One of the things I find most striking about Rosh Hashanah, and, really, all of Jewish ritual life, is the emphasis on cycles, which can also be translated as repetition.
We say the same prayers every year. We say them over and over. One powerful justification for this repetition is that even though the words don’t change, we change. As a different person with different experiences this Rosh Hashanah compared to last year at this time, hopefully, I’m able to meet the words with new and more transformative perspectives.
I mention all this because, in my pre-High Holidays request for my friends to send me advice questions, I was struck by the repetitions in the questions themselves. A parent of a 2-year-old this year asked me an almost identical question to a parent who had a 2-year-old in 2014. Different kids, different parents, different years, but, in many ways, same struggles. Yet, as I read back through my answers, I realize that though the questions may be similar, I am different, and I could answer these with a different, and hopefully improved, lens.
In that spirit, here are some snapshots of revisited, reworked and re-asked questions and answers.
My kid just began a non-Jewish school. He doesn’t really like going to shul. Should I send him to school, which he would probably enjoy more, or bring him to shul, because it’s the High Holidays, “that’s what you do,” and that’s what the rest of the family is doing?
School’s Not Out
In 2014, I told a mom with a similar question that it would be acceptable for her young child to go to a birthday party on Yom Kippur. I answered this specifically about school back in 2015, and essentially I said to trust your gut. I stand by both of these answers, but here’s where I have to make an update. When I wrote these, I had toddlers, not school-age kids. I said, presumptuously, that 6-year-olds should definitely be in services. Now, with a 6-year-old of my own, I have a laser-clear vision of the fact that one size does not fit all regardless of the ages of your kids, and if a more traditional religious environment is not going to work for your child of any age, you have to address their needs realistically. Find meaningful ways to incorporate traditions in your home life if that’s what’s going to work, and be comfortable and confident that you can adapt your family’s traditions year by year.
Along those lines, I also got this question (again) this year:
My family and I do Shabbat meals each week but aren’t really synagogue regulars at this point except for High Holidays. Our synagogue does have child care for our toddler’s age group, but we hate being away from her for so long on a holiday that feels like it should be family time. We want her to hear the sounds of the liturgy and shofar, but we also want to have an adult experience. How can we balance those needs, and do we have to renegotiate this every year, since her needs keep changing?
In this post from 2015, I told parents to lower their expectations for what the High Holidays look like with kids. If I can tell you one thing with certainty, it is that the holiday will not go the way you envision. Child care is fine. Stepping out of services with your toddler is fine. Going to the park? Also fine. In 2014, I told a parent not to go too far out of her way to make sure her infant hears the shofar. I am fairly certain that any High Holiday children’s programming, even for young kids, will include something about a shofar.
But, as with the question above, you know your family and your child best. Plus, luckily, you have two days to work it out, so if your arrangement on day one doesn’t go as planned (and remember, it won’t), you can try something different the next year. As one final counterpoint, last year I answered a question from a parent who was completely exhausted by the prospect of doing holidays with kids. If you feel like she did by the end of Sukkot, you’ll have a whole year to readjust your expectations yet again.
Even non-parents repeat their questions! Way back in 2012, I answered a question from a reader who was unsure of how to handle donations versus membership when it came to securing tickets for High Holiday services. This year, the question was simply, “Could you answer something about buying tickets?”
While I completely relate to the discomfort in having to pay for a religious experience, I also know that our Jewish institutions play a critical role in our community, and the services they offer (as in social services as well as religious ones), cost a lot of money: clergy, professional staff, building fees, materials, security, just to name a few. Even if you do find a service that is open to everyone, please consider a donation. If you decide not to attend a synagogue because they want to charge you to be there, please don’t hold it against them, but rather, do the math and try to understand how community works.
Vegans. In 2015, I answered two questions about how to help vegans and non-vegans co-exist at the Rosh Hashanah table. Yesterday, I was asked, “What is a vegan alternative to a fish head on the table?” and, “How can I explain to my vegetarian kids where a shofar comes from?”
This article (that I didn’t write) has a great description of the fish head tradition. Sometimes, talking about a tradition can be almost as good as doing it. A lovely tradition for your vegan table could be to have people go around and come up with a non-fish head tradition that also symbolizes “being the head and not the tail.” I also read somewhere about serving Swedish fish, and while I haven’t confirmed their vegan-ness, that sounds like an awesome idea.
Finally, as for the shofar, I vote for absolute honesty. My kids and I like to go to the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia, which I wrote about here in 2016 when describing how my kids started talking about death. There is a diorama there of mountain goats, and whenever we walk past them, we say, “Look, that’s where a shofar comes from!”
There are lots of unpleasant realities in the world, and the more comfortable grown-ups can become in sharing information with kids without scaring them, the more equipped children will be to process difficult information and to feel secure in asking questions. You don’t have to go into great detail to say, simply, “They come from a ram’s head.” Look at pictures of rams and also of shofars and even, perhaps, speculate on how it might transform from animal to ritual object. If you’re really curious and live near a Chabad that is doing a shofar making workshop, go in person to check out the process.
If you’re bringing your children to any part of the Rosh Hashanah service, they’re likely to hear things that will evoke questions. You may as well answer them, this year, and next year, and for many years to come, hopefully with improved perspective each time.
Thanks for reading this extremely long post. I hope it gave you some things to think about as we move into the new year.
Shana tova u’metukah — wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year,