My family and I celebrated Havdalah together at home for the first time this week.
It had been a fairly uneventful Saturday; the girls played at home and then at the neighbors’ house. Josh and I read the instruction manual for our new snow blower. (I can honestly say I have rarely been more excited about a Hanukkah present.) We were waiting for my older daughter’s friend to come over for a sleepover when the girls asked to do Havdalah.
I looked at my husband and he looked at me. Sure. Why not?
I asked my daughters what made them think of this, especially on a day that, in all honesty, hadn’t included any other Jewish rituals. “Don’t you remember when you dropped me off at A’s house for a sleep-under? We got there right before they did Havdalah. And now she’s coming here to spend the night. That’s what made me think of it. And now I want to do it, too!”
Oh, right. I did remember. One of the many non-academic benefits of sending our girls to a pluralistic day school is that we have connected with families who have a wide range of Jewish identities and observances. My daughter’s closest friend comes from an Orthodox family, and I am grateful for it. On that particular night, my daughter and I arrived just as they were honoring the distinction between the sacred and mundane, light and darkness, and Shabbat and all the other days of the week.
I pulled a Kiddush cup out of the drying rack and dusted off our Havdalah candle and spice box. The spices were stale from years of neglect (honestly, I’m not sure we ever used them…); Josh put in new cinnamon sticks while I found our benchers (prayer books).
We gathered around our kitchen table, my husband singing the blessings while the girls and I did our best to follow along. My daughters took turns holding the braided candle (you’ll be glad to know no children were set on fire in the celebration of this ritual) while we sipped the grape juice, sniffed the spices, and gazed at our fingernails in the shadow of the flame before listening to it fizzle out in the last few drops of juice.
I’m no longer surprised by how foreign these rituals feel to me. I don’t understand the Hebrew, I can never quite remember the melody I’m supposed to be singing, and no matter how many articles I read about Havdalah, I still don’t understand what I’m supposed to be seeing when I curl my fingers over in front of the candle and stare at my nails.
In my introductory post for the Jewish Mother Project, I wrote “My goal is not to become a perfect Jewish mother, but the ‘Best Carla’ (or Zusya, if you prefer) I can be for my daughters.” About five months later, I’m starting to get some insight into what that really looks like.
I’m starting to truly understand, and accept, that I can’t run this show on my own. The truth is, I can’t even run Havdalah on my own. And each time I decide that I am going to learn a new language or start a new habit or celebrate a ritual on my own, it doesn’t happen. I was discussing this with a fellow parent at my daughters’ school, and she mentioned that we all make time for what’s important to us. Perhaps, she said, these things just aren’t important to me, and that’s OK.
I’ve been mulling over her words, and I think she’s partially right. We also make time for things that are known, easy, comfortable, and safe. We make time for habits we have already developed. Judaism—living a Jewish life with my family—is very important to me, but to misquote one of my favorite early 90s love ballads, “Sometimes important just ain’t enough.”
Once again, I find myself coming back to a central Jewish teaching and a fundamental practice: None of this was meant to be done alone. That’s why we need minyans. That’s why we honor lifecycle events and celebrate holidays by opening our homes to family, friends, and members of our extended community. For some of us, though, the need for support, connection, and guidance goes beyond seders and baby naming ceremonies. I now realize that it comes in many forms, including my family, synagogue, and the girls’ day school and the families we have met there, and it extends to the smaller, but no less important, rituals and practices that make up the rhythm and substance of a Jewish life.
Now I just have to figure out what that means for me. I’m not sure how it will turn out, but the next time I’m confused, I’ll remember the lesson I learned with my family at Havdalah this week: Creating a sacred experience isn’t about getting every ritual or blessing right. It’s about showing up and honoring the moment, ideally with my family or community by my side.