Connecting Interfaith Families to Jewish Life in Greater Cleveland by providing programs and opportunities for interfaith families to experience Judaism in a variety of venues, meet other interfaith families, and to connect to other Jewish organizations that may serve their needs.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Recently, my family and I attended a “Sunday in the Park with Bagels” event sponsored by Big Tent Judaism, which appeared to be a consortium of Reconstructionist and Reform Jewish organizations, including InterfaithFamily.
Bagels are a serious business in our family, and despite the long faces, we all enjoyed the whole event, including the bagels!
I didn’t research the event beforehand and didn’t know what to really expect. Bagels were a great selling point, of course! But I thought it would just be few families camped out on blankets, eating bagels. I learned about the event from the IFF/Chicago’s Facebook group, and knowing how my family feels about bagels at any time of day, I knew it would be something we’d enjoy, particularly in a park on a nice sunny morning. I had no idea that we’d be a part of a very well-attended and well-thought-out morning of Jewish education and, yes, bagels.
When we arrived, we found more than a dozen tents, each hosted by a local Jewish organization and featuring a food and a craft activity based on a moment in the Jewish liturgical year.
The first table we visited was Rosh Hashanah, and Laurel jumped at the chance to decorate an apple with stickers and crayons, as well as stringing beads on it to make a necklace. We didn’t follow a regular order from table-to-table, as Laurel spent considerable time decorating her apple, and 2-year-old Holly preferred to wander much more speedily from table-to-table in search of games and, preferably, food.
Rabbi Ari and Tam enjoy the day
Both children eagerly rolled blue paper around two toilet paper rolls, topped with silver tin-foil points, to make their own tiny Torahs. We found the promised bagels at the Shavuot table, where Rabbi Ari wore a paper crown with green leaves. She helpfully explained that the leaves were a reference to the idea that Mount Sinai had actually been a desert oasis. Both kids ate the bagels with relief and delight! Laurel made a crown, while Holly determinedly stuffed bean bags directly into the goal point of the bean-bag-toss game.
Nearby, we saw representatives wearing gold paper crowns on their heads, and guessed correctly that we’d found Purim. Holly focused on the hamantaschen at the table, while Laurel skillfully decorated the front and back of an appropriately abrasively noisy wooden gregor. We somehow avoided Sukkot, which offered falling-down sukkahs made of graham crackers and melting green icing (in a summery and sugary rendition of a Jewish gingerbread house).
By the time we worked our meandering way to the Shabbat table, I found myself fully in the arts-and-crafts mode, too. At the Shabbat table, the craft consisted of using permanent markers to decorate a challah cover, and I wanted to help little Holly not get permanent marker all over the wrong places (such as her clothes). I grabbed a cut-out of a challah, placed it on the center of the cover, and traced it. Holly scribbled big black lines along the bottom. I grabbed a candlestick and placed it just above and to the left of the challah, and traced it. I was about to trace a Jewish star when I decided it would be really strange not to add the second customary Shabbat candlestick to my challah cover, so I traced a second candlestick as well, and drew a couple of free-hand flames on each. Holly scribbled gleeful blue lines all over the orange challah in the center. When we finished, we all enjoyed a slice of challah to cap the experience.
All the fun crafts we got to make! Apples on a string, a toilet-paper roll Torah, seder plate, challah cover, crown of leaves and a gregor.
Working side-by-side with my children, I found an open and accessible entry point into the Jewish childhood I never had, but which my children are clearly enjoying. This version of Judaism centered on food and crafts rather than Torah, Talmud and ritual observance. Certainly, the emphasis came in part from the types of Jewish organizations sponsoring the event, but the end result emphasized Judaism as something accessible and fun for the whole family, even for family members of a different faith. Some of the crafts my kids made, like the challah cover or the gregor, will likely serve a ritual purpose in our home. The crafts allowed even the youngest of children a way to enjoy the Jewish environment.
Even more so, food is the great equalizer. By eating together, people cement their shared allegiance. That morning, it wasn’t the food of kosher laws that brought people together, but the simple act of eating foods in a Jewish context—from the menorah dripped with too much icing and sprinkles to the off-season hamentaschen (Purim cookie). Food transcended both age and artistic ability: Everyone, of whatever age or background could enjoy a slice of challah or an icing-dipped graham cracker. No wonder the tote bag said “We ‘heart’ Jewish food!”
