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Once upon a time, Amy, a divorced Jewish girl from Jersey, met Matt, a divorced Irish Catholic boy from Philly, in the unlikely state of Maine. They went on some dates. Amy tried to convince herself Matt was too â€śnice and normalâ€ť and Matt ignored her and made her dinner and bought her flowers.They both realized pretty quickly that they were living a real-life Disney movie and suddenly the two found themselves blissfully in love, minus the talking animals of course.
Matt and Amy knew that they had a partner in each other, to support one another, laugh with, cry with and everything in between.Â They introduced their children to each other, they met one anotherâ€™s families.They created a new life for themselves, together, figuring out how to start over in a serious relationship after divorce while already having kids and embracing the chaos, the unknowns, the differences and the sameness. Matt moved into Amyâ€™s house, and to this day, continues to help her create what has become an actual home, reflecting the uniqueness of the kids and adults who live there.
This month, I celebrated my 40th birthday with Matt and my kids by my side. The significance of turning 40 has been huge for me, making me feel like Iâ€™m crossing some kind of real grown-up threshold and am caught between not quite feeling old enough to truly be the adult I imagined, while balancing paying a mortgage, organizing the household and parenting. Having Matt in my life to share it with makes the transition smoother, and as I have been reminded numerous times, 40 is the new 20 (without the ability to understand snapchat). So this week, with me settling into this new decade, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to really make things interesting for our family and friends, because thatâ€™s how we roll around here.
Using the power of social media, we enjoyed shocking everyone by announcing that weâ€™re expecting this fall, which was as terribly fun to share as it was unexpected news (yes, our immediate families all knew prior to our announcement). And let me tell youâ€”doing this at 40 with a 9-year-old and a 6 1/2-year-old at home is sooooo much harder than it was when I first started the journey of being a mom. Iâ€™m exhausted all the time and I somehow blocked out the joys of morning sickness, body aches and maternity jeans (actually, that last one Iâ€™m kind of in love with). But Iâ€™m feeling pretty good overall, and as my belly grows so does my excitement and nervousness about our expanding family.
Before Matt and I found out we were new parents-to-be, he joked to me one day thatÂ if we ever had a kid together I could pick the religion if he could pick the sports teams. A die-hard Philly fan vs. a New York sports fan was going to be hard enough with us living in New England, but thereâ€™s truth in laughter and my answer with a smile and a giggle was sure, darling, fair dealâ€”never imagining that at 40 it could ever be reality. Yet here we are, finding ourselves with a child on the way, facing these very real questions about how weâ€™re going to parent and what kind of impact our interfaith relationship will have on our baby on the way.
Our families have their own opinions and questions, many of which havenâ€™t been vocalized, yet their subtle, careful questions paint a clear picture of uncertainty. Friends have been surprisingly more to the point, with direct questions expecting exact answers. My two kids, with their strong Jewish identities had their own Jewish birth stories, with a community naming ceremony for Roxy and a bris for Everett, both on the eighthÂ day of their lives. Mattâ€™s 10-year-old was baptized in the tradition of his own religious lineage, and itâ€™s all Matt knows when it comes to connecting birth and religion.
Weâ€™ve discussed our own connections to these traditions and our journey of figuring out our â€śwhat nextâ€ť has truly begun. What felt abstract about our interfaith relationship before is now â€śin your face,â€ť and while I feel confident that our communication is strong and that we have the ability to be open and understanding with each other, thereâ€™s so much on the table that truly overwhelms me.
Raising a child is hard enough, even when the parents come from similar backgrounds.Â Add in divorce, co-parenting and a couple committed to each other who come from different worlds and arenâ€™t engaged (can we please just deal with one major life change at a time?). Welcoming a child into this conglomeration? Well, this 40-year-old pregnant woman and her amazing boyfriend are doing a killer job of navigating, if I do say so myself.
