Friday, July 1, 2016

There Are More Than Four Questions

My daughter is learning the Four Questions in pre-K in preparation for Passover. She is very excited about the upcoming holiday, eagerly singing songs like "Where is Baby Moses?" and "Frogs on Pharaoh's Head." Yet, there are clearly more than four question floating around for her. When she learned about a few of the plagues, she asked why the plagues happened to everyone when Pharaoh was the one who made bad choices. The next morning the question was how God didn't burn when God was in the burning bush. Then why Moses was in the river Nile.

To try to concretize some of the story, I showed her the movie "The Prince of Egypt." This film is beautifully done and helped facilitate some conversation around parts of the Passover and Exodus story. What the movie also did, though, is show the pain of the plagues as they were inflicted on the Egyptians. By the time the Israelites emerge on the other side of the Sea of Reeds watching Pharaoh's army drowning in the sea, one is left with a bittersweet feeling.

While I understand that we want to be age-appropriate with our children and help them to see the fun and joy in the festival of Passover, I would also encourage us to remember that we have a responsibility to be honest about the power and questions the story raises. Amidst plague masks and toys is a dark story of an entire nation being punished by Pharaoh's hardened heart, which is in part hardened to ensure the Israelites are clearly delivered by God, reminding us that freedom can come at a price. Amidst the songs and the foods is a deep question of what it means to be free in our time, not just in that Exodus story. I would offer that most children can find some degree of that understanding, and we as adults should push ourselves to reflect on the deep meanings and questions of this festival.

As we approach our family's seder, we are certainly focusing on the joys--the food, the family, the singing, and especially my daughter's "Four Questions" debut. And, we will encourage her to offer her many other questions along the way, because each of us at every age is supposed to find meaning in the seder, the story, and feel it applies to them.

As you approach your seder, may it be one of many questions, because that is how we learn, that is how we grow, and that is how we will continue to find meaning in this Festival of Passover, the time of our freedom and celebration.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mommy at the Mikvah

The first time I went to the mikvah it was before my wedding. I am a Reform Jew and mikvah was not really on my radar until preparing for my wedding as a rabbinical student (with a newfound awareness of all kinds of rituals). With my mother and other important women in my life blessing me, I immersed in a beautiful mikvah in Pittsburgh and never imagined I would do so again. Years later, I considered immersing as part of my pregnancy journey but hesitated because there was no mikvah in Atlanta where I felt I could go anonymously and comfortably as a rabbi in the community.

In November 2015, we opened MACoM: Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah, a mikvah designed to be welcoming and inclusive of our diverse Jewish community.  I am on the board, a committee or two, and the clergy advisory group, so I knew most of the inner workings of this mikvah. However while I thought I might want to use it occasionally, I never thought about becoming a regular user: until I finally went and discovered this was the ritual I did not know I needed.

I would ask my fellow parents, particularly of young children, this question: When is the last time you heard silence? Our lives are constant refrains of "Mommy" and "Daddy," phone calls, bedtime stories, questions, requests. Even the night isn't silent with the white noise of the baby monitor.

When I went into the mikvah, it was silent. There were no requests, no questions, no calls...just silence. It was disturbing for one moment and then completely soothing. As I went under the water, time slowed down and everything paused.

As parents, there is the feeling that the days are long but the weeks, months, and years are short. We have milestone transitions such as the start of a new school year or a birthday. The day-to-day rushes past with the sweet moments that seem memorable until they are replaced by the next.

Mikvah offers parents--both men and women--an opportunity to pause. Much like the havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat, we draw out the time into a meaningful ritual transition. The preparations for the mikvah slow us down, the immersion in a quiet pool invites us to be still with our thoughts. We can make the mikvah experience an opportunity to think about the past month and intentionally go into the next one, reflecting on our many roles, joys, and challenges in the frame of Jewish ritual. Whether going monthly or in another increment of time, we can take a deep breath and emerge renewed, ready to enter back into the noise and see what comes next.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Family Seder

Some of my earliest Jewish memories are from Passover. I vaguely recall, as a very young child, watching Grandpa Hurwitz cough while eating horseradish root (or, because my  mother retells it to me, it feels like I was there). I remember learning the piano chords to the Four Questions and then proudly playing them at my Great Aunt Lenore's home when we all gathered for seder one year. I remember a seder at my Grandma Irene's home in Florida, dusting off the dishes she never used.

But most of all, I remember the seder as it usually was, in our home growing up. It was a remarkable blend of the intentional and the unintentional. Recipes were handed down, but not discussed with any fanfare. China was from my parents' wedding, but when we had more than 10 people, interspersed was my great-grandmother's china (a floral pattern my mother hated). After her death, we used my grandmother Julia's silver, which as a Ukranian Catholic she never could have envisioned happening at a seder, but we also had plenty of plastic forks and plates around. The haggadah was just the one we happened to have, one with a burned corner where a guest had accidentally set fire to it from one of the decorative votives on the table. The matzah cover was a horribly ugly blue felt creation from my brother's early religious school years that was somehow gorgeously meaningful in its weirdness. You get the idea.

