Mothers’ Little Helpers
Guidebooks quell the anxieties of raising up a child
It wasn’t until I was about four that my mother realized how badly, profoundly she wanted—needed, she says—to make sure I grew into a Jew. Before then, raising a Jewish child was something she just took for granted, without giving it much thought. When she married my father—who’d converted to Judaism—they’d agreed that any children would be Jewish, and that had been that. For my first few years, I was Jewish because my mom was, and because mayonnaise was anathema to her—not because we lit candles or went to shul. But when it dawned on her, in a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment, that I was actually going to be a person of my own one day, she knew that she could not bear to break the line of Jewish women that extended from Drobin, Poland to New York City to the suburbs of Boston. She was not just going to have a Jewish daughter, she was going to raise one.
Problem was, she had no idea how. For her, as a kid in Manhattan (and the Bronx), Jewishness was to my mother as water is to whitefish. It was just there, all around. You breathed it. It was what you did, how—and where—you lived. But it was not about observance of ritual or halacha; that, for her father and his free-thinking intellectual friends, belonged back in the Old World. Instead, for my mother and her sister, being Jewish meant rallies, fist-pounding politics, landsmanschaft meetings, Yiddish theater, Zionist songs, noodle kugel, chopped liver. When she became aware that some of her friends were having bat mitzvahs, she asked her father why they didn’t belong to a synagogue. His answer: “Synagogues belonged in Europe, where Jews had nothing else. In America, Jews don’t need synagogues. They have everything else.”
While Lexington, Massachusetts is certainly America—it’s the birthplace of American liberty, after all—it bears little resemblance to New York in the 1940s. It didn’t (and doesn’t) offer the kind of “everything else” my grandfather was talking about. There were Jews there, sure. Lefty politics? Some of that too. But it was unlikely that my mother, no matter how good her kugel, would have been able to find or create for me a Jewish atmosphere there like that of her childhood. (Let’s just say that there isn’t actually a store in Lexington called Minuteman Bagel, but there might as well be.) She was going to have to turn instead to religious ritual and education—and not just for me.
After much soul-searching, and with much trepidation—specifically, the fear that someone would spot her and shout “Trayf!”—my mother decided to join Lexington’s Reform synagogue and enroll me in the religious school. A few weeks before the consecration ceremony for the new children, the rabbi met with the families to welcome us and describe what would happen in the service. We’d stand before the ark, he said, and we’d all recite the Shema.
Mom raced home to phone a Jewish friend. “Sally?” she asked, ‘What’s a Shema?”
I still have a very clear, comforting memory of sitting at the piano with my mother and learning to chant the three simple lines of the Shema, Judaism’s essential affirmation of faith. I had no idea she had just learned them herself.
And now I am a mother who wants to give her daughter memories like that one. (Not to mention a mother who wants to have an apartment big enough for a piano.) I know what a Shema is; if I didn’t, I have a husband who could pretty much break it down for me. That said, I don’t want to cede Bess’ Jewish upbringing to David just because he does Jewish upbringing for a living—though I’ll be happy to give him the floor the first time Bess asks, “Who’s God?” I don’t want him to be the default bearer of our household Jewish standard. I want to start new family traditions, help Bess find meaning in who we are already. But that’s also where I get intimidated. This past Passover, we enjoyed second seder with dear friends and their kids in Boston. When the mom rallied the troops to count the omer—which we never got around to in my house growing up—my first thought was, “What’s an omer?” (Counting the omer is a daily blessing for marking the days between Passover and Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah. For some reason I can never remember that.)
This is a long way of saying that I am going to have to do some reading. Just because I am a rabbi’s wife does not mean I’m a ringer. We know that when less observant liberal Jews like my mother marry or start a family, they often feel the urge to become more observant—to join a Jewish community, to create a Jewish home, and, often, to give their children more in the way of Judaism than they themselves had growing up. Basically, we’re all looking for ideas and answers—to our childrens’ questions and our own. As I am beginning to discover, there’s an ever-growing library that can help.
