With the start of Hebrew school on Sunday, the carefree days of summer are now officially over. And Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year 5768 begins at sundown tonight.
Last week, as we were driving home on the first day of middle school, my daughter threw a mini-tantrum. She'd had an exciting and difficult day, had not slept much the night before, and was exhausted. She begged me to allow her to skip gymnastics that afternoon, and I did. But that's not what the tantrum was about.
She hates Hebrew school.
Well, that's not entirely accurate. She enjoys learning about her heritage, she likes understanding the customs. It's the Hebrew she hates.
"I want to learn a different language, like Spanish or French!" she cried.
I told her she could, when it's offered as an elective in school. In the meantime, she's learning Hebrew.
"But why? Why do I have to learn?"
Well, that's a question without a satisfying answer -- at least, not one she's going to be satisfied with.
She knows that both her father and I are more agnostics than dogmatic Christian and Jew. She's right to question why we are MAKING her study Hebrew for four years so she can participate in this rite of passage. I'm not insisting on this only so I can live vicariously through her (although there is an element of that). There are much bigger reasons, all having to do with being connected to an ancient tradition... and a community.
I admit that to a certain extent, she is studying to be Bat Mitzvah because I was not. Synagogue membership is an expensive proposition. My parents simply didn't want to spend the money, and my dad freely admitted it. "If you were a boy, we would take out a loan," he told me. But back then, a lot of families felt that giving your daughters the same Jewish education was optional.
They tried. At various times when I was growing up, they would join a congregation. But after six months or a year, they would quit. I had few Jewish friends. And our extended family is pretty spread out. So my knowledge of my own religion is spotty, and while I have always known and felt I was very Jewish (even if I am very secular), I had no ties to the community. It's too bad, because I had a difficult adolescence and young adulthood -- and I wonder if being part of that community would have cushioned those dark times a little.
I didn't know how much I missed this until five years ago, when we joined our synagogue -- ironically, the last one my parents tried out, when I was 13. I went back there because I remembered that the people were welcoming and nice, with modern services and clerics who aren't afraid to exhibit a sense of humor. And it's still that way.
I am filled with pride when we go to Temple together and Megan is able to keep up with the songs and the prayers, something I am completely unable to do. And I realize that I've done her a disservice by treating her time in religious school as an opportunity to shop, cook and run errands. On top of that, it's hard to give her any guidance when I don't have the background. Maybe she would be less resistant if I put my money where my mouth is and learned some Hebrew myself.
The synagogue offers adult education classes for Jews like me who never learned how to be Jewish. Unfortunately, these classes have not been offered concurrently with the kids' classes, so attending one would mean giving up rare family time.
But at this year's Hebrew school welcome assembly, the rabbi announced a change in policy: They will be offering these classes on Sunday mornings, so that parents might want to stick around while the kids are doing their thing. This seems to be a huge new priority for them: In addition to the classes, they are going to set up their own little gathering spot, with coffee and bagels and free wi-fi. "We want you to come hang out here instead of going to Starbucks," the rabbi said.
Yesterday, I told Megan that I was thinking of taking Hebrew, too. She was surprised -- but looked pleased.
And so we begin another New Year. I wish all my friends of all beliefs a happy, healthy and peaceful one.