This is a post about the High Holidays. I know, you’re not ready for them. Neither am I. It’d be way better if I just left you alone for two months and let you soak up every moment of summer. Good news, then: This is about that, too.
Two years ago, I wrote a post declaring my resolution to unplug on Shabbat for the Year 5774. Two months after that, I wrote and fessed up that I was not doing a very good job at unplugging. It didn’t get much better. Entirely unplugging can be challenging – in my experience, when I really tried to do it, I was surprised to learn how many things I “plug in” to do that I hadn’t fully considered up front.
Limiting screen use and unplugging all together seem like such important goals, ones that I am sure will be on many people’s lists as they spend the Days of Awe considering how to be better individuals, and parents, in 5776. While I frame my pitch around High Holiday resolutions, hopefully this concept works across the spectrum of observance, parental status and whatever else makes your situation just a little different.
So I say, get ahead of the ball this summer. Summer is not without its unique screen time challenges. More leisure time for kids can mean more time spent asking for the screen. The lure of an air-conditioned media room can be very seductive when the temperature and humidity climb. And travel can lead to lots more excuses to pull your phone out of your pocket. But on the flip side, consider this tale from my very own July vacation.
Eric and I were very lucky to spend four glorious days in Northern New Mexico celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. While we were in New Mexico, Eric’s family generously looked after our girls, and took them on a fantastic camping adventure high in the Colorado mountains. A kind of wonderful thing occurred in both locations – we had very poor cell service. Forget the challenge (and sometimes stress) of disciplining yourself to use less media – on the whole, our screens didn’t work. Not having the option to plug in was so nice that I used a trick to spend my vacation focused on, well, vacation. When a signal popped up, I put my phone in Airplane Mode. It simulated not having the option of technology (while still letting me snap a few pictures!) and helped me to focus on the task at hand – vacationing, taking in the beauty of my surroundings, and connecting with Eric.
Rocket science, I am sure, but a tip I plan to use again on a campground on Cape Cod, and in the woods of Maine. So I challenge you – take yourself to someplace without a signal, or, if that isn’t your speed, put yourself in Airplane Mode. It won’t radically change your use of technology, but it is a great way to experiment. And thankfully there are still tons of wonderful places where plugging in is off the table. Where will you go?
This past week, my family stumbled late into the pizza dinner before one of our local congregation’s children’s Shabbats. It was a rainy, surprisingly chilly Friday in June, and after a week of no school and being relatively cooped up at home, both children felt more than ready to get out of the house and go to services.
When we arrived, we saw three cars in the parking lot, and immediately wondered if we’d come on the wrong date. Ben pulled out his phone and confirmed that a “Pizza Dinner and Children’s Shabbat” was, in fact, listed on the calendar. Inside, a grandfatherly gentleman greeted us in the community hall where at least five tables were set up with silverware, candles, pitchers of water and simple flower arrangements.
But there were no other families! We’ve been to a couple of other dinners at this synagogue, and we’re usually surrounded by noise and chatter. This time, though, our grandfatherly host quickly informed us that most of the younger part of the congregation was away at camp, hence the empty tables.
Empty tables: I’m used to this in the summer time, when Protestant congregations empty out for the summer. Sunday schools close for the long break and families find themselves busier than ever with travel, enjoying outdoor markets or early morning bike rides and are otherwise disengaging from organized religion during the warmer months. Some congregations I have known switch from two Sunday services to one, and many ministers might take extended time off during the summer, filling the pulpit with lay or other guest preachers. Although this picture is by no means true for all congregations, in many of the more liberal pews I’ve sat in, it’s a common scenario.
I’m still learning to what extent this pattern repeats itself in Jewish congregations as well. When I asked Ben a few years ago if synagogues also closed shop for the summer, comparatively speaking, he surprised me by saying “no, they didn’t.” Historically, this pattern makes sense. The majority of America’s Jews have always been city dwellers, rather than farmers or rural folk (and farming characterized the majority of the American populace until remarkably recently). The need to help out at the farm meant that American schools closed over the summer, which in turn affected Sunday schools and the calendar of events in America’s churches, as well.
