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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.