Saturday, July 17, 2010

Honor your father and your mother

Let's face it. It is a big one. It made the top five. There are even people who point out the parent-like qualities of G-d and believe that this commandment applies to both G-d and Mom and Dad. Both need to be honored. It is required.

But what do you do when one of the parents start acting like a slub and you are having a hard time keeping up with that commandment?

Do you still have to honor your father if he walks all over you? If he treats you like you are worthless and is rude to you every time you speak to him? At what point does this contract dissolve? At what point do you, as the child, have permission to stop honoring your parent? Or do you?

I have always tried to be a good daughter. And some day, I hope to achieve that status. But right now, in this moment, I dont' think I fit the bill.

I started writing this post about three days ago. I was angry with my father because I thought he had changed in his behavior towards me, and I was hurt. But, after visiting with my father for several days, I have discovered something. It isn't my father who has changed. It is me. I am sad, depressed, and feeling unworthy of just about everything.

My father didn't change his behaviors, he has always been this way with me. He has always been a bit of an extremist in his reactions and conversations. The ultimate pessimist, to be sure. And I have always known this and I don't fault him for that. It was just easier to deal with his extreme behaviors when my mom was alive.

During my visit, it occurred to me that my father was not acting any differently than he always has, but I was reacting differently. I realized during this visit, that the buffer is completely gone. And I realized exactly when it started.

Most people would expect me to say that it started the day that my mom passed away, but it didn't. There was too much numbness, followed by too much grief. But, as we began to work our way back to the surface after her passing, I realized that it was Mom who made it easier to deal with my father's extremisms. It was Mom who was able to see the humor and make Dad see the ridiculousness of his words. She was always able to bring him down to the necessary level of normal reactions.

After Mom passed, I still brought the kids to visit with my dad. I thought, and do think, that it is extremely important to encourage a relationship between my children and my father. (And, for what it is worth, I do the same thing with my in-law's but that is a different post altogether.) On one of the very first visits after Mom passed, I tried to talk to my father about my feelings and how I missed Mom..

He yelled at me. He belittled me. He told me that I wasn't "allowed" to be feeling what I was feeling. He hurt me tremendously.

It was at that moment that I started to "notice" his behavior towards me had changed. He was ruder and harsher in his words with me. He treated me less and less like an adult. He tried to make me feel badly for my choices in my adult life. In the end, even after he told me how foolish I was behaving, he would come around and tell me that I knew what was best for my family and my life. It just took him longer than it had in the past. Mom was the one who always showed him that I was a grown up. She was the one who helped him to see that if I were going to make a mistake, it needed to be my mistake. Mom was the one who was always able to talk reason into Dad. I didn't have that ability and I didn't have the ability to separate the hurtful words from the extreme reactions.

And so, after my visit with my father this time, I realized that I am the one who needs to change my reactions. Dad has not changed. There is no need to excuse his behavior, it is the same as it has always been. What needs to happen is that I need to separate his immediate reactions from his words and wait for him to come around to reason. He always does. And he doesn't mean to hurt me when he says the things he says.

It is my duty as a daughter to honor my father. To treat him with respect in all situations. I know that my feelings are true and real for me, and no one, not even my father has the ability to take them away or make them less than I feel that they are. But, that doesn't mean that I can be disrespectful to my father. Instead, I will honor him with my words, and with my actions.

And through that, I will also be honoring my mom, may she rest in peace.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Peace in the home.

Traditionally, in Judaism, Shalom Bayit refers to a marriage; to peace being kept between husband and wife. I wonder if it is the only interpretation? What about peace between siblings? And what is my role as a mother in keeping that peace?

I have four children ranging in age from nearly 11 to nearly 3. Generally speaking, these are very good children and I consider myself both lucky and blessed that they were given to me to nurture. They really do fill my heart with warmth and love and most of the time they make me very happy. But then, they fight.

Of course, children are children and fighting is part of learning one's way in the family. Problem solving is an important skill for children to have and once they have mastered this skill, they will always be grateful for it. But, when is it a parent's duty to intervene in a sibling fight?

Let me explain something. I am using the term "fight" in a more generic sense. To say that my children are having disagreements is not strong enough, yet most times, there is no real physical contact and so the term "fight" might be deemed too strong. Of course I would be quick to intervene if physical harm were imminent. Even I know that kind of fighting has taken it too far. (Not to mention the numerous examples in the Torah of how physical fighting can lead to extremely bad things.)

So, back to my children. How long should I let the children engage in their "fight" before I step in? I can't solve their problems for them, and they need to learn to work and play together. Yet, there are times when all I want is peace in the home. Complete and total peace. I listen to their language and I cringe. The mean things that come out of their mouths makes me sad. I thought, or rather I hoped, that I had taught them to be more respectful of each other and of themselves.When and where did they learn to be this nasty?

