Feed Your Child
As a little girl, I would visit my grandmother in upstate New York often. Her home is where I was sent after my father died so my mother could set up a new life for us. I felt safe there. Every morning I’d watch as she made her way through her dining room, opening curtains to greet the day. She would move toward the window and delicately place her hands by her face as if she were washing her skin with the new day’s sun. Back and forth her hands went until she cupped her face into them. I knew enough, even as a child who didn’t regularly attend temple, to understand that this was a religious ritual for her, perhaps an offering or a prayer. I would watch from the kitchen doorway, giving her privacy, as she whispered to herself. It was beautiful to witness. I liked thinking she was carrying the sun with her as she went about her day.
Framed pictures of our family hung on the wall around her as she performed her ritual—my mother in her wedding dress, her and my grandfather cutting their wedding cake only two weeks after he returned from the war, and some of the few surviving pictures from the old country. Family and Judaism were clearly important to her, but I didn’t really understand what it all meant; I just knew I wasn’t allowed to have a cheeseburger at Grandma’s house.
My family did not keep kosher. We did not go to temple, even for the high holidays. I knew I was Jewish, but we were not religious. We lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I attended school with the Zabars’ kids, and our identity was far more wrapped up in the cultural experience of being Jewish than in being observant.
My mother was not rebelling against the religious home in which she was raised; she embraced her Judaism. But she’d been recently widowed and had a little girl to raise on her own. I honestly think she was just too busy and distracted as a single, working parent to prioritize Jewish practice. We were making our way as best we could.
That was until I asked to go to Hebrew school around age eleven. I wish I could say I asked out of some desire to understand my history, but really, my friend Laura was going, and I liked Laura, and this meant we could walk to Hebrew school together. Twice a week! So my mother signed me up.
Our rabbi was a social activist, and I would often catch him on the local news, Live at Five, debating issues with other city leaders. That was cool. I liked Hebrew school. I liked being Jewish. I didn’t fight going. I enjoyed the social justice of it all. But then my family got into a long argument over who should or shouldn’t be invited to my bat mitzvah, souring what should have been a meaningful religious experience.
Because of that, I stopped going soon after the ceremony. But I still felt Jewish. I visited Israel. I ate bagels and lox. I went with my mother to Lithuania to find her grandfather’s home, the place he had to leave behind in 1911 at age sixteen. And eventually, I married a Jewish man in a ceremony officiated by the same Live at Five rabbi.
My children would be Jewish. Of course they would go to Hebrew school and I never once questioned whether they would be bar or bat mitzvahed. I used to daydream about how theirs would be different from mine. No arguing, just celebration. I would pass this tradition down. Maybe someday they would go live on a kibbutz in Israel if they so desired. I would continue what had been passed down for generations in my own little way. I may not know all of the prayers, but I know the weight of our history. I knew that my bubbe, my great-grandmother, had come from the old country, from a shtetl in Romania. I had known her. I had watched my grandmother do my bubbe’s hair when I would visit. I knew that my American Reform Judaism was only possible because she and other relatives had fled for safety once upon a time. I was going to honor that.
I have two sons now. Yes, they wonder why Santa doesn’t visit and why we don’t have a tree during Christmas. They often rush through candle lightings to get to their presents during Hanukkah. But I also share Jewish-themed books with them at bedtime and each carries a Hebrew name of those that came before.
A bar mitzvah for my eldest son seemed like it would be a no-brainer. We would even joke about where to have it. Would it be small and intimate in Israel? A big blowout party? Or at an event room at Churchill’s War Room in London that my WWII-obsessed son and I visited? He liked that idea. I would book the band that played our wedding to play his party. "Sunrise, Sunset" indeed.
But here I need to back up. My oldest son had a complicated birth. I will respect his privacy and not go into it too much, but because of it, he has learning issues and anxiety. When we toured our local Hebrew school and were about to sign him up, he wailed, “Why would I want to go to school on the weekends?!”
I understood his point, but more importantly I didn’t want to fight him to go. I didn’t want to drag him into Judaism, therefore setting him up to resent it and potentially dislike it. I didn’t want to make being Jewish something to argue about. I wanted it to wash over him like a sunny day.
So I found him a program that only met twice a month, not weekly. He went, but grudgingly. He attended the program for a year. I cried when they had a mock wedding between the sock puppets they had created, chuppah and all. But it was all just a little too much for him. His anxiety escalated with the arrival of puberty.
So we quit.
If and when he wants a bar mitzvah, he can have one. But the time is not now.
This past summer, he turned thirteen. I was very aware that there was no party to plan, no relatives to invite, no bar mitzvah money to tuck away in the bank.
But not having a bar mitzvah for my son felt like the kind thing to do. It felt Jewish, very on brand for the kind of Judaism I had been raised in. My mother used to tell a story about how she had been unwell one Yom Kippur and the family’s Jewish doctor insisted she avoid fasting. He gave my grandmother a piece of fruit for her and said, “Feed the child.” The Judaism I aspire to practice forefronts kindness, generosity of spirit, and the ability to adjust and question traditions.
I am feeding my child: On his thirteenth birthday, we went to Benihana as he requested, just him, his father, younger brother, and me. We respect where he is at this moment. I treated him with the respect befitting the man—the person—he is becoming, official ceremony or not.
How to cite this page
Schinderman, Rachel Zients. "Feed Your Child." 16 October 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 17, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/feed-your-child>.