Listening to Christian Spirituals at the Jewish Cemetery

  

Elm Bank DewyOn my mom’s birthday last week, I left the house to go to the cemetery first thing. Being there, walking in the always slightly-moist, lush grass in front of her monument can provide a moment of peace on special days. But getting there feels brutally
un-special—sitting in my “mom car” driving the same roads I drive to get groceries. Over the last four years, I have searched for ways to make the entire round-trip special, or at least to propel me out of the day-to-day and into a more contemplative brain space. I have found it these last few trips, and it is not by traveling the three miles to her grave in a silent meditative walk. It is in pumping up the volume on deeply emotional music that makes me feel closer to my mom. Quite often, this has me driving into the Jewish cemetery with the windows closed but the speakers past 11 playing Christian spiritual music.

My parents both nurtured not just a love of music but a necessity for it—recognition that everything is better with a soundtrack and that music is one of our greatest art forms. I associate my mom with music that is soul-full. Her taste was eclectic, but her everyday soundtrack was full of songs that have something to say, music with beautiful harmonies and powerful lyrics.

There were many songs she loved. My sister listens to “Child of Mine” by Carole King. I get teary eyed at her favorite Eva Cassidy songs, and get out my anger at missing her with a good Adele tune. My husband Eric always associates “Hey Ya!” with her (doesn’t fit the same bill, but it does evoke some feeling!). When she was sick, she had a loop of music she liked to play that I still listen to sometimes—gorgeous songs sung by her Cantor Jodi Sufrin, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Corrine Bailey Ray, Alison Kraus and a few great others.

Among other genres, she always had a soft spot for gospel music and spirituals. I can think of two reasons why. One, it is so strongly in the wheelhouse of soul-full. After all, it is the original soul music. It is hard to listen to a great piece of gospel music and not feel it. Second, as much as my mom was fulfilled by and committed to her Judaism, she carried an appreciation for the surety that Christianity offers about heaven and the end of life. So much Christian spiritual and gospel music is about the promise of a good and peaceful heaven. While Judaism is open to the possibility of that heaven, it never feels like a universally held sure thing. In both, she and I share(d) a feeling that even if a song is about a God a little different from yours, it can still evoke your own connection to the universe and whatever God is yours.

So these days when I head to the cemetery I leave my house and listen to “Child of Mine” or maybe Alison Kraus’ “The Lucky One.” If I’m feeling emotionally fortified, I’ll put on Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which turns me into the driver beside you that is ugly crying in her car. But as I approach the cemetery, I’ll be playing Joan Baez’s “Amazing Grace,” one of mom’s favorites around the time she passed away. It helps me feel closer to her and it probably keeps me crying. On the way out of the cemetery, I imagine her sending me out with a song like Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Go in Grace.” These songs’ reminders about the strength of the human spirit and the presence of something greater than all of us helps me keep her near and approach the rest of the day, moving into what ever else is on the rest of the soundtrack.

Camp: the Shabbat of the Year

  

Adirondack chair

Last Friday morning I took my cup of coffee and my smoothie outside to my patio. I sunk into an Adirondack chair with my cup of Joe, breakfast, and the newspaper. It was early. I had finished my workout, my husband was asleep, and my son was at overnight camp. It was just the dog and me enjoying a few moments of peace before I got ready for work.

As I finished the paper and savored my last few sips of coffee, I felt a calmness wash over me. Hmm…I thought, a little bit of Shabbat to start my day. A preview of what was to come when the sun set. I peeled myself out of the chair and headed inside to shower.

While I was getting dressed, I remembered a video that my son’s camp made a few years ago. There was a shot of Kabbalat Shabbat services. A teen camper was speaking about what camp had meant to her over the years and how it was unlike any of her year-round experiences. As she concluded her remarks, she said, “Camp is the Shabbat of the year.” I smiled at the thought. The girl was right; camp was the Shabbat of the year for kids and parents.

I’m not suggesting that Shabbat with my son isn’t special. On the contrary, it is the most meaningful and connective family experience of the week. Our daily lives are so hectic as we juggle work, school, sports and extracurricular activities that striking the match to light candles feels like crossing a finish line. We all relax into the evening, talk about things other than family logistics and linger over dinner so long, that I often find myself shocked to see that it’s after 10 pm. Because of the magic of our family Shabbat, I guard our Friday nights. With few exceptions, we rarely deviate from our routine.

But the three-and-a-half weeks that my son is away at camp is deeply connective and spiritual in a different way. It is said, that to be an effective parent, we must take time for self-care and to care for our relationship with our spouse or partner. Often the time we take for ourselves consists of an hour workout, watching TV or reading after the kids go to bed, occasionally catching up with a friend over dinner or lunch or a little time at the spa or salon. The time we reconnect with our partner is called “date night” and is a couple of hours spent in a dark movie theater or talking mostly about our kids and plans. These moments are passable. They give us a pause or a break but are not especially rejuvenating.

