Engaging Children in Ritual Life

  

Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families – and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the first Friday “family service,” but at most Shabbat services at Sam’s 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?

Jack's first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.

Jack’s first synagogue outing in February. He has been to *almost* every Friday night service, since.

This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parents’ 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’ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faith’s continuity for the next generation?

L’dor V’dor

  
Little Jack and Mommom (Uncle Jack's sister) visiting Jack's grave

Little Jack and Mommom (Uncle Jack’s sister) visiting Jack’s grave

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.

Our Nonexistent Springtime Dilemma

  

This year, there are several weeks between Easter and Passover, a welcome respite from the springtime quandary many interfaith families face as they balance chocolate bunnies and the afikomen.

My daughter shows off her Easter egg hunt success.

My daughter shows off her Easter egg hunt success

Easter and Passover, in my experience, don’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 family’s home. Still, each spring my family finds a new Easter/Passover balance, emerging from the little details of each celebration.

At the first Passover seder I celebrated with my then-boyfriend’s family, I remember the welcome in my future in-laws’ 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-laws’ 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 recalls tikkun olam, Judaism’s message of healing the world’s broken places.

Although I’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 “Lo the Earth Awakes Again” in place of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and thinking of my much more devout friends who mocked this seemingly watered-down springtime sentiment.

Emily's daughter at Passover

My daughter proudly displays the egg on last year’s seder plate

Passover, though, was anything but watered-down, especially after four cups of wine. It remains my husband’s favorite holiday, and as the better chef in our household, he delights in planning the menu, doing and re-doing the haggadah and making sure that we have to extend our dining room table past its maximum capacity for the celebration to feel complete.

As I’ve experienced Passover with my extended family for the past 14 years, Passover makes a certain kind of sense. Each year, matzah still tastes good for at least the first five days. Matzah brei with smoked salmon and maple syrup, matzah served with leftover Sephardic charoset (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 I’ve never quite been able to do in December).

Passover became a rebirth I could sink my heart, and even my teeth, into—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 we’d be attending church that year).

My childhood celebrations of Easter started pajama-clad as my brother and I 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 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when my daughters looked forward eagerly to our neighborhood’s egg hunt. Even my husband, who’d initially and understandably balked at the idea of a Christmas tree in his home, wasn’t alarmed at our children participating in what he called a “pagan celebration of springtime,” as out the door they ran, baskets in hand, eggs and chocolate on their minds.

So, I’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?

Singing Songs at an Interfaith Bedtime

  
Reading "The Bedtime Sh'ma" to Laurel at bedtime.

Reading “The Bedtime Sh’ma” with Laurel at bedtime.

At bedtime recently, 5-year-old Laurel was having trouble settling towards sleep, not unsurprising given that it’s still light out at her bedtime. Looking for a change of pace that might help her feel sleepy, I started to sing the Shema, as my husband and I often do during her bedtime songs. She listened quietly, laying her head in my lap instead of putting the sheet over her head and declaring she had become a bouncing tent, as she’d been doing not too many minutes before that. (InterfaithFamily has a great booklet about saying the Shema as a kids’ bedtime ritual. Check it out here.)

When I finished singing the quiet words about God’s onnness, she asked, “Sing me another Jewish song, Mommy,” and I did, choosing Oseh shalom, which is one of my favorite tunes to sing her before sleep.  I love the melody, and the soothing message about peace that it conveys. Sometimes I get a little bit too into the song, my head nestled against her ear, and she tells me, “Sing more quietly, Mommy; you’re too loud!”

As is almost usual, she started talking halfway through the song. “Mommy? Mommy?”

“… shalom aleinu…” I continue, pausing to say, “be quiet, sweetie, I’m singing!”

Eventually, my voice quieted as the song ended. “What did you want to ask?”

“How do you know Jewish songs, Mommy?”

I chuckled. “I’ve learned them by singing them many times, honey,” I explained, “the same way you learned the songs for your class’s Spring Sing.”

“Oh,” she said. She’d recently memorized “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese for the Spring Sing, so I thought she might understand my own learning of songs I didn’t grow up with as a similar process.

As usual, though, I wasn’t prepared for her follow-up question: “Do you know any Christian songs, Mommy?”

I deliberated before answering. Previous readers of my blog entries will know that I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, and was raised in a liberal Episcopalian household. In answer, I could have recalled songs I sang decades in the children’s choir at in the church of my childhood, songs like “Here I Am, Lord,” which is about answering God’s call to serve people in the world. But I can just imagine myself getting caught up in theological difficulties as I sing it: who’s doing the sending? Is it Jesus, or God the Father? What if they’re the same? With that level of chatter going on in the back of my mind, it’s easier to choose other songs to sing, like “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “My Favorite Things.”

In the end, I replied, “Christmas songs are Christian,” which garnered an un-illuminated “oh” from Laurel and a serious query as to whether there are other Christian songs.

“Well, there are,” I told her, “but I don’t remember them very well.” Bedtime is probably not the right time to explain that in addition to not remembering them very well, I am not sure I want to sing traditional Christian songs. At bedtime I usually fall back on the kinds of songs my parents sang to me when I wasn’t quite ready to sleep yet: songs from musicals from my mom, and folk songs from the 1960s from my dad. Now I wonder that the melancholy of so many folk songs did not keep me up at night (shouldn’t I have been bothered by “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”?)