I am not perfect. I don't even think I am great. But, I treat my children with respect and show them love in every situation. Is it just normal for siblings to go through these stages of fighting and could it be a sign of maturity when the ten year old gets into a verbal argument with the two-year old? Is it normal for them to scream at each other and shoot words full of venom at one another? Is it all just a part of growing up?

Each of my children has a distinct personality and I can see each of them trying to find their way in the family. I have always tried to encourage them to be the best that they can be, not making life with siblings into a competition. But I have to wonder, how much does the concept of peace in the home fall squarely on my shoulders? Even if the argument is theirs, is it not my responsibility to make sure that everyone under the roof of my home is happy? Is it unrealistic to expect happiness one hundred percent of the time? And is it unrealistic to assume that lack of happiness is my fault?

I don't have the answers to these questions, nor do I know where to find the answers. I know that my role is to be there for each of my children and that is what I plan to do. As for their fighting, and keeping the peace in my home, I suppose we will have to let that play itself out.

Friday, July 09, 2010


A blog I read recently, "Fully Present" by Milk Musings, mentioned that spirituality can be all around you, no matter where you are, so long as you are fully present in the moment. This is something that I need to be reminded of frequently. To be IN the moment. Instead of answering my children's questions halfway with my eyes and mind somewhere else, every interaction with them should be complete and with my whole being.

And you know what? When I do interact completely, it IS very spiritual. It is amazing the differences between the reaction I give, not get, but give to my children when I am completely there. I hear the tinkling of the baby's laugh, but more than hearing it, I feel it. Deep in my soul in that place I try to find during private prayer and meditation.

I was prepared today to post a lengthy discussion almost criticizing the patriarchs for their parenting techniques. I was going to use Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a study of how not to parent. Favoritism was rampant in these families, and on more than one occasion behavior (or lack of behavior) nearly led to the death of one of the children. I was going to discuss how "parenting biblically" was really not the best way to parent and, while I am by no means an ultimate expert, it just seemed that following their examples in child-rearing would be counter-productive. It seemed that these biblical examples were more of a what-not-to-do scenario than a follow-to-the-letter scenario.

But, rather than go into how the patriarchs were poor fathers, perhaps it is better to look at it in a different way. Perhaps in the time it took Abraham to prepare the sacrifice grounds for his beloved son, he was fully present in the moment. He was blindly faithful and trusted in G-d. Perhaps that interaction with his grown son was one of the most spiritual experiences Abraham had. And maybe those moments taught Isaac how to be a spiritual person as well.

It makes sense to me that Abraham would have been able to be fully present in that moment, because he did love his son. He had to have been torn apart with the desire to please G-d and do as he was told because of his faith, and the love and devotion he had for his son. To have been fully present in that moment with Isaac, could only have been an extremely spiritual time for both men.

This doesn't mean that they weren't spiritual at other times. Of course the patriarchs were spiritual men. But, it seems to me that there had to have been defining moments where they found that personal peace, that place of intense spirituality.

Rather than look away from the biblical parents, perhaps we can learn a thing or two from them. Perhaps we are to look at their situations and rather than see the faults, see how they were able to fully engross themselves in every moment as parents. Perhaps it is our task to see that even when the situation appeared to be a negative one, the patriarchs made their parenting choices and were fully present, and completely engulfed in spirituality.

Perhaps that is what we are to emulate when we decide to "parent biblically."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What a relief!

Today was one of those days that I had been dreading. It was time for the end of the year program for our little Sunday School class. We don't have a big congregation, so we have a very small school. But, I am thrilled that we have the students we do have. And they really are learning quite a bit. So why should this end of the year program bother me?

Well, for one thing it was very late in the year this year. When all secular schools have been out for weeks, it is very difficult to get children to willingly attend Sunday Religious School. Also, our Rabbi, while understandably proud of what the kids have learned and accomplished this year, might have expected more than was possible for children ages 10 and under. Don't get me wrong, I think our Rabbi is an amazing man. He is smart, compassionate, and an excellent teacher. I am proud that he thinks highly enough of my skills to allow me to teach these children as well. But his goal was an impossible dream.

Rabbi wanted the children in the Torah Study class to present an essay on EVERY SEDRA we discussed all year. Well, we started the year off with Bereshith and we are now in Bamidbor. For those of you who don't know, that means that we have read and studied almost every portion in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Levitcus, and are in the process of studying the sections of Numbers. The students in the Torah class are ten, nine, and eight years old. I don't care how smart these kids are, there is no way we can expect them to present comprehensive essays on every single one of those Torah Portions. It would take DAYS! I tried to explain to the Rabbi that I thought it would be much more effective if we assigned each student three (different) sedras and asked them to develop them from the notes that they had taken throughout the year. My idea fell on deaf ears.

Until the week before the presentation. Five school days before we were scheduled to hold our program, the Rabbi began reviewing everything in earnest. When we spent the first two days of this review on Bereshith and had not reached the story of Joseph and his brothers yet, I think he realized that his dream would not be achieved this year.

