The season of rituals started early this year, right after Labor Day. Whether you claim religious membership or not, you can’t escape the feasts, fasts, fairs and festivals that cover the calendar from now until Christmas.
I drag my children to services beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and we’ll be at it until Hanukkah, the festival of lights. I can make my children attend synagogue, dress up, learn prayers, do dances, but what I secretly want is the very thing over which I have no control: their faith.
I feel old fashioned and very un-PC saying it, but I’m a believer in, you know, the divine, the eternal, the universal spirit, God. There: I probably just blew years of liberal, rational, democratic street cred, but it’s true. I find God in babies voices, in each sunset and sunrise, in each of my daughters’ hugs. Faith supports me through traffic jams on the Gowanus, adds joy watching my girls sled at the dog park or making cookies for a bake sale.
But as deep as my faith runs inside me, it’s impossible for me to give it to my girls because, indeed, I don’t know how I found it, given how much I loathed the very rituals that I turn to today.
I started brainwashing my oldest when she was too young to protest, strapped in the stroller and wheeled to Welcoming Shabbat (which is really just Jewish Music Together, a sing-a-long version of the Friday evening service).
Next, Religious School started, first one afternoon each week, then two. She never liked going, especially after fifth grade when she went on a weekend retreat which didn’t go so well (injuries, rebellion).
When I announced she would be attending the trip the following year, her screams claimed that she would be the “only” sixth grader going and how “miserable” she would be. She resented religious school for making her miss team practices and hang-out time.
She is 15 now, in the last year of the religious education I’ve forced upon her, culminating in Confirmation, a ceremony “confirming” a faith about which she’s still not sure. Since her bat mitzvah, she’s argued against her involuntary participation or tried to negotiate a reward: “Since you’ve made me go I should get a big Confirmation party.”
My younger child has gone through the same indoctrination, but enjoys the experience more. She gets to religious school early to meet her friends, share snacks and read comic books. She was sad to miss the second year of her retreat (scheduling conflict) because she had so much fun the first year. Now approaching her bat mitzvah, the peak of religious demands, she is still excited.
I’m not sure this is what I was after. Watching my girls learning the prayers, the melodies, the stories, I still don’t know if this was the right thing to do, requiring their participation in rituals.
But I know what it did for me: my faith adds joys, but more — it sustained me when my father died, when the doctor tried to turn my oldest daughter around in utero and the numbers on the fetal heart monitor started dropping like crazy.
Everyone needs something to get them through the brake-ups, the college rejections, the lost wallets, the deaths. Ceremony and liturgy told me what to do at those times, but faith is my companion when facing what I feel.
Faith is also a mystery to me. Where did it come from? How did I get it? Like a virus or a gift? My ritual life started by sitting on itchy red velvet chairs, wearing an uncomfortable suit and tie, having to be quiet during long, really long High Holy Day services twice a year.
Like my daughter, I really didn’t like Sunday School, rushing out the door to go watch football or eat bagels. It was a chore slogging through the years until my confirmation. At home though, my mother spoke of God as a presence like a neighbor down the hall. For her, the spiritual was part of one’s life, talked about like the weather.
And, most important, it wasn’t in a synagogue where I discovered my belief in God. When I saw my daughter for the first time, at 10 weeks on a fuzzy black and white screen, a small peanut with wings flapping, flying towards this world, I sensed the miraculous. In the woods, looking at a quiet lake, seeing the silver bridge of moonlight on the small, nighttime waves I felt something deep, eternal.
This is the place I want my daughters to find, to have, to help and sustain them and feed them when they have a hunger no amount of ice cream or cookies will satisfy. For me, that is faith.
I don’t know how to take them there, only how to show them a path littered with rituals and hope that somehow one leads to the other. Their road may pass through really boring services and compulsory religious school. In the end they may become scientists or Scientologists, believers in the power beyond or the powers that be. As a parent, I will never really know how they experience faith, belief, God.
All I can do is pray for them to find what they need, what will carry them through the vagaries of life.