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My Family's Bedtime Sh'ma

November 10, 2011

Several years ago, I never could have predicted that as I tuck my kids in at night I would be singing to them in Hebrew. As a previously "good Catholic girl," Hebrew just wasn't my reality. But as I married a wonderful man, who happened to be Jewish, it now is the most natural and beautiful way I can think of to say goodnight to our children.

The first time I heard the Sh'ma was in 6th grade Sunday School, learning about religions of the world. Decades later, as I met my husband and we started to go to services together, I slowly became comfortable with Jewish prayers – both in English and Hebrew. Jewish worship for me was much easier than Christian worship for my husband. I truly feel that Judaism complements Christianity, informs it, makes it more full. No prayer said during a Shabbat service ever contraindicated anything I believed as a Christian, but the opposite could not be said for my husband and church services. Naturally then, over time, our worship as a couple became centered in Judaism. I still go to church now and again, but our family's religious community is our temple.

Prayer during Shabbat services is in thanksgiving, for peace, and in praise. Who can argue with that? Over time, I learned the melodies, the translations, and even some Hebrew. The beautiful, melodic prayers have become very natural and internal. The Sh'ma is a declaration of monotheism and solidarity. The tradition and simplicity moves me. It is a natural bedtime prayer.

Our family is different, although by no means unique in today's world. We are an interfaith couple whose family consists of my 10 year old stepdaughter and my 8 month old son. Many years ago, we started saying the Sh'ma at my stepdaughter's bedtime as a way of trying to center her and turn to God together before bed. It was a tradition my husband and I wanted to start with her, but it hasn't always been easy. My step-daughter is very clear about not considering herself religious at all, and certainly "not Jewish!" There was a time, too, that we had to stop prayer before bed because it agitated her so much. But although she would never admit to liking it now, she somehow always wants us to start the Sh'ma over again if the covers rustled too much and she missed part of it. I'm a physician and occasionally at the hospital at bedtimes. They have called me in the past so I can participate in the nighttime Sh'ma over the phone. This is a beautiful family moment for the adults, as well. There are few times we can spend such meditative time with our pre-teen these days. That is one of my favorite times of the day, together, quiet as a family.

When my son was born, he was like many babies and had trouble sleeping in the middle of the night. I would walk him around the bedroom rocking him and singing through much of the Shabbat service. Some nights I would just hit the high points: Miriam's song (Mi Chamocha), the Sh'ma, the prayer asking God to open our lips so our mouths can declare His glory (a line said before the Amidah – my favorite!). Other nights my son would hear the whole "our fathers and our mothers" prayer (the Amidah, also known as the silent or standing prayer), and I would hum the V'ahavta (the full version of the Sh'ma) because I didn't know the words. I would sprinkle in a "Precious Lord," "This Little Light of Mine," "Gentle Woman" or "Make me a Channel of Your Peace" for ecumenical measure.

He's still not a great sleeper, my son, but as part of our routine, he knows it's time to get quiet and chill out when I start singing our Hebrew songs.

"Ya La la la la la la la Adonai....."

It's our time together, and I can't wait for him to be able to raise his voice, too.

Someday they will grow up and choose their own religion. But whatever it is, we will have given them knowledge of basic Hebrew prayers and beautiful memories of family bedtime togetherness. It's a good foundation to build upon.

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Tefilat Amidah, Hebrew for "The Standing Prayer," is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. It is recited during every prayer service. Traditionally it's recited individually in silence, then repeated aloud as a congregation; some congregations omit the silent recitation and/or abbreviate the repetition. 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.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Dr. Cheryl Axelrod

Dr. Cheryl Axelrod is a mom, step mom, wife and practicing OB/GYN in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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