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This past summer, our family moved to a different, nearbyÂ suburb, one thatâs full of as many synagogues as we could reasonably hope to shop around. With the business of moving, we didnât attend services very often this summer, saving the serious shul-shopping for a more settled time.
Not attending services, though, has meant that our 3-year-old daughter has virtuallyÂ forgotten what happens at synagogue. During this time sheâs alsoÂ moved more firmly into the phase of life where every other statement begins with, âMommy, why?â
Given these two facts, I shouldnât have been surprised by what happened recently at an early-evening outdoor service billed as âfamily friendly.â We arrived just as the service was starting, and sat onÂ benches at the back of the group as the congregation sang âBim Bamâ over the harmonious strains of a guitar.
Thatâs when the questions began.
âMommy, why are we on benches?â
âThere arenât enough chairs right now, honey, but that nice woman over there is bringing more out.â
âWhy arenât there enough chairs?â
I leaned down to whisper to my daughter between phrases of the song. âItâs a busy night, sweetie.â The singing ended; the service began in earnest, and my daughter continued her queries.
âMommy, who are the people up front?â
âWhy are my sister and daddy wearing those hats?â
âWhat is everyone saying? I donât know the words to this song.â (We were singing âLâcha Dodi.â)
âMommy, they said âstars!â I know that word!â This caused particular excitement.
When the service leaders lit the Shabbat candles, I knew the drill.
âMommy, I know this song,â she said with excitement as the blessings were recited. âMommy, are there candles up there?â She stood on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the grown-ups to see the candles in front.
At various points, she asked me, âMommy, whyÂ are we sittingÂ outside? When are we going inside?â
On my other side, my 6-year-old asked her own very pressing and important question: âMommy, when is it time for dessert?â She meant, of course, the oneg, at which she usually made a beeline for cookies after consuming a healthy chunk of challah.
âI donât know if they do an oneg Shabbat here,â I replied cautiously.
âBut I really want dessert,â she explained, as if this would make the appropriate oneg appear.
âI know,â I replied. âWeâll just have to wait and see. Besides, challah is sweet like dessert.â
My daughter answered me with a skeptical glance any teen would envy.
Eventually we came to the Shema, which my daughters both know from bedtime, and their eyes lit up. My youngest asked, âMommy, how do these people know this song too?â
âItâs a very important Jewish prayer,â I whispered between syllables.
The service became quiet as the congregation entered a moment of silent prayer and meditation. She noticed, and said, not exactly loudly, but not very quietly, âWhy is everyone being so quiet?â I leaned down and whispered, âShhhh. People are praying and thinking about important things, quietly. Please be quiet.â
âI am being quiet,â she stage-whispered. One moment later: âCan we talk louder now?â Me, still whispering: âNot yet, OK?â
And thus the service continued. At one point, I left with both girls to explore the outside of the synagogue, an adventure that was accompanied by a conversation about whether or not there was a playground (and if so, could they play on it), when âdessertâ would be, and whether or not the service had moved indoors yet.
Iâm an interfaith parent. As an outsider, itâs tough for me to know if this adorable little girl, with aÂ remarkably precise voice, is cute, or is simply annoying to the other worshippers. Part of me wanted to praise my daughterâs constant questioning, her curiosity, her innate sense that âthis night is different from (most) other nights,â at least in her recent 3-year-old memory.
By contrast, my oldest sat quietly in her seat (for the most part), standing and sitting. While her better behavior pleased me, I also missed the spontaneous, exuberant ritual dancing she used to burst out with at the slightest strain of music. I had alwaysÂ worried that her expressions of joy would simply be seen as a nuisance, a disruption. Now I wondered about her sisterâs incessant questions. Would we be asked to leave? Were people frowning at us?Â I feltÂ torn between a desire to conform to what I thought was likely appropriateÂ (quiet, seated behavior) and a true delight in my childrenâs participatoryÂ joy.
I asked my husband about this later, and was surprised to learn that he, too, although Jewish, felt uncertainty as an outsider to that particular congregation. His words surprised me. Norms vary between congregations of whatever faith, I realized. Maybe my questions werenât so much a matter of being Jewish or not, but of simply being a newcomer, learning to breathe, knowing that kids will be kids, and knowing that one day we may well miss those days when they asked every question and danced to each note of music.
Tu Bishvat starts on Tuesday night. It is a really beautiful holiday; a new year for the trees. It is a time to think about the earth, and to celebrate the many ways it nourishes us. It is also a good time to think about Israel, a place where it might actually be reasonable to plant a tree right now (as opposed to my snow-covered backyard). Tu Bishvat has become a time to think about conservation and, I need to be honest, as a parent of a toddler it is pretty difficult to feel like I am hitting my marks in that department.
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about trying to teach Ruthie conservation, and the importance of saving water. I am happy to report that a year later, Ruthie has developmentally hit a place where when we tell her to turn off the tap because she is wasting water, she seems to understand, and will usually oblige. But just as Ruthie has turned this corner, Chaya has entered the age of âI do it.â While I have one daughter on board with conservation, I have another entering the era of the uphill battle to conserve.
In my unscientific observation of children Chayaâs age (2.5), they are fascinated by running water. Turning the faucet gives them a power to create, at a time in their lives when they are both dependent on bigger people to do most things for them and also discovering their own power to interact with the world. A light switch provides a similar fascination, especially as an activity where you make the lights go on and off for minutes on end. And paper goods, the kinds that as an adult I try to use thoughtfully, sparingly when possible, provide endless possibilities for creativity and creation.
There are reasons for using these things that I want to encourage as a parent. It is flu season, for goodness sake, and it is great if Chaya can learn how to make hand-washing a part of her routine. I would like to engender a habit where Chaya is turning on lights when they are needed, and turning them off when she is done. And while I donât want the whole roll of toilet paper on the floor, I sure do want her to use it in moderation when she needs it.
If taking care of the world werenât a huge concern of mine (which it is) and these commodities were in endless supply, I would have a different take on all of this. I want Chaya to feel comfortable exploring her independence and to learn to do a few things for herself. I understand that sometimes you need to experiment, to use a little more or a little less of what you need in order to figure out the best way to do something. But because there are limits to the commodities that we take from the earth, I cringe when I see Chaya trying to perform this experimentation with a running faucet. This can be confusing for both of us, since often times, just a minute before I may have complimented her about using the same amount of time and thought to experiment with how to put on a pair of pants by herself or complete a puzzle.
I think the answer is to give her a chance at a conserving behavior, and then take over and redirect her when it is clear she is not going to make an earth-friendly choice. But I also know that toddlers like the safety of reliable rules, and so even though I may do that, I feel a little badly about sending a complex message about when experimentation is OK. So I donât have an answer, only a lot of mixed feelings. And a hope that she will learn this lesson by watching rather than doing, so that the earth can be in better shape for the generation that proceeds hers.