Let me make sure I am clear here. I adore our Rabbi. I would do just about anything he would ask me to do when it comes to teaching these children. I think he is brilliant and I enjoy sitting in on his lectures. He takes a lot of pride in our little school and I think it is with very good reason. He works very hard to make our school the success that it is.

So, when he finally decided to let the children select three sedras from Bereshith for their presentation, I was thrilled. That would be easier to handle, I thought. And, I thought, it would be much more interesting if each child selected different sedras. Sadly, that didn't happen, but there wasn't too much overlap, so it worked out in the end. Of course, they were each to cover the part in Shemoss where salvery is discussed. That was a little redundant, but again, it all worked out in the end.

So, we spent the last two (really day and a half) practicing for the presentations. I was beyond stressed that something would go wrong. Had I prepared the children well enough for their presentations? Would the baby be a distraction as she was in practice? Did I do enough to help my co-teacher prepare for the feast to follow? (I am excellent at feeling guilty for not feeling guilty enough.)

As it happened, I didn't need to worry. The day was a huge success. We had a nice crowd of congregants. The youngest students willingly shared their knowledge of the alef-bet, and even sang a little bit of the song. The Hebrew portions were done well, and the oldest did a lovely job reading from the Torah. The presentations were well done and well received. I only had to use our secret code (a throat-clearing cough) once or twice to encourage the speakers to be louder. The picnic following the program was wonderful. We had the perfect amount of food and I still think I didn't do nearly enough to help.

Once again, I worried for nothing.

But, part of me thinks that the worry I had helped motivate the students. If I hadn't been so focused on making the day a success, maybe they wouldn't have been, either. Not that this is about me. It isn't. It is really about how well the children did. They worked hard and it showed. I am extremely proud of them.

And extremely glad it is over. Until next year.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What if...?

During our religious education class this week, we were discussing the stories of Genesis. The amount of "what if" questions one can concoct is astounding. Each of the stories of Genesis seems to show that all movements were completely dictated. And yet, there is the belief that even then, people had free choice. Suppose Adam had simply told Eve, "No. I will not eat the forbidden fruit. No matter what you say." and he stuck to his guns. Suppose Adam never ate that fruit. What would have happened? Would he still have been evicted from the Garden of Eden, or would only Eve have been asked to leave? What would have happened to the lineage that was to come from Adam and Eve?

In parsha, L'ech L'cha, Abraham was told to "go out" from his home to a land that G-d would show him. What if Abraham had decided he was happy living in Haran and did not go? What if he chose not to move his family and all of his belongings to this unknown place? What would have happened to the Jewish people?

Everything that happened in the stories of Genesis had a purpose. We learn about kindness and blind faith from Abraham. Isaac, too, when he realizes he is to be his father's sacrifice teaches us about blind faith. (Although, I admit, I think I would have liked to hear him protest just a little bit.) We learn about deception from Rebeka and Jacob, no matter what their intentions may have been. And we learn about acting spitefully from Esau, who entered into a forbidden marriage to spite and hurt his mother.  Rebeka and Isaac show us that the basis of a strong family comes from a strong marriage. They did not have a strong marriage, and ended up seeing their family torn apart. We learned from Jacob of the dangers of favoritism. Although, in Jacob's defense, he was raised in a family where favoritism played a role. Perhaps this is why he learned to favor his son, Joseph.

But, if we choose to believe that each person had and has free will, then why would they make these decisions? Could it be that they just did not see them as bad decisions? Could Rebeka really have felt that it was a good idea to deceive her husband and her older son? And to bring her younger son into the mix, as well? The Torah tells us that Rebeka and Jacob were both punished for their part in this deception. Rebeka was forced to send Jacob, her beloved and favored son, away; Esau, her older son left, and Rebeka died never seeing either of them again. Jacob was himself a victim of deception, when he met and fell in love with Rachel. He worked seven years for her hand, only to be deceived on his wedding day, and tricked into marrying Leah. Eventually, Jacob did marry Rachel, but when she deceived her father and lied about stealing the idols, she was punished with an early death. Rachel's passing hurt Jacob dearly as well.

What if Rebeka has simply talked to Isaac and explained that Jacob deserved the blessing of the firstborn? What if Jacob told Isaac that he had purchased that birthright from his brother? Would the deception have even been necessary? What if Laban had consented to Jacob's union with Rachel without tricking him into marrying Leah first? Would there still be Twelve Tribes of Israel? Would Joseph have become a favored son?

What if Joseph had not been favored? Would his brothers have felt compelled to sell him? Would we have ended up in Egypt? Would we have become slaves? And carrying the story further, what about the choices Moses made. Moses was raised by an Egyptian princess. Could he have used that power to free the slaves?

