My Resolution to Unplug

A warning to you, kind reader: You have read this story before. It’s about unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your family. It’s not a new idea, in fact I know I’m late to jump on the train. But it’s 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 here’s my story:

I am not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to change – quite the opposite, as my resume reflects a career in pursuit of change.  It’s 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.  Change is an iterative process, and if we’ve 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 “I am never going to lose my temper with my kids,” instead of saying “I’m going to remember to breath more deeply when little Frankie gets me frustrated,” 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.

Cell phoneThis year, there’s a change I really want to make. Technology, especially in the form of Eric’s and my pretty little iPhones, is getting in the way. It all started out rather innocently – when Ruthie was a baby, I started taking my phone out more and more to snap pictures of her – 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 Chaya’s 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 girls’ 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 don’t know what those limits should be.

So here’s 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 we’d 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 – that’s not where we are as family, or as Jews. So rather than saying to my kids “Cell phones and computers off because we don’t use any electricity on Shabbat,” I am going to try this on: “Cell phones and computers off because we are going to be together as a family on Shabbat,” 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 don’t 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 we’d 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 we’ll hate it and decide we want to be on our phones all of Shabbat…or maybe we’ll 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 – landline is OK.  We’ll see how it goes, and hopefully I’ll 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?

New School, New Year

Save the DateThis year, we won the lottery. The school lottery.  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 Ruthie’s 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 Ruthie’s 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 – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’s nowhere near Bat Mitzvah age, and will spend her time at synagogue in childcare eating honey sticks and making a paper shofar.

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 didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’clock 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, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him – 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 “regular” 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 don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’s 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.

Meet the Stretelech

My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns.  They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.

My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of  American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.

So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers.  One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.

One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun.  And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.

For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.

Cleaning

Passover requires an intense amount of cleaning.  I have read numerous articles about how it really should only take a few hours of cleaning.  Dirt isn’t Chametz.

Chametz can make it’s way around the house though.  The office is upstairs, a plate of crackers and a coffee while working on the computer.  A snack downstairs while watching a little TV.  The living room is connected to both the dining room and the kitchen.

I also have a very cute, very adorable little 18 month old son, who manages to get food every where.  He munches on a cracker and sets it down for later.  He finds it and then mashes it up (sound familiar?)

I need many hours to clean the house of Chametz because there are so many areas to clean.  I also have the regular every day stuff to do too.  It isn’t like life gets put on hold while Passover cleaning takes place.  There are dinners to make, laundry to clean and put away, bathrooms sadly, do not clean themselves.

I used to do a full on Spring cleaning when I did my Passover cleaning.  It just seemed to make sense.  That was B.K.  Before Kids.  Now that I have my adorable son, I’ve limited the cleaning to actual Chametz only.  But it still takes me a few weeks, working a few hours hear and there, until it’s all done.

How do you plan the Chametz Detox in your house?  How long does it take?

This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Purim, Revealing the Hidden

One of the themes of Purim has to do with the hidden becoming revealed.  Esther hid her identity as a Jew within Achashverosh’s castle.  When the time was right not only did she reveal her true self, but she revealed Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews.  All the coincidences within the story of Esther all come together in the end and reveal a rich and interesting story.  G-d’s name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, but is hidden within Esther’s name itself, which means Hidden.

My husband and I celebrated Purim with a local Jewish organization.  I dressed up as Time Flies (I had wings and clocks) and my husband dressed up as Father Time.  Father Time was a priest with clock picture on his chest.  We felt this was funny on a few levels, since my husband isn’t Jewish.  I think he appreciated being dressed up as a character that is distinctly not Jewish.  He could be his non-Jewish self openly when all through the year he feels like he has to downplay and maybe hide the fact he isn’t Jewish.

We had agreed that our son would be raised in an entirely Jewish environment and my husband isn’t/wasn’t very religious so it didn’t seem like a big deal.  It does mean though that he gets submerged and swallowed with Jewishness.  Kosher food, Shabbat meals, Jewish holidays… he’s surrounded all the time.