Matt keeps me grounded through it all, with his calm demeanor and his â€śStop worrying about everything, of course weâ€™ll figure it out and I just want you to be happyâ€ť attitude. And heâ€™s right, I know heâ€™s right. Iâ€™m going to trust in him, and in this.
We might not have it all figured out, but this baby is already a blessing. The ride might be bumpy, but the destination will surely be joyous.
Springtime in my house rarely means flowers and warmer weather â€“ after all, we do live in Maine and snow is still in the forecast. Instead, spring signifies celebration, as April brings both Roxyâ€™s birthday and my birthday. This year sheâ€™s hitting the big NINE, a milestone unto itself as itâ€™s the last year my firstborn stays in the land of single digits, before tweenhood truly hits. My baby girl is growing into this very cool, very independent, sassy, funny and smart 9-year-old.
I, on the other hand, am internally melting down. While we plan a fashion party for the girl, my own birthday, just two weeks after hers, is a big one. The big Four-OH. Iâ€™m in denial, of course. Not that I think 40 is an awful age to be, itâ€™s more remembering the picture of 40 I had in my head when I was 9. Â I don’t quite feel “old enough” to be celebratingÂ four decades.
I can clearly remember my own mom turning 40, having a party and what a big deal it was. Yet here I am, about to cross that threshold, and my kids will create their own memories of my special day, and my life certainly doesnâ€™t feel like that mental picture I had years ago. But Roxy (and my son, Everett) are truly excited, and sheâ€™s already asked me a million times when is it her turn to go up onto the bimah for her birthday â€“ and oh yeah, Mommy â€“ you have to come, too.
The second Friday of each month, Shabbat services at my synagogue are considered a family service, with an earlier start time, family-friendly liturgy instead of the regular prayerbook, participation by the kids in the service and of course â€“ the all-important monthly birthday blessing. Congregants who are celebrating a birthday in that given month are invited up to the bimah to receive a special birthday blessing followed by everyone singing â€śHappy Birthdayâ€ť in Hebrew. Roxy has been beside herself for months, waiting on edge ’til itâ€™s her turn, and next Friday she finally gets her wish.
I guess it shouldnâ€™t surprise me that sheâ€™s so concerned about including a Jewish ritual into our birthday celebrations, and in a way it makes me feel great to know that sheâ€™s so in tune with her Jewish identity that itâ€™s a given to her that of course weâ€™re going to get birthday blessings. But thereâ€™s a piece of me that never would have even considered this. Would I have bothered to go get my own birthday blessing if it wasnâ€™t so important to Roxy? Iâ€™m not convinced I even would have thought of it.
The kids split their time between my house and their dadâ€™s house 50/50, with alternating days during the week and every other weekend â€“ and next weekend â€“ the birthday blessing weekend, they will be with their dad (who is also Jewish). He will take them to services (he wouldnâ€™t dare not do this and suffer the wrath of the 9-year-old).
I will meet them there, because if I donâ€™t show up to get my birthday blessing with Roxy, sheâ€™d be devastated. I will hold her hand, I will smile and I will probably tear up, not because itâ€™s so meaningful to me, but because it is to her. I will stand there proudly with my daughter as the congregation chants â€śKeyn yâ€™he ratzonâ€ť (be this Godâ€™s will) in response to the rabbiâ€™s recitation of the Ancient Priestly Benediction, blessing us with Godâ€™s protection, favor and peace. I will absorb the words and the warmth as a reminder of tradition and community as I stand with her in a long line of history and culture. I will take comfort in knowing that as we celebrate our birthdays, small and big and everything in between, our Judaism connects us in a way that makes us feel so very different and yet the same.
At the end of the service, weâ€™ll enjoy the sweetness of an oneg (post-service) brownie, I will hug and kiss her goodbye and wish them Shabbat shalom and to enjoy their weekend until I see them again Sunday night. I will get in my car and come home to Matt in our now interfaith home, where birthday blessings arenâ€™t a given, and we donâ€™t always think of religion as a way to celebrate the turning of a new age. My secular world and Jewish world continue to collide through the eyes of my children, and Iâ€™m grateful in this moment that they are the ones teaching the adults around them, finding the holy in the life moments that we create with each other.