Of course, I realize that everything happens for a reason, and that perhaps free choice was involved in the decisions made by the matriarchs and patriarchs. I was once taught that we approach every situation through our own world view. Perhaps my curiousity of the actions of the patriarchs and matriarchs stems from my own world view. Perhaps, if I lived in their time, surrounded by their families, and in the midst of their situations, I would make the same choices they did. Perhaps, if they were to look into my world, through their own world view, they would questions some of the choices I have made in my life. Or if they were living in my shoes, maybe they would make the same choices.

The world of what if is an extremely interesting place.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Still Small Voice

Did you ever wonder what it would be like to have G-d talk to you? This morning, as I was sitting at the coffee shop with my friend, we were discussing how it takes a special kind of person to hear G-d's voice. Take Moses, for example. He heard G-d's voice all the time. They had conversations. One might even say that they wrote a book together. But, did Moses get freaked out that first time G-d spoke to him? I would have.

The last thing I need in my already crazy world is another voice in my head. As my friend said, if G-d started to talk to me, I would make a bee-line for the nearest doctor's office.

Back when G-d was having these conversations with Moses, there was a lot going on. The Jewish people were being recreated and there were laws to be written and discussed. Even with all of that going on, the world was still quieter then it is now. I can only imagine that it was easier to listen for and hear G-d's voice. Being on top of a mountain, away from the throngs of people probably helped, too.

But seriously, today's world is too busy. It is too noisy. I don't mean the sounds of traffic or people, just noise in general. In our own minds. We are too busy to stop and smell the roses. We are too busy to listen for the still small voice of G-d.

Or maybe we are intentionally tuning out G-d's voice. If G-d spoke to me today, would I want to hear what he had to say to me? I can't really answer that question. I like to think I would get a good review, but there are conversations that I have with myself that are bad enough. I am not sure I would want to have these conversations with my best friend, let alone with G-d.

But, isn't there something to be said for listening to, and hearing, G-d's voice? I don't mean in the same way that Moses heard G-d. I don't mean having actual conversations. I mean, isn't there something to be said for allowing the calm, the stillness, to wash over you and remind you that we are not really in charge.

G-d's voice is all around us, if we allow ourselves to hear it. A rose glistening with morning dew, the thundering power of Niagara Falls, the laughter of a child. All of these are full of the still, small voice of G-d. All we have to do is open our hearts, and our minds, to hear it.

I am not one to make vows or promises of what I will do the next week. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that no matter how many times I promise to "work out daily," it doesn't happen. And we all know the physical benefits of regular exercise. But, what about the mental benefits of reflection. What about the mental benefits of allowing the still, small voice to enter your mind and your heart?

So, even though I am not going to promise, I think it would be in my best interest to at least open my mind to the possibility of hearing that still, small voice. Not every day for a week; not three times a week, but just today. Just today, I am going to open my mind and my heart to listen for G-d's voice.

I don't know if I will hear it. I don't know if G-d has any need to talk to me, but just for today, I am going to look at my world, and listen. Listen with my heart and listen with my mind. Maybe I will hear a brighter tone to my children's laughter. Maybe the grass will be greener and sparkle more brilliantly in the sunlight. Maybe I will learn something about myself.

What is the worst that could happen?

Monday, May 17, 2010


I think I am a failure. No, don't worry, this isn't going to be one of those "poor me-pity me" posts. Well, I hope it isn't. I also hope it doesn't turn into one of those "be sure to tell me how much I am NOT a failure" posts. It is just a statement of fact.

I think I am a failure.

I start things and I don't finish them. Three weeks ago, I started a new article. I was so excited to write it. I felt it was going to be extremely poignant and thought provoking. But I will probably never know. I failed to finish it. I started a reading program with my oldest child. It was wonderful! We read great books and his vocabulary blossomed. Along came my daughter, and I failed to continue the reading program. I started a diet of healthy, nutritious eating. I was lured by a chocolate bar and failed to continue this dietary change.  I went through a lot of sweat and determination to change my kitchen over to a kosher kitchen. As of this writing, it has not been an epic failure.

I have been doing an "okay" job of keeping the kitchen in a kosher manner, but I have made my share of mistakes. I have also run into quite a few obstacles. There are still aspects of keeping kosher that confuse me. I get the general concepts and understand the laws, but here is the thing. I have had a hard time explaining to the family how pasta, when served with a meatless sauce, is considered a "meat" dish. There has also been some confusion related to the cleaning of the dishes. It seems that the concept of keeping the meat and dairy dishes completely separate is lost on some members of the family. I have had to "re-kosher" many a dish, after pulling both meat and dairy dishes from the dishwasher. It seems I have failed to "train" the family well enough.

Are these insurmountable obstacles? No. But there is one obstacle that I have failed to convince my husband can be overcome. That is the obstacle of cost. I did an informal study over the past month and discovered that I am spending twice as much as I was by purchasing purely kosher foods. While that may not be too big of a deal when you are a family of two, I am trying to feed a family of six and include school lunches in that budget. It is becoming difficult. The other factor that must be included is one of gas. Because there are no kosher stores in my tiny little town, I have to travel to a nearby city and it costs me in both time and gas. I have failed at keeping to my grocery budget.

