The Saturday following the three-year-old’s close encounter with the nightstand, the eight-year-old leyned Torah for the first time. We go to a monthly family minyan, at which kids lead most of the service, and read from the Torah as well. After a kid reads six times, he or she is presented with a yad, and after twelve times, a shofar. The promise of the latter pushed the eight-year-old to put aside her shyness about chanting in front of everybody. One of her best friends would also be chanting for the first time that same day, which sweetened the pot even more.
She read beautifully – such naches! I had the honor and pleasure of teaching her and her friend to leyn – more naches! What a sweet way to end a week that started with a terrible ordeal, you might say, and you would be right, but both incidents presented me with the same challenge: how do you balance the demands of letting your kids be who they are and encouraging who they could be?
I’m not just responding to the current belief that anything your kid does his or her whole life long, good or bad, is a reflection on you and your parenting, so you’d better make sure you never screw up, ever, meaning your kid can’t screw up, ever, although I’m sure I’m not unaffected by that malaise. My study of the practice of Mussar tells me that everyone has their own spiritual curriculum, dictated by their own mix of characteristics that they must bring into balance in their own way, and learn to use to help bring holiness into the world through their everyday actions. As a parent, I would hope that I would be able to recognize my children’s traits and help them harness them for good while working against or around their ill effects. The three-year-old, for example, clearly has the trait of zerizut (often translated as “zeal” or “alacrity”) in spades; the trick will be to keep her zerizut from flinging her against hard, pointy surfaces without discouraging her from throwing herself against obstacles that can and should be brought down. I’ve got my own curriculum to follow, of course – I keep failing Patience 101, for example – which complicates matters.
When the eight-year-old told me that she wanted to leyn at family minyan, we sat down on the futon and looked through Lech Lecha, the portion of the Torah that would be read the following month. After reading a few different spots, we settled on the three verses where Abram receives the new name of Abraham – they were meaningful and interesting, and not that complicated phonetically and melodically. Since she does half her school day in Hebrew, getting comfortable reading the words was enviably easy for her, and we were soon getting to the trope, the little marks that let you know how to chant each word.
“I’m so glad that I get to share this with you,” I said.
“Because it’s something that I love to do, and now we’ll be able to do it together.” I was feeling that surge which meant I was captivated by my own thoughts, always a dangerous proposition. My mind roiled with things I could tell her, if only I could express them in a way she could understand: how putting the words and the trope together gave the Torah verses meaning through music, how leyning made the verses sing through me, how it made me feel like a vessel filled with light and energy that poured out with the words. “It makes me feel close to the Torah, to the words as I sing them,” was all I could say.
“Oh.” I could see that mixture of skepticism, sympathy, and confusion in her eyes, the look that makes me feel as if my rationalist eight-year-old is thinking, “Poor Mama. Sometimes you don’t make any sense.”
While I was given a grounding in Jewish history and culture, especially of the Eastern European via Brooklyn-Lower East Side variety, I didn’t grow up with much in the way of Jewish religious observance. As I used to say, my father is a Jewish Atheist: he doesn’t believe in God out of spite. I never stepped inside a synagogue until I was in my twenties. I don’t have many personal experiences that I can draw on in terms of how to live a Jewishly engaged life with kids, or more importantly, as a kid, beyond reading the All-of-a-Kind Family books (the eight-year-old has done that) listening to my grandparents’ Yiddish-inflected kibitzing (sadly, no longer possible), and eating certain foods (we're in the Midwest here, but I do what I can). Basically, I make things up as I go along, and hope I’m doing it right. That’s parenting in a nutshell, I suppose, but sometimes I feel my lack in this area very keenly.
My partner and I both know what a struggle it is to try to pick up knowledge about the liturgy, practices, and most of all, Hebrew, as an adult, and we send our kids to Jewish day school so that they will grow up with everything we continue to acquire piecemeal. Their school is a lovely community as well as a sound center of learning; I am happy to bring them there every day, and they are happy to go. What I worry about, however, is whether I am getting across to them the fact that Jewishness isn’t just about knowing and doing, but about feeling. I especially worry about this with the child whose idea of fun is to see if she can break her own record for how many multiplication flash cards she can do in a minute (right now, she’s at 30; her goal is 50).
I would hope that I can get across my own commitment to living a Jewish life, and why it matters to me. I picked up something precious that could have been left on the side of the road, and I hope that my children will continue to carry it forward.
On the other hand, I know that you can’t force someone to love something. I know what it is like to frustrate an award-winning math teacher with my inability to balance quadratic equations (sorry, Mom). I know what it is like to be made to run laps on a Sunday afternoon for a stopwatch-wielding track coach, struggling to run a twelve-minute mile while wishing more than anything that I could be left alone to read a book under the bleachers instead (sorry, Dad).
She liked fitting the trope to the words, like a puzzle. She could appreciate how the trope could help you remember the words, and helped make the dramatic bits sound even better. Did she feel what I feel when I leyn? Not so far as I could tell. Maybe she will someday. Or maybe not. She is her own person, and will come to craft her own Jewishness, her own way to relating to the history, culture, and practices that are our heritage. Why should she get to do any less than I have done – continue to do – myself?
“Do you want to leyn again next month?” I asked her recently, chumash in hand. I had already looked up what the portion would be for the first Shabbat in January.
“No,” she said.
She shrugged. “I don’t feel like it.”
I watched her go into the living room to practice flips and backbends on the futon. I stopped myself from asking her why she didn’t want to, if she would ever want to again. I didn’t mention the yad or the shofar. I let go, or at least let the pressure I would have sent in her direction wash against the shores of my own self, and instead watched her flex and spring in ways in which I never could.