There’s a preschool at one of the local temples that the parents just rave about. In fact, my husband and I recently started attending the temple’s monthly Tot Shabbat programs with our 2-year-old, and we’ve already gotten a taste of just how much these little children are picking up. Some of the older ones can recite blessings and know several prayers by heart. And even the younger ones know that you’re supposed to do things like cover your eyes when it’s time to say the Shema.
This preschool sounds really, really great. It’s exactly the kind of place I’d like to send my son. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Like most preschools, this one only offers programming for about three hours a day, and when you’re a family like ours, where both parents work full-time, three hours of coverage just won’t cut it. So now it’s up to me and my husband to attempt to compensate by introducing our toddler to the traditions I so desperately want him to love and appreciate, but I worry that my sporadic incorporation of Judaism into our hectic, over-scheduled lives just isn’t going to be enough in the long run.
Still, we’ve been trying. Whereas we used to start weekday mornings by whisking our son out of bed, slapping clothes on his body, and virtually throwing him into the car to get him over to daycare, we now get up a few minutes earlier so there’s time to recite the Modeh Ani. And before we leave and enter the house, we stop to kiss the mezuzah.
On weekends, we have a little more time to indulge in tradition. On Friday nights we light candles and sing songs about Shabbat. My son likes to dance, so we do a little of that before sitting down together as a family for dinner (something we never get to do during the week, as our work schedules simply don’t allow for it). On Saturdays and Sundays I like to bust out the kiddie books we’ve been getting courtesy of the PJ Library program, and I try to teach my son a little about whatever holiday is coming up. So far he’s picked up on the fact that we eat hamantashen on Purim and matzah on Passover. And with help and encouragement from his grandmother, he’s already learning the first verse of the Ma Nishtanah.
The Tot Shabbat programs have been helping too. My son enjoys going to temple and especially likes the part where the children get to march around in front of the open ark. And although the plush Torah they give him to hold is still, in his mind, probably nothing more than a toy, at least he remembers and recognizes the word “Torah.” It’s a start.
Of course, I know that raising a Jewish child is a work-in-progress. And a 2-year-old can only retain so much information, especially when the words sound funny and aren’t like the ones he hears all day at daycare. But what I want him to take away more so than anything else is a feeling of contentment, of connection, and of joy that comes with celebrating the rich and wonderful traditions I was fortunate enough to grow up with.
This past weekend, when we lit the candles and finished up our singing and dancing session, my son got quiet for a moment. “What are you thinking?” I asked him, and he broke into a smile. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head when finally he squeaked out a hearty, enthusiastic “Shabbat Sha-lom!”
“Shabbat shalom to you too,” I said. “And what do we do on Shabbat?”
“Dinner!” he replied.
Like I said, it’s a start.
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