What is worse is the feeling that I will be failing a dear friend if my kitchen reverts back to its non-kosher ways. I don't like the idea of failing myself, but I am really disgusted by the fact that I have failed a friend. Of course, it has not been a failure...yet. I still have not made any big decisions. There is too much guilt to just "quit."

Part of me feels like I have given this kosher kitchen thing the "old college try." And part of me is convinced that I will be seen as a failure if I stop giving it the "old college try." I guess I failed to take my feelings into account.

Obviously, the Torah states that we are to keep kosher. The rules are clearly stated, but the reasons behind those rules are missing. Many, many Jews today are spiritual, and don't keep kosher. Are they less Jewish than those who do keep kosher? At the same time, there are Jews who are observant of the laws, but never attend Temple. Are they less Jewish than those who do attend Temple?

I am Jewish, and I have always been Jewish. I was raised to believe in one G-d and to follow the Torah to the best of my ability. Am I less Jewish if I choose not to keep a kosher kitchen? My mom did not keep her kitchen kosher. Does this make her less Jewish? I have always believed that I am Jewish. I try hard to be a good Jew. But, if I make this change back, am I a failure as a Jew?

Failure may not be the best option, but sometimes, it may be the only viable option. It is becoming clearer and clearer. I think I am a failure.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Forgotten Holiday

We all have our "forgotten" holidays. In my house, it is Mother's Day. Even though I am the mother of four fantastic children, my husband tends to forget this holiday and ignore it (and me, to a certain extent) on this day. Maybe it makes me a small person, but it bothers me that I don't get even a word of recognition for the work that I do.  I guess I shouldn't look at it like that, but I do.

On the Jewish calendar, Shavuot is considered the "forgotten holiday." It falls out seven weeks after Pesach and is usually in the middle of all the secular coming-of-summer festivities. Who has time for this holiday? The thing is, without this holiday, we really would not be who we are. Without Shavuot, we would not be Jews becasue we would not have the Torah.

On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah. The Torah is the life-blood of Judaism. It gives us directions on what to do and what not to do. It tells us what we are allowed to do and what is forbidden. It even tells us which holidays to observe and how to celebrate them. But, we often forget to celebrate this holiday at all.

Oh, we are quick to celebrate the Torah in other ways. On Simchat Torah we celebrate and dance because we have finished reading the Torah and we are going to start it over, one more time. On Shabbat, we celebrate the Torah by reading it and studying it thoroughly. We feel connected to the Torah. It is a part of us. As my two-year old is quick to shout out during Saturday services, "My Rabbi has my Torah!"

Yes, the Torah belongs to all of us.

But, back to the Forgotten Holiday of Shavuot. One would think that celebrating the giving of our most important set of books would be priority one. One would think that we would go out of our way to make a fuss on the day designated to honor the very Book that made us Jews. But we don't. We brush it under the rug and often it is barely a blip on the holiday radar schedule. We always make time to make a fuss over Hanukkah, which, by the way, is not even mentioned in the Torah. But, Shavuot, which is discussed in Parsha Emor, is forgotten. It feels wrong.

The day I conceived my oldest child, I became a mother. The powers that be declared the first Sunday in May as a day put aside to honor all of those women who have become mothers. One would think that if you had the privilege to become a mother, those who participated in that feat would want to celebrate and honor you as a mother. Apparently, the powers that be agreed and, voila! Mother's Day was born.

To my mind, there is a distinct connection between Mother's Day and Shavuot. At least in my house. My husband did not wish me a good day. My children did not wish me a good day. It was a forgotten holiday.  I don't have a good reason to share as to why my family would ignore this day. I don't even want to venture a guess. It is easier to just go on believing that they really did forget the day, rather than to believe that they forgot me.

You know what, no matter what the reason, it was not a good feeling.

It did bring one thing to light for me, though. Shavuot will no longer be a forgotten holiday in my house. I'm not suggesting that G-d feels the same feeling of sadness that I felt being forgotten on Mother's Day, but there is no reason why I should test it. Shavuot is clearly named as a holiday to be observed. It is up to me as a Jewess, and as a mother, to see that it is observed.

I think it is safe to say that the Torah is the "Mother of all Books." This makes Shavuot its own Mother's Day, and it will not be forgotten.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

It is not that hard.

I am asked to do many things in my day, and I always try to do my best with each task. Some of them are easier than others. It really isn't a hardship to run to the store for a friend and if I am going there anyway, which I usually am, it is not even an extra blip on my day's radar. Similarly, it isn't really that hard to run forgotten lunch money to the school before lunch period starts. I should be up and dressed anyway.

