I will never forget the first time my parents took me to Kol Nidrei services, and the congregation stood, as the night fell, to put on their tallitot (prayer shawls). After the blessing, those who were standing like a forest of people all around me picked up their tallit and draped them over their shoulders. The movement of hundreds of people in silence all together was stunning. That silence was incredibly beautiful–and the wind that I felt from the lifting of the fabric felt to me, a small girl, like the wings of angels beating.
Eileen Price’s recent post on Kveller, “I Won’t Force My Kids to Attend High Holiday Services,” prompted me to respond. In my opinion, it is incredibly, incredibly important to bring children to services for the High Holidays. There are so many reasons, but to my mind, it all boils down to two simple ones:
1. No matter how Jewishly observant a person is the rest of the year, this is a time when all Jews come together as a community.
We Jews are a really varied group of people. Some of us keep kosher and send our kids to day school. Some of us haven’t been to a Shabbat service since our own bat mitzvahs. Some of us light Havdalah candles every Saturday night; some of us might not even know what Havdalah is. We are Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated.
But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our worlds all stand still. On the anniversary of the creation of the world, we re-create our own world by physically coming together as a Jewish community. We stand still, and we stand together. We don’t go about our lives as we normally do. These days are different.
On these days, we don’t go to school, or to a playdate. These days, to riff off another holiday, are different from all other days. Instead, we get dressed up in our nicest clothes as if we were going to meet royalty–because we are. We are going, in a sacred time and a sacred space, to meet God, and to contemplate our own actions and how we can be better people, doing honor to Judaism and ourselves.
There are many different kinds of Judaism, but being Jewish inherently means being part of a community. That is how Judaism was designed–you have to do it as part of a team. Kashrut, some theorize, was designed so that you would need to be in a Jewish community in order to eat; purity laws, some theorize, were designed so that you would need to be in a Jewish community to have sex. We aren’t even supposed to pray without 10 people present. All of these things are meant to convey the idea that Jews don’t go it alone: We do it together, as a struggling, always-arguing, questioning, powerful k’lal Yisrael (the Jewish people). It is an amazing thing.
By going to synagogue on High Holidays, we can take our part in that legacy. And as a parent, I can give that gift to my children as well.
2. No matter what you say to children, they will only learn from you based on what you do and how you act.
Kids are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. And as parents, we define their world. It is an awesome and powerful responsibility. I can’t stress this enough: WE ARE THEIR “NORMAL” (a really scary thought for those of us who are way, way not normal). If you are a slob, they will think socks are the normal accoutrements for chandeliers. If you are a neat freak, they will assume everyone Windexes DVDs before putting them back in their cases. Only later in life, when they meet other people, will they see that the way you did things isn’t the only way… and even at that point, in all likelihood, they will still see the way you did things as the baseline touchstone for how to view the world.
Going to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a family is a very powerful experience that may seem like a minor decision, but will in fact become a deep, visceral memory for your child.
As Jewish parents, it is incumbent on us to create the next generation of Jews. I believe it is critical to teach kids through our actions that they, like we, are obligated to be participants, members, and components of a Jewish community. And in doing so, I try to make the High Holidays as special as possible for my children. Because I am showing them through our actions: This is what we, as Jews, do. In doing so, I’m giving them the map for how they can conduct their lives as well.
In my home, we get books to supplement the prayerbook readings–jumping-off points for kids to think and consider the holidays and its meanings. We talk about parts of the prayerbook together before we go in to services. Before the holiday, we prepare by going to 10Q and writing down our private answers to those questions, sealing them away for the next year. We talk about our intentions, our history, our purpose.
And for my little ones who are too young to go to a full service? We read children’s books about the holiday. I write down their dictated lists of good things they want to accomplish in the next year, talking about it with them and trying to figure out how we can make it happen. We make apple and honey-flavored pastries together. We put on new clothes, make a cameo in “adult” services, and then go to family services. We do our own
service with our extended family, the little ones throwing chunks of bread in the water and yelling, “I’M SORRY!!!” We talk about all the ways the sounds of the shofar make us feel.
We make the days come alive. We make them vivid and vibrant, spilling over with meaning, beauty, and significance. And we don’t do that apart–we do that together.
Wishing you all a healthy, happy, and sweet New Year.