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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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
Shavuot came at an interesting time in our parenting journey this year. In addition to cheese blintzes, the main event on Shavuot is a commemoration of when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and the Torah. It is a holiday to renew our commitment to the Torah, to study on the Ten Commandments, and to celebrate the many stories and mitzvot that the Torah contains. This celebration of the rules that G-d gave to us at Mt. Sinai fell at a time when the role of rules in our family is at the forefront of our interactions.
At 5, Ruthie is in a period where her primary developmental focus is to test the boundaries of the world around her. This manifests itself in a constant engagement with Mom and Dad’s rules, as she uses her (of course exceptional) intellect to try to sneak around rules, to push the boundaries set out for her, and sometimes to ram head-first against a decree that Eric and I think is completely non-negotiable. As we try to support her through a series of transitions–the end of the school year, the beginning of an unknown summer camp, and the anticipation of kindergarten–what I hear in her words is a complete disdain for rules, but what I see in her behavior is a need for structure even more than she’s needed before.
So in the middle of a somewhat involved parenting moment, Shavuot rolled around. I was lucky to take the girls to two wonderful Tot Shabbat services the week before and after Shavuot, where they (and I) got two different perspectives on how to celebrate the holiday. And my mind was soaking it all up, particularly when we talked about the Ten Commandments. I spent a lot of the week of Shavuot thinking about those rules, and about what they provided to the Jewish people. While the commandments are not simple to follow, they are reasonable. They give us a framework to use in relating to one another and to G-d, and a lens for understanding “right” and “wrong.” For the most part, they do not confine our every movement, but they do give us enough direction to frame the way we interact with the world.
So Shavuot seemed like a great way to hit a reset button and try to redefine the role of rules in our family. A wonderful parenting expert recommended to us that we rein in the rule-pushing by restarting with a set of family rules that the four of us make together. The weekend after Shavuot, Ruthie, Chaya, Eric and I sat down to make 10 family rules.
They are not exactly like the Ten Commandments, in that they did not come from G-d, or even from a single authority figure, but they came from all of us thinking collectively, in our case an important step for helping Ruthie feel like she has a role in defining her world. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not steadfast–they reflect a moment in time, and hopefully we can conquer these 10 as we all have some mastery and our family changes.
But they do apply equally to all of us, just like the Ten Commandments. And I hope that they show Ruthie that rules do not confine her every movement, but provide enough direction to guide her in interacting with the world, and hopefully even to find a feeling of safety within that. And for us, Shavuot marks a new start on rules, just as it has for the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years.