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Happy Labor Day weekend! Â Every year, I anticipate Labor Day weekend with both a smile and a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Â It always brings some kind of fun celebration, but in so doing it marks the end of summer (a particularly big deal for those of us who live in New England). Â Unlike last year, when the Jewish New Year collided with the start of the school year, we still have a few weeks to go before Rosh Hashanah. Â But for parents of school-aged children, Labor Day marks a transition into another kind of new year. Â A new year of earlier school day wake-ups, school uniforms to keep clean, and new groups of teachers, parents and children to get to know.
We have had a lot of fun this summer. Â It was Ruthieâs first summer at real âbig kidâ day camp, and a huge developmental period for Chaya. Â We had a great vacation in Maine, and a lot of weekend adventures. Â We made wonderful memories with family and friends.
As I prepare to for this last summer weekend, I thought Iâd take a moment to count some of the blessings of the summer, and think about how I might carry them into the next three seasons. Â Here are some things Iâll remember:
Those are a few of the gifts from our summer. Â What are yours?
The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister. Â In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first nightâs shiva minyan. Â Before we began the Mournerâs Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat. Â It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. Â After the somber observance of Tisha BâAv, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year. Â It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friendâs family in that moment. Â It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friendâs sister, lost her life to cancer.
When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn. Â The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags. Â There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint. Â When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake. Â There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.
But this year I carried the rabbiâs words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much. Â There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present. Â The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on. Â My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake. Â I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I canât paint it like my mom could. Â My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.
And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends. Â Not in the way itâs been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character. Â While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of âbeauty salonâ activities. Â They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car. Â And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthoodâs greatest gifts.
One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future. Â Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.
Before my son, Sammy, left for overnight camp, my husband made him commit to writing us weekly. Sammy was not happy about being forced to communicate with us while he was enjoying his four weeks of freedom from parental oversight. About a week before camp, he complained to me before bed.
âDaddy says I have to write to you once a week. Iâm going to be too busy having fun! You know that. I told him you didn’t care if I write. I’ll write you one letter, but I don’t want to have to do it every week.”
âWe would love to hear from you while youâre away,â I said, âbut we also know that if we donât get a letter itâs because youâre having a great time.â
âThatâs what I told Daddy!â
âSammy, itâs up to you whether or not you write home. Neither Daddy nor I will be at camp to make you write. Weâd love to get an update on what youâre doing, but itâs your choice. Itâs not a big deal if you donât write.â
I donât like contradicting my husband and giving Sammy mixed messages, but as a former camper, I also know the reality of campâno news is usually good news. I was willing to suffer through a month of one-way communication.
But a few days after my conversation with Sammy, I changed my mind about him writing home. The catalyst for my change of heart was The Seesaw, the column about interfaith life in The Jewish Daily Forward.
As some Parenting Blog readers know, in addition to writing for InterfaithFamily, I am a contributor to The Seesaw. Shortly after my discussion with Sammy, I was asked to respond to a question submitted by a young woman raised in an interfaith home, who is now dating a Modern Orthodox man.
She said that her boyfriend asked her to dress modestly and participate in reciting blessings when they visit his mother. She goes along with his request even though it makes her uncomfortable. She asked, if she should continue to show respect to her boyfriendâs mother, or if she should âput her foot downâ before itâs too late.
I began my answer by reminding the questioner of the fifth commandment. I said, âThe Torah commands us to honor our parents by showing them appreciation, dignity, and reverence. It doesnât require us to love, blindly obey, or embrace our parentsâ choices.” I added that even though her boyfriend’s mother was not her mother, she still deserved deferential treatment. I also noted; that to get respect from others we need to show respect.
As I wrote my response to this young woman, I considered Cameronâs request that Sammy write weekly letters and my response to Sammy âputting his foot down.â I thought, âHow can I advise this woman to show respect for her boyfriendâs mother, and not ask my child to show respect to his father?â
I couldnât. So later that day, I spoke to Sammy. âYou know how I told you that it was your choice whether or not to write to us weekly as Daddy has asked you to do?â
“Yeah,” said Sammy.