But, some tasks require more thought, more planning, and, dare I say it, more chutzpah. When the Rabbi asked me if I would teach the Hebrew class, I was honored, but terrified. Children scare me. Even my own children scare me. I think I cover it well, and the many hours of play I have with my children helps to ease the fear. But classroom settings scare me. I think my biggest fear is having to speak to a room full of five-year olds. Lucky for me, the Hebrew students are not five. Actually, they are older, which can be scarier. Older kids have attitudes and can talk back. While I am sure you are finding my children phobias fascinating, that is not the point. The point is, the Rabbi asked me to teach, and even though it was a very daunting and difficult task, I embraced it. I have even found that I enjoy it.

There is one task for which I really need to muster the chutzpah. Several times now, the Rabbi has asked me to read the Haftorah on Shabbat. So far, I have managed to avoid it. It isn't that I don't want to do it, I would like to be able to do it, but I am terrified. I am terrified that I won't be able to learn the Hebrew well enough to get through the trope. I am terrified that I won't learn the trope in time. I am terrified that I will be in the middle of reciting the Haftorah and I will hear my children SCREAM from the other room. Then, there will be a flurry of activity as the baby comes running into the sanctuary crying her baby head off and I will lose my place and have to start the whole Haftorah over again. I have voiced these fears to my friend. She, as always, is extremely sympathetic and tells me that I don't need to worry about the kids, because she would take care of them. And as for the Hebrew, she says, "it is not that hard."

Yeah, right. Not that hard. If it were not that hard, there would be no anxiety associated with learning the Hebrew when young boys and girls begin to study for their Bar and Bat Mitzvot. If it were not that hard, I think my friend would be practicing for her Haftorah. Okay, that is unfair. I know that not everyone wants to recite the Haftorah, and that is just fine.

It isn't that I don't want to do the Haftorah. I do. But time is at a premium. When I was a girl, I had all kinds of time to study the Haftorah. Actually, I had all kinds of forced study time. I was a 12-year old girl and my only responsibilities were homework and Haftorah. Things are a little different now. (Did I mention that I have four kids?) I discussed this issue with the Rabbi. He understood. He was disappointed, but he understood. He politely waited two weeks before he handed me another tape, and told me this Haftorah was for the Shabbat of my mom's yartzeit. It is a mitzvah, he said, to do the Haftorah on the yartzeit. The rabbi is good with guilt.

And the Rabbi is good with competition. He likes to use competition as a motivator. He uses it for the kids by giving out prizes to correct answers of difficult questions. A few well-organized classroom games gets the competition juices flowing and the kids participate more. It works for some of the kids, some of the time. But, it doesn't work for me. Telling me that I should want to do a Haftorah because other members of the congregation have done Haftorahs is not incentive for me. I am not really concerned with what other members of the congregation have or have not done. I guess his point is that he wants me to know that if everyone else can do it, it is not that hard.

I can't say if I will or will not do the Haftorah. I can tell you that if I do decide to do it, it will be because I want to, not because I feel the need to compete with anoyone else or that I feel like I *should* do it to avoid feeling guilty. If I decide to recite a Haftorah, it will be on my terms.

It really is not that hard.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Fifth Commandment

Recently, I read the article "Great Expectations" by The Red Headed Rebbetzin. In it, she points out that just by mentioning something to someone (in this case, she offers the example of mentioning a mustache), that it becomes more prevalent to that someone. I often wonder about this in my own life.

While preparing for a religious school lesson on The Ten Commandments, I paused to think a little bit about the Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother. Of course, I try to honor my parents with every breath I take, every move I make, with every step I take every single day. But any time parents are mentioned in any situation, I am sent hurtling into a memory maelstrom of my mom.

Mom passed away two years ago. She was my best friend, my biggest supporter, and my conscience. It was my goal every day to make her proud. I still want to make her proud. Today, I woke up thinking of my mom. Maybe there was something in my dream that made me think of her, I don't know exactly how she was put into my mind first thing. Maybe it is because she is always there. I don't know. But I do know that the minute the word "Mom" formed in my mind, I saw blatant reminders of Mom in my everyday activities.

But back to the "mustache" comment. Once a thought is in one's head, it is so easy to notice everything about that thought. It becomes everywhere, as if the Universe is "speaking" to you. I wonder if this is what people mean when they say that if they project positivity, positivity will be returned? I suppose that could be the case. If you are thinking and doing things that are positive, I imagine you would notice all things positive in your world as well. Just as you notice more mustaches when someone points one out to you.

This is what happened to me. I was thinking of the Fifth Commandment last night, preparing my religious school lesson, so Mom was on my mind when I went to sleep. I woke up with Mom on my mind. The first thing I heard this morning was a cardinal chirping in the yard. The cardinal was Mom's favorite bird. As luck would have it, I was meeting a friend at a local coffee shop for our "writing club" this morning. On the way there, there was a song on the radio by the Police. It was "Every Breath You Take." I had asked myself last night if I "honored" "my parents with "every breath I take, every move I make." It certainly seemed like the Universe was watching me. At the coffee shop, there were at least two more songs that played with the topics being parents.

