If the rumor was true that a Jewish woman was responsible for the Jewish spirit, character and atmosphere of the home, then my family was–how do you say?–screwed.
Having grown up without formal or informal Jewish education, I was in over my head. I had no doubt that I could be in charge of secular spirit, as I demonstrated by teaching my twins Jacob and Sophie to shout, “Go Blue!” from the time they could talk, in honor of my beloved Michigan Wolverines. I showed excellence in secular character by instructing my kids to smile and say “everything is delicious” before we hid the mushrooms in our napkins. And I knew that I was creating a superb secular atmosphere, by filling our home with warm hugs, open communication, and dark chocolate.
In other words, if my job was to be Character-Developer-in-Chief, I was the gal.
But if I had to be Jewish-Influence-in-Residence, I’d have to resign–or at least, resign myself and my family to a spiritually bereft life. As a busy mother of lively twins, a full-time coach and speaker with a hectic travel schedule, and wife to a fantastic guy who deserved at least a little attention from me, I didn’t have the time to go back to Hebrew School or even commit to an adult learning program. I didn’t see anyone on Craigslist seeking a “Supplemental Spiritual Head of Household” position. I didn’t know how I was going to do the job I inadvertently signed up for.
Looking for A Sign
What was I going to do? I needed a sign. And I found one–quite literally–hanging above the starting blocks at the JCC pool: “The parent is bound to teach their children a craft. Some say, also to teach them to swim” (Talmud).
While I hadn’t thought of an afternoon at the pool with my kids as doing anything Jewish per se, it turned out that we were doing something Jewish at its core. If swimming was Jewish, where else was Judaism hiding in plain sight? In that moment, it hit me: Rather than struggle to “do more Jewish,” I was going to “find the Jewish” in what our family was already doing.
Renewed by a day at the pool, I dove right in to my spiritual scavenger hunt. It was like living in a Where’s Waldo? book–where was something Jewish peeking out of the corners of our crazy busy lives? Plenty of places.
Here are a few places I found the Jewish in what I was already doing:
1) Disciplining. In addition to inheriting my love for all things peanut-butter-and-chocolate, and my distaste for public toilets, my children also share my guilty conscience. I have learned that when I say to one of them, “I want to talk to you for a second” I must immediately follow with “and, no, you’re not in trouble” or they assume the absolute worst. Sometimes, however, their assumption is correct, and they are in deep doo-doo. Nine times out of 10, I manage to pull the child aside to make my point. (The other 10% of the time, I just lose it in front of witnesses.) I knew that I disciplined in private because that’s what I would want. And indeed, the Talmud upholds this perspective: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” But a little more Talmudic investigation revealed that, whether or not I preferred this method for myself, it was, in fact, the Jewish way: “A person who publicly shames another is like someone who spills blood.”
So the next time you pull yourself together long enough to pull your kid aside for a little talk about throwing blocks, hitting his sister, or feeding Hershey’s kisses to the dog, give yourself a high five and a mazel tov.
2) Baking (and it doesn’t have to be challah). My kids firmly believe that the least important parts of a cupcake are the cup or the cake. It’s the laughter that comes from licking batter straight from the bowl. It’s the alluring aroma wafting from the oven as those warm goodies start to rise. And of course, it’s the inspiration and creativity involved in frosting and decorating their mini-masterpieces in rainbow colors.
So, nu…what’s Jewish about a baking day? Well, the Talmud tells us “Three things restore a person’s good spirits: beautiful sounds, sights, and smells.” Whether it’s cupcakes, cookies or whatever livens up your home with laughter, fragrance and beauty, it’s Jewish.
3) Grooming. Ah, I long for the days when my greatest grooming battle was trying to get 40 busy baby teeth brushed before two mouths chomped down on my fingers. Now that I have two pre-teens, we’ve moved on to deodorant, skin care, hair care and still (oy!) teeth. As much as I have often threatened to give up the fight and let nature take its course, the risk of having two toothless, greasy, smelly kids is perilously high. Keeping the kids clean and healthy isn’t just a mom’s mission, it’s a Jewish value as well. Maimonides said, “The health of the soul can only be achieved after the health of the body has been achieved.” The Talmud backs him up with, “The command to care for one’s body has priority,” and “Make your practice a habit.”
Whether you’re busy keeping baby teeth clean, diaper rash under control, or grubby nails trimmed and dirt-free, you’re doing Jewish.
No, I’m probably not the traditional Jewish spiritual head of household that our matriarchs modeled. But when it comes to “finding the Jewish” in daily life, I’m blazing a trail for my family, and I invite you to embark on your own unique scavenger hunt to discover what’s Jewish in what you already do. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”