Janet Silver Ghent, former senior editor of j., is a freelance writer/editor and voice student living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Pray It Again, Kid: Blessings from a Precocious Child
Adapted from an article in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California.
After two days of skiing in Tahoe, we were sprawled out, exhausted, on the couch of the rented condo. We were curled up with books, except for my husband's 5-year-old granddaughter Shelby, who was busily drawing. Then she rushed over to show us what she had done.
She had filled a piece of white cardboard with capital letters in various colors and sizes, some crossed out, some on top of one another. The first word was "BROO." A couple of lines down was "ELO HAY NOO." At the bottom, in pink, was "SHBT SHLOM."
This kindergartner, who isn't Jewish but often spends Shabbat (the Sabbath) with us, had written out the Motzi blessing (the prayer over bread) phonetically, and she was quite proud of herself. So was I. I didn't know the Motzi until I was almost 19.
So here I am, a self-taught Jew raised by secular parents who were raised by secular parents who were raised by secular parents. As a rebellious teen, I had dipped my toes into Judaism, but I never got much beyond a doggie paddle. Then in 1965 at the age of 22, I committed what I thought was the ultimate transgression: I married "out." Feeling rejected by my own people and wanting a place where my husband and I could be equal partners, we raised our children Unitarian.
I continued to be drawn to the faith of my ancestors and had seriously considered returning, but I was afraid to take any steps that would jeopardize my marriage. However, during the first Intifada in 1987-1988, it became clear to me that I was viewing the world as a Jew, not as a Unitarian. While interviewing Elie Wiesel for a newspaper article, I told him, "I happen to be Jewish."
"Don't happen to be Jewish," he said. "Be Jewish."
That was one of many "Aha!" moments.
Then just before Passover in 1988, my daughter, who was a college freshman, informed me she was going to be baptized as an evangelical Christian. I was devastated. It certainly affected my spirits, and I can't help but believe it took its toll on my marriage. At the end of Passover, my husband of 23 years announced he was leaving. Three weeks later, I began attending Shabbat services, something I still do every week, these days with my Jewish husband.
Now, after turning to Judaism in midlife, I'm a Jewish grandma who has to explain myself to grandchildren who aren't being raised Jewish, by parents who weren't raised Jewish. Talk about challenges.
Like at Hanukkah, when my daughter and her husband visited with their two daughters. No sooner did they come through the door than 6-year-old Kelsey asked us if we were Jewish. Then she said, "Jewish means you don't believe in Jesus."
Actually, I said, "if you're Jewish, you don't pray to Jesus."
Later, at the dinner table, Kelsey said, "Everybody raise your hands if you're Jewish." Her parents put the kibosh on that.
The challenges keep coming, often out of nowhere. A few months ago, while I was reading a bedtime story, Kelsey's 8-year-old sister, Lindsay, said, "Jews don't believe Jesus is the son of God."
"I believe we are all sons and daughters of God," I responded. That answer seemed to satisfy the girls, for a while.
But there are minefields. The next morning at breakfast we were discussing my son, who lives in Prague but is getting married in Yorkshire. We got out a globe. Prague, the girls knew, is "under the U," in "EUROPE." Yorkshire is closer to the E.
My husband, taking a cue from Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, began explaining how South America and Africa once fit together but had drifted apart a long time ago.
"When you were young?" Lindsay asked.
"No, millions and millions of years ago. Before my parents. Before Jesus. Before there were people," I said.
Then Lindsay said, "Man was created on the sixth day."
It was too early in the morning to tackle Genesis. "Days were longer then," I said. Then we changed the subject.
My husband and I, both previously married to non-Jewish spouses, are operating without a script. This is improv, but there are rules. My daughter says we should emphasize what we share, rather than what separates us. In fact, one year at Thanksgiving, Lindsay created a placemat decorated with a variety of fall fruits and vegetables, as well as pumpkin pie and other goodies. I asked her, "Which foods were made by God?" She pointed to the produce of the earth. "Which were created by people?" She pointed to the pies. "Which are the foods that are good for you?" She knew, and my daughter and I smiled.
With my daughter's family, we share our traditions, like Hanukkah and Passover, but we recognize that there are sometimes barriers. When the girls brought our Girl Scout cookie order in the middle of Passover, we explained that we had to put the cookies in the garage until after the holiday. Nor did we bake that day.
When I married my husband seven years ago, I felt like the Grinch who had taken away his daughters' Christmas. But this past year, when my husband's older daughter had no plans, and the thought of Chinese food two days in a row was too depressing for all of us, we invited her and Shelby over for roast chicken and homemade apple-cranberry pie. Isn't that what a Jewish grandmother is supposed to do?
At the end of the week, there's always Shabbat. Although my daughter would not want us to bring her children, whom she is raising as Christians, to Shabbat services, she doesn't have a problem with Shabbat dinner. However, a few years ago, little Kelsey, who was not clear on the concept, wanted to blow out the candles and Lindsay giggled during my chanting.
My husband's daughter, a secular single mother, is happy to have us take Shelby and her brother, William, to services. Both love the music, the challah and the ritual--although these days, Shelby seems to be more interested than her preteen brother.
One Friday night, when we arrived at 6:15 but the service wasn't until 8, Shelby cried. We distracted her by singing the Motzi in the car. When we got home, her handwritten prayer was sitting above the kitchen table, reminding us of our blessings. She sang it with gusto. I'm looking forward to hearing her sing it again on Shabbat.