I sat across the table from my friend and endured a little good-natured ribbing at the fact that I had remembered to bring along my notebook. Mom always used to laugh about my notebooks. I always had one with me because I never knew when I would need to take notes on something important. Particularly in the last stages of her illness. And even more strange, or coincidental, if you will, when I opened that journal, it opened to the entry I wrote the day I realized my mom was going to die...soon.

Yes, I think I honor my parents in actions, in words, and even in thoughts. I still hope every day that Mom is proud of me. I have my own "great expectations" of my ability to follow the Fifth Commandment. And, as The Red Headed Rebbetzin pointed out in her article, "Being Who We Are," I'm no Moses. I don't have to be Moses. I don't even have to be great. I just have to be the best me that I can be. And if the Universe wants to tap into my thoughts and drop signs to remind me of my Mom, I say, go ahead. It isn't difficult to find Mom on my mind.

She is always on my mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The gift that keeps on giving

The gift that keeps on giving. It is a cliché. However, to what does it refer? I have heard that the "gift that keeps on giving" is guilt. I would rather be more optimistic about it. I like to think that education can be the gift that keeps on giving. Especially when one is excited about learning.

How does this gift of learning apply to my Jewish identity? Well, it seems pretty simple to me. The Torah is the ultimate Gift that Keeps on Giving. The Torah is intimately tied with Jewish identity. It is the Law; the description of exactly HOW to be a Jew. The Torah is the epitome of education.

I am both a student and a teacher of the stories in the Torah. My big dilemma is how to get the students I teach as excited as I get about the knowledge one can gain from Torah study. I could sit and listen to the Rabbi talk about the Parsha for hours. Of course, my children would never allow that as they seem to think things like food and attention are important. So, I have to limit my classes to the same times as their classes and that is not enough for me.

As a child, I was introduced to the Torah. It was a mysterious and forbidding document. I was taught snippets of the secrets, but I was never granted ownership of the wisdom contained within. This is why I am struggling with my own children, and my students. Torah study is not only an important part of their Jewish identities, but it can also be fun. It can even be exhilarating if one takes an active role in that study. My youngest, from the time she began to talk, would point at the Torah during services and say (usually loudly), "My Torah!" Why it took a baby to point out this truth, I don't know. The Torah belongs to each of us individually and all of us collectively. As soon as one claims the Torah as their own, the study of it takes on a different, more personal meaning.

The stories and lessons presented in the Torah are as relevant today as they were when the Torah was first presented to the Jewish people. These stories come to life in the classroom when everyone participates and takes an active role in their own Jewish education. Not in the sense that they are acted out or put on as plays (although certain stories lend themselves to that method of explanation), but they come to life as they are filtered through each person's frame of reference. Even children as young as the students in my class can contribute interesting interpretations of the Torah stories. They may not have lived extensively, but they have lived enough to have experiences to reference when studying. For what second or third grader has not encountered extreme jealousy? What elementary student has not been faced with the temptation to take something that was forbidden to them? What middle school student has not encountered a clique where favoritism is rampant?

While these situations may not be exactly as those presented in the Torah stories, it opens the door for the younger students to ask those "what if" questions and become active learners of the Torah. It is my job, then, as their teacher, to help my students cast off the constraints of self-consciousness and allow the "what-ifs" to flow without fear of criticism. The insights that these young children can provide are amazing. And it is when they are allowed to make their own connections that the study becomes exciting for them, as well.

Torah study is an extremely important part of being Jewish, no matter what your age. This is the beauty of it. Because every day is a new experience with a new frame of reference from which to draw, every day provides the opportunity for every student, old and young, to accept the Ultimate Gift that keeps on giving

Sunday, April 18, 2010

To teach or not to teach...

I am not trained to be a teacher. Unless you count the eleven years of parenting, of course. But, I am not counting real-life teaching. I am talking about trained in education theory with a degree kind of teacher. I took only one course in pedagogy in college and that was because it was required. I guess I did teach a little in college, if you can count listening to speeches on how to rush a fraternity. But I only taught one basic public speaking course and that was so I could work my way through graduate school.

It wasn't until much later, when I had children, that I thought I could be a teacher when I grew up. But, as a stay-at-home mom, that just isn't in the cards for me right now. So, when the opportunity to teach Religious School arrived, I jumped at it. I can read beginning Bible stories and talk about the heroes and heroines of the Torah without too much difficulty. And then I would be able to call myself a teacher.

The first couple of classes I taught were not difficult at all. They were fun and the kids and I had a good time getting to know each other. But it didn't take long for the frustrations to begin to settle. I had issues with one little girl in the class. I couldn't get through to her. I tried sitting directly in front of her. I tried directing all my questions to her. I tried to ask her to share her thoughts first. It didn't take long for me to give up on that tactic. First of all, it didn't work. Second of all, I felt like I was ignoring the other students. Third of all, I got very tired of inane, completely out there responses.