In terms of the liturgical calendar, of course, nothing in either the Jewish or Christian traditions suggests that congregations should become quieter over the summer. My daughters would tend to agree. However much they might appreciate summer as a time of expanded freedom, they still crave the comfort and familiarity of a weekly routine.
Although we don’t attend services every week at this point in our lives, both girls sense the familiarity that can be found in a mostly-regular routine or ritual. As outgoing, social kids, they enjoy the company of other children and even of the adults they see when we go. Shabbat on Friday nights gives them that comfort, no matter whether the sun is up long past their bedtimes, or down long before.
Does your synagogue scale down in the summertime? What do you think about this phenomenon?
The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE) is a resource and catalyst for developing education about collective Jewish belonging, often focused on the areas of Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Through its blog and Peoplehood Papers series, the organization generates dialog about the meaning and importance of Jewish peoplehood and how to nurture it.
Recently, I wrote an essay for the CJPE blog about the significant influence peoplehood had on the decision to have a Jewish home by inmarrying and intermarrying couples in a pre-marriage class that I taught at my synagogue. I discussed how we created a curriculum that showed how Jewish engagement could deepen connection to the Jewish people regardless of whether or not both partners were Jewish.
While the following piece addresses engaged couples, it applies to any family interested in building a Jewish home, regardless of life stage. The questions my co-teacher and I ask students–why is being Jewish significant to you, what does it mean to have a Jewish home, how will you go about creating one–are relevant to us all. They are questions we should continually ask ourselves because as we journey through religion, spirituality and life, the answers may change.
I hope you’ll share in the comment section below why you chose to be Jewish, what having a Jewish home meant when you got married, why being Jewish is important to you today and how your idea of a Jewish home has evolved.
This essay is reprinted with permission.
Six months ago, I began teaching a premarital class to intrafaith and interfaith couples being married by clergy at my synagogue. The impetus for the class was the increasing disaffiliation and disconnection of Jewish young adults from Jewish life.
Regardless of whether couples were endogamous or interfaith, we believed that marriage presented an opportunity to influence their religious engagement. We felt that this relationship stage provided us with the chance to effect faith related choices, something especially important as we sought to encourage more interfaith couples to participate in Judaism.
We recognized during premarital counseling that we asked inmarrying and intermarrying couples to make a Jewish home, but that many of these couples didn’t know how to go about creating one. Most of the Jewish partners were raised in progressive Jewish households, either wholly Jewish or interfaith, and grew up practicing Judaism episodically. Their upbringing focused on the High Holidays, Passover, and Hanukkah and few participated in Jewish education post-b’nai mitzvah or remembered anything from religious school.
We wanted to push these often Jewishly illiterate and religiously disconnected couples to think about why being Jewish was significant to them and help them understand how to honor their commitment to have a Jewish home. So, we created a two- to four-week learning experience for engaged partners.
At the start of each session, we asked the couples how they decided to have a Jewish home and why having one was important to them. Interestingly, regardless of whether the Jewish partner or partners grew up secularly Jewish, episodically Jewish, modestly observant or very observant, the reason having a Jewish home was important was the same. All had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
We used our curriculum, which focused on Shabbat and community building, to show the couples how ritual and communal involvement, could deepen their feeling of Jewish peoplehood. We discussed how rituals, whether viewed as divine commandments or social customs, were a means to transmit Jewish heritage, beliefs, and values. We explained the importance of Shabbat and ways to embrace it. We talked about using the holiday to bring sacredness into the couple’s relationship and home.
These classroom discussions provided a foundation for what was in my opinion the most significant component of the class–experiential learning. Over a Shabbat meal at a congregant’s home, the students experienced the power of Shabbat in a communal setting. Since many of the couples didn’t grow up with a Shabbat home ritual because their families weren’t observant or they weren’t Jewish, we wanted to demonstrate and demystify the holiday. The more relaxed social setting of a home also provided couples the opportunity to deepen the connections they were forming in the classroom demonstrating how Shabbat could be used to build community.
Forging relationships between students was high on our priority list because community was a significant predictor of Jewish engagement. Since we knew that adults with more densely Jewish social networks were more likely to engage in Judaism and raise Jewish children we added a second non-classroom learning experience. At the end of the program, we brought the couples together for Havdalah in a member’s home. This endpoint allowed us to expose participants to another ritual and gave students an opportunity to deepen their connection to each other.
