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September 13, 2013
While I was getting more Jewishly observant in college I read Blu Greenberg’s How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. In it, she describes watching a mother teach their child how to make a blessing before eating. “I can’t wait to do that,” I thought. “Wait a minute, I don’t bless my own food before eating. I guess if that’s something I want my kids to do, I’d better start doing it.”
Judaism provides for many blessings to be said on a variety of occasions, ranging from seeing a rainbow to observing various commandments to blessings that can be made before eating foods of various kinds. While I was becoming more observant, blessings seemed among the more reasonable type of Jewish ritual to add to my practice—why not be more grateful, or be grateful in a more formal way? After I had my son a few months ago, I felt more grateful in general, but it became harder for me to remember to be more grateful for my food in particular—especially since it took several months before I was eating without simultaneously nursing or doing some other baby-related task at the same time.
My husband and I were eager to start incorporating Jewish practice into our son’s life as soon as possible. For one thing, what else were we going to do with an immobile person who mostly just sleeps and eats? You have to keep yourself entertained somehow, and the early inculcation of religion at least takes some time. I also wanted the rituals that I have to actively remember to do to be second nature to him, and I felt like if he never remembered having eaten without having heard a blessing, it was more likely to stick with him as a reflex, even though very little of his food stayed with him due to reflux.
I vividly remember watching my father put on tefillin—boxes containing the words to the shema that men traditionally put on in the morning while praying—every day when I was small. I think watching a regular ritual had a pretty powerful effect on me, so I wanted to see what other Jewish rituals I could add to our son’s life. Putting on tefillin while we have an infant seemed a bit beyond my husband and me at our current stage in life (which I would describe as “extremely frazzled” and “needing all the time in the morning we could get”). In addition to trying to remember to bless his food with him (once he started eating food) I also tried to make the blessing for Torah study with him every day.
For the first few months of the baby’s life, he was up, as is the custom of his people, for most of the night. As dawn approached I would hold him so he could look out the window. Batty with sleep deprivation, I would recite the blessing for Torah study—“Baruch atah hashem eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav l’askok b’divrai torah.” Then I would teach him part of a mishnah, the code of oral law, from Brachot, the first book of the Talmud. Talmud is the oral law plus rabbinic commentary on that oral law. It starts to seem like a good idea to teach it to infants after reading Pat the Bunny to someone who is entirely unconscious one too many times. As I sleepily watched the sunrise holding a wide-awake baby yet again, I would recite this passage:
From what time may one recite the shema in the morning? From the time that one can distinguish between blue and white. R. Eliezer says: between blue and green. And he has time to finish until sunrise.
“Can you distinguish between blue and green yet?” I would ask the baby. “What about white and blue?”
We would then examine things that were a variety of different colors and discuss the state of his visual perception, after which we would say the morning shema. My husband, who has dibs on bedtime, said the evening shema with him every night.
As he gets older I look forward to teaching the baby more ways to thank God for the blessings of food, of sight, of being created and of being commanded to observe various mitzvot. I hope to watch him as he makes a blessing for seeing a rainbow. I suppose if I want those things to happen, I have to be diligent about making these blessing for him now, so they become part of the way he views the world.
While it can feel a little ridiculous to work to build prayer into his day, as he gets an increased sense of the way the world works I hope he looks around and feels truly blessed—and takes a moment to mumble a bit in Hebrew to express that feeling. Right now I feel blessed that seeing the sun rise is once again, a rare novelty. We have to find a new piece of Torah to learn together, and I couldn’t be happier.