“Shema Yisrael,” my almost-three-year-old son squawks, holding a siddur upside down. I stare on, beaming.
“What a beautiful Shema,” I coo. “Keep singing! Adonai…”
My husband and I hum along the two flights of stairs, awaiting him in the lobby. He opens the front door and smiles at me half-smile.
I know. I shrug. This is the second time I have marveled at how motherhood has changed me.
The first time occurred that morning, when I rejoiced at my one-year-old daughter’s dirty nappy (she’d worked really hard for it). Who am I? I texted an old friend after I’d smothered my daughter’s perfect baby bottom in cream (post-hummus rash). G pooed this morning and I literally leapt for joy.
Look how far you’ve come, she replied.
And I have: from a notorious prude who basically banned toilet talk from my college friendship group to someone who has daily, in-depth conversations about my children’s bowel movements.
This was a necessary change. However, belting out the Shema without any hint of self-consciousness and sullenness? It was a shift I didn’t see coming.
I was raised in a Modern Orthodox family. These values were not negotiable. We observed Shabbat, no electronics, weekly synagogue attendance, holidays, kept Kosher, and studied Jewish texts two times a week with a local Rebbi.
My parents did a great job in making Judaism enjoyable and engaging. Our succah – adorned with excessive amounts of twinkling string lights bought on sale post-Christmas – had an open-door policy, with an endless stream of guests ranging from distant family members to my non-Jewish classmates.
Shabbat was sweet with “special” (sugary) cereals and soft drink. My dad would discuss any theological issue with me, and he was not afraid to ask difficult or surprising questions.
Since I was a youngster, however, I struggled to keep up with Orthodox observance. My family was one of the most religious in my community so I was very different from many of my Jewish friends. Their parents never made them sing the (excruciatingly long) “Shalom Aleichem” and “Eishet Chayil” on Friday nights. To shule, their parents allowed them to wear short dresses. Their dads didn’t pray with the same zeal as my own, who rocked back and forth with a tallis over his head to block out distractions.
For an easily embarrassed child, it was difficult to be different.
The funny thing was, when my friends came for Friday night dinner, they clapped along to “Shalom Aleichem” and unselfconsciously joined in, mumbling their way through it. They teased my dad about how frum he was – and he laughed along with them.
And while I blushed through my father’s blessing, recoiling as he embraced me afterwards (physical affection in public, ew!), some of them asked him to bless them, too, in lieu of their own fathers, who didn’t know the words. Their light-heartedness and joy made me feel awkward.
The peak of my extremely dramatic adolescence, at 17 years old, was when things came to a head. I was sick of everyone telling me what to do – and being Jewish involved so many rules. Rules that severely threatened my social life at my non-Jewish high school; I missed crucial parties because of Shabbat and chances to date hot Christian boys who I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of.
But it wasn’t just teenage rebellion. My grief at the loss of a friend, which had recently committed suicide, triggered a massive faith crisis. I felt completely disconnected from Halachah. It seemed absurd and unreal, which was easy to forget.
I was mad at G-d, if there was one, for letting my friend go, my parents, for forcing me to live a Jewish lifestyle I didn’t like, and myself, for not knowing what I wanted or being brave enough for it.
Everything became a lot simpler when I moved away from home to go to college. I needed to take a break from all the emotions involved with religious scepticism.
This was a very deliberate choice, but it wasn’t, I confess, a healthy one.
Still, I trundled along in determined religious apathy – until a year ago, when our toddler began coming home from gan (Israeli kindergarten) with what I can only describe as religious fervour.
He found wonder in every festival — the gleam of the menorah, dancing on Simchat Torah, the blare of the shofar. He sang Lecha Dodi As he lay down to sleep, he would look at his stuffed toys. He exclaimed with excitement that he could see every kippah.
His joy was overwhelming and I instinctively wanted to be there.
I offered to light the Shabbat candles along with my wife one Friday. It was the first time I’d voluntarily lit candles in over a decade. Striking the match, and watching his eyes light up, I didn’t feel awkward, as I’d expected. I felt happy. He was thrilled that I had passed on the Jewish tradition. I was encouraged to do more by the thought that such a simple act could bring us mutual joy.
Before long, we were jamming to “Shalom Aleichem” on his toy xylophone and clapping along to the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) as he sat on my lap. It was only a hop, skip and an “amen” until I teared up over his Shema.
Motherhood has given me the permission – and confidence – to become somebody I don’t recognise. At 17, I thought my Jewish identity was complicated and full of self-consciousness, guilt, and pride. But I don’t have time to indulge those emotions when other things are more important, like jostling through the crowd at shule to let my son kiss the Torah as it parades past, just to hear him gush about it all walk home.
How lucky I am to get a second chance to see how joyful Judaism can be through a child’s eyes. And this time, I won’t lose sight of it.
This article appeared first on Kveller.com.
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