I grew up in a clothes-on-the-floor, dinner-in-the-grass, bellowing-show-tunes-at-the-store kind of house. The only real rules were no hitting (unless you’re hitting back), no cursing (in English), and if you said honest, it HAD to be true. My parents would surprise us (and our teachers) by picking us up at school for a month long road trip with no notice at all.
My mom dressed sexy, spoke her mind, and always, ALWAYS, made a scene. It was a topsy-turvy backwards sort of childhood in which we were never really sure who was in charge and what the rules were.
I rebelled by being good. Oh so good. I dressed modestly, was quiet and studious, and followed every rule I could find outside my home. But when I got to college, I made up a new set of rules for myself. I could dress hot, dance seductively, and kiss boys. But no getting drunk, and absolutely no sleeping around.
And then I discovered Judaism. Well, not exactly discovered, because my Jewishness had always been there, woven through my neshamah (soul) and imprinted in my heart. But now I was meeting other Jewish people and doing Jewish things, and suddenly that abstract world of Judaism that my Israeli mother always told me about became a vibrant, living world that I just couldn’t get enough of.
What I discovered was a whole bunch of rules. 613 of them to be exact. There were rules for eating, rules for talking, rules for working, and a whole slew of other rules for Shabbat. And not only were there rules, but there were fences around the rules too… just to make ABSOLUTELY sure you didn’t break them.
It appealed to me. This world of rules and rituals. A world where you knew what to do and when to do it. A world where you knew who was in charge (God) and what He wanted from you. A world where things followed a set order, a predictable flow.
I started visiting religious families on Shabbat, hosting microwaved holiday dinners in my dorm room, and surrounding myself with Jewish people. I planned a semester in Israel to find my bashert.
Perhaps if I had met a nice Jewish boy in Israel, I would have continued down that path. I would have become more observant. Had a structured life, filled with rituals and rules. But that’s not how it happened. Although I was set up with every cousin’s best friend and uncle’s neighbor and friend’s brother, I did not meet my bashert in Israel. Instead, I found my match almost immediately upon my arrival back home in America. A wonderful guy (who happened to be Cathol-ish).
No matter how much I thought I’d worked at living a more Jewish life, the rules began to fall away as soon as I had kids. Not only the Jewish ones, but the societal ones as well. Soon, I found myself raising a house full of kids who throw their clothes on the floor, eat dinner on the grass, and bellow show tunes at the store.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve failed with them. That I haven’t given them the rules and structure that they need to get through life. But then I watch how they treat each other with kindness and love, and I see how well they are doing in school, how joyfully they live, and I wonder again if all those rules are really necessary.
It’s true that the stringency of the rules may have fallen away, but not everything has been lost. Although I don’t always remember to light the Shabbat candles, when I do remember, the kids sing the blessings along with me, their eyes glowing in the candlelight. Although we don’t live in a very Jewish area, we’ve done a good job of creating a small Jewish community to celebrate holidays with. Although we don’t keep kosher at home, the kids make thoughtful choices about the food they eat.
My middle son started Hebrew school this year. Not because I made him, but because there is something inside of him pulling him towards this life of rules and rituals. Watching him learn the Hebrew letters and sing the blessings fills me with a nostalgia for a childhood I never had. The childhood that I often craved. A childhood deeply connected to Judaism.
What I have learned is that that connection can happen at any time of life and in all sorts of ways, not just through rules, and not just in childhood. For my middle son, it seems to have come wrapped in the comfort of prayer and faith. For my older son, it has come in the form of community.
The Jewish connections have grown deeper for me as well. While I don’t connect through the small rules any more, I feel it when I sing the prayers along with my Hebrew school kids, when my house is filled with the fragrant smells of cumin and fresh baked challah, when I mourn along with my Jewish friends for the tragedies that have befallen our people in Paris, in Israel, even in our own backyard.
I know that these connections will come and go, change and grow for my children. But, wherever their paths take them–be it an observant life or a more secular one–I hope that they’ll never stop bellowing show tunes in the store with me.