Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have always been my favorite holidays. I looked forward to them like, well, a kid on Christmas. I loved spending the day in synagogue—the old familiar melodies, the festive, yet serious atmosphere, and seeing all my childhood friends who came home for these few special days each year. I even enjoyed reading the English translations in the machzor, the special High Holiday prayer book, which can be quite beautiful.
But the times they are a-changin’. Today, with two kids in tow, it’s just not the same. My Rosh Hashanah experience allows for few opportunities to pray or listen to the various tunes in synagogue, with virtually no time for reflection. My children, at 4 and 2, are no longer portable little babies, but they’re not old enough to sit and fully understand what’s going on.
Last year, I probably spent a total of 20 minutes inside the sanctuary during the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Aside from wearing our shiny new outfits and the muffled sound of the shofar in the distance, it could have been any Shabbat during the year. It didn’t feel special, and it certainly wasn’t how I hoped to kick off the New Year.
With 5777 rapidly approaching, I’m once again left wondering what I can do to preserve the sanctity of these days, knowing that my needs are secondary to those of my kids, who are far more interested in finding lollipops and entertainment than meaning.
The synagogue we visit provides childcare, but my youngest just misses the age cut, and the older one, not knowing the babysitters or the other children, refuses to stay alone. My husband and I try to alternate who stays outside with the kids, but it’s hard to concentrate knowing the scream you hear in the distance originated in the larynx of one of yours.
I suppose I could get a babysitter to stay home with them, but it doesn’t feel right to me. Even though they’re not listening to the rabbi or paying any attention to the service, I want them to take in what’s happening, and feel the holiday atmosphere, so eventually it will be something pleasant for them as well.
A year ago, during one of our frequent breaks, I bumped into a couple of friends watching their kids play outside the synagogue, and we all lamented the problem. So, I know it’s not just me, but that doesn’t make it any easier either.
What’s the solution then? How am I supposed to fight for my soul on Yom Kippur when I still have to dole out graham crackers and make the Elmo doll do a funny dance? How can I pray for forgiveness, when I can’t read the words or hear the melodies as I’m stuck pushing a swing outside the building or breaking up a fight over a toy car?
I don’t have an answer—I wish I did. But maybe this is how it is supposed to be for now. To be sure, I did, in fact, ask to be in this exact situation; I always prayed to be blessed with children and a family. Wouldn’t me from 10 years ago have killed for this problem? Wouldn’t so many others? The first time I brought my young son to Rosh Hashanah services it didn’t go exactly as I had hoped. But then again, maybe it went entirely according to plan.
I’m lucky to have to chase around active, healthy, beautiful kids, and maybe that’s what matters now. It’s not about me anymore, how long I spend in synagogue or the words I say. It’s about them, and how I can expose them to Judaism and teach them to love and appreciate all the weird and wonderful things that we do.
For now, and at least the next few years, the best I can do may be to find a new way to approach these days and be satisfied with a few quiet moments to be reflective, in between the screams and request for more snacks (it’s always about snacks). And maybe making sure they get a little bit of enjoyment and excitement out of the holiday is how I celebrate for the time being. Making apple-themed art projects, singing songs about honey, and dashing inside to hear a few shofar blasts will have to serve as my repentance and my prayer.
Yes, it’s different, but then so am I. I’ve changed and so have my priorities and, as a result, the manner in which I observe the High Holidays. Sometimes that feels like little comfort, and others, when I really think about it, it seems like a very small price to pay.