When we were studying Judaism together as a young couple, it made sense to buy into an â€śall inâ€ť model for a Jewish household. For our future childrenâ€™s sake, if we were choosing to raise them with a religion, we would stick to just one. Â It would be less confusing, and they could be engaged in a specific spiritual community where they could experience a sense of belonging. This would be better for their development, and would empower them to make well-grounded decisions about their spirituality as adults.
It also made sense that we would respect the religious beliefs of family members who were not Jewish by sharing in their celebrations and participating as guests. Guests who were also loving relatives. We would speak openly about their holidays and lovingly about Ericâ€™s personal history celebrating those holidays.
This relatively black and white idea seemed clear when our children were theoretical creatures. Seven-and-a-half years into our very real parenting journey, what I have found is that stepping thoughtfully into the gray area of this proposition not only strengthens our connections to our extended family, but also strengthens our nuclear family connectivity.
The â€śall inâ€ť model assumed we did not let Christian holidays into our home life, but we did celebrate them in our familiesâ€™ homes. This simple idea is complicated by the 2,000 miles between our home and Ericâ€™s parentsâ€™ and sisterâ€™s homes. Â
On days like Easter Sunday, we can get our heads around the Easter Bunny not coming to our house, and around the impossibility of teleporting to Colorado. But both Eric and I have trouble getting our heads around not doing something to mark a day so important to our heritage and celebrated by our closest family members.
So hereâ€™s where we are right now, as of Easter 2016. We donâ€™t celebrate Easter with a visit to church or the corresponding new Easter dresses. We do cherish the Easter eggs we get from Ericâ€™s parents, and the celebrations we share with friends who celebrate the holiday. And as a foursome, we celebrate that it is a day to think about and be with family, and to do something out of the ordinary that celebrates our lives together. Â
For us, this year, it was a fancier-than-usual breakfast with all the bells and whistles. Considering this breakfast, I canâ€™t help but think two things. First, I have witnessed as a parent how much children benefit from whatever black and white explanations we can provide for things as complicated as religion. On the other hand, if the gray area between celebrating something â€śall inâ€ť and not doing anything is finding an extra reason to celebrate love and family, there canâ€™t possibly be anything negative about spending quality time in the gray.
In post-divorce life, it occurred to me that it had been over 13 years since the last time I went on a date. Not only did I have no idea what I was doing in this new life, but the rules had changed. Online dating was the norm, and as a busy mom of two who still didnâ€™t have a very large network here in Maine, it was the reality of meeting people and getting back out there. I fully intended to find love in my life again with a significant other and didnâ€™t rule out the possibility that one day maybe Iâ€™d even remarry, but in the meantime I wanted to have FUN, boost my confidence a little and learn about myself in the process.
I signed up for myriad online dating sites, and even allowed my mom to convince me to join JDate, knowing that the prospects of meeting a Jewish man where I live were pretty slim, and even laughable when my 100 percent match on the site was my ex-husband. After my Jewish/Jewish marriage ended, I wasnâ€™t focused on finding a lifelong mate â€“ and honestly never thought twice about interfaith dating. After all, most of my past boyfriends werenâ€™t Jewish, and besides, I didnâ€™t want to close myself off to the possibility of meeting someone great who might not share in my religious beliefs.
So my dating adventure began. It was sometimes downright disastrous and funny, often thought provoking, and even yielded a handful of friendships. Some of these dates turned into short-lived relationships; others etched their way into my heart and stuck around for a long time. But through it all there was one constant: My children come first and they will not be part of my dating life.
