Last month I had one of those “I have no idea what to expect because I went to public school” moments. The occasion was my son’s “siddur play”–an apparent rite of passage for every first grade child in Jewish day school. For the weeks leading up to the big event, my son had been practicing his line for the play and belting out songs in the bathtub. He excitedly talked about stage presence (“we have to say our line very loud”) and choreography (“this is the part when we all stand up”). And while the theater major in me could relate, the public school student in me could not.
On the big day, after dropping my son off with his class (actors need their prep-time, you know) my husband, parents, and I filed into the schools beit midrash (study hall/multi-purpose room) with cameras at the ready. What followed was 40 minutes of pure sweetness. Through words, songs, prayers, and props the class told the story of how much they have learned since those first timid days at the start of the year, and how they were now ready to receive their very own siddurim (prayer books). It didn’t matter that I only understood about 70 percent of the all-Hebrew performance. Their pride was palpable.
My son could hardly contain his excitement. He sung loudly, delivered his line as if he was on a Broadway stage, and closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and swayed with great passion when the class sang the Shema. At the conclusion of the play, when his name was called and he was handed a beautiful leather-bound siddur with his name printed in gold, it was as if he gained inches before my eyes. For a child who seems to be straddling the line between “little kid” and “big boy” (scared by the Lego Movie, but fearless during his first time on a snowboard), I watched him take a definitive step toward the latter.
He spent the rest of the day looking through his new siddur, finding the words and prayers that he knew. On the first Shabbat after he received his siddur, he declared that he was no longer going to spend his time in the “kids’ room” at shul (synagogue), and instead sat in the sanctuary with the grownups following along with the service and leading the congregation in Adon Olam at its conclusion.
My husband and I have watched all of this with great pride of our own, and renewed confidence in our decision to send our children to Jewish Day School. At the siddur play, my parents and I had exchanged a knowing glance when, in his introductory remarks, the Rabbi acknowledged all of the grandparents in attendance for raising children who have chosen to send their own children to Day School. I am sure that, when I was my son’s age, and my parents attended my first-grade school play (I have a hazy memory of dancing to Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” and walking through a cut-out Statue of Liberty saying “My family came from Russia for religious freedom.”), they never would have imagined that several decades later they would find themselves watching their grandson’s first play performed all in Hebrew at a Jewish day school. Yet, even though they understood even less of the play than I did, there they were, marking this milestone with us because they knew how special it was for my son and for me as his mother.
And just to put the cherry on the top of this “I love my family for accepting me for who I am, even though I have chosen to live my life a little differently than them” sundae, several weeks after the siddur play, my grandmother was at our apartment and asked to see my son’s new siddur. After thumbing through its pages, she looked at me and said “I am proud of you.” It was not what I was expecting, and in that moment, I realized that though the whole Jewish Day School thing might be new to my family, the emotional connection to the Jewish people is a thread that runs deep and binds the four living generations of my family and countless generations past. When my son was presented with his own siddur in such a beautiful and meaningful way, it gave him the opportunity to grab onto this thread and pull it forward into the future.