By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT
“Is this the whole family?” my three-year old girl asks.
“Yes, and then some,” I respond, “Our whole family and our extended family are here.”
“For Shabbat?” she follows-up.
“Yes, for Shabbat.”
My relationship with Judaism is, unfortunately, tied up in my relationship with my childhood family. Most of my Jewish memories involve my family, the people who hurt me the most growing up. Yet, such a strong part of my identity is defined by being Jewish. Who am I if I’m not Jewish? How can I be Jewish without constantly reminding myself of all of the painful things I went through as a child? I have been struggling with this conflict for well over a decade. But I feel like I am finally making some progress.
About a year ago my wife and I started to celebrate Shabbat. We have had some false starts in the past, but this one, from the beginning felt different. First, it was more important to me now. My wife and I have twin three-year olds and I want them to grow up with the same sense of Jewish identity that I had – without the pain and anger I have sadly associated with it.
Secondly, we took it slow. We started with lighting candles and saying the blessing over them. When my wife said the blessing and motioned with her hands to bring in the Shabbat spirit, my children immediately imitated her. All of a sudden, I realized we were creating new rituals in our home, rituals for our family filled with love and warmth.
We continued this for several weeks remembering to celebrate more than we forgot. A pretty good start by my standards. Then we started trying to pick up a challah so we could say the Motzi, the blessing over the bread. My wife would make a special meal, she would light the candles and my whole family would welcome the Shabbat spirit with joy. After the Motzi, we would go around the table wishing each other Shabbat Shalom with a big hug and a kiss. Shabbat became something to which we all looked forward. During the week, my children would ask, “Is it Shabbat tonight?” even though it was only Monday. They just couldn’t wait.
Then I remembered that we can say a blessing over children on Friday nights and I incorporated that into our Shabbat celebration. There is something so special about blessing your children that is hard to articulate, placing my hand on their hands, connecting them to the great Jews who have come before them.
Before we knew it, Friday night became the night family came over. My wife has a large family and it seemed almost every Friday night at least some of them were coming over to celebrate Shabbat with us, making that night even more special. Normally, we would let a visitor say the Motzi, but one Friday night I did it. I asked my children to say it with me.
“Baruch” they both repeated.
“Atah” they echoed all the way until the end. Hearing my children speak Hebrew for the first time was so wonderful, their enthusiasm making a simple blessing more important. One Friday night a couple of weeks ago, we were herding our children into their chairs and Lucas started saying something very softly. It took me a little bit to realize what he was saying.
“Baruch atah adonai elohenu melech haolam…”
My little boy was singing the blessing because he had memorized it, because he knew it was Friday night, because he knew it was Shabbat. I barely held back the tears as I kissed him on the cheek.
Piece by piece we began adding other elements; the Kiddush with their sippy cups, beautiful Hebrew music I remembered from my childhood, reading Bible stories for children before bedtime, and Tzedekah – giving to those who have less than we do by putting a “penny in the slot.” I always thought I had to know what I was doing before I started implementing new rituals, new Jewish traditions for my new family. But I was wrong. The trick was just starting, because in starting I was giving myself the freedom to follow my feelings I have with my current family than being bound by the feelings I had with my family I grew up with.
My struggles with Judaism are not over, but the fact that my wife and I are creating new rituals, new traditions, new associations with Judaism is not only setting a good foundation for our children, but for us as well.