This past Rosh Hashanah we attended services as guests at my husband’s aunt’s synagogue in Long Island. We are lucky to have a large family between all of my husband’s cousins — enough children to fill up two small pews in the children’s sanctuary. The kids grumbled all the way to the synagogue, annoyed to be wearing button-down shirts and tights, and having had to halt their play.
The service for the junior congregation was highly abbreviated, and very interactive. “Does anyone know why we eat honey on Rosh Hashanah?” the young morah at the front of the room asked. My younger child raised their hand: “For a sweet new year?” they asked quietly, looking down at their lap. I was proud. Shocked, actually, that one of my children even knew the answer.
My kids, ages 9 and 12, have each completed what amounts to only one year of Hebrew school, having only resumed last year after a hiatus of several years of pandemic life. They attend two different Hebrew schools in two different parts of the city, but we are not affiliated with either. I don’t know any of the families of their Hebrew school classmates. Neither of my kids remember much of what attending services entails, as they had been so young when we stopped going. My youngest, trying to follow along with the prayers at the kid’s service, didn’t understand why we read the prayer books “backwards.” Both children expressed that they felt deeply injured by our request that they sit through the meager 30 minutes of religious observance.
My 12-year-old was born around Rosh Hashanah. I remember the effort and pain my post-Cesarean-body had to endure in order to host both a bris and a holiday while feeling so fragile. And despite how difficult it was, the season of his birth made me feel more connected to my culture and faith than I ever had before. We had been living with my husband’s grandmother, who we all called Gigi, during the last months of my pregnancy. Our apartment had been under construction at the time, and the idea of living by the beach during the oppressive summer months seemed like a good one. This was the same house where my husband had grown up.
That summer, Gigi and I became especially close, and every day over tuna salad and hard boiled eggs, she would tell me a part of her incredible story of survival that I’d never heard before. For my son’s bris, both my husband’s and my large families gathered in my husband’s grandmother’s living room, the same room where my husband had had his own many years before. My grandfather served as my son’s sandek — the person who holds the baby on a pillow while the mohel completes the circumcision. A few days later, Gigi proudly bounced our infant — her first great-grandchild — on her lap during services, receiving naches from the whole congregation.
For many years, Gigi was our matriarch, the glue that kept our family traditions alive and filled with meaning. Her synagogue — the same one was where my husband and his siblings and cousins attended — was the jewel of our religious community. Going to temple with Gigi, it was hard to not feel like one was in the presence of royalty. Everyone would stop to talk with her, we had some of the best seats in the house, and she and the cantor were very close friends.
My kids experienced many Shabbat dinners with their cousins around her dining room table, with the fancy embroidered table cloth that held decades of chicken soup stains within its threads. All the women in the family held hands before raising them to our faces to say the Shabbat blessings. On Yom Kippur, Gigi would become somber, haunted by the memories of this same holiday so many years before, in 1943, when her loving father was hanged and her older brother, who had been her best friend, was shot in Auschwitz. The great-grandchildren, not yet aware of Gigi’s horrific history, somehow knew that this holiday was different. Even as toddlers, all the children would be particularly tender towards her during break fast at her or our aunt’s house.
When COVID hit, we attempted virtual Hebrew school but that fizzled out quickly. On Passover, instead of going to temple, we gathered via Skype to (awkwardly) read portions of the seder. Fearful of infecting Gigi, we kept the kids away. Instead of going to her house for Shabbat, we lit candles in our own home on Friday nights, a tradition I am grateful we have been able to maintain (more or less) to this day.
The pandemic meant very few attendees — many of whom were elderly — at services. By the time things opened up again, the congregation had dwindled to the point that the synagogue shuttered its doors. Gigi got very sick and passed away at the age of 95. We had taken for granted that she would always be there as our glue, and that her synagogue would remain at the heart of our family’s observance of our faith. Without a temple, and especially without Gigi, I felt lost and disconnected from Judaism. Instead of joining a new temple, or enrolling our kids in Hebrew school, my husband and I did nothing for years, paralyzed by our grief.
With some time has come some new attempts to reconnect. For our son’s bar mitzvah, the plan is to go to Jerusalem with our extended family and have a service by the Wailing Wall. My son has no interest in a party (or what I sometimes refer to as a “mini wedding”) where all eyes would be on him. He’s currently enrolled in the b’nei mitzvah class at his Hebrew school, but barely can read the Hebrew alphabet and will likely need extra lessons to catch up on all the things he missed the last few years.
It isn’t my children’s fault that a pandemic took them out of Hebrew school during the formative years when many Jewish children became aware of what it means to be Jewish. And yet
I am torn about making all of the effort it will take to bring our large family to Jerusalem for a ceremony that my child has only recently begun to prepare for. It feels a bit like he’d be getting a CliffsNotes version of what is traditionally a much more involved education. I remember my own bat mitzvah as a landmark event celebrating all of the years I’d spent going to Hebrew school, attending services and learning the Hebrew alphabet. I loved Hebrew school, where I saw the same friends at least twice a week and learned about Jewish ethics — and how to question things. For my bat mitzvah, I wrote and recited a poem about my faith instead of giving a speech after my Haftorah portion. Afterwards, I enrolled in more Hebrew school and had a confirmation ceremony at 15.
Will taking part in this sacred rite of passage have the same meaning for my son as it did for me, without all the kinds of exposure and experiences that often precede it? Would it merely be performative, like memorizing facts just for a test and then never revisiting the subject again?
I regret not putting in more of an effort to champion my children’s Jewish education. But the best I can do now, I realize, is move forward and not dwell on the things I haven’t done. After all, Rosh Hashanah ushers in a fresh start, a chance to begin anew. I am planning on attending services at a few local synagogues to decide which one feels the most right for our family. My son will volunteer at the Yom Kippur services at his Hebrew school’s synagogue on Monday. Knowing his commitment to school work, I can rest assured that he will take studying for his bar mitzvah seriously.
My son’s Jewish experience is not any less significant than my own, or my husband’s, just because it is different. Attending services and belonging to a synagogue are both wonderful privileges but they are not required in order to be a Jew. Both of my children will come into their identities in their own ways, none of them proscribed, or solely dictated by me. I have faith.