Laurel’s innate sense of fairness suggests to her that I ought to sing Christian songs to her to balance the Jewish songs she’s already learning. She knows I am not Jewish and that we therefore have an interfaith home. She wants “not Jewish” to have an “is something” attached to it, and I take her request for “Christian songs” as a request for my background and heritage to be hers, as well. If I am to be true to us as an interfaith family, I also need to be true to the complexities of what my husband and I both bring to our interfaith childrens’ lives.

Next time, when Laurel asks me to sing a “Christian” song, I’ll realize that she’s asking about my background, and I’ll be better prepared to sing a different song – not necessarily a Christian song – but a song to which I can bring as much joy as I bring to Oseh shalom. As she grows older, too, I hope that my repertoire of songs I’ve learned as an adult, especially including the Jewish songs that are so important to Laurel, will continue to expand. Maybe, once again, she’ll ask me to sing “just a little quieter, Mommy, and not right in my ear.”

Interested in attending a “Goodnight, Sleep Tight” session in Chicago with InterfaithFamily/Chicago’s Director? Contact Rabbi Ari Moffic (arim at interfaithfamily dot com) for more information.

Baby Namings and the Flexibility of Tradition

  

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that we’d need to bring in a mohel from who-knows-where, if we happened to have a baby boy. Would we have to ask someone to drive in from Atlanta, three hours away? Or perhaps Charlotte, a mere two-and-a-half?

When we found out that the baby would be a girl, we breathed a sigh of relief on that score, at least. Understanding what happened at a baby naming, though, seemed much more complicated than the task assigned to a mohel.

I had dozens of questions for my husband, though, about baby namings for Jewish girls. What happens at them? Did it require synagogue membership, or a rabbi? Were there set prayers or actions to follow? The lack of clear guidance on what to do in such a ceremony baffled me, given my greater familiarity with baptism and the UU baby-welcoming tradition which often feature a rose in addition to water. Our nearest local Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led by a retired cantor and an active layman who served as the group’s unofficial rabbi. We attended Friday night services sporadically in the fellowship hall of the local Catholic church. The Jewish community had just celebrated a milestone by purchasing a Torah, housing it in an ark-on-wheels in the priest’s personal study.

When Laurel was born several months later, the community was thrilled to host her baby naming. I seemed to think that a naming needed to happen soon after a baby’s birth, so we scheduled ours for a few weeks after she was born, despite her somewhat premature arrival. Relatives from both sides of the family poured in from across the country to celebrate the arrival of their first grandchild, first great-niece, and newest second cousin once-removed (etc).

baby-naming

At the baby naming ceremony for our first daughter

We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the community’s oldest member, and everyone’s eyes were alight with wonder at this dual celebration of someone at the very start of their life, and someone else whose life had lasted for a remarkably long time, and who remained quite spry besides.

The ceremony opened with an affirmation of our choice to raise Laurel in the Jewish tradition (see, I didn’t think I was mistaken), as well as our identity as an interfaith family. In the ceremony, we expressed our desire to welcome Laurel into the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. The congregation said the Shehecheyanu, and Ben and I said a Brachah for bringing her into the covenant. We wrapped Laurel in her grandmother’s tallit as L’Dor v’Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurel’s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her father’s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her mother’s side.

After the formal blessings, we brought out one of our menorahs, a brass, silver, and bronze affair with arms that could be arranged in a row, or in a circle. We arranged the arms in a circle, and relatives from all sides of the family read pre-assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible about light coming into the world, as if to emphasize the new light that shines with the birth of any baby.

Several years later, our second daughter was born, even more premature than the first. We didn’t hold a baby naming ceremony for her until almost six months after she was born. We were not yet affiliated with any synagogue in the area, so we held Holly’s naming at home, and conducted the ceremony ourselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rabbi could come to our home to do the ceremony, but my Jewish other-half assured me that really, we could just do it ourselves – say words and prayers that would enter her into the wider Jewish community of the covenant. Relatives who lived far away “attended” via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic church’s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.

second-baby-naming

We had the baby naming ceremony for our second daughter at our home.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. I’ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sister—“I-love-you-Holly-I’m-so-glad-you’re-my-sister”—in front of her assembled relatives. The main difference was that we asked each guest to say a few words of welcome to Holly as they lit a tea light, rather than the pre-arranged readings using the menorah. We also chose a version of L’Dor v’Dor taken from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

Looking back on it, I am glad we held the ceremonies in the way that we did. Both ceremonies upheld our decision to give our children a Jewish identity, and I did not feel too strange about not doing something ritualistic to include each baby in Unitarian Universalism. After all, it was difficult enough to coordinate the schedules of so many scattered relatives for one ceremony, that I cannot imagine how we might have tried to fit in a second baby-welcoming ceremony in another tradition as well!

As someone with an enduring academic interest in ritual, it feels right that we held ceremonies for welcoming our children. If learning about Jewish baby-naming ceremonies taught me anything about ritual, they gave me an appreciation for the flexibility of tradition. Our ceremonies reminded me of the ways in which something (like religion or ritual) that can seem hallowed by time can actually be quite ad-hoc, adapted to the moment, while still feeling like something time-honored.