âWell, I changed my mind. You do need to honor the commitment that you made to Daddy to write, and this is why: If you want Daddy to honor his commitments to you, such as taking you for your weekly father-son breakfast on Sundays or coming to school events, then you need to honor your commitments to him.
We respect the fact that you will be having fun and be busy doing things with other kids in your bunk during rest time. The letters you write do not have to be long and you can have fun with them, even be silly. But you have to write once a week as you promised Daddy. We work hard so that you can do fun things like camp. Writing to us shows us that you appreciate what we do to give you these kinds of experiences. Does that make sense?”
âYes,â said Sammy. Then in a perky voice, âMaybe Iâll write a silly letter like that one we read on that blog, you know, where the boy said he was using his toothbrush to dig for worms and using another kidâs to brush his teeth!â
âYou can be as creative as you like as long as you follow through on your commitment,â I said.
I didn’t consider what the letter writing debate was about until I began drafting my Seesaw response. Then I saw it for what it was â an opportunity to reinforce a core Jewish value.
In Deuteronomy 6:5-8, we are told to teach Godâs words diligently to our children, but often, imparting the lessons of the Torah to our children only happens in religious school classrooms. We think teaching Jewish values and ideas needs be explicitââThis is what the Torah says.â We forget, probably because we are caught up in our busyness, that there are opportunities in our daily lives to connect our actions and behaviors to Jewish teachings even in subtle ways.
The Seesaw question reminded me to be on the lookout for these opportunities. I donât expect to be present enough in every situation to seize each one of them, but hopefully Iâll be mindful enough to grab them more often.
And in case you’re wondering, Sammy has followed through on his promise. We’ve received two letters from camp.
Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeldâs post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.Â Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, itâs the kind of challenge Iâve longed for in contrast to whatâs been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.
Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates âan eventâ even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.
But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.
In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didnât want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didnât get very far at first. âBecause it’s stupid.â âBecause I donât like the prayers.â âBecause I am hungry.â
And then, finally, an answer I could work with:
âI donât want to be Jewish, Mommy.â
Ouch. That hurt. But I didnât want to let on just yet.
âBecause I donât understand the prayers. We donât say them in English, and I donât know what weâre saying.â
âCould we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?â
âSure,â she agreed.
I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthieâs request.
Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.
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. Â 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. Â 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. Â As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noahâs 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 Pharoahâs palace. Â Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – heâs 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. Â She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own. Â I figured there couldnât 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. Â But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isnât all sunshine and roses. Â There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I donât feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.
Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesnât, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating momâs tree. Â And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament. Â 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 husbandâs children. Â And thereâs bad stuff in these stories because thereâs 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. Â I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I canât keep them from knowing hardship firsthand. Â But if I can give them tools to know that scary things donât 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. Â 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. Â If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, weâll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but weâll also need to talk about it for a while. Â 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 âThere are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what âbegatâ means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.â 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. Â But for now, Â I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smithâs newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.
This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate
The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s âCrying Indianâ public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, âPeople start pollution; People can stop it.â
As a child, I took the campaignâs message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.
Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, âI am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!â
But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparentâs home and at my synagogue.
When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparentâs house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmotherâs bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfatherâs office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop â a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.
But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?
I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.
The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.
The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfatherâs Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.
You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.
The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.
Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.
We do this because, in todayâs fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care âa whole awful lot.â This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.
Two months ago, I declared my resolution to unplug with you on this blog. I told you Iâd let you know how it was going along the way. I have been reticent to write about it again, but I feel compelled to come clean. I am doing a pretty bad job.Â I am doing a great job at being mindful of how often I turn to technology, which is one step in the right direction, but I am probably only achieving total shutoff every 1 out of 5 weeks, which is much worse than where I thought Iâd be.
If you are observant enough that unplugging isnât novel, or if you have your own version and youâre pretty good at it, you may not find this of interest. But if youâre one of the many people who told me, âThatâs a good idea, I wish I could do that,â I thought Iâd let you know where I am getting hung up. You can use my hang-ups as a reason to not try yourself, or as a guide to how to create your own unplugging objectives. Up to you.