When endogamous and interfaith couples make the decision to be married by a rabbi, it opens the door to a Jewish conversation. It gives us the chance to encourage Jewish choices. Using classroom and experiential learning plus premarital counseling, we can help Jewish and not Jewish partners see how Judaism can help them feel part of something bigger and connect them to Jewish life.
Several months ago, I read Jennifer Senior’s All Joy No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior’s book is one of the few that examines the effects of children on their parents. How does parenthood affect our marriage, our work, our lifestyle, and our happiness?
Much of the book resonated with me, especially the chapter about the lengths parents go to develop their children so they can compete for spots at top colleges or athletic scholarships. Senior writes how this concerted cultivation has resulted in overscheduling and excessive parental involvement and contributed to the decline of real family activities such as meals.
One mother explains to Senior that, “homework has replaced the family dinner.” The reason for dinner’s displacement is that kids “tell you stuff” when you sit and create something together, and many parents don’t cook anymore. Given the amount of time they spend schlepping kids to activities it’s easier to do takeout. Senior wonders if the time spent in family study hall might not “be more restorative and better spent” doing things that create family bonds, “the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories.”
When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Shabbat. Shabbat is all about restoration, connection, rituals, stories, and creating warm memories. On Friday evenings, we give thanks for time together and the food we eat, we remember through stories–Jewish and personal–our connection to community and heritage, we take a break.
But even though Shabbat is a simple solution to the problem Senior describes and only requires a once a week commitment, many of us still struggle to do it. We’re busy with work and after school activities. We don’t have time to set a nice table or cook a meal. Our children would rather attend a high school football game or professional sporting event. I can relate.
When my son Sammy was in preschool, Shabbat was magical. On Friday afternoons, he and I baked challah. In the evenings, we gathered as a family, sat at a nicely set table, and said the prayers. Following the blessing for boys, my husband and I each whispered a special message in our son’s ear, and we shared with each other our favorite part of the week.
But as my son has grown, my family’s once magical Shabbat has lost some of its glow. We no longer sit down for a family dinner every week. When we do, our once carefully set table now looks like the one we eat at every weeknight: papers and magazines are pushed to a corner, and nondescript placemats and napkins decorate the surface. Our challah is store-bought, and my family who is starving and a little grumpy, requests the fast version of the blessings.
Because our Shabbat practice no longer seems special, it would be easy for us to surrender to our hectic schedule, to say we can’t celebrate, to abandon our flawed observance. But each week, we find ourselves trying to honor our ritual in some way.
During football season, if Sammy’s school is playing at home, we light the candles and bless the challah before we go as a family to the game. In the spring, if we have tickets to see our local minor league baseball team on a Friday night, we wish each other “Shabbat Shalom” as we enjoy America’s pastime.
But it’s when we do enjoy a real Shabbat dinner, even a thrown together one, that we remember the power of this ancient ritual. Over long discussions of the week’s Torah portion that encourage us to talk about life, politics, history, sports, and other subjects, we reconnect. During after dinner walks or family board games or while sitting by a fire, we relax.
Whether spent at the dinner table or the ballpark, these few hours help us to recharge, bond and create memories. That’s the magic of Shabbat.
At the end of the chapter on concerted cultivation, Senior suggests that parents make dinner the new family dinner. I love the idea but know that in my home, family dinner isn’t going to happen every weeknight. But I can make family time happen on Shabbat.
So, stop saying, “You can’t,” or “You’re too busy.” Find a way to celebrate Shabbat. You might just find that it becomes your new family dinner even if dinner is a hot dog at the ballpark.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when we got our dog Brady, my son asked if an animal can have a religion. The question was only half-serious. He knew that pets didn’t actually practice a faith, but he wanted the dog to have a religious identity anyway.
But what would that identity be? My son and I are Jewish, my husband is not. We have an active Jewish home and consider ourselves more Jewish than interfaith. Since Brady was delivered to us on a Friday night in December shortly before the start of Shabbat and the day before the start of Hanukkah, we were convinced that his religious identity was preordained. Brady would be Jewish.
