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At bedtime recently, 5-year-old Laurel was having trouble settling towards sleep, not unsurprising given that itâ€™s still light out at her bedtime. Looking for a change of pace that might help her feel sleepy, I started to sing theÂ 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 sheâ€™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 Godâ€™s onnness, she asked, â€śSing me another Jewish song, Mommy,â€ť and I did, choosingÂ Oseh shalom, which is one of my favorite tunes to sing her before sleep.Â 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, â€śSing more quietly, Mommy; youâ€™re too loud!â€ť
As is almost usual, she started talking halfway through the song. â€śMommy? Mommy?â€ť
“â€¦ shalom aleinuâ€¦” I continue, pausing to say, â€śbe quiet, sweetie, Iâ€™m singing!â€ť
Eventually, my voice quieted as the song ended. â€śWhat did you want to ask?â€ť
â€śHow do you know Jewish songs, Mommy?â€ť
I chuckled. â€śIâ€™ve learned them by singing them many times, honey,â€ť I explained, â€śthe same way you learned the songs for your classâ€™s Spring Sing.â€ť
â€śOh,â€ť she said. Sheâ€™d recently memorized â€śTwinkle Twinkle Little Starâ€ť in Chinese for the Spring Sing, so I thought she might understand my own learning of songs I didnâ€™t grow up with as a similar process.
As usual, though, I wasnâ€™t prepared for her follow-up question: â€śDo you know any Christian songs, Mommy?”
I deliberated before answering. Previous readers of my blog entries will know that Iâ€™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 childrenâ€™s choir at in the church of my childhood, songs like â€śHere I Am, Lord,â€ť which is about answering Godâ€™s call to serve people in the world. But I can just imagine myself getting caught up in theological difficulties as I sing it: whoâ€™s doing the sending? Is it Jesus, or God the Father? What if theyâ€™re the same? With that level of chatter going on in the back of my mind, itâ€™s easier to choose other songs to sing, like â€śPuff the Magic Dragonâ€ť or â€śMy Favorite Things.â€ť
In the end, I replied, â€śChristmas songs are Christian,â€ť which garnered an un-illuminated â€śohâ€ť from Laurel and a serious query as to whether there are other Christian songs.
â€śWell, there are,â€ť I told her, â€śbut I donâ€™t remember them very well.â€ť 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 wasnâ€™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 (shouldnâ€™t I have been bothered by â€śWhere Have All The Flowers Goneâ€ť?)
Laurelâ€™s innate sense of fairness suggests to her that I ought to sing Christian songs to her to balance the Jewish songs sheâ€™s already learning. She knows I am not Jewish and that we therefore have an interfaith home. She wants â€śnot Jewishâ€ť to have an â€śis somethingâ€ť attached to it, and I take her request for â€śChristian songsâ€ť 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 childrensâ€™ lives.
Next time, when Laurel asks me to sing a “Christian” song, Iâ€™ll realize that sheâ€™s asking aboutÂ my background, and Iâ€™ll be better prepared to sing a different song â€“ not necessarily a Christian song â€“ but a song to which I can bring as much joy as I bring toÂ Oseh shalom. As she grows older, too, I hope that my repertoire of songs Iâ€™ve learned as an adult, especially including the Jewish songs that are so important to Laurel, will continue to expand. Maybe, once again, sheâ€™ll ask me to sing â€śjust a little quieter, Mommy, and not right in my ear.â€ť
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.
ByÂ Jodi S. Rosenfeld
The rules are right there in the Shema.
You know, in the Veâ€™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 Torahâ€™s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.
But that line about teaching Godâ€™s commandments diligently to our children? Thatâ€™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 â€śgood parentsâ€ť 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: Iâ€™ve started solid foods; Iâ€™ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read â€śGoodnight Moonâ€ť every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for musicâ€¦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 â€śgathering the lightâ€ť 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. â€śYou were not covering your eyes!â€ť to which they would reply, â€śMom, how could you know we werenâ€™t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?â€ť
TouchĂ©. 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.