My kids are about to age out of Tot Shabbats and I’m worried.
I generally don’t like going to synagogue: I feel awkward (and conflicted) reading the English aloud; I’m slow at reading Hebrew; I never learned to daven or even to bend my knees at the right time.
And anyhow, even if I were to drag my kids to grown-up services (whether on Shabbat or at the High Holidays), I can’t imagine that it would be a reflective or relaxing experience. I expect that I’d need to shush them and ask them to sit still and bring them to the bathroom and back to our seats and so on. I have a hard enough time shushing myself and keeping myself sitting (or standing) still. I know they’ll age out of some of these needs, but there’s a part of me that never grew out of bristling at having to act “proper.”
Each week we can scour the internet to find local family-friendly programming; we can schlep our kids to singalongs, craft sessions, and shabarbeques. But if we go to these events, we will not be home to practice our own celebrations: lighting the candles, blessing the children, or just gathering together to eat a festive meal. These are the wonder years of memory. Our ancestors knew what they were doing in laying the groundwork for weekly home-based rituals: repeating the same phrases, the same blessings, awakening all our senses to the beauty of our extended family.
As we age out of family-friendly programming, we need to lay our own groundwork. If we want our children to remember the sweetness of celebrating Jewishly, we can’t depend on institutional programming to do it for us.
One Saturday, we visit an Orthodox family for the “third meal”: kids of all ages running around the backyard, plenty of food, friends stopping by. This is my fantasy of community. Except that it’s not mine and it never will be mine. My husband is not Jewish (at least not by birth or conversion, but that’s a separate story). Davening or confidently leading songs at a big Shabbat meal will never be comfortable for him. And it won’t be for me either. I don’t take off work every Friday to bake challah and prepare enough food for a full 25 hours of socializing at home.
This is our life: We live in a fairly normal middle class suburban neighborhood. The closest synagogue is eight miles away: far too far to walk, far too far to feel geographically connected to other members. I would love to host people every Shabbat, have kids running free in the backyard, share stories and food and wine. But it won’t work if my guests have to rush home from work, pack the kids in, and fight traffic to get here.
Nostalgia brings me back to a time when there were minyans in every neighborhood (or three for every two people, as the joke goes). No matter where you went, you could find a home for the holidays, Shabbat, and beyond. Someone would fill the role of the warm and huggable grandmother, cooking old world recipes, filling the home with perfumed memories.
I realize there are missing pieces to this nostalgic puzzle: sexism keeping the grandma in the kitchen and anti-Semitism clustering Jews together in their own neighborhoods. Even if we have moved beyond the shtetls, we are a diasporic people, wandering to far-flung lands as individuals, families, and communities. Chabad does its best to send its schlichim (emissaries) to the most remote corners of the world where tiny Jewish communities are emerging. Yet they cannot be in every neighborhood and they cannot fill the needs of all Jews, whether we are LGBT or hetero, secular and/or spiritual, Jews of color or Jews of so-called mixed marriages, or some combination of all of these and more.
Sometimes Chabad seems to be the only welcoming table in town, but if there’s one, there must be more, perhaps just out of sight: Maybe we can smell the chicken soup as we walk by; maybe we see the candles and apples and honey through the windows; maybe we know someone who knows someone…
So, do you know someone who will be cooking soup and dipping apples in honey come early October? Or do you know anyone who needs a home for the holidays? Let’s try to connect the dots, putting travellers and newcomers in touch with hosts and vice versa. Together, we can welcome each other and be welcomed, wherever we are, geographically, spiritually, Jewishly, or otherwise.
L’Shanah Tova u’metukah.