jewish learning, ritual and celebration?
What if we had a ritual marking the entery into adult life after college or a program of study at the turning of 40 years old (which is a time of deep soul searching for some)? Or for retirees that are adjusting from work to retirement and wondering how to re-imagine their lives? I don’t mean just a class or an aliyah but a full program of study culminating a unique and appropriately sacramental recognition. Wouldn’t ceremonial and educational opportunities like these add to the richness of our congregations and to the lives of those that participate?
As our community continues to change maybe we need to think about re-structuring or simply adding more milestones on the Jewish pathway through life – after all Judaism has something to say every Jew wherever they may be.