Itâ€™s not that the kids were clueless and thought that Mommy sat home every night that they werenâ€™t with me. (I share residency with their dad 50/50 so the idea of having time to go out was new to ME too!) But their concept of mommy having a boyfriend was that I loved listening to Adam Levine sing on the radio. Roxy, being almost 9, was a little more intuitive, realizing that just maybe I was going on dates and was sometimes even brave enough to ask me about it. Everettâ€™s 6 and cares more about playing Legos and avoiding girls with cooties, so with him it was a non-issue. My answers to Roxy were always vague, even when I was in a relationship with someone, because I had no intention of crossing that line. I didnâ€™t want the kids to feel threatened that my affection was going elsewhere, I didnâ€™t want them to be freaked out that there could be another male figure in their lives knowing they were still dealing with the aftermath of divorce, and quite honestly, they are the center of my universe. No man was going to be remotely part of their lives unless I knew he was â€śthe oneâ€ť and not going anywhere for a long, long time. My separate dating life remained that way and it was perfect.
Until the day I met Matt.
Thereâ€™s that whole clichĂ© of when you meet your person, your future, your soulmate and you just KNOW. Thereâ€™s no explanation, thereâ€™s no magic formula and sometimes it just happens. Usually when you least expect it. In Yiddish thereâ€™s a term for this, called finding your “bashert.” And when I met Matt, well, just like that the rules changed. Because I knew. And he knew. But weâ€™ve both been there, done that, so thereâ€™s no rush for something sparkly on my ring finger, even with the knowing.
We treaded carefully with the kids â€“ both with his son and my two kids. I told them he existed, and their questions were: Does he make you happy and treat you nice? My thoughtful children made their first meeting easy and fun, as we joined friends at a major league baseball game. Everett conned Matt into buying him a giant ice cream and Roxy wormed her way into being his bestie. Relief and easy banter between the three of them over the months since has become the norm, with all three kids getting to know one another, Matt meeting my family, the kids and I meeting his family, and daily life has gone on without missing a beat. They accept each other fully and the kids donâ€™t even think twice about Matt not sharing the same faith.
Itâ€™s more than I could have hoped for, finding a love like this and learning what makes us family. We made the decision that over the next few weeks, Matt will be moving in, because the reality is that being together, in the same place, just makes sense. It wasnâ€™t an easy decision to come to, because first and foremost this is where THEY live. I sat them down and talked to them about it last week, letting them know about this new plan. I was nervous to tell them, but shouldnâ€™t have been as they simultaneously cheered and when I asked if they had any questions about this new living arrangement, their only concern was: Please tell me heâ€™s bringing his TV because itâ€™s bigger. We can get more channels now, right?!? Oh my cable-deprived children will be quite all right with this transition, but as I look around my house, Iâ€™ve come to some realizations.
As I write this post, today is two years since I bought this house, built from the ground up with decisions made by me AND the kids on what color the roof should be, what kind of countertops, what flooring. I made this house happen somehow on my own, one of the scariest, bravest things Iâ€™ve ever done. Yet up until this point it has never felt truly like home. We live here, it has our stuff in it, but the thought of Matt moving in and us decorating and rearranging furniture truly excites me. Being able to share in the process with someone is special and turning this space into warmth and family and comfort? I have no words to describe what that means to me. Iâ€™m ready for this next phase but also know thereâ€™s going to be plenty of questions and discussions as we start this part of the journey.
I have always had a Jewish house. The kids and I are Jewish and I worked professionally in the Jewish community for a long time, so I guess it makes sense. Thereâ€™s a mezuzah on the front door. Thereâ€™s a whole shelf in the living room filled with Jewish ritual objects, from menorahs to Kiddush cups to Havdalah sets. I have a pile of artwork, some in Hebrew that I still havenâ€™t gotten around to hanging up. There are wall hangings and wooden camels brought back from trips to Israel. There are yarmulkes and Siddurs (prayer books) on bookshelves in several rooms. Thereâ€™s no question when you walk in that Jews live here. And I never questioned it before now.
