It can be really, really hard, as a Reform Jew, to actually admit that religion involves…God. I know that sounds silly, but I think there are a lot of us who want to live Jewish lives, but who grew up in an environment where religion was either an afterthought or very openly expressed as “something we do culturally and for the community, but not…you know…to believe in.” My parents are proud atheists, my mother’s a “cultural Jew,” and my grandfather warned us that he might seem to get more religious as he aged, but that would only be his fear of death, and we should remain rational.
As a result, my late awakening to the feeling that there is still a mysterious pull within all this rational, Woody-Allen-is-our-Elvis-type Judaism that can’t be explained away. I feel a thrill when I hear the prayers, I feel a connection to 5,000 years of history when I perform rituals, and I find comfort in the idea that there’s an amorphous, faceless energy to the universe that I don’t understand, and I call that feeling God. This is how I had to explain it to my parents over cocktails in the East Village one late afternoon, as they gazed at me, saucer-eyed with worry, when I mentioned in passing that I believed in God. You’d have thought I’d have admitted to believing in The Celestine Prophecy or chemtrails. (Amusing sidenote: my mom was equally scandalized to find that I considered the syrupy concoction in front of me, complete with floating lychee, a martini. “That is not a martini,” she insisted, in the same shocked tone she used to ask “What do you mean, you believe in God?”
With all this baggage, you can imagine how hard it is to talk to my kids about God. Which is precisely why I have such a fondness for “Goodnight Sh’ma,” the PJ Library book that explains the Sh’ma and how to use it, like a Yogic chant, to close out your day and relax, meditatively, for nighttime. (See? I have to invoke yoga and meditation so you don’t think I’m a weirdo. That is so San Francisco, I could plotz!) For one thing, since my kids can’t read yet, I can change the words so that I’m just explaining, “This boy thinks of all the things he did today, and all the things he wants to do tomorrow, and all the people he loves in the world, and all the people he loves inside his home, and he’s grateful and he’s hopeful. And that’s what prayer is.”
And then, completely separate from the explanation, there’s the reminder to sing the sh’ma each night, twice, as your child goes to sleep. Which my daughter absolutely loved from the night the book arrived. She was barely speaking at the time, and she referred to it as “waddy-wah,” because that’s how “adonai” sounded to her.
From there, it was a short hop to lighting Shabbat candles and saying the prayers over the light, the wine, and the bread each Friday, something we all three look forward to (Dad is rarely home that early on Friday, so it’s a female-only ritual much of the time — we love it when he’s there, but we also like having it to ourselves, too).
Yep, just as my parents might have feared — Goodnight Sh’ma was a gateway drug to the opiate of the masses.