One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Toddlers and Judaism: an apology

L'Shana Tovah --- happy new year!  Today is Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, literally meaning "the head of the year."  The year is 5771, which counts the number of years since G-d created the earth.  On this day in history?  G-d created Adam.

Rosh Hashanah has special meaning for us in our family.  Twenty seven years ago, my grandfather died on the Jewish new year, which coincided with September 9.  Every year since becoming an adult, I go to Rosh Hashanah services, waiting for the mourner's kaddish.  This is a time for the community to come together and support each other.  Mourners seek solace in the community; the individual mourner is joined by his peers as the whole mourns together with this beautiful prayer.

The night before Rosh Hashanah, I was discussing with my husband the logistics of attending services at a local synagogue.

"You could watch the kid while I ---"

I was going to say, while I go to services, but I interrupted myself.

"No, that's stupid," I continued.  "Kids should come to services.  Of course kids are welcome there."  Judaism is about family.

"Of course, you should bring him," my husband replied.

So this morning, my son and I went to services at a synagogue that I had never attended before.  On their web page, they call themselves a "renewal" community, preaching tolerance and acceptance of all races, orientations, and genders.  As is common with Jewish groups in my town, there is no synagogue owned by the people.  Instead, the community rents a space from a Christian church, and holds services there.

When we walked into the space, my kid on my hip, I did what I had always done in services.  I walked in, took a prayer booklet, and sat down in the back row.  Prayers had begun about 45 minutes ago.  The cantor, a woman with long uncovered hair, sang slowly, with great feeling, into a microphone.  Next to her stood a man with a prayer shawl, leading the services.  Around the room hung laminated signs, calling participants to "respect the sanctity of this space."  Men and women sat mixed on padded seats.

I glanced around as my son pulled down my shirt and started to nurse: no other kids were in the congregation.  This was unexpected.  My past several Jewish events were in the home of the Chabad rabbi and his family.  The rabbi's children were an integral part of services.  Not only are children welcome, they are mandatory: how else do you expect the Jewish people to pass down thousands of years worth of knowledge?  How else do you hand down the oral Torah, unless you engage the children from a young age?  Do you think the "mixed multitude" wandering the desert had no children?  The Passover ritual meal even scripts in what to say to children, and which questions they should ask --- because children sit at the same table as adults, learning from the adults' actions and their rituals.

Suddenly, as if on cue, a small group of about six school-aged kids were ushered in.  They sat on the floor in front of the cantor and her male counterpart.  Everyone sang the shma.  My son hummed along.  The entire song is one line long; it is sung once.  It takes about ten seconds.  The song ended, and the kids were ushered out.

When he finished nursing, my son started looking around and telling me in a very sweet voice about the trolley and the bus and the train.

Five thousand heads turned and looked at me, scowling.  Scowling!  I had never seen so many hairy eyeballs before.  My son and I were violating the sanctity of their space.  I picked up my son and ran out the back door.

Outside, I saw a sign advertising child care for the services, and decided to go check it out.

The room was too large and too barren for those same six school-aged children that we had just seen in the congregation room.  Everyone sat in a tiny circle with their mothers, except one kid, clearly too old to be in child care.  Maybe he was helping out.

"Were you there for the shma?" the leading lady asked me, after the standard introductions.  The circle expanded about three inches to let us sit down.

"Yes," I replied.  "That was just before I got all the dirty looks."  For some reason, I felt like bursting into tears with those words.

"Oh," moaned another woman without even looking at me, "we don't take responsibility for those."

My son and I sat in the circle for a full five minutes before he got up and ran outside.  Bored and growing tired, he pointed to the street.

"Bus," he said.  "Home."  So, without a word or a look back, we went home.  I missed the kaddish, but asked myself if this is the congregation for me.  Do I want this community grieving with me, with my family?  Would we feel supported by them?

For a congregation that preaches equality, acceptance, and community, this one was lacking.  The way a congregation treats children speaks volumes about how it sustains itself spiritually.  This congregation cares so much about its members and their spiritual health, it lacks the foresight to ask: who will continue on this tradition of spirituality when the current members are gone?  "Arrogant, childless hippies," I cursed.

Rosh Hashanah is not about meditation and calm solitude.  It is about jubilation, sharing, noise, and ushering in the sweet new year in the community of family and friends.  It is about forgiveness and hope for a brighter, better, stronger, more pious future.  There is no room for selfish rumination.  As Wendy Mogel points out in The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, the synagogue is a place of worship, but the simple kitchen table is an altar.  There is nothing more holy than family.

I wanted my son to see the people gathered, humming blessings and songs, bowing and rocking.  I wanted him to hear the sounds of prayer; to hear the shofar.  I wanted him to feel what I feel every year around this time; I want this experience to be an integral part of who he is, as it is an integral part of who I am.  But our experience fell short.

With this explanation I humbly ask forgiveness from my parents, who were counting on me to say my grandfather's name on the anniversary of his death.  I missed the mourner's kaddish, and for this I am sorry.  Yom Kippur is in a week; we will return to Chabad and remember him then.

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