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The gift of unanticipated kvelling

There's this overwhelming physical reaction far beyond pride that I feel when my kids lead services
Illustrative. Tallit, prayer shawl. (iStock).
Illustrative. Tallit, prayer shawl. (iStock).

My favorite part of Shabbat services is the end. Not because we get to eat, but because kids get to lead the concluding prayers.

Yesterday our boys, Joseph and Benjamin, had their turn at leading the congregation. While each time feels like the first time, the first time was an experience I will never forget. Seven years ago, Joseph and I ventured out on a Friday evening into the Great White North, a blizzard-covered Manhattan, to go to Lincoln Square Synagogue.

Towards the end of the service, Joseph, who was 5 at the time, joined other children up front to drink some grape juice for kiddush. Standing on the bimah with his friends, he seemed happy and comfortable.

All of a sudden, I noticed the sexton draping a tallit (prayer shawl) around Joseph’s shoulders. “How thoughtful!” I thought. Maybe Joseph was cold.

But then it occurred to me that something else might be happening. Before you could say “L’chaim,” I ran down the synagogue steps to find out what was going on.

“Joseph, what are you doing?” I asked, out of breath from my 20-yard dash.

“I’m going to lead Yigdal, Daddy.” He responded calmly, referring to the final prayer of the Friday night service.

“But Joseph, you can’t read Hebrew?!”

“Don’t worry, Dad. We do this in school.”

This seemed a little funny to me. How could my 5-year-old lead services without knowing how to read Hebrew?

The situation only became more comical when the sexton showed Joseph the place in the prayerbook. Joseph acknowledged the man’s help with a polite, “Thank you.”

As a sense of dread enveloped me, my heart pounded so loudly I thought someone was playing the drums. During my years as a congregational rabbi working with children to prepare for bar and bat mitzvah, I have seen kids freeze on the bimah. It can be scarring. With my 5-year-old in the synagogue’s on-deck circle, I prayed vigorously that his moment as the star didn’t leave a scar.

When it was time, Joseph began singing the prayer with poise, clarity and joy. With every sweet, cherubic note he sang, my apprehension transformed into awe. Awash in parental pride, my pounding heart pulsated a rhythm of happiness.

Who knew he could get up in front of 200 people and lead a part of the service?

Then I experienced a new sensation. It radiated from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Was I having a heart attack? An endorphin high from my 20-yard dash?

Then it hit me: I was kvelling.

The last time I even heard the word was during Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk” skits on Saturday Night Live. I had always thought that kvelling, Yiddish for bursting with pride, was merely an emotion. Who knew that this feeling could also encompass a physical component?

As soon as Joseph finished, I gave him the biggest hug ever. A wide smile broadcasted his excitement and a deep appreciation of the well-wishers who offered congratulations.

Walking home that evening in the snow, I felt like we were walking on air, not snow. When we entered our apartment, Julie immediately noticed that we were both beaming, each for our own legitimate and overlapping reasons.

Over the years, I have spent many hours reflecting on Joseph’s unexpected synagogue debut and my response to it. Quite honestly, I am still somewhat perplexed by my own kvelling, especially the physical aspect that accompanied it.

What distinguishes parental pride from kvelling? One of the major elements in this discussion is the anticipation factor. There are many moments when we parents are proud of our children. These milestones include their first words, first steps, first day at school, first legitimate hit of a baseball, and their first recitation of the “The Four Questions” at the Passover seder.

I always thought that this kind of parental pride was kvelling. Appreciating the moment as a gateway to the next life-stage, we can feel it in our hearts and grasp it in our minds. One unifying element of these aforementioned parental Kodak moments are that they are part and parcel of the calendar, perhaps even the book of life. We wait for them; we almost expect them. So much so that we often have time to focus the camera beforehand.

There are also special moments we don’t see coming as parents that register on the kvelling barometer. We leap out of our seats when our kids perform beyond their own expectations by scoring that goal in soccer or by getting an A on an impossible math test. Further, our hearts jump for joy when our children perform “random acts of kindness” by sharing, helping others in need and standing up for what is right.

But for some reason, that night in synagogue was different. It was a kveller‘s perfect storm. Joseph’s unanticipated “performance” wasn’t just about reaching a milestone; it signaled his emerging confidence as well as the integration of what he learns at home and school into his daily life. Most importantly, his unexpected actions are a manifestation of our families’ values about engagement within the Jewish community.

In its purest form, kvelling constitutes a physical response to seeing our hopes and dreams actualized before our very eyes. At that very moment, we parents witness the transmission in action and know in the recesses of our souls that our values will live on.

It’s hard to be believe that in a few weeks Joseph will become a bar mitzvah. After years of watching them do this, one might think it wouldn’t affect me so much, but it never gets old. Each and every time he and his brother lead the congregation, I still kvell just like that very first time.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor works at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue as the Director of Congregational Education. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education and leadership. He serves as a volunteer fundraiser for Lone Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.
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