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The email had arrived a week before I was to travel to Houston to speak to a congregation about intermarriage and creating a Jewish home as an interfaith couple. It said that the following week, instead of regular Sunday school, there would be a program for sixth-grade students and their parents related to b’nai mitzvah and those children whose bar or bat mitzvah was in the fall of 2017 would pick their Torah portion.
Great, I thought, another pre-bar mitzvah project or meeting that I would miss due to work or a speaking engagement. Once again my not Jewish husband would be called upon to be the religious school, no, the Jewish parent. I was annoyed and disappointed that I wouldn’t get to be part of this activity with my son. I was grateful that my husband who has always been supportive of and involved in creating our Jewish home was willing to step in.
Because I wasn’t going to be at the program, I wanted my husband and son to know what to expect and to prepare them with any information they needed. I told one of our rabbis that my husband and son were coming without me. She said, “Jane, Cameron will be fine. In fact, he probably knows more than many of the Jewish parents who will be in the room. Just make sure he and Sammy know how many aliyahs you want or need. If you don’t have a big family with a lot of people to honor, Sammy only needs three.” (An aliyah is the honor of reciting the blessings over the Torah at the bimah before the Torah is read. During bar or bat mitzvah services, it is common for the bar mitzvah child to give these honors to family.) I passed the information on to my husband and son – three aliyahs.
I knew my rabbi was right. My husband would be fine. My son would be fine. In fact, my son was glad I wasn’t going to be there. He wanted to feel like he was in control of as much of the bar mitzvah planning as possible. My absence made him feel independent.
Still, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to be present when my son picked his Torah portion. I felt like I was missing out, not getting to be fully involved in the process, and that I was somehow falling down on the job of Jewish parent. At the same time, I smiled at the irony of the situation–the Jewish mom busy with other things leaving her child’s not Jewish dad in charge of making sure their son got to religious school and became a bar mitzvah.
As I spoke to the assembled parents at the congregation in Houston on the morning of the Torah portion picking, my watch vibrated, and a text from my husband came through. “Three aliyahs, right?” I apologized to the audience for the distraction and shared that my husband was helping my son pick his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah as I spoke to them. I said, “You don’t get a better example of life as an interfaith family living Jewishly than that! Sometimes the Jewish parent is the Jewish parent, and sometimes the parent from another background fills the role of Jewish parent.”
When I got home in the evening, I looked at the materials on the Torah portion and requirements for b’nai mitzvah students that my son received. His Torah portion was from Parsha Noach (Noah). He chose the first part of the chapter, where God tells Noah that the earth is corrupt and lawless, and instructs Noah to build an ark because he is going to flood the earth in order to destroy all that lives that is unclean. I turned to my son, “Did the kid pick the portion, or the portion pick the kid? What a perfect piece for my child who wants to be an engineer that designs and builds ships with water purification systems so he can repair our waterways!”
“It was the most interesting part to me,” my son responded. “That’s why I picked it.” My rabbi was right. My son was fine, and my husband did a great job.
I’ve written many times, about how lucky I feel to have a spouse who is so engaged and supportive of our family’s Jewish journey. I went to sleep that night feeling incredibly grateful once again for all that my husband does to make this Jewish thing happen and for the sweet ironies that are part of life as an interfaith family.
In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity. A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos. Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.
The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale. As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noah’s ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoah’s palace. Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – he’s made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.
About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases. She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own. I figured there couldn’t be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire. But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isn’t all sunshine and roses. There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I don’t feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.
Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesn’t, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating mom’s tree. And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament. Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husband’s children. And there’s bad stuff in these stories because there’s bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.
Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people. I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I can’t keep them from knowing hardship firsthand. But if I can give them tools to know that scary things don’t need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job. When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people. If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, we’ll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but we’ll also need to talk about it for a while. And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.
In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that “There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.” There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.
Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready. But for now, I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smith’s newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.