We celebrate Purim by hiding behind masks and pretending to be what we aren’t (or briefly live a fantasy of who we would like to be), just as Esther pretended she wasn’t Jewish.  My husband got to enjoy the party being openly non-Jewish.

A Christian BFF

My 4 year-old son’s BFF is a Christian boy named Connor. The two are not only inseparable; they have been in the same daycare class since 5 months of age.

I’ve been explaining to Oliver that Connor doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah. It’s been a fruitful conversation to talk about how we don’t share all of our holidays with some friends and family. Connor may not celebrate Hanukkah, but he does celebrate Christmas, and we want to be sure to wish Connor a Merry Christmas. So Oliver decided that he wanted to give Connor a Christmas gift, and he specifically wanted to make a Christmas ornament for Connor’s tree. So I pulled out some red felt, cut a large circle, and threaded a piece of silver ribbon through the top. “Ok,” I told him, “Now you have to decorate it.”

Oliver thought for about 10 seconds and then retrieved a marker and started drawing. The Christmas ornament has a giant blue menorah on it. Knowing Connor’s parents, they are going to be touched by Oliver’s Christmas ornament. And I’m sure they’ll hang it on their tree.

Shalom

Shalom. I struggled with that salutation — I’m a Jew by choice and converted 4 and a half years ago, and the language can still feel clunky at times. I should be able to write that salutation without it raising the hair on my neck, but it does make me feel like an impostor sometimes.

My son, Oliver, is also 4 and a half, and my daughter, Esther, is 2 and a half. They attend a preschool/daycare program at a Jewish Community Center, and last week one of the teachers asked if we were Jewish or not. To be fair, not that many of the kids who attend our JCC seem to be Jewish. So it was kind of the teacher to ask rather than assume. However, I suspected the teacher had made an assumption that we weren’t Jewish because… well, I could come up with a list of reasons why my family of four is not passing as Jews. But most of those reasons have less to do with other people’s perceptions than with my own struggle to assert my place in this faith.

The reason I’ve decided to become a blogger on the InterfaithFamily Parenting Blog is because I felt confidant in my Jewish faith, in my Jewish marriage, in my Jewish parenting, and in my Jewish practice until my kids started becoming talkative Jewish know-a-lots. Then I realized that there is a major difference between converting to a faith as an adult and being raised in it. That shouldn’t be some huge revelation, I realize, and if my beit dein (rabbinic court) had asked me, “What’s the difference between converting to a faith and being raised in it?” before my mikveh, I probably could have responded confidently. But as with most things, children make you question a lot of your assumptions, and they keep you honest. This morning my kids were chasing each other around the breakfast table singing the motzi (blessing over bread) at the top of their lungs. In that moment I realized (1) their Jewish experience is going to be different from mine, and (2) we are not imposters. I’m excited by all the things I’m learning from these little Jewish know-a-lots, and I’m glad you’ll come along with me on this journey. Shalom.

Sammy Sings the Shema

As I’ve posted on here before, our bedtime routine is pretty typical – bath, pjs, stories, songs, lights out. While the pjs and the stories chosen might vary each night, the songs never do.

Each night, the request is the same: first, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (no, I’m not kidding; he actually wants to hear this EVERY night); second, the Shema; third, “La La Lu” (the lullaby from Lady and the Tramp).

Lately Sam has started to sing the songs with me. I know he doesn’t fully understand it yet, but I love that Sam is already starting to “pray” with me at night. I hope his “bedtime song” helps to open the door for him to easily talk to G-d as he grows.

If you incorporate prayers into your evening routine, when did your kids start saying them with you? When do you think they started to understand that they were more than just words or pretty tunes?

Who Needs Shabbat? ME, That’s Who!

Our schedule is crazy lately. I know, I know, whose isn’t? My two big boys are both playing baseball this spring, and will soon be starting up select basketball. Both sports run concurrently (so, 2 boys playing 2 sports = NO free time, really) through early July.  This schedule, plus a 30-minute drive to synagogue means we don’t get to services nearly as often as I’d like. And while there are nights I could go on my own, or just the baby and I could go, it just doesn’t happen. Much as I love our congregation and rabbi, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to go (and wrestle my munchkin into some form of quiet-ness for an hour) on my own.