The books I’ve collected so far seem to fall into two rough categories: first, those on how to be a Jewish parent; and second, those on how to parent Jewishly—or, how Judaism can help you parent. (Arguably, there’s also a third category of books by sleep experts, but that’s only because the guru status of the biggest-deal expert is such that I hear him called “Reb Ferber.”) The current big-deal book in category number two is psychologist Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children—but we’ll get to that in a later column. Self-reliant only when in her ExerSaucer (referred to by fellow parents as “Overstimulation Station” or “Neglect-atron 2000,” depending), Bess is indeed old enough to sense routine, to respond to music, to be mesmerized by candlelight. So we’re on the Rituals 101-level books number one such as parenting columnist and web doyenne Meredith L. Jacobs’s new The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat, which David and I just consulted because somehow we keep forgetting when in the rundown on Friday evenings you bless your children (right after lighting the candles). Its approach, like that of Anita The Red Tent Diamant‘s 2000 classic How to Be a Jewish Parent: A Practical Handbook for Family Life, is comprehensive and concrete: here are the blessings; here (traditionally) is when, how, and why you say them; here’s the deal with keeping kosher; here’s how to install a mezuzah on your doorframe; here’s the recipe for Grandma Hilda’s Carrot Ring. Both books invite and assert the flexibility that is key to liberal Jewish practice—it’s still Shabbat if you light candles after sundown, and even if you don’t make brisket—but without crossing the line from lenient to meaningless (“Here’s the recipe for Grandma Hilda’s Pork”).
More and more Jews, it seems, are looking for this kind of gentle, practical, substantive guidance. Traffic to Jacobs’s website, ModernJewishMom, has increased by 300% over the past two years. Diamant’s other venerable guide, Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families, is not only still in print after 15 years, but was just updated and revised. When I asked Jacobs what she thinks accounts for the success, new and renewed, of works like hers and Diamant’s, she said, “Whether it’s a response to September 11 and the kind of world we are now raising our children in, and/or a response to materialism, I think parents are turning to the traditions of our faith to give our children a sense of peace and a sense of self.”
True. But (gasp!) it’s not just about our children. Bequeathing them Jewish traditions can give us a sense of peace, too—as long as we’re able to be comfortable with our own Judaism. Just comfortable! Not experts. “Starting to make Jewish choices as an adult can feel very awkward, even for people who were born Jewish,” Diamant writes in Living a Jewish Life. “There is a sense that you ought to know Hebrew, and when Passover begins, and what the Talmud is. Being uncomfortable in a synagogue or at the prospect of lighting candles might seem to confirm the suspicion that you will never ‘get it,’ that you will never fit in.” True: everyone feels like they’re the one who doesn’t know as much as the person next to them—the one who doesn’t know the melody, who doesn’t know why everyone covers their eyes during that prayer. Thing is, the person singing along perfectly is also wondering how that guy over there knew just when to bow. I’m just learning, we think—they’re the real Jews. Like me: at my husband’s or home shul, I’ve totally got my Jewish game on. But when we have Shabbat lunch with a bunch of rabbis and their even frummier friends, I go into a very “What’s a Shema?” place. How do they keep track of where we are in the post-meal blessing? Do they actually feel joyful because it’s Shabbat, not just because they have the day off? I am always sure that every else’s experience is deeper than my own. Which, if I’m just sitting there feeling inadequate, it definitely is.
Which itself is why it’s a mistake to confuse being less prepared with being less adequate, less experienced with being less Jewish. As my mother ultimately learned, it’s just as Jewish to inquire as it is to know. (Their temple, by the way, has become the center of my parents’ social and spiritual lives. Good call, Mom.) The trick is to get over ourselves—to read how-to books, ask questions, or just observe, and quit worrying about looking stupid. If we’re doing this for our kids, we should learn like them, too. Sitting on the piano bench before my consecration, I don’t remember being afraid that I’d forget the words to the Shema. I just remember that my mother taught them to me.
So what if he’s in diapers? He waves! He smiles! What more could you want in a leader?