I canâ€™t think of even one of my friends of another faith, especially here in Maine, who have homes that Iâ€™d walk into and immediately be able to identify them as Christian. I donâ€™t know many people who keep crosses on their walls or Buddhist altars in their mudrooms. Yet I have a Jewish house, one that my Irish Catholic boyfriend will soon move into. I know that we will find a balance with his comfort zone, andÂ that come December, where the Christmas tree will go. My Jewish home will morph into something that will reflect all of us, with each of us adding pieces of ourselves to the blank canvas of the rooms and walls that surround us.
Matt and I might not share the same religion, but Iâ€™m hopeful that as we continue to grow as a couple, the one thing people will notice when they walk into my house a month from now, six months from now, is that itâ€™s really a home, filled with joy and love and understanding.
Last Spring, I had the privilege of representing my synagogue at a remarkable social justice conference organized by the Reform Movementâ€™s Religious Action Center, called Consultation on Conscience. Highlights included three days of world leaders, Jewish and not, educating the attendees about social justice issues, workshops on making a difference in our communities, luncheons for idea sharing between congregations and lobbying on Capitol Hill.
I flew to Washington, DC, without the kids, explaining that mommy was going to be learning about different ways to help people with a whole bunch of others from synagogues around the country. They didnâ€™t flinch knowing Iâ€™d be away for half a week, because by now, my kids have figured out that their momâ€™s DNA is made up of living tikkun olam, â€śhealing the worldâ€ť â€“ and that it was going to make me happy to be able to teach them what I learned and hopefully as a family put it into action. Little did they know how much of an impact this conference would have on all of us, almost a year later, or what weâ€™d ALL learn by doing.
I came home energized, with a renewed passion for social justice, which is what these types of events are supposed to do. There was an expectation that in return for my attendance at the conference, I would implement some kind of program or event at my synagogue. What has followed throughout the summer and into the school year has been a comprehensive three-pronged tikkun olam program once a month in place of regular Hebrew school classes involving education, action and advocacy for grades 1-6.
Iâ€™m so proud to watch it grow each month, as we explore topics together as families that the kids themselves asked to work on; things like hunger and homelessness, animal welfare and the environment. These topics are explored a step further by looking at them with a Jewish lens, and what Judaism teaches us about how to react, question and more. What makes this truly unique is that weâ€™re doing this specifically as a FAMILY program, at a Reform congregation where the membership here in Maine is probably at least 60% interfaith families (it truly may be higher), and EVERYONE participates.
Itâ€™s a special thing to see parents and children (as young as 6 to 12 years old) discussing difficult issues, trying to come up with solutions, learning together and recognizing that no matter if Dad is Jewish and Mom is not, or Grandma and Grandpa take the kids to Hebrew school because neither parent feels closely connected â€“ that thereâ€™s a place for everyone at the table because weâ€™re all in this world together. We remove politics from the picture and let the kids be the stars of the show. Their voices are heard loudly and clearly as we give the kids the chance to speak their minds and be heard, in a world where adults often tell kids how they should feel or what they should think. While the Jewish concepts bring us together, itâ€™s the issues the kids care about deeply that unite us.
After a recent monthly program that they were particularly excited about, Roxy and Everett (my kids) asked me if Matt (my boyfriend who is not Jewish) knew what tikkun olam was. And I had to answer them honestly and say no (at which point they freaked out at me and thought it was crazy) because it occurred to me that not once over the course of our relationship have I explained to him whatâ€™s become a pretty central concept in our family. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know that I go to my synagogue every couple weeks and work on putting together the activities for these programs. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know that Iâ€™m involved in planning this stuff. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know that volunteering and helping others is something the kids and I do. Itâ€™s not like he doesnâ€™t know any of these things about me or the kids. But Iâ€™ve never said to him the words tikkun olam, and Iâ€™m not quite sure why.
The kids seem to create their own separations between what is their â€śJewishâ€ť life and what is their â€śsecularâ€ť life, knowing that often times things bleed together. I have a harder time creating a separation, because so much of my life is formed by my Jewish identity, yet when it comes to my relationship, the kids think itâ€™s clear cut. Sometimes I still think Iâ€™m living in a weird gray area where I wish I didnâ€™t have to explain things â€“ to him OR to the kids. In those moments I step back and remind myself of what happens during those programs, when the families are coming together from different backgrounds and religions and are still one cohesive unit. And I remind myself, this is truly what family is: learning with and about one another as we grow together. Tikkun olam isnâ€™t always just healing the giant world, itâ€™s also healing our OWN worlds as we find ways to explain ourselves one another.
