Thursday, February 13, 2014

Do You Have a Red Bandana? by Rabbi Emily Mathis and Rabbi Deborah Zuker

Rabbi Emily Mathis and Rabbi Deborah Zuker are Parenting Through a Jewish Lens instructors at Temple Ner Tamid in the North Shore. 

Purim is by far the silliest, most playful holiday on the Jewish calendar. Children in particular enjoy the customs of Purim - dressing up in costumes, cheering the heroes Mordechai and Esther and booing the villain Haman, eating hamantashen (be they poppy-, apricot-, or chocolate-filled). It may seem amid all this silliness that Purim is a holiday primarily for children.

Actually, there are many aspects and themes to Purim that are very much intended for adults. Purim costumes customarily include gender-bending; the humor of the Purim-shpiel (an amateur play that tells the Purim story) is often adult and full of timely and inside jokes, and there is a commandment to drink alcohol to the point where one can no longer tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman (not for children!). For the intellectuals among us, the story of Purim includes many nuanced and mature themes: What is the role of God in human affairs? What is the experience of Jews living as a minority amid a majority culture? Do we hide our Jewishness? Do we try to 'pass'? What is the appropriate moral response to the suffering of our enemies? How do we reveal the hidden or uncertain aspects of who we are?

As parents, we think an awful lot about what behaviors and values we model for our kids. We say 'please' and 'thank you' so that they will learn politeness. We clean up after ourselves so that they will learn cleanliness. In the realm of Jewish modeling, we say blessings on Friday night so that they will learn to value Shabbat. We refrain from eating bread during Passover so that they will learn Jewish history and narrative, and identifying with the stranger. We help them with their Bar or Bat Mitzvah studies because we want to show that we value Jewish learning and engagement.

But in addition to the important but more serious aspects of life, do we also pay attention to modeling silliness and playfulness for our kids – in our Jewish lives? Or do we model breaking out of our familiar ways of being in the world, developing flexibility in who we are? They dress up and enjoy Purim, but do you, as a parent, also dress up and enjoy Purim? When we model Jewish living for our children, we must be conscious of modeling ALL of it – no part of Judaism is only for children. Jewish living is a life-long pursuit. It is a full-bodied experience.

So do you have a red bandana? You don't need a fancy store-bought costume to get into the Purim spirit along with your kids. A red (or any color) bandana, a plaid shirt and jeans, and you are instantly transformed into a farmer for Purim. VoilĂ ! Happy Purim!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens - Reflection

My experience in parenting has been a mix of small triumphs and an unexpected and often overwhelming sense of love and pride…. coupled with the somewhat ongoing question of whether my husband and I are doing this “right” at all.

Five months ago my eldest son (age 5) asked me about G-d. Who was he? Who made him? What happens when you die? Is there really a light inside of us? Does G-d live in your heart? (He asks a lot of questions). And when I found myself staring at him caught between what I “think” I believe, what my parents taught me, what my husband believes, what his family taught him, and what we want our sons to believe – well I basically replied with a giant “hmmmmmm…I need to think about that overnight.”

I actually need to think about that over many nights – and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens has given me that gift over the last twelve weeks. I have greatly enjoyed the chance to speak with other parents who are considering how to bring together their upbringing, personal beliefs, partner’s beliefs and hopes and dreams for their children’s futures. The class has provided historical context, the understanding that asking the question WHY is critical in Judaism, and a safe group of individuals who are open to sharing the joys and fears that arise in parenting. For me, a particular gift has been taking the class with other people who are in interfaith partnerships.

For many years I’ve worried about how to make a Jewish home with two different family backgrounds, but through this class, I’ve been able to tease out the parts of my Jewish upbringing that feel most critical to replicate, and that I can change and adapt for my home. I also better understand now which of my personal values are rooted firmly (and unchangeably) in rich Jewish tradition. This class has given me the tools to speak to my children about the universal religious values that my husband and I share – while understanding the importance and power of Jewish practice in our home so our children can live and experience what it means to be Jewish, and ultimately part of a Jewish community.

My eldest son asked me last week if I had gotten the answers to his questions. (I told him my class was helping me with that). While my answers may not be very polished at this point, I can answer the questions with much more information and joy than I did that night a few months back. I can also tell him that there is often more than one answer to some questions, and that -in our tradition – we learn by asking and talking and asking again (and talking and asking AGAIN). With the freedom to learn in this class, and also in Jewish life, the path of parenting feels just a touch easier to navigate -- and I now look forward more confidently to the questions that lie ahead.

Jill Kantrowitz Kunkel 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Noticing The Good, Doing The Good.

A child takes her lunch box from her backpack and brings it to the kitchen.  How can this  be a sacred act?  This question came up in the Parenting Through a Jewish Lens class that I am leading at Shir Tikvah in Winchester.   Why is it sacred you may ask? Isn't it just common courtesy to help out by bringing the lunchbox in, rather than requiring the parent to hunt for it?  This past week we read Jewish texts about having responsibility for others.  One of the texts struck us deeply. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that 'No one is lonely when doing a mitzvah, for a mitzvah is where God and man meet....Such meeting, such presence, we experience in deeds.'  (God in Search of Man)

One of the highest goals for our children is for them to know that when they do things that help others, when they take responsibility to help others, they make real connections with other people, and with a sense of the Divine.   It is the way we meet the soul of another, and the way we reveal the best of ourselves.  It is one way we feel most human in the best sense of the word.  When we help another, connect with another, we meet God, and ourselves.   In another text we read during this session, Emmanuel Levinas took the idea of helping and connecting to others a step further. He suggested that we want to inculcate into our children the automatic desire to make those connections with others.  'To be a decent human being means that I should have an immediate and overwhelming sense of obligation for the other....' According to Levinas, we want our children to know the value of helping another so deeply that their first instinct will be to reach out. 

Neuroscience has discovered that we can change our brain patterns, and create new physical 'grooves' in the brain by behaving in certain ways.  Changed behaviour results in changed thinking. Therefore in our class we discussed a 'take home' assignment that I am trying in my own home. At the end of every day I am asking everyone in the family to recall kindnesses they did for others during the day.  My hope: the more we all notice the kindnesses done by us or to us, the more conscious we will be of the good feelings such actions engender and the more kindnesses we will do.  In effect, I am hoping that by noticing the good, we will all do more of it, and helping others will become more and more natural and instinctive.  

Watch this space to see if it works!

By Rabbi Marcia Plumb
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