“Mommy, sometimes I wish we were Christian.”
My 7-year-old daughter said those words to me the other day as we were standing in the aisle of our local big box craft store. We were looking for Hanukkah decorations and activities, and not surprisingly, we found ourselves surrounded by ornaments, wreaths, and a mind-boggling array of Christmas crafts. We eventually found a small, picked-through display with blue and silver streamers, Hanukkah-themed cookie cutters, and a few plastic menorahs and cheap dreidels.
It was easy to guess what my daughter was talking about, but I asked her anyway.
She thought for a minute and then responded. “Look at all these Christmas decorations. So many people celebrate Christmas. We’d have so many choices for our craft projects. Sometimes it just seems like it would be easier.”
I was only half-listening to the answer I had already expected as I shuffled through a bin of wrapping paper, looking for anything that wasn’t red and green. And then her words caught my attention.
“It seems like it would be easier.”
The truth that I rarely like to admit, to myself or anyone else, is that I’ve had that very thought on more than one occasion. There are times, usually when I’m stressed or overwhelmed, when I don’t want to feel like I’m the least knowledgeable person in the room at synagogue or in the halls of the day school my daughters attend. There are Saturdays when I wish I didn’t care about Shabbat, and I could just feel free to shop or surf the internet all day. I get tired of tripping over Hebrew words and stumbling through blessings that never seem to roll off my tongue in quite the right way. I imagine how much easier life would be if we weren’t paying for day school, if I could just put the girls on the bus at the top of our street rather than schlepping across town twice a day.
If this all sounds pretty kvetchy and whiny, well, it is. I know that. I also know that it’s the not the whole truth of my life as a Jewish mother, and it’s certainly not the most important truth.
Living Jewishly isn’t always easy for me, but it always feels right. My Jewish identity and family are the most important sources of meaning and connection for me. Sometimes I lose sight of that in the midst of the details of daily life, but over time I have found one sure fire way to bring myself back to what really matters.
Not surprisingly, gratitude is a core value in Judaism, one that was first highlighted in a Torah story involving a Jewish mother. Poor Leah ends up in a loveless marriage to Jacob, who longs for her younger sister, Rachel. He is presumably (and understandably) fairly pissed off that he was duped into marrying Leah after years of working for Rachel’s hand.
Nonetheless, Leah produces six sons and a daughter with Jacob. With the birth of each of new baby, Leah hopes that her husband will finally see her, finally appreciate her. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to happen. Rather than becoming increasingly bitter, as so many of us might have in such a difficult situation, Leah named her fourth son Yehudah, which is often translated as “I am grateful,” and it is the source of the name of the Jewish people (Yehudim).
We are a people of gratitude.
There is a Jewish tradition of saying 100 blessings each day, which can be accomplished with relative ease if one attends services three times daily. Needless to say, I don’t, and while I’m sure I don’t get close to 100 on a regular basis, I try to find my way into gratitude whenever I can.
This kitchen is a mess. I really don’t feel like doing the dishes again. I am so lucky to have a kitchen to clean.
I am so overwhelmed by everything I have to do. My task list just keeps getting longer and longer. I am grateful to have a busy, full life.
Hanukkah is coming on Sunday, and I haven’t done a single thing to get ready for it. Thank goodness we live in a time and place when we can celebrate our holidays without fear of persecution.
The list goes on and on.
Practicing gratitude doesn’t necessarily fix our problems, and it isn’t always easy, especially in the face of loss, illness, or other major life challenges. Poor Leah never seems to have been loved by Jacob, and I’m sure her life as the mother of seven wasn’t particularly easy. I have to assume that she still felt sad, angry, lonely, and disappointed. Yet she still found something to be grateful for, and in that way she offers us a powerful lesson in finding the good in even the most challenging circumstances.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, or “recognizing the good.” I much prefer this to the English phrase “be grateful.” Hakarat hatov doesn’t call on us to embody gratitude, it just reminds us to take a moment to recognize and appreciate all that we have. Each time we are able to do that, our perspective shifts just a bit, and for just a moment, our lives seem a bit happier or easier, or perhaps more meaningful or joyful. Build up enough of these moments over time, and you might just create a new reality for yourself and those around you.
As I stood there in the aisle of that over-stuffed craft store with my daughters, I thought about what my little girl had said. I crouched down next to them, and told them that I understood why sometimes it seems like it would be easier to be Christian, and that a lot of the Christmas crafts really were pretty cool. And then I leaned in just a little bit closer and said, “And we’re also really lucky to be Jewish. Not that many people get to be Jewish, and it’s pretty special.”
My daughter thought for a moment. “That’s true, Mommy. We get Hanukkah, which means we get to spread out our presents over eight nights. And we get to eat gelt, and that’s pretty yummy. So, that’s good.”
Yes, little one, that is good.
(For more on gratitude, check out this cool video from The Jewish Food for Thought Series by Hanan Harchol.)