Here is where I find myself reaching for the things I said I could live without:
Reason # 1 (the one I kind of anticipated): Making plans
Because this is not really a âturn off electricity because of our religious observanceâ rule, we are turning off our phones but interacting in a non-religious world for most of Saturday. Saturday is a big day for us to be together as a family and with friends.Â All of these friends have their phones on.Â When my girls were younger, I was home on Fridays, so I could focus on family time and planning for the weekend on Friday during the day.Â But now I work fulltime in the office, and so I am trying to both be in family time and plan family time simultaneously on Saturday.Â Itâs a rarity to have the day all planned by Friday night so that I donât feel an urge to text a few friends so I donât miss them at the soccer field, or to plan a spontaneous play-date when naptime is over.
Reason # 2: Getting anywhere
When I was living in LA in my 20s, everyone lived by this incredible map book called The Thomas Guide. Over time, the book was imprinted in my brain in a way that only comes from the act of reading off of a page. Now, I use the map app on my phone to get anywhere. And it hasnât really imprinted. So I either need to print out directions to anywhere I need to go by sundown on Friday, or fumble my way through Boston by trial and error, both of which I am failing to do.
Reason # 3: Music
We live stream a lot of music in our house (and our car). If the rule is that the phone is off, the Internet radio is, too. I try to draw a hard-line on this one, but I am stuck with commercial radio, which I am not crazy about, and CDs, of which we donât have many that I am not sick of already.
Reason # 4: Reading
I recently put a real page-turner that I took out from the library on my phone. Sure, I have magazines to read, but I want to finish that book, gosh-darn it.
Reason # 5: Writing
Writing is a diversion I really enjoy. It allows me to clear my head, think differently, and attempt to get interesting things up on this blog. But after over 20 years of relying on word processors, I just canât write that quickly on paper anymore. And my hand cramps. And then I need to transcribe it on Sunday. So Iâm not writing, but Iâm not crazy about not doing it.
Reason # 6: Winding down
On a good week, Eric and I put the kids to bed and enthusiastically play a board game or talk about whatâs on our minds. But on a regular week, when we are stressed and tired, thereâs nothing that feels more romantic than snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie or six episodes of How Itâs Made. But our resolution was that unplugging means no TV on Friday nights. Some weeks, we just decide to skip that rule, and others, we both just go to bed early, which is good for our health but doesnât achieve the objective of taking the TV away so that we can better connect to one another.
Because of all of these things, Iâve cut myself some breaks that feel unavoidable in the moment but don’t help me in achieving my goal. Iâm not ready to change the rules just yet â I want to give it some more time. And even with the rule skirting, I think weâre getting somewhere. When we donât use the Internet radio, we talk more, read more stories, or remember to look out the car window at the beautiful trees instead of looking at the pictures on the phone. We may not actually ban TV for 24 hours, but we are mindful of not turning it on before we have a conversation to unwind together first. And the phone has pretty much disappeared from our dinner table 7 days a week, when it had crept in a little too much. So weâre getting somewhere. Its just slow going.
Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing.Â We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend.Â Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because heâs peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing.Â So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.
And then this morning happened.Â Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that weâd sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning.Â When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes.Â As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation.Â Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earthâs resources.
There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation.Â He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea).Â He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell.Â So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.
âRuthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.âÂ She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom.Â I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.
âLook, Mommy,â she said, âthe fish have plenty of water.âÂ I am guessing my classmate didnât have a fish tank in his house.
So we keep trying.Â As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the â3 more minutesâ pitch is over.Â The saving water for the fish story isnât working.Â Anyone have a better idea?
A warning to you, kind reader: You have read this story before. Itâs about unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your family. Itâs not a new idea, in fact I know Iâm late to jump on the train. But itâs also about resolutions, and Shabbat, so hopefully I can bring in a little something new to the conversation. And if not, please indulge my unplugging declaration, and a Sweet and Happy New Year to you.