If youâ€™re a parent, thereâ€™s always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like â€śwhere do babies come from?â€ť â€śWhatâ€™s sex?â€ť and â€śHave you ever tried drugs?â€ť I think over the years Iâ€™ve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly donâ€™t know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: â€śHey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?â€ť
Me: â€śUm, no, not really.â€ť
Kids: â€śBut isnâ€™t he supposed to go to church? Isnâ€™t that like the opposite of temple? Like people who arenâ€™t Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?â€ť (Yeah, my kids still donâ€™t get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they havenâ€™t paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Letâ€™s be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: â€śWell yeah. I guess heâ€™s *supposed* to go to church. If youâ€™re part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesnâ€™t belong to a church and he doesnâ€™t go. We donâ€™t go to Shabbat services every week either, so thatâ€™s OK, right?â€ť
Kids: â€śYeah itâ€™s OK, but did he EVER go to church?â€ť
Clearly they werenâ€™t letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Mattâ€™s connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: â€śDoes Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?â€ť
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? Itâ€™s a subject that Iâ€™m not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: â€śUhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. Itâ€™s really hard to explain guys.â€ť
Kids: â€śWell remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?â€ť
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me heâ€™s converting, but the longer weâ€™re together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections â€“ yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with lifeâ€™s experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and Iâ€™m proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Mattâ€™s family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
Eight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with meÂ 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 yearâ€™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 yearâ€¦
1. Â 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. Â I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summerâ€™s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.
3. Â 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. Â 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. Â I am thankful for the gift of my familyâ€™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. Â I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this yearâ€™s celebration a special occasion.
7. Â 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. Â I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Ericâ€™s family next weekâ€¦.and
9. Â 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!
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. Â 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. Â 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. Â This yearâ€™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. Â 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. Â But for Ruthie I had high hopes. Â 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. Â I got ahead of myself imagining how sheâ€™d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. Â I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
â€śThrow a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,â€ť I encouraged her.
â€śI want to be a better reader!â€ť she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
â€śSomething you donâ€™t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,â€ť I suggested.
â€śI want to ride my bike without training wheels!â€ť Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Â 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. Â This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Â Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Â Or she may not – at least not yet. Â We donâ€™t do our traditions, we practice them. Â She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is sheâ€™ll have the chance to practice it for a long time. Â
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Â 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. Â Because it doesnâ€™t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. Â We canâ€™t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. Â 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. Â If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river.Â 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.
In mid-April, I joined an army of Instagramers around the world on a journey called The 100 Day Project. The project was a â€ścelebration of process that encourages everyone to participate in 100 days of making.â€ť 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. Â 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 Iâ€™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 girlsâ€™ 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 Myerhoffâ€™s Number Our Days, a fantastic book I studied in college:
â€śSo teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.â€ť
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Psalms Chapter 90, Verse 12
This idea,Â 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 theÂ 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. Ericâ€™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.
At bedtime recently, 5-year-old Laurel was having trouble settling towards sleep, not unsurprising given that itâ€™s still light out at her bedtime. Looking for a change of pace that might help her feel sleepy, I started to sing theÂ Shema, as my husband and I often do during her bedtime songs. She listened quietly, laying her head in my lap instead of putting the sheet over her head and declaring she had become a bouncing tent, as sheâ€™d been doing not too many minutes before that. (InterfaithFamily has a great booklet about saying the Shema as a kids’ bedtime ritual. Check it out here.)
