Chicken soup and candlesticks
My husband and I don’t always agree. We have fought over everything from cloth versus paper diapers to whether M & Ms constitute one of the four food groups.
The one thing we do agree upon, however, is that our home should be a safe haven for our children, a place where they can take risks as they grow, express opinions without fear, and learn to understand the challenges inherent in loving and living with others.
We approach this safe environment by different means. He locks the doors and windows; I sit on the couch and invite conversation. He wants a dog, an alarm system, and to know where the kids are at all times; I want to cook a big pot of soup and have dinner together. Neither of us is complete without the other and together we have created our own gourmet blend of physical and emotional security that works.
Despite such differences, there is a singular tool that we both rely upon in creating a safe family environment. Ritual that age-old vehicle that societies have used for centuries to transmit values to its members has done more to help build our family than almost anything else.
Sociologists and anthropologists have long known that rituals function as powerful tools to define family roles and to pass on cultural norms and family values from one generation to the next. Rituals create a sense of identity and belonging; they tie the individual to a group or community. They mark important life-cycle events, commemorate life transitions and permit us to express important emotions such as love, fear, joy, and grief. Perhaps most importantly, rituals provide a sense of stability, order, and regularity: They constitute an anchor in a tumultuous world and act as a compass by which to navigate.
When I was growing up my family did not observe many Jewish rituals. We did not celebrate Shabbat or keep kosher. None of us knew which prayers were said for eating, drinking, or celebrating the holidays.
As a child it didn’t matter much, but as an adult it felt like a huge impediment. I sheepishly muddled my way through Jewish events and services feeling culturally disadvantaged and downright stupid. Then one day I read about Rabbi Akiva, one of the most highly acclaimed Jewish sages, who began his Jewish studies at the age of 40. Since I was in my early 20s at the time, this left me feeling as if I had a definite advantage. I took this as a good sign and began a course of Jewish learning that continues to this day.
My own definition of ritual is quite simple: It is the creation of sacred time or sacred space in our lives, our home, and our communities. In our home it has taken many forms and has evolved through the years as we have grown up as a family together. It speaks to us in our kitchen, where we are reminded daily of the commitment we make to our tradition as we place the turkey burgers on our “meat only” plates. It carries its force into our family room, where we have shelves dedicated solely to Jewish collectibles, art, music, and books, many of which were made by our children or otherwise have special meaning. It makes its way into our bedrooms, where we have hung mezuzot on each door that contain personal blessings and prayers for our family.
Each week as we usher in Shabbat, we whisper something special to each of our teenage children acknowledging their uniqueness and why we love them. Years ago this time was allocated to “happy thoughts,” when our children would share the happiest moments of the week with us. We light my grandmother’s brass candlesticks, smuggled out of Russia over 100 years ago in the lining of a coat, while my daughter wears Grandma’s black lace head covering that still smells of her rosewater cologne.
We find new ways to celebrate the holidays using art, music, food, and games. On Rosh Hashana, we bake a cake for dessert to honor the world’s birthday. On Passover, we sit on pillows and blankets in a tent we build on our back porch to experience the seder as if we were in ancient Egypt. When it is time to eat, we exit the tent and walk the long distance through our sandy backyard to the “Promised Land” for dinner. The opportunities to create meaningful rituals are unlimited if you are willing to spend some time doing a little background reading and experimenting.
Making our homes a safe harbor for our children is no easy undertaking. I am grateful for what Judaism has to offer us as individuals and parents as we continue to embrace the challenge.
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