The slower pace of our life when our son is at camp gives us time to be with friends without rushing to get to the next activity. It gives me a chance to spend some time each day with myself, alone in thought without distraction or just daydreaming, rather than thinking about the next appointment on my calendar. It gives my husband and me the opportunity every night to talk, not about what the plan is for the next day or who is picking our son up from sports practice, but about life, family, relationships, politics and more. It reminds me of our pre-child years and all the reasons I fell in love with my husband.

It would be difficult to celebrate the daily Shabbat moments that my husband and I enjoy when our son is away if our son wasn’t safe and happy. This time is guilt-free because of the peace-of-mind that comes with knowing that our son is in a place that he considers sacred space with staff and kids who he thinks of as family.

Ten days before camp, we were in Austin for a water polo tournament. On the drive home, we passed the camp exit. When we saw it, I asked my son if he was looking forward to going. He said, “I can’t wait. Three-and-a-half weeks of FREEDOM! It’s the best. And I bet it’s good for you and Daddy too. It’s good for all of us to have a break.”

Yes, camp is good for all of us. It’s the Shabbat of the year.

Jewish Mourning: A Lesson for My Newborn

  

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When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.

I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.

Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.

I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.

Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.

That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.

I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.

“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.

Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”

I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.

I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.

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Mysticism and My Newborn

  

 

Adrian with the baby

Adrian checks out the snow with baby Helen Rose

 

I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?

The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.

The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”

But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.

I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.

Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.

The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.

But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.

I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.

Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.

The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.

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Reflections on Hanukkah 2015

  

FullSizeRenderEight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with me for more 25 years of Hanukkah celebrations. It looks as if the last scrap of wrapping paper is finally in the recycling bin, and for what feels like the first time in eight days, I have found a moment of stillness. As I remember this year’s celebration of miracles, I am thinking about some of the modern miracles and gifts we have enjoyed since we recited our first blessings nine days ago. Here are just a few things I am thankful for this year…

1.  I am thankful for the miracle of 8 mornings. So much about life feels especially precious and fragile these last few weeks, and I am so grateful for the days I have had to wake up with my family and discover what the day holds.

2.  I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summer’s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.

3.  I am thankful for two little girls that have adopted those menorahs as their own, one for each, and for the miracle of hearing centuries-old blessings pouring out in their sweet voices.

4.  I am thankful that my husband has spent the last 16 years perfecting his latke-making skills, and for the gift of the perfect homemade latke (crisp on the outside, warm and gooey inside) from his griddle on my plate.

5.  I am thankful for the gift of my family’s annual Hanukkah party, and not only for the good fortune we have to exchange gifts with one another, but for the miracle of the warmth and love I feel in their company.

6.  I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this year’s celebration a special occasion.

7.  I am thankful the blessings that my family who is not Jewish calls to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, and that they will share a Christmas greeting call with my Jewish father in 11 days.

8.  I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Eric’s family next week….and

9.  I sure am thankful for the gift of 11 days to recover from Hanukkah and rebuild my energy to share in some Christmas cheer.

Happiest, happy holidays!

 

Resolving to Practice

  

IMG_0257Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up.  It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs.  It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way.  This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.

After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich.  We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.

I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old.  But for Ruthie I had high hopes.  She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe.  I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister.  I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.

“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.

“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.

Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.

“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.

“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.

I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her.  Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.

Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice.  This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills.  Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently.  Or she may not – at least not yet.  We don’t do our traditions, we practice them.  She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.  

On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes.  Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.

Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice.  Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs.  We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better.  So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice.  If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river.  In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.

#100TrueSleepers: What it means to number our days as a family

  
Scenes from #100TrueSleepers

Scenes from #100TrueSleepers

In mid-April, I joined an army of Instagramers around the world on a journey called The 100 Day Project. The project was a “celebration of process that encourages everyone to participate in 100 days of making.” To participate, you simply committed to do one thing every day for 100 days, and then to post a picture of that thing on social media.  After learning about the project from a college classmate (#100spotsforsitting), I launched #100TrueSleepers, a photo journal of what sleep really looks like in my house.

My project, inspired by my interest in one of the biggest themes from my parenting life, uncovered some deeper revelations about how big 100 days can really be. This week, most of us will transition from the long days of summer into the excitement of September and the introspective spirit of the High Holidays. At this important moment, I wanted to share some reflections from my project to encourage us all (myself included) to pay attention to at least one small thing everyday, as a reminder of how our children, and we as parents, grow every single day, whether we notice it or not.

Two things about sleep have intrigued me ever since I became a mother. First, I love to watch my girls sleep. It is not that I prefer it to when they are awake, it is just that I love seeing the peace of a day well lived on their faces. The second is a dialogue I’ve always wanted to explore in a more public fashion – that bedtime parenting can be really tough. My kids have never been easy sleepers, and I sometimes wonder if the popularity of sleep training and related techniques makes us less inclined to be honest about what really happens in our homes on the path from dinnertime to dreamland. I launched #100TrueSleepers as the intersection of these two ideas.

