Thursday, April 3, 2014

Do You Have a Box of Grumblies at Your Seder?

By Marcy Leiman 

Parenting Through a Jewish Lens had a fabulous event at Hebrew College on March 30—   Matzah Matters attracted nearly 70 parents, children, educators and community members.  The afternoon included two learning sessions: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels discussed ways to make the Haggadah and the Seder your own, and Elisha Gechter presented various commentators on the Haggadah.  I attended Rabbi Samuels’ session.

Reflecting on our discussion, two points stayed with me:  1. prepare for and invest in the Passover Seder, and 2. keep everyone at the table.  In reference to the first point, in my family, I am the one who invites the guests, cleans the house, buys the food, cooks the meal, sets the table and prepares the dessert. How much more can I prepare and invest? What more can I give to my Seder? Rabbi Samuels suggested that we invest in a good Haggadah.  Ah, this is something that my family has not done. We’ve used the same maroon and yellow Passover Haggadah for the past twelve years. It’s antiquated; there are no color pictures, nothing for my two-year-old and six-year-old children to get excited about. Yes, this is something that we needed to do.  Immediately after coming home from Matzah Matters, my husband and I logged onto Haggadahs-R-Us and ordered Noam Zion and David Dishon’s A Different Night Family Participation Haggadah. I am excited to try this Haggadah out with my family this year, to spice up our Seder and invest /prepare a bit more.

Rabbi Samuels’ second point was to keep everyone at the table. What? My cooking and Martha Stewart-esque set table are not enough to keep everyone at the table? Rabbi Samuels showed us a “box of grumblies” that he uses at his Seder. This box contains little tchotchkes; simple games, Passover-themed costumes, and various knick-knacks. If someone (regardless of whether an adult or a child) asks a good question during the Seder, they get to wear a special costume. If children get hungry or antsy, Rabbi Samuels invites them to pick something out of the box of grumblies. The point:  the mitzvah of having a Seder is for everyone at the table to hear the story of Exodus from Egypt. Everyone must be present and engaged. Some may call it bribery; Rabbi Samuels calls it “box of grumblies.”

So, with our new Haggadot, our ten plagues finger puppets, jumping frogs and Ping-Pong balls for locusts, our family is ready with our own box of grumblies, our own new Seder. I encourage you to re-evaluate your Seder, question what you’ve always done and perhaps invest in your own Passover box of grumblies.

 Marcy Leiman is the Associate Director of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. She lives in Needham with her husband and two children. 

Recreating Passover Memories for Our Children

By Elisha Gechter

Scallions transformed into the whips of Egyptian task masters, an imaginary suitcase for a journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and someone in an embroidered Egyptian ensemble—these are my childhood memories from the Passover seders my family and I enjoyed with friends in their very eclectic home. Our friends had nine children; the father was from Brooklyn and always ready for a debate, and the mother was from Egypt and incorporated many Sephardic customs that brought Passover off the page for me. Seder evening always felt exotic with them—there were so many differently spiced foods, boisterous songs and lengthy discussions. Plus I was pretty enamored to know someone from that faraway land where the Hagaddah scenes transpired.

created at: 2014-03-21Leading up to the holiday my mom would work on sewing me a new dress that I would anticipate showing off at these seders (it’s a tradition to have something new to wear before Passover!). She would let me select the pattern and choose the material, and then she got to work on her pedal-powered Singer. Now, as a working mom, I have no idea how she had time for this while teaching elementary school full-time. Her efforts certainly made the holiday feel a little more special.

But then one year, Passover changed for our family—our friends and their nine children realized a lifelong dream to move to Israel. They made it to the “Promised Land” and we were left at our much smaller, much less exotic Passover table. Without the banter, costumes and scallions, we felt lost. With only a half-dozen voices joining in on the seasonal songs, it felt less like a celebration. After that first time of us flying solo at the seder, at the age of 8 I asked my dad if I could try leading the seder the following night. In a way that would have pleased Sheryl Sandberg, I leaned in, or rather I leaned to my left side as instructed by the Haggadah, and took the reins. I don’t remember too many details from the first seders under my helm, but they were well-received, and I felt so good leading them.

The head of the seder table was one of the places that I grew to love Jewish conversations, Jewish learning and Jewish teaching. We incorporated some of the traditions from our Egyptian/Brooklyn friends and continued to glean new ideas from various Haggadahs. I instituted changes over the years that at first felt like a departure but are now part of our traditions. For example, we didn’t always read everything out loud; passages were sometimes looked over with a partner. And we didn’t always wait until we finished telling the story to eat the parsley and potatoes dipped in salt water—we sometimes snacked on crudités and dips.

There have been times when we spent Passover away from home at wonderfully adventurous destinations, including Israel, Prague and Puerto Rico. But when we were part of those bigger communal seders, I missed our smaller family discussions and the memories we had built.

Now, as I continue to lead our family seders, my attention turns to not only keeping the adults around the table intellectually stimulated but also to finding customs that will speak to my one-and-a-half-year old daughter, Zoe. She is the only seder guest under age 27! I want to recreate that whole-body experience I had with our Sephardic friends. It’s a lot to live up to, and right now I’m focusing on baby steps. We’ve been singing a lot of “Dayenu” thanks to the PJ Library, using matzah stickers to chat about this new food (she’s a huge challah freak!), and soon I want to pick out a dress with her from her collection that she hasn’t yet worn and designate it as her “seder dress.” So that’s how we’ll start off—we’ll pay attention to props, songs and matzah ball soup and build toward next year, when maybe she’ll be able to sing along to the Four Questions with us and pack something in that imaginary suitcase.

