Bonnie Levine
Of ITP synagogues and Paramount's "Wife Swap"

Jewish rituals with the tinies

This past Shabbat, My husband and I last-minute decided to hold a Tu B’Shvat seder in our home — though to use the word “seder” (a Hebrew word that you’ll recall from Passover means “order”) might be a stretch.

The guests of honor were aged 3, 3, almost 2, 15 months, 7 months, and 5 weeks. Parents took turns reading from the 7-page Hazon Family Seder, loudly and forcefully to make themselves heard over the chaos. The kids shoved fruit in their mouths indiscriminately without waiting for any blessings. (“What’s this?!” one of the three-year olds inquired of a dried fig, before taking a bite and spitting it out.) With some guilt about the environmental nature of Tu B’Shvat, we used paper plates and plastic cups and silverware. After the fourth cup of grape juice, we spent about 90 seconds hollering environmental platitudes at squealing toddlers, and then brought out the much-awaited pizza for dinner. 10-15 minutes later, we — equally frenetically — bulldozed through Havdalah, dripping wax all over the plastic tablecloth, my son insisting on licking the spice box as usual, my daughter then zigzagging around the room shoving it into people’s noses and running away.

Untouched seder plate, devoured seder plate, pizza, and 1-year-old climbing chair. Happy birthday, trees!

It is tempting for exhausted parents (well, at least me), to conclude that experiences like the above have more costs than benefits. What is the point? Are the kids learning anything? Will they even remember? Wouldn’t my not having served a bunch of fruit and paper plates tonight been more in the spirit of Tu B’Shvat?

My children being only 1 and 3, I certainly can’t vouch for the long-term results here. But perhaps there is value in having our tiniest ones go through even the tiniest motions–even if we do it imperfectly and sometimes can’t manage to make it happen at all. Learning is most powerful through experiencing, and a little experience goes a long way when it comes to exposure to Jewish values and tradition. I hope that these experiences will empower their Jewish identities as they get older–and even if it doesn’t turn out that way, they will have some baseline knowledge when and if they want to tap into it.

If framed realistically in the context of your own life, anyone can make this an achievable goal. Pick a few holidays that reflect your own ideals–Tu B’Shvat is a good choice for us because of its emphasis on nature (plus, to be honest, I felt some pressure to walk my talk). Kid-ify the observance as much as you can, or just look for kid-friendly events in your community. If you can, look first for a concept to which you genuinely connect. I encourage that we not get too hung upon that, though, as Judaism teaches that actions taken in observance of mitzvot have value even when we struggle with the spiritual meaning.  Full disclosure: this is a debate my husband and I have, who likes to be convinced of a ritual’s spiritual value before spending time on it.

My kids and job (and now activism!) tire me out physically and emotionally most days–the Jewish calendar is not always top of my focus. I sometimes don’t even notice a holiday is coming up until it’s practically here! But when it comes to L’Dor Va Dor (passing on to the next generation), we can be satisficers, not maximizers. We can start with baby steps, projecting to our children that we delight in Judaism and are happy about the results of even ad-hoc efforts.

About the Author
Bonnie Levine is an attorney and musician, as well as a wife and mom of a three-year old son and a five-year old daughter. She writes about Jewish spirituality and observance, parenting, intersectionality, and the U.S. and Atlanta Jewish communities. Views are her own and not those of her employer, synagogues, or any other organization.
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