As you may have read in an earlier blog post, I’m a shiksa convert. My first Shabbat was during an intimidating first meeting with my husband’s Jewish aunt in Cupertino, California. (The same visit where his 93-year-old grandmother almost choked on her brisket when she saw that her first-born grandson was more than smitten with a shiksa). I sat at the table and watched my husband’s young cousins whirl around with excitement. Their engagement piqued my interest; ages 3 and 5, they readied the table for a seemingly routine religious observance with giggles and pride.
I remember the adorably sweet 3-year-old saying, “Do I git to dwink the fizzy pink fum Daddy’s (kiddush) cup?” while her brother ran off at the last minute to grab his kippah. Dinner was ready and the table was set with braided challah and sparkly pink lemonade in a fancy glass bottle – bought special for “kiddo Shabbat.” We sat down and instead of holding hands and bowing heads, the family chanted (unrecognizable to me) prayers over bread and wine fun fizzy juice. I listened closely as the toddler slurred her words – skipping the hard ones and emphasizing the special parts she knew and loved, “SHELLLLLL SHABBAT!”
I instantly fell in love with this family tradition. Watching children pray seamlessly in a whirlwind of dinner, chatter and spilled fizzy lemonade was a far cry from my own memories of being dragged to Sunday school kicking and screaming while my Dad sat at home eating egg sandwiches and reading the newspaper. That night, with my husband’s extended family, “religion” was a charming prelude to dinner (and armpit farts). I was smitten.
Later that year, after I began my Jewish study for conversion, I was visiting a girlfriend from our temple. She was putting her baby to bed before we enjoyed a girls’ night of gossip and TV drowned in pizza and wine. She zipped him into his pajamas and read him book after book. “Again!” he clapped as she reached for another. Finally, she as she closed the last book his tired lips mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, “no emm-aah.” She scooped him up and smothered him with kisses and as she placed him in the crib his cries elevated, “NO EMM-AAH! NOOOO EMM-AHH!” She smiled, sang him the bedtime Shema and closed the door while he protested only momentarily before drifting off to sleep.
“What was he saying?” I asked.
“He was saying, ‘No Shema,’” she laughed, “he knows that’s the end of our bedtime routine.”
I didn’t know a single word of Hebrew. I had no clue how to bake a golden challah or why the fizzy lemonade was served “family style” in a pewter cup. But hearing babies pray invoked a sense of calm and connectedness that I knew I wanted to be part of.
Tonight I rocked my own sleeping baby and sang him the Shema just before laying him down. He learned to say “kitty” today and someday soon he might even protest our bedtime song. And if he does, my (newly) Jewish heart will smile, because I’ll know I did something right. And that deserves a nice tall glass of fizzy lemonade.