I invite you to join one of the many Parenting Through a Jewish Lens classes that Hebrew College and CJP are offering this fall—it provides an opportunity to discuss with other parents how you make Judaism come alive in your home.

Elisha Gechter is the associate director of community engagement at Hebrew College’s adult learning department. She also does community organizing and teaching for Eser and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Sam, and daughter, Zoe.

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. Voilà! 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
Facebook: neshamahforthesoul

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Journey with Raising Jewish Children by Jackie Krendel

The day my son was born was the day my world changed.  My world is now all about him and my daughter, who was born 3 years later.  Seeing them both for the first time melted my heart as well as my husband’s.  We were both excited and anxious about the new journey we were beginning together.  During their first years, it was amazing seeing how much they changed each month.  We wondered when they would sit up, crawl, what their first word would be, and what their personalities would be like.  For me, since I am an Episcopalian, I also had so many questions about how to raise Jewish children.

Before our kids were born, we celebrated the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Passover with my husband’s family.  We didn’t begin any traditions in our own home.  We also only went to Temple during the High Holidays and for a few Shabbat events.  We actually didn’t become members of our Temple until our son was born.  We did so because it was important to us that our children learn about their father’s heritage. 

As a working mom, I have found very little time to read the terrific books that I have on raising Jewish children.  At night, I start reading but then find myself falling asleep.  For nights, I would be reading the same few pages.  When I heard about the ‘Parenting Through a Jewish Lens’ class, I knew I had to take it.  And my husband was willing to take it with me which has led to many great talks. 

My favorite experience has been seeing how this class influenced my husband to begin saying the Sh’ma to the kids at bedtime.  Based on the PJ Library’s (terrific program) Goodnight Sh’ma book, I thought the Sh’ma was only about 3 lines long.  But after discussing the Sh’ma in class and receiving a very nice, colorful prayer page, I soon realized that was an abridged version.  I now hear both children singing part of it with my husband. 

For myself, I have found this class very enlightening on Jewish core values and the importance of community.  Even though we have discussed many great topics, I was most interested in learning how to get our children involved with helping others and understanding the importance of it.  While I have thought about doing this before, this class has motivated me even more to do it.  We both found this class to be an important and helpful stop on our journey of parenting.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

So Much More Than Bagels

“Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.” Rather self-explanatory course name, one would think at first. A course on parenting, that is, raising your kids, through a Jewish lens, meaning...well, what exactly? Perhaps not as self-explanatory as one might think at first, given the broad experiences and backgrounds one can fit into the idea of being Jewish. After all, while some of us consider ourselves Jewish because of the full observance of Judaism we bring to our lives, for others eating bagels is what defines us as Jewish.

My wife Nomi and I follow what we would call an observant lifestyle under Modern Orthodox auspices. To a great extent, it would seem as if a course on parenting through a Jewish lens would be almost redundant. When our rabbi, Yonah Berman, first told us that this course was being offered at Kadimah-TorasMoshe (our shul in Brighton), we weren’t entirely sure that it was something we needed. However, the premise sounded interesting enough, and we thought that it might not be a bad thing to take this course. Although our twin preschool daughters know that we live a Jewish life, we’re always looking for more ways to emphasize how important Judaism is to us and our family. At the very least, taking the course would stress that point to them, since we would be bringing them to the site every Sunday morning for the concurrent babysitting.

As it turned out, the course has ended up being much more valuable than I ever realized.

Each week, there is a different topic on parenting that we are supposed to explore. However, our class ended up with a makeup that lends itself well to digression. Pretty much everyone in the class is a friend from Kadimah who is either a parent of young children or a prospective parent. So not only are we dealing with the same issues a lot of the time, but we’re all friends who knew each other before the class.

Even close friends, though, don’t know everything there is to know about each other. What we have found through our classes is that our instructor, Behzad Dayanim, has done an excellent job of keeping us on track while at the same time allowing us to digress. Through these digressions, we have been able to share parenting strategies and advice about raising our kids to love Judaism – both the religion and the culture.

Behzad quickly seemed to identify our areas of interest that overlapped with his own. As Nomi reminded me, for our first session, Behzad – himself a musician – brought samples of music that we could integrate into our homes and teach to our children. He quickly learned that music played an important role in the homes of almost all of the participants in the class. He has also tapped into unique elements of his own life to illustrate ways we could incorporate Jewish concepts into our daily interactions with our children. Whether it is through music or through Persian cuisine, Behzad has managed to weave his interests and ours into the curriculum provided for the class.

A few years ago, shortly after our twin daughters were born, I brought the question of Jewish parenting to a Shabbat afternoon gathering at our synagogue. I noted that I wanted to raise my kids to observe Jewish life the same way I do, but I had been struck with the realization that I myself do not live the lifestyle that my parents might have expected. I’ve met many people who grew up in observant families who became non-observant as adults; conversely, I’ve met many people who grew up non-observant – or even non-Jewish – who became active observers of Judaism as adults. How can I ensure that my kids will grow up the way I want?

Well, the answer is easy. I can’t. But what I can do is give them the tools of Judaism, the knowledge, education, and background that will allow them to more easily maintain an observant lifestyle. I can let them know through my own actions and words how important it is to me, and hope that, as they become adults, they will find the same things in it attractive to them.

Michael A. Burstein is a science-fiction writer and science curriculum editor. You can find out more about him at his website, For a few years, his wife Nomi and he co-wrote the Brookline Parent column for Brookline Patch.