We didn't think too hard about the actual content of the seder. We knew we'd do it all in some form or fashion, but there were never plague bags or gimmicks to make it flow. We'd read, each person in their turn, and then we'd eat. We'd talk some more, and then we'd go to bed. I recall the first year, as an aspiring rabbi, I was given the role of introducing the seder. I wrote a d'var Torah about the meaning of freedom (I wish I still had it now) and proudly set the stage for what the festival meant to me, and to us, in that space.

I believe it has been a decade since I have been in Pittsburgh for a seder. It's been years since the last family seder Micah and I experienced, in Las Vegas in 2008. Usually we spend Passover in a community we have created through our rabbinates. The first night usually at The Temple, the second night with couples whose weddings and conversions I officiate.

I find myself each year yearning to make our Passover authentic. Somehow the seven days pass so much faster than they did when I was younger. before we know it, we can eat bread again. I almost miss it by the end. Micah and I spend time talking about the seder, ways to make it creative, and in that way we find our authentic seder voice (one more scripted, one more spontaneous). I often feel we could do more in this festival, but that is an ongoing journey.

Now, with children of our own, we have another growing edge. We are taught about the Four Children: wise, wicked, simple, and unable to ask. We know that we are all of these children in some way.

In our daughter and son, we have these children looking at us in anticipation of being taught. It is no longer abstract. To our five year old's wise questions, we try to answer from our own faith and uncertainty. To our children's simple questions, we answer easily. To their wicked moments (of which there are few), we try to respond with compassion. And, for all that they are unable to ask, we model our own commitment.

When thinking about Passover this year, something in me yearned for a different experience. While I can tell you the practical reason we are traveling for Pesach this year is because we did not take vacation time at winter break, there is a spiritual reason. I knew, deep down, that we need to have a family seder. Our children need to make a memory that is organic, drawn from the deep connections that exist in a family, not just created by their rabbi parents and Temple community. They need to have the experience of learning that which is not always explictly spoken--that for some reason even the least religious of us are drawn to a ritual that has been handed down from generation to generation, that somehow we find a new meaning embedded in the parsley, matzah, and this year, Grandma's brisket.

I think about this weekend and am brought to tears by the image that our children will experience something powerful beyond words: a seder table filled with family members they already know well. Four generations will gather together and say that we are proudly Jewish and connected to our people, and say that we are lovingly connected to one another as well. In that moment, it does not matter what parts of the liturgy we do or forget, or what tunes we do, or whether things are like they are at home. What matters is that we come together and give ourselves the gift of a night to remember. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Giving Thanks for Strep

Yesterday came the call every working parent dreads: "Your daughter has a fever and you need to pick her up." We immediately went into emergency-preparedness mode, shuffling to make sure she got to the doctor and making plans to have her home the next day. Fortunately, we received the diagnosis of strep throat which, unlike what I call the "$40 virus" (named for the doctor's copay), is treatable with antibiotics and improves almost immediately. She will be in school on Friday, hurray. And, she got sick at the best possible time because I am off on Thursdays.

Yet Thursdays are my day to get stuff done. So, this morning as my daughter perkily ate breakfast after her second dose of antibiotics, I was calculating how many of my plans for today were in the trash. Certainly the things that are just for me, like a good long run, were off the table, as was my introvert time folding laundry over television. Powering through five errands at once? Unlikely. And as my mood started to tip off the precipice into grumpiness...two little arms reached around me and said, "Mommy, I'm so excited to have a day just with you."

In that moment, the grumpiness was erased. What a gift, as someone who usually works on six days of the week, to have a full day with my daughter and enjoy time together. My daughter proceeded to inform me that we were going to have a girls' day because her brother would be at school. Since she was fever-free and chipper, we found ourselves out and about doing some of the errands on my list.

Today I learned that my daughter loves shopping. I knew it in the abstract, but never had the patience (or time) to watch her discovering the numerous useless items of kitsch that can be found in Bed, Bath, and Beyond while searching for the one item you actually need. Ladybug timers! Egg cups shaped like eggs! Odor-eliminating beads that glittter! Fruit snacks! When we passed the nail polish, she asked what I thought about doing manicures, and we each picked a new color for our polish collection. Then, we went to DSW to pick out the hiking shoes my family is giving me for my upcoming birthday. I always wondered who on this planet would buy the gaudy shoes in the clearance section...and now I know that person is my daughter! She excitedly found shoes in my size, trying to convince me that I could use a floral-printed, rhinestone-enhanced, four-inch pair of heels, or rhinestone-covered flats, or maybe a fuschia purse.

There is tremendous joy in hearing my daughter's imagination and energy in the hours which are usually spent at school. Today I was the one listening to made-up songs, conversations with stuffed animals, and the questions that popped into her mind. I don't have to ask about her day when she's tired--I've had the pleasure of experiencing it with her. She kept telling me, "It's fun to have a girls' day, Mommy." Why yes, my love, it is. Clearly you and I both needed it. Next time, let's do it without the strep throat!