Lately, with some stuff that’s been going on, I’ve NEEDED a reconnection with something bigger than myself. I’ve needed something to remind me that some of the pettiness and general sometimes-it-stinks-to-be-a-grown-up crud I’ve been dealing with is, really and truly, small potatoes. I don’t really have a church home anymore, and, honestly, Sunday mornings are one of our FEW quiet times as a family, so I enjoy them at home. So, what’s a (gentile) girl to do?

I’ve found great comfort in us lighting the Shabbat candles lately. It’s not always right at sundown, and I don’t always get to rest or study or simply enjoy their gentle glow. But I do get the reminder that there’s something bigger out there than me and my daily struggles and joys. I get to share the blessing with my boys. Most times, Daddy lights the candles and says the blessing. One week, I did it. I loved doing it. Bubba found one of the baby’s books that has the transliteration of several Shabbat prayers (I’ve mentioned it here, before, My Shabbat) and pulled it out on his own to try to sound through some of the other simple blessings. Bear got in on that, too. It’s still all “fun” for them, but I like that they’re curious enough to try, and to ask.

More recently, I’ve lit the candles on my own, when Daddy and the big boys were out, and it was just Baby Boy and me. I even braved last week’s Tot Shabbat (once a month at our synagogue) – just Baby and me. (He loved it, by the way, danced and sang and wanted to go “up dere” on the bimah, and cried and cried when it was time to go home.)

So, while I continue to work on my own spiritual journey, I hope to continue at least lighting the candles on Friday nights to bring me back out of myself and the myopic view of life I tend to develop during our hectic weekdays. And even if my journey doesn’t lead me to any kind of conversion, I think I probably will always need Shabbat.

Wild Pesach

Our Passover Seders are typically enjoyed at the home of one of Hubby’s Aunts and Uncles. They always do an incredible job, and are some of the few people we know who are equipped to handle 20+ people for dinner (and make it look pretty darn easy, even though I KNOW it’s not). Last year, I have to admit, I was dreading the Passover Seder. Baby boy was almost 1, he was mobile, and I just KNEW he was going to be a handful. I was pleasantly surprised at pesach/">how well it all went.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I WASN’T worried about this Passover… on the contrary. Baby boy is now almost 2, and all that goes along with that. His big brothers, while typically well-behaved, have a penchant for egging him on (mainly because he’s so darn cute, but also because, well, they’re big brothers). Add to that the fact that I realized about half an hour before we needed to leave that I never procured a travel high chair. I had no way of strapping him down ensuring he could sit safely at the table.

Again, my fears were *mostly* unfounded this year. As he climbed the front steps, Baby boy excitedly called out “Aunt Su-san house! See. Aunt Su-San!” (Try to read that in your best squeaky-toddler voice.) Baby boy was pretty good, if somewhat restless. He mostly sat in my lap, until he realized that Zayde was at the next table, and then he’d sort of roam between Mommy, Daddy, and “Zalie’s” lap. He didn’t eat much dinner (not that I expected otherwise; he’s definitely in the “picky” stage of toddler eating), though he did ask for more and more “apple-cinn-mon” (charoses). He wore his kippah, (he kept calling it his “hehmet” because anything that goes on one’s head right now MUST be a baseball helmet) except for when he shared it with me or Daddy. (Even showing him that his big brothers were quietly and calmly wearing their “hehmets” didn’t persuade him to keep his on.)

There were a couple “extra” (i.e., not related to us) kiddos at this year’s Seder, which made the hunt for the Afikomen even more exciting! Bear found it this year, and after some pretty intense negotiations for its ransom, we had to have a little “lesson” with Bear about the ransom’s fair division between his co-searchers. All the kids did GREAT on their reading (and considering the youngest reader is only in kindergarten, I’m SO, SO impressed), and they all (with the exception of Baby boy) behaved very well at the table. It was a late night, as usual, and maybe a little wilder than in years past, but I’d still say it was a very successful Seder. Maybe one year Hubs and I will be brave enough to have our own family little Seder.