Monday, May 16, 2011

Jewish Parenting Through the Lens of the Liturgy - 3

Traditionally, morning prayers open with a list of 14 benedictions, originally said as people began their day - there was a prayer for unwrapping oneself from one's covers, for putting on one's shoes, for tying the belt around one's coat. Eventually, the list found its way into the prayerbook and was recited together, whether at home or in the synagogue, after all those preparations had already been completed. As I have read these benedictions, I have been regularly impressed with lessons they can teach us as parents, and in this blog I will be reflecting on each of the benedictions, one a day, for the next few weeks (holidays permitting).


The Third Benediction – Religious Identity

ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם שעשני ישראל

Praised are You, Adonai, our God and Sovereign of the Universe, who made me a Jew.

There is much to be written about this brakha. I have met with so many people who were in the process of conversion, either about to begin their study or about to be immersed in the mikveh, and over and over again I hear the same thing: I’ve always been a Jew. This is just making it official.

This conviction suggests a truth to be found in our brakha: that religious identity is part of our make-up as much as height, eye color, and sexual orientation. Of course, we might then question those who profess no religious belief, or those who are conflicted about the existence of God and how they might worship that God. Are they denying their essential spiritual identity?

I can’t address those important questions. What I do know is that the Jewish tradition speaks of the pintele yid, the Jewish spark that is found in the Jewish soul. No matter how assimilated the family, how unidentified the family, somehow that tiny spark finds a gentle breeze to blow on it and fan it into a flame. How it is that some have that spark and others do not is a quandary of a mystic nature, and I am far too unqualified to address it here.

What our brakha tells us, however, is not that we acknowledge our Jewishness but that we are grateful for our Jewishness. We remain Jewish not to deny Hitler a posthumous victory but because being Jewish is a wonderful, exciting thing, for most of us a delightful accident of birth, and our obligation is not to run from it but to find reasons to say this brakha with joy each morning.

But what does all this have to do with parenting?

When our children are born, we watch with delight as they blossom, from tiny infant to toddler who learns “No” very early and enjoys pushing the envelope, to adolescent who raises pushing the envelope to an art form. Along the way we watch talents and interests emerge. Who will this precious gift of God be? What will he or she be? How will our child contribute to the community? What sort of partner will we hope he or she finds – what characteristics do we want to see encouraged, which ones balanced with someone complementary?

We worry about the friends they choose, the schools they attend, the extracurricular activities they participate in. Have they accumulated enough activities to impress the admissions committees of the colleges they’ve chosen?

We set curfews for them, give them rules, let them know what’s expected of them as members of our family.

And yet for so many parents, encouraging religious education is merely a means to an end: the bar or bat mitzvah celebration. And even among those parents who opt for a celebration of their child’s coming of age within Jewish tradition, the spectrum varies from day school to supplementary school to a tutor and a private service, with the party being the most important element of the day.

We want our children to be functioning members of society, but too many of us feed our children’s intellect while starving their souls.

I must tell you that when people learn I’m a rabbi, whether they’re Jewish or not, they feel comfortable sharing incidents or whole themes from their childhood dealing with their religious upbringing – or lack of it. I remember one young man who shared a dinner with me and members of my first congregation many years ago. He reflected that both his parents had been raised as Protestants, but different denominations. Each of them had had parents of differing denominations as well, so that by the time he arrived on the scene, there were maybe six different ways of worshipping Jesus in his family. His parents’ strategy was not to offer him any of them. It was clearly too complicated for them, too much of a mine field to traverse, so they gave him a terrific secular education but never addressed his soul. He said to me, “I want to think about God, but I don’t know how think about thinking about God.” I suspect (although I can’t be sure) that if he’d told his parents that, they would have been puzzled at the least.

I also remember an interfaith couple that, like many, decided to give their daughter both Catholicism and Judaism. She was converted by my predecessor and then the next day she was baptized. Her education consisted of Hebrew school on Sunday and catechism on Saturday. I finally told her father that she needs to be given an address for her soul. I would rather, I told him, see her go to church regularly with her mother and know she’s being given a consistent religious education than be taught two very different paths and be expected (a) to sort them out by herself and then (b) choose, essentially between Mom and Dad.

I was asked once as part of an interview for the post of senior rabbi at a Midwestern congregation, “Rabbi, how do you teach God to children?” I told them frankly that we don’t teach God to children. Children are born far closer to God than we will ever be. Their souls are new and freshly given by the Holy One. We should be asking them what they know about God.

What happens from birth to adulthood is the channeling of that belief by how the adults in their lives talk about God (or not). Furthermore, belief in God is only part of the conversation; the rest of it has to do with how we worship the God in whom we believe, how that belief translates into behavior and the search for community. Simple faith is a lonely thing unless you have others with whom to worship, and with whom to sort out what God’s will means to you. For us Jews, that means family and community with whom to study Torah and build communal institutions so that we can follow the path our tradition has defined for us. Having a child, then, means not only committing to a lifelong (yes, it really is lifelong) endeavor of educating and training and civilizing (I’m thinking of those toddlers and adolescents again) and constantly reassuring with unconditional love. It means before they’re born sorting out what God means to you, what your faith community means to you, and finding a place in that community where you are comfortable and can feel joy. Then, when your children are born, they can watch you participate in your community’s events and celebrations because they’re meaningful to you. Children know very early what’s important to their family, and they perceive very quickly that religious life is irrelevant if it’s only “for the children.” I was thinking the other day of my first Hanukkah as a married woman. We’d moved out of state for my husband’s education, and I spoke to my parents, excited about having lit our new hanukkiyah for the first time. “Oh, we didn't light ours,” my mother said, to my astonishment. “You’re not here so it’s not so important.” Of course, in hindsight, I realize that that first year their only child was out of the house was a big adjustment for them, but at the time I couldn’t believe that all those years, my parents had celebrated Hanukkah only for me.