So hereâs my story:
I am not a big believer in New Yearâs Resolutions. Itâs not that I doubt peopleâs ability to change â quite the opposite, as my resume reflects a career in pursuit of change. Â Itâs just that when it comes to resolutions, I think people have a tendency to set their sights too high, to pick a goal for a 12-month period that is rarely sustainable for more than a few weeks. Â Change is an iterative process, and if weâve never done something very well before, it is rare that we can go from not doing something to doing it well every day. By setting ourselves up like that, by saying âI am never going to lose my temper with my kids,â instead of saying âIâm going to remember to breath more deeply when little Frankie gets me frustrated,â we fail to set up enough small victories to keep fuel in our tanks. In measured steps, I think anything is possible, but in huge bounds, as least for me, the hit rate is not always as good.
This year, thereâs a change I really want to make. Technology, especially in the form of Ericâs and my pretty little iPhones, is getting in the way. It all started out rather innocently â when Ruthie was a baby, I started taking my phone out more and more to snap pictures of her â she was so phenomenally, well, phenomenal, and I loved being able to take a snapshot and immediately send it off to her grandparents or her dad. When Chaya was born, it seemed harmless to hand the iPhone over to Ruthie to play a shape-sorting game so I could buy five minutes and finish nursing in peace. And when we try to track down two or three friends at the hectic gate at the zoo, its great to have the tool of texting to save five minutes of searching with two hot kids hanging around my neck.
But despite its innocent beginnings, it is still getting in the way. Too often I catch myself taking the phone out to snap a photo of the girls and accidentally being caught up in an email that really could wait until nap time for a response. Or I complain about not having time to talk with Eric, and then get distracted by a news alert on the phone during our ten minutes of quiet together before bedtime. So how can I blame Ruthie for asking for a video more than I think she should, or begrudge Chayaâs fascination with the lit-up screen of the phone when the alarm sounds in the morning?
It’s not that the touchscreen has no place in my girlsâ development – I believe that their comfort with technology will play a role in their future academic and professional success. And in my own childhood memories, anything that parents forbid became an obsession, so I think parenting around technology should be about limit setting rather than prohibitions. Truthfully, though, after reading lots of blogs and articles about unplugging (see introductory note), I donât know what those limits should be.
So hereâs our resolution, or perhaps experiment: This year, we are unplugging on Shabbat. Eric and I started talking a couple of months ago about the technology issue, but unplugging every day sounds like a bound to me, something so grand that weâd quickly fall short and taste progress-deterring failure. I started to ponder a middle ground – a set of small steps – and as the High Holidays approached, I realized that that small step is handed to me by Jewish tradition. Shabbat is not just a day of rest – it is a chance to practice a different way of living, and a different way of being as a family. So committing to do something differently 1/7 of our year is a natural thing to do as a Jew, and a great way to try on this no-technology thing.
I am not a dummy, and I know that tons of Jews have been doing this forever – that many believe we are not fulfilling the commandment by using electricity at all on Shabbat. But we are not becoming Shomer Shabbos â thatâs not where we are as family, or as Jews. So rather than saying to my kids âCell phones and computers off because we donât use any electricity on Shabbat,â I am going to try this on: âCell phones and computers off because we are going to be together as a family on Shabbat,â to sing our own songs, tell each other our own stories, play games that require sharing a game board or using our bodies.
I see this experiment as twofold. First, I hope it lets us see how we like life without technology, and to inform what the best limits are for our family. As I said before, I donât anticipate our final rule will forbid technology, but I hope that living without it for a controlled period every week will help us figure out how much weâd like to live without it over the course of a whole week. And second, I hope it will teach us some new things about how we want to be on Shabbat. Maybe weâll hate it and decide we want to be on our phones all of Shabbat…or maybe weâll love it and next year will decide to turn something else off for 24 hours.
The initial rules are no cell phones, no Internet, no TV â landline is OK. Â Weâll see how it goes, and hopefully Iâll let you know on this blog.
What do you think? Have you tried this, or do you have a different resolution? How do you make Shabbat a different day than the other six?
This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. Â We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthieâs last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.
When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthieâs second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day â of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, sheâs nowhere near
As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.
Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didnât tell me until the grumpy 3-oâclock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.
I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.
I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, Iâve come to understand that thatâs not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things â whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together â arenât whatâs tripping us up â itâs the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didnât have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didnât need to step out of âregularâ life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didnât want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him â to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).
As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though âregularâ life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I donât want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if sheâs not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.