When I finished singing the quiet words about Godâ€™s onnness, she asked, â€śSing me another Jewish song, Mommy,â€ť and I did, choosingÂ Oseh shalom, which is one of my favorite tunes to sing her before sleep.Â I love the melody, and the soothing message about peace that it conveys. Sometimes I get a little bit too into the song, my head nestled against her ear, and she tells me, â€śSing more quietly, Mommy; youâ€™re too loud!â€ť
As is almost usual, she started talking halfway through the song. â€śMommy? Mommy?â€ť
“â€¦ shalom aleinuâ€¦” I continue, pausing to say, â€śbe quiet, sweetie, Iâ€™m singing!â€ť
Eventually, my voice quieted as the song ended. â€śWhat did you want to ask?â€ť
â€śHow do you know Jewish songs, Mommy?â€ť
I chuckled. â€śIâ€™ve learned them by singing them many times, honey,â€ť I explained, â€śthe same way you learned the songs for your classâ€™s Spring Sing.â€ť
â€śOh,â€ť she said. Sheâ€™d recently memorized â€śTwinkle Twinkle Little Starâ€ť in Chinese for the Spring Sing, so I thought she might understand my own learning of songs I didnâ€™t grow up with as a similar process.
As usual, though, I wasnâ€™t prepared for her follow-up question: â€śDo you know any Christian songs, Mommy?”
I deliberated before answering. Previous readers of my blog entries will know that Iâ€™m now a Unitarian Universalist, and was raised in a liberal Episcopalian household. In answer, I could have recalled songs I sang decades in the childrenâ€™s choir at in the church of my childhood, songs like â€śHere I Am, Lord,â€ť which is about answering Godâ€™s call to serve people in the world. But I can just imagine myself getting caught up in theological difficulties as I sing it: whoâ€™s doing the sending? Is it Jesus, or God the Father? What if theyâ€™re the same? With that level of chatter going on in the back of my mind, itâ€™s easier to choose other songs to sing, like â€śPuff the Magic Dragonâ€ť or â€śMy Favorite Things.â€ť
In the end, I replied, â€śChristmas songs are Christian,â€ť which garnered an un-illuminated â€śohâ€ť from Laurel and a serious query as to whether there are other Christian songs.
â€śWell, there are,â€ť I told her, â€śbut I donâ€™t remember them very well.â€ť Bedtime is probably not the right time to explain that in addition to not remembering them very well, I am not sure I want to sing traditional Christian songs. At bedtime I usually fall back on the kinds of songs my parents sang to me when I wasnâ€™t quite ready to sleep yet: songs from musicals from my mom, and folk songs from the 1960s from my dad. Now I wonder that the melancholy of so many folk songs did not keep me up at night (shouldnâ€™t I have been bothered by â€śWhere Have All The Flowers Goneâ€ť?)
Laurelâ€™s innate sense of fairness suggests to her that I ought to sing Christian songs to her to balance the Jewish songs sheâ€™s already learning. She knows I am not Jewish and that we therefore have an interfaith home. She wants â€śnot Jewishâ€ť to have an â€śis somethingâ€ť attached to it, and I take her request for â€śChristian songsâ€ť as a request for my background and heritage to be hers, as well. If I am to be true to us as an interfaith family, I also need to be true to the complexities of what my husband and I both bring to our interfaith childrensâ€™ lives.
Next time, when Laurel asks me to sing a “Christian” song, Iâ€™ll realize that sheâ€™s asking aboutÂ my background, and Iâ€™ll be better prepared to sing a different song â€“ not necessarily a Christian song â€“ but a song to which I can bring as much joy as I bring toÂ Oseh shalom. As she grows older, too, I hope that my repertoire of songs Iâ€™ve learned as an adult, especially including the Jewish songs that are so important to Laurel, will continue to expand. Maybe, once again, sheâ€™ll ask me to sing â€śjust a little quieter, Mommy, and not right in my ear.â€ť
Interested in attending a “Goodnight, Sleep Tight” session in Chicago with InterfaithFamily/Chicago’s Director? Contact Rabbi Ari Moffic (arim at interfaithfamily dot com) for more information.