But neither of his canine parents were Jewish. So, we gave Brady a bath and called it a mikveh. Now he was officially a Jewish pup and like any child being raised in the Jewish faith, he needed a Jewish education.
My mother-in-law purchased a dog-training book for us at a “Friends of the Library” sale–How to Raise a Jewish Dog. The book offered tips for training dogs from the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary. Apparently, the rabbis were renowned for their ability to teach owners how to create unbreakable bonds with their dogs.
We were skeptical about the rabbis’ approach, which used child-rearing techniques employed by Jewish mothers of previous generations–guilt, shame, passive aggression, sarcasm and Conditional Unconditional Love. As we read the book, I could hear my mother’s voice jumping from the page.
The rabbis’ system focused on instilling in dogs the ideas that our parents instilled in us, such as “be perfect or disappoint those who love you” and “you may think you’re smart, but you’re wrong about certain things.” It also promised to develop three important traits of Jewish dogs–an exaggerated sense of his own wonderfulness, an exaggerated sense of her own shortcomings, and an extremely close relationship with his master.
The book was cute and clever, filled with neurotic, nervous, intellectual Woody-Allenesque prose. I even imagined Allen playing the dog-training rabbi in a film. But we didn’t want a neurotic Jewish dog. We wanted a dog that was just Jewish.
As we thought about how to do that, we realized that we didn’t need a book or a trainer. We already had one of the best methods for creating Jewish identity–Shabbat. Since we had a regular home practice, we didn’t need to learn new commands or systems. We just needed to keep lighting the candles on Friday night.
To make Brady feel part of our ritual, we blessed him when we blessed our son. In the beginning, the touching and blessing made Brady growl, but he enjoyed getting a piece of challah after we said the Hamotzi. Soon he realized that giving thanks for and getting bread followed the blessing for children. The growling stopped.
Routine is a great teacher of humans and dogs. Brady now knows what is going to happen when he sees us set the table for Shabbat. As we begin the home rituals, he sits close and watches as we light the candles. He accepts the blessing for male children and sits as we recite the Kiddush and Hamotzi, eagerly anticipating the challah. As we give him a piece of Shabbat deliciousness, we wish him Shabbat Shalom.
If you want to raise a Jewish pup–four-legged or two-legged–forget about the books and trainers, guilt and sarcasm. Just celebrate Shabbat.
I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.
This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.
As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.
Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.
Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.
According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.
Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.
I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.
We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.
We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).
These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.
Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.
Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.
Happy Labor Day weekend! Every year, I anticipate Labor Day weekend with both a smile and a bittersweet taste in my mouth. It always brings some kind of fun celebration, but in so doing it marks the end of summer (a particularly big deal for those of us who live in New England). Unlike last year, when the Jewish New Year collided with the start of the school year, we still have a few weeks to go before Rosh Hashanah. But for parents of school-aged children, Labor Day marks a transition into another kind of new year. A new year of earlier school day wake-ups, school uniforms to keep clean, and new groups of teachers, parents and children to get to know.
We have had a lot of fun this summer. It was Ruthie’s first summer at real “big kid” day camp, and a huge developmental period for Chaya. We had a great vacation in Maine, and a lot of weekend adventures. We made wonderful memories with family and friends.
As I prepare to for this last summer weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to count some of the blessings of the summer, and think about how I might carry them into the next three seasons. Here are some things I’ll remember:
Every once in a while, its okay to stay up late to sit around the campfire, or run around like crazy monkeys with a gaggle of cousins.
Every once in a while, it is good to go to bed early to make up for the late nights.
Try not to sweat the sand in the bottom of the backpack. It is a measure of how great the day has been. And as long as you are careful it won’t ruin your plumbing.
Similarly, relish the mud on your face. Cake some more on, while you are at it.
Never underestimate the power of a breath of fresh air.
Don’t let the rain scare you from going outside.
Every nook and cranny can be a stage for singing “Let It Go,” as long as you have a vision for it.
Those are a few of the gifts from our summer. What are yours?
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan. Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment. It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
Sisters discovering a new farm for picking blueberries together. Credit: Eliza Berman
But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could. My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities. They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.
A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.
I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.
These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.
Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.
In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.
On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.
As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.
I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.
He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.
My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.
I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.
“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”
My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.