During the course of 100 days, my photos narrated drawn out bedtimes, moments of frustration, and how much of a superhero Eric is for saving the bedtime hour most nights. I also got to share some great shots of my girls holding hands asleep, looking completely peaceful, and entirely beautiful.

During the process of showing up every day to take my pictures, I discovered a third and powerful thing. As I captured my girls’ sleeping moments, I also paid closer attention to the space of each day. I often heard a certain line in my head as I posted the pictures, a psalm I came to understand from Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, a fantastic book I studied in college:

“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”

                            Psalms Chapter 90, Verse 12

This idea, that wisdom is gained in the counting of individual days, gained more and more resonance as my 100 days accumulated.

Often, the way I track time is driven by milestones and deadlines, and not by individual days. The theme of a week or a month is a project deadline, a new school year, our weekend away – major events that we plan for, and build up to. By picking a way to significantly note each day, I began to understand how much all of those milestones can be attributed to one 24 hour period, or three, or even 100. Taking that moment to catalog each photo, I also could take note of the magic of that day, and even in what had changed from one, or two, or 10 days ago.

Some amazing but smaller things happened in those 100 days – the girls changed how they liked to sleep, where they slept, and which lovies were the best sleeping companions. I was able to count the number of nights I missed entire evenings with my family (8), the nights we all slept away from home (22) and the night the girls put themselves to sleep all by themselves (Night #100).

Some big milestones happened for each girl – Ruthie lost her first two teeth and learned how to read her sister bedtime stories on her own. Chaya grew out of her nap AND her pacifier. And some big and unexpected things happened, too. Eric’s Nana passed away, a huge loss. And we moved out of our condo, the first place both girls called home, and into a new house, something we never would have predicted on Day One.

I finished my 100 Day Project about a month ago, and I decided to take a break from the every day of it. The project was a lot of fun, and has given me pause – to look more closely at how the days add up into the story of our journey as a family. It is a wonderful reminder to take into the new year.

Our First Rosh Hashanah Seder

  

Our Seder Table

By now hopefully you’ve had a moment to read about Jane Larkin’s Rosh Hashanah parties, which I plan to crash if I am ever in Texas for the Jewish New Year. This year my family started a new Rosh Hashanah tradition, too, although we hardly invented it; it was just new to us. At a family program at Ruthie’s Sunday School, the Rabbi taught us about the Sephardic tradition of the Rosh Hashanah Seder (which you can read about here on InterfaithFamily). I had never heard about this tradition, but figured it was worth a whirl. It was not only fun, but it brought with it a great chance to explore our hopes for the New Year in a new way. And it had the added bonus of being a very tasty addition to the celebration, as well.

The Rosh Hashanah seder is a seder of word plays, so the order is a series of foods that you eat, each of which has a word play that expresses our hopes for the New Year. For example, the Hebrew, or Aramaic, word for beet is related to the Hebrew word for beat, so when we eat it we can think about beating our swords into plowshares, or beating a path to free ourselves from our enemies. They are word plays that force a chuckle or a smile but also beautifully represent hopes for a sweet, peaceful and fulfilling year.

The spirit of the Rosh Hashanah seder is lovely, and the eats are good (more details on what we ate at the end of this piece). But it also offered something else to my family. As a parent of young kids, it is hard to find space to connect to the holiday. I derive joy and spiritual connection from watching my girls discover their Judaism, but sometimes it is hard to find time to remember my own Judaism. My time in the synagogue is a mix of reading, reflection, and making sure Chaya is coloring only on her coloring sheet, and not the synagogue furniture. The chance to extend the day’s observance to the intimate setting of our own home, where my kids can vacillate between the table and playspace, gives us all another inlet for observance. So our first Rosh Hashanah seder was a wonderful addition, and hopefully the first of many.

And in case this all sounds nice, but like too much to coordinate, here’s a shortcut to our seder:

We used the Sixth & I Historic synagogue seder book, which can be downloaded here (IFF’s Benjamin Maron also recommends another book in this 2012 article).

Here’s what we ate:

  • Dates straight out of the container. These were Chaya’s first dates, and she loved them, so I’d suggested getting them without pits to prepare for 2-year-old-date-inhalation.
  • Pomegranate straight from the fruit, although our Rabbi had the chocolate-covered ones, which would be a big time saver in a pinch.
  • Seasoned-oven crispy black-eyed peas (These might be my new favorite discovery!)
  • A short-cut on the pumpkin: pumpkin-shaped candy corn
  • Beetroot crisps
  • A head of lettuce instead of a fish head
  • Dangerously quick and easy scallion pancakes (substitute leeks for scallions)
  • Apples, honey, round challah and sparkling grape juice, of course

L’Shanah Tovah!

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

  

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.

I Heart my In-Laws. What is Wrong With me?

  

As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.

In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”

But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.

I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?

I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.

The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.

I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.

My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.

Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.

The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.

Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.

We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.

My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.

While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.

But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.

I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.

This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.

It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.

I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.

My Christmas stocking recognizes my faith.