I’m slow, I guess. Other kids pick up on things much more quickly. One of my fifth grade students once observed that sitting in a sukkah for a week was a negative mitzvah because “nobody does it.” In his home, at least, there was no sukkah. The synagogue’s sukkah wasn’t “real” because after all it was the synagogue’s sukkah. I tried to explain that thousands of Jewish families around the world (including mine) used their sukkot every year, but he wasn’t convinced.

How can we say our brakha every morning with joy, affirming our awe at being part of this remarkable people? We can study Judaism just as we studied whatever texts we needed to study to pursue our profession, recognizing the truth of the brakha “thank You for the obligation of making Torah study our occupation.” We can live Jewishly by bringing Jewish practice into our homes and our lives. We can study with others to learn what makes Judaism remarkable to them. And in this way we become role models for our children.

When we do recite that brakha, let’s use it to remind us to do all we can to encourage our children to come to value being Jewish as much as we have learned to be.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

We Have More Problems Than We Even Knew We Had

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the birther phenomenon. Many commentators, including Rachel Maddow, have labeled it for what it is: racism. Somehow we have to delegitimate this president without actually saying out loud "A black man can't do that." So we cast aspersions on the details of his birth. Shameful enough.

But I think there's another phobia going on. Let's think back to the 43 presidents who came before Mr. Obama. Yes, all men. All white. Yes. But there's something else about them. What were their names? Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Johnson, Madison, Jefferson (I know, they're way out of order), Jackson, Taft, Wilson, Truman, Bush (x2), Clinton. Do we see any commonality here?

Every one of these names can be traced back to the British Isles. Only three presidents (by my reckoning) had names that were non-Anglo: two Roosevelts and Eisenhower. And two of them were war heroes (TR in the Spanish-American War, Ike in World War II) and the third had extensive experience in state politics, had a connection to an earlier Roosevelt, and was endowed with great charisma of his own. By the time FDR ran for the White House, "Roosevelt" had become less a Dutch name than a good American name.

And you can count those presidents with non-Anglo names without going to a second hand.

As I was ruminating on the birther phenomenon the other day, I wondered whether the same grief would befall a president whose father had been here in the States on a student visa from, say, Spain or France. The candidate would look like all previous candidates (read: white) but the name would be foreign and the story would have been the same. Would the birthers in this country have been more accepting?

At first I sputtered "Of course!" But then I began wondering. The story goes that when Pierre Mendes-France ran for the office of president of France in the 1950s, this Jewish candidate faced the ire of his conservative opposition, who announced that their candidate was "a *real* Frenchman," this despite the fact that Mendes-France's family had been in France for five centuries. Apparently, according to some, you couldn't be in France long enough to be "real" if you were Jewish.

So then I started thinking about a President Ramirez. Or a President Chen. Or (God help us) a President Al-Fasi. The closest we came was Vice President-almost Joe Lieberman. And if Al Gore had won the election in 2000 and Lieberman had decided to run on his on in 2008, he'd have had a good uphill climb that had nothing to do with politics.

We have more problems in this country than simple racism. We are a country of xenophobes. We are distrustful of anyone whose name places him or her outside the British world. And so it seems that our president has two strikes against him. In his own words, he's a "skinny black guy with a funny name." And that funny name causes a certain population in this country as much difficulty as the color of his skin.

When you think about it, this mistrust of people with funny names is ironic in a country that prides itself on being a melting pot. We are Latino and German, Polish and Russian, Jewish and Irish and Chinese and Vietnamese and Indian and Pakistani. Many of us came here with names unpronounceable and unspellable by the immigration authorities at Ellis Island. Some of us had our names changed, others just tweaked the spelling so our neighbors could greet us each morning. There is no such thing as a native American (except for those known as native Americans) in the same way there are native Frenchmen (or Frenchwomen), native Brits, native Russians. We are not ethnically homogeneous.

And yet we are suspicious of people whose names are clearly different. (And of course that "Hussein" in the middle of his name didn't earn him points with many Americans.) There would have been those who would have whined about the president's birthplace if his name had been Washington or Jackson or Powell or any other name rooted in the British Isles. But how much easier it is to get attention when the names spoken during the oath of office on January 20, 2009, were so foreign sounding.

We have a long way to go in this country. Enough people displayed common sense in 2008 to get beyond the name and the color of skin to make a decision based on Dr. King's "content of his character." But the fact that the birther issue will not go away tells us that these people with too much time on their hands have touched more than one exposed nerve. It's bigger than color. It's that Mr. Obama is different - Different - in so many ways that he can't possibly be really American. And in that opinion they demonstrate how little appreciation they have for this country, for what makes it great. It is precisely America's diversity that is its strength, and what makes our president remarkable (political choices aside) is how well he represents that diversity.

And as long as people can complain that Mr. Obama is illegitimate, and polls can reveal that a disturbing percentage of the voting public agrees, we will have more problems than racism to overcome.