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Smartmom: Meditating on My Jewish Identity

Reprinted from The Brooklyn Papers with permission of the author.

The week before Rosh Hashanah, Smartmom was meditating in her bedroom. Her attempts to meditate at home are usually a comedy of errors and this was no exception. The fragrance of burning incense seems to attract her offspring like flies to honey.

The Oh So Feisty One tiptoed into the bedroom and assumed her very best lotus position and scrunched her eyes shut tight. After a minute or so:

"I'm bored," she said. "Is it okay if I bang your singing bowl really, really softly?"

Grrrrr. So much for Inner Peace. Then the phone rang. It was Groovy Grandpa reminding Smartmom about Rosh Hashanah dinner on Saturday.

Smartmom returned to the half-lotus position, her right hand resting on her left palm, but she had a hard time quieting her mind because of that Rosh Hashanah call. Should they go to shul? If so, which one?

The religion thing nags at Smartmom: Nag, nag, nag. Especially during the Jewish holidays.

It's not like she grew up religious or anything. Hers was a secular Jewish upbringing on the Upper West Side of Gaphattan. In other words, she was brought up by atheists, who were very committed to their Jewish heritage and their lox and bagels from Barney Greengrass on Sunday mornings.

Still, on the high holidays, something deeply personal and profound compels Smartmom to seek the sound of the shofar and the stirring melody of Kol Nidre.

When Smartmom was 10, her parents decided that she and her sister needed to go to Hebrew school--it was time to get some of that old-time religion. Just in case.

It seemed hypocritical, but it probably was a good experience, even if the future Smartmom thought it was dumb at the time.

Going to Hebrew school meant no more Sunday morning bike rides in Central Park, a cherished family ritual and one of the great pleasures of Smartmom's youth. Sitting in the basement of Congregation Rodef Sholom learning Hebrew, and discussing anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, was not.

Smartmom dropped out after a year. Maybe that's why she's so ambivalent about going to synagogue: those Hebrew school Sundays really cut into bike riding time with dad.

Yet since childhood, Smartmom has yearned for a spiritual connection. For reasons she still doesn't fully understand, she longed to fast on Yom Kippur, to eat only matzoh during Passover, to see the Hanukkah candles glowing night after night.

This child of atheists had an inner Jewish self that bloomed all by itself.

Clearly, she was after a spiritual experience bigger than the Nova Scotia Lox counter at Zabar's. She wanted more. Something elusive. Something deeper than the day-to-day.

After Teen Spirit was born, Smartmom shopped for a synagogue or a Jewish community for her interfaith family to be part of. Nothing felt right. Nothing felt spiritual. Her quest eventually led to a private meditation practice.

Smartmom closed her eyes and breathed in an out gently through her nose. She heard the toilet flush in the bathroom. OSFO was playing "Heart and Soul" on the electric keyboard. A Third Street alley cat in heat was crying like a human child. Trying to meditate at home is a joke, she thought.

Despite her forays into Buddhism, Smartmom works hard to instill the ethics and values of Judaism in her inter-faith children; it is, she feels, essential that they understand what it means to be Jewish (even if no one seems to agree about what that means).

For Hanukkah, they light candles on a handcrafted, wrought-iron menorah from the Clay Pot; they read aloud Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic stories while non-Jewish Hepcat prepares delicious potato latkes.

On Passover, they sing a rollicking version of Dayenu during the Seder ceremony, and search for the hidden matzoh afterward--the finder even gets a little gelt.

Smartmom also feeds them plenty of lox and bagels from La Bagel Delight--a poor substitute for Barney Greengrass or Zabar's. Hepcat especially loves the lox and bagel part, but he nearly fainted the first time he saw gefilte fish.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Smartmom focused on her breath in an attempt to clear and quiet her racing mind.

It's been harder to find a way to meet the family's disparate spiritual longings. Hepcat and the Presbyterians parted company when he said, "If God made everything, who made God?" in Sunday school. Intellectually, he's an atheist. Emotionally, he's an animist.

Early on, Teen Spirit was interested in the big questions of Life and Death. Although he never liked going to synagogue and didn't want to get bar mitzvahed, he was crazy about the Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof" (with Alfred Molina, no less!).

After that, he learned enough Hebrew to say the basic Jewish prayers. And she gave him a copy of The Jewish Book of Why on his 13th birthday. Just in case.

The Oh So Feisty One, from a young age, seemed to believe in a higher power (Jewish or Presbyterian--it didn't seem to matter). As early as age 4, she'd put her hands together and pray, "Please, please, please God, get me a Kit doll and a pair of her beach pajamas from American Girl Place."

When OSFO started asking questions about death, Smartmom knew intuitively that she wanted to believe in heaven, a place where Smartmom would love and care for her forever and ever. As Smartmom affirmed OSFO's belief in heaven, she, too, felt comforted by the eternal power of love.

On her black meditation pillow, Smartmom returned to her breathing, trying to unclutter her mind. But that's about as easy as trying to straighten up Hepcat's desk (which she's not even allowed to do). Too. Much. Thinking. Should they go to Beth Elohim or Kolot Chayenu? Maybe they should try the children's service at the Park Slope Jewish Center.

There it is again: Nag, nag, nag. Even when she's meditating. It's true. She never joined a synagogue. She never makes reservations or gets tickets in advance for High Holiday services. Obviously, it's a commitment problem.

Smartmom's Orthodox friend, Yiddishe Mama, once said, "You have one foot in and one foot out because part of you does not want to let yourself believe in miracles."

Actually, Smartmom thinks she's still pissed off about missing those Central Park bike rides. Or maybe she just finds organized religion boring and irrelevant. So why, she wonders, does she always decide at the last minute to go to synagogue?

Last year on the eve of Yom Kippur, she Googled Kolot Chayenu and found out that the Kol Nidre service started at 7:30.

Smartmom and OSFO got there in warp speed and were lucky enough to find a seat in the last row. The service happens to be in a church, which is perfect for the inter-faith Smartmom clan. Someone takes pains to cover the crucifix with a beautiful handmade textile.

As usual, Smartmom felt part of--and not part of--the service (there's too much Hebrew she doesn't understand, and she doesn't know all the songs; she gets tired of standing up and sitting down). During the service, she closed her eyes and tried to meditate while listening to Kol Nidre, that haunting melody, on this most holy of Jewish nights.

The phone rang again. Smartmom knew she wasn't going to get any more meditating done. Who is it this time? Probably that religion thing. Nag. Nag. Nag.

This year Smartmom knows that she'll be racing off to Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur services--somewhere.

Maybe this year she'll accept that her quest to find a way to honor her Jewishness continues.

Maybe this year she'll accept that her meditation and her Judaism can exist together like cream cheese and lox on a poppy seed bagel. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Maybe this year she'll even pick up some tickets--in advance.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew for "enough for us," it's the refrain and name of a liturgical song from the Passover seder. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game). Yiddish for "synagogue."
Louise Crawford

Louise Crawford, a Park Slope, Brooklyn, mom, writes the column Smartmom for The Brooklyn Papers and also operates Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. As a freelance writer, she writes and edits a monthly newsletter for the Counseling Unit of the FDNY for family members who lost loved ones on 9/11. She is at work on a novel called Crossing the River about a serial subletter.

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