Why be Jewish? To me, it is about three simple things: tradition, peoplehood, and community.
1. Tradition reminds me that I am a link in a chain that is thousands of years old. That, as a Jewish mother, my role is to ensure that our tradition is transmitted to my boys. It is lighting Shabbat candles and baking challah every week (even though I can’t eat it—darn gluten!). Making honey cake for Rosh Hashanah (even though no one eats it). Making dreidel-shaped cookies for Hanukkah because everyone eats those.
It is letting them stay up past their bedtimes for the Purim megillah reading and Passover seders and weathering the day-after overtired tantrums. It is making sure that Shabbat is a day of “do’s” and not just “don’ts” and washing the mud off the floor on Saturday nights after hosting a horde of stampeding boys for playtime, dessert, and basketball. And soon, it will be sitting side by side with my son as I help him prepare his Torah reading and Haftarah for his bar mitzvah.
2. Peoplehood is the responsibility to teach them that Jews don’t look a certain way or practice a certain way. That there are many different ways to be Jewish, and that our own family practice is just that—the way we practice Judaism according to our understanding and beliefs. It is turning down that Friday night birthday sleepover invite (no matter how much it stinks!), not blinking twice when people drive to our house on Shabbat and holidays, and walking over two miles to attend someone’s bar mitzvah on Shabbat even though everyone else will be driving there.
It is spending an inordinate amount of money on Jewish Day School tuition and schlepping them to Shabbat services each week to give them the ability to enter any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and be able to join in prayer. It’s loading up my mom bag for years with Cheerios, snacks, and books to keep two squirmy boys quiet and entertained during services.
3. Community is glancing wistfully at that gorgeous farm house in an idyllic suburb and knowing that it is off limits because it is miles from the nearest synagogue. It doesn’t matter how many acres there are or how affordable the real estate is.
It is about celebrating and mourning together. It is making the heartbreaking decision to bring my son to a funeral and cemetery at the tender age of 10, and watching him pick up a shovel to help bury his friend’s mother. And it is also always getting up to join the hora (no matter how many times your foot gets squashed by someone else’s spike heels).
It is staying up late making three pounds of sweet and sour meatballs for a family with a new baby, and watching a stream of people bring lunches and dinners to your home when you are laid up after surgery. It is watching the kids you have known since they were in diapers putting on prayer shawls and taking their place as adults in the Jewish community.
And it’s playing mah-jongg on Saturdays and hoping that I will be sitting and cackling with the same people as our hair gets grayer and our laugh lines grow deeper.