I am not talking about answers that could be considered good guesses. I am talking about off the wall, no where near the question kind of answers. For example, if I were to ask who went before Pharaoh and demanded to have the Jewish people set free, she would respond with, "Ummmmmm, Noah!" and roll her eyes in the process. What made me really angry about this is the fact that this child's parent sat in on the class. This parent was there every day and did nothing to help her refocus her mind. This parent did nothing and said nothing when I moved my chair and sat directly across from her. This parent said nothing when I would call on this child to the exclusion of the other students. I spent a good deal of time discussing this frustration with my co-teacher. She very correctly pointed out that in order for one to truly learn, one must take an active role in one's education.

The concept that education is an active sport really hit home with me. As a "teacher," I want to see my students succeed. I want to do everything I can to help these students succeed. But at some point, isn't it more fair to them to encourage them to do the work themselves than to keep spoon-feeding them the answers? It seems like it would help my students to learn more effectively if they have to participate in the studies.

The hardest thing for me to do when I am teaching these classes is to sit through the silence that comes after a question like, "What do you put on a Seder Plate?" We go around the room and each student answers..."Egg!" "Karpas!" "Moror!" "Shank bone!" And then from my inactive participant..."Ummmm...chometz!" Yeah, we spend days preparing our homes by removing chometz to put it on our Seder Plate. Now, if this round of questions had taken place before Passover and before we spent two weeks studying Passover, I suppose I could see the confusion. But, this was after Passover, after two weeks of classes, after two Seders, and after review sheets had been sent home. After this incident, I told this child (and the rest of the class) that I would review this material one more time, but this time I would like each of the students to actually pay attention to the words I say. I was answered with a huff and a series of rolled eyes.

I am out of ideas. I am tired of the disrespectful attitude that this student brings to class. I try to be sensitive to the difficulties of being a young girl. I know it is tough to make the switch from "regular" school to "religious" school, but as a student, you have to be willing to at least try. You have to at least be willing to embrace your own education.

If you at least do that, you are one step closer to becoming an active participant in learning, and in life.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

By way of introduction...

I am an American-Jewish woman. I am happily married to a no-longer practicing Catholic man. Together, we have four wonderful children. Before we were married; before we had children, we had "The Talk." In this case, The Talk didn't involve anything exciting like who gets to sleep on the left side of the bed or favorite sexual positions. No, this Talk was all about the Big R. Religion.

I have always had Religion to a certain degree. I didn't always actively practice, but I always believed. I always identified myself as a Jewish woman. I went to temple when I could, and even as an adult (before children) had a fairly regular streak of attending services. As an adult, my attendance was sporadic, but I did attend. Okay, enough justification of why I do or don't attend services. I was supposed to be explaining about the Talk.

The husband and I had the Talk about Religion before we got married. Our religious affiliations were not a secret. In fact, they only presented a minor bump in the road of the wedding plans. We couldn't be married by a priest because I wouldn't convert, and we couldn't be married by a rabbi because he wouldn't convert. We were married by a Unitarian Universalist with a generic ceremony. The bump was barely felt.

Oddly, we had a moment of forward thinking. That is, we discussed religion for any and all children that would be created by our union. We discussed this BEFORE we were married. Well before we were even ready to have children. That Talk went something like this: Him: "What will you want to do about religion when we have kids?" Me: "Well, in my religion, the children are the religion of the mother from birth." Him: "Okay." Me: "I'd like to raise our children Jewish." Him: "Okay, but you have to do it." Me: "Okay." And then we went out to dinner.

So, maybe the Talk was not all that in depth or forward thinking. Maybe we didn't cover all the challenges that could occur in an interfaith marriage with kids. Maybe we didn't cover how hard it can be to be a Jewish kid in a small town. But the fact of the matter is, I really believe that children need to be given a religious identity. They need to be grounded in a faith when they are young. Not really an indoctrination, but a basic knowledge and faith with which to grow. Luckily, my husband agreed. Or was too lazy to put up much of a fight.

Fast forward to present day. We have four wonderful children who start to ask questions about G-d.  I figure there is no better time to start searching for a Sunday School to help me answer those questions. And that is exactly what I did. Little did I know that I would end up being as involved as I am.

I am not sure I am complaining about my involvement. I kind of like being involved in my children's education. I always wanted to be a teacher. But, this may be the only way I get to be a teacher. And, I am not only involved in the teaching aspect of the Temple, I am also active in Services and on the Board of Directors. I am sure, if this post site goes the way I expect it to, these topics will come up once in awhile. For now, I will conclude this mini-introduction by saying that I am a proud Jewish woman, married to a wonderful Catholic man, who fully supports me with our decision to raise our children in the Jewish religion.

I am one lucky mama!