Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”
I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.
There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)
All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.
Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.
We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.
Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.
And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.
For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.
Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share or wish to.
Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day, it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.
One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.
I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.
“Do you know of a prayer for a surrogate?” The question came over Facebook Chat a few nights ago, sent by a young woman in my community named Tara. In the coming days, Tara will begin carrying an embryo for a couple who were not able to conceive on their own. For Tara, this has been a deep spiritual journey. She has two children of her own, and felt so blessed by easy and healthy pregnancies. And while cherishing her own beautiful sons, she felt overwhelmed by the deep pain and heartache that infertility causes to so many people. Tara knew she wanted to help.
In the Hebrew Bible, we meet many women who struggle with infertility. There’s Rachel, who watches her sister carry baby after baby, struggling herself to conceive her own beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There’s Hannah, who is so deeply pained by her inability to bare a child, that when she prays with all of her heart, Eli the Cohen believes that her passion and her devotion is a sign of being drunk. Hannah sways back and forth, opening her mouth, and only releasing a voice that is loud enough for she herself to hear. This kavanah, or deep intention, is the model that we use for personal prayer today.
Possibly the most well known story of infertility is found in this week’s Torah portion—Vayera. After struggling for years to conceive, Sarah is told that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age – and she laughs, and thus the child is given the name Yitzhak. Our rabbis teach that her laughter carries with it a feeling of surprise and even doubt. And yet, I prefer to focus on the essential truth that exists within big, unbridled laughter—tremendous, heartfelt, contagious joy. Sarah would finally know the extraordinary joy of being a mother.
Today, I know so many women and men who desperately want to experience that very same joy.
In just a few short days, an embryo will be implanted within Tara’s uterus, formed by a loving mother and father who are unable to create a baby without Tara’s help. And so, for Tara, I have written this blessing:
Makor HaChayim, Source of Life,
Inspire me to become a holy vessel, blessed with the opportunity to carry this precious seed, providing nourishment and warmth within the deep embrace of my womb.
Infuse me with patience. Through each hour of each day, may I have the strength to feel the blessing of the moment, knowing that with each breath that we share, life is closer to being renewed.
Rekindle within me courage, for in holding this seed, I am not merely making a child—I am also creating a mother and a father. I am forming a family. And within that family, a whole universe of possibility dwells.
And at this time, especially, instill within me the power and potential of love, that I may remain tender and devoted to all those who are connected to my heart. As my body changes and grows, so may my capacity to embody love expand and unfold as well.
The other day my son called just as I was getting ready to lock the front door. He had forgotten the camera he needed for photography class, would I be willing to bring it to his school on my way to work?
I am usually the last one to leave the house in the morning. This means that if a pair of cleats or a lunch is left behind, I see it. Usually I sigh. Sometimes after having reminded and reminded, I seethe. Rarely do I do anything about it.
Call me mean. Call me crazy.
Just know this, my kids don’t think of me that way.
Here is what they know. They know they have to be responsible partners in their own lives. They know I trust them to figure it out –even if I don’t know what the “it” is. They know how to solve problems of all sorts.
Sure, sometimes they go a little hungry or have to sit out or wear something entirely inappropriate for the activity –it is true shorts are much better than jeans when playing basketball, but so it goes. None of these things is life threatening. Unfortunate or uncomfortable sure, but dangerous –not at all.
My children know that small problems are really not a reason to give up, stop trying, or sit out and are by no means the end of the earth.
When the people of Israel were wandering in the desert, they complained often about how terrible things were. Each time God threatened a not so natural consequence. Moses was there to defend them, to put things right. Not surprisingly, when Moses, disappeared for 40 days, and they got anxious. They were used to having someone resolve their problems for them. They did not have faith that they could endure the discomfort. So they made a stupid choice –yes there are times when there is no way around acknowledging stupidity. God threatened annihilation. And Moses, like a typical helicopter parent, swooped in defending and excusing their behavior.
It is not surprising that it took forty years for the Israelites to grow up and move on.
I don’t have 40 years. My children will leave my home at 18 and while I will always be there to help when a serious crisis occurs, I won’t be there to bring them their lunch or forgotten homework, or take away discomfort. When the day comes, I need them to walk out my front door knowing that they can go wandering in the desert on their own and find their own path to their destination, even though there will be bumps or moments of disappointment along the way.
Most of us learn this eventually, it is what makes us successful and empowered as adults. But by letting my children cope with lack of cleats or lunch bags, I am giving them opportunities to grow and experience incrementally and appropriately, making this process less shocking.
When my son called that morning, I had just that week come back from two weeks travelling. During my absence his father had been away for a few days as well. Our teen had been in the house on his own for 5 nights. There had been no panicked phone calls, no angry emails, even though as he had reported there were moments of loneliness and doubt. I was confident in his capacity to navigate on his own. So I hesitated not a moment and told him I would glad to bring him his camera.
“Being a diplomat is no career for a woman who wants to have a family,” said the consul.
“By the time you’re ready to get married he’ll be married,” said my mother.
“Don’t put off having children,” said the prominent professor.
Jane Eisner’s recent editorial Marriage Agenda brought back me to the 80s and 90s. As I finished high school, made my way through college and began graduate school, my elders were filled with advice about family planning. In the Jewish community, where concerns of assimilation reached a fever pitch, there was a very strong chorus that promoted marriage and childbearing. Eisner’s piece, which laments the high rates of intermarriage, the delaying of marriage, or even choosing not getting married sounded eerily like a retro recording of days gone by.
As a young woman, I followed the wisdom I received. I was married by 25 and had my first child in my twenties and my second by 32. I did miscarry but I was young and healthy and conception followed with ease. In my 40s, I have healthy older children and a strong marriage.
But to suggest that this has been an easy path or one that comes without costs is foolish. I was still very much figuring out who I wanted to be when I met the man I married. Instead of going off to Israel and entering rabbinical school, I stayed in the United States. Coming to understand myself in relationship to him would mean nearly a decade before I realized my desire to go to rabbinic school. And realizing that dream –while raising two small children-took a toll on our marriage. Having our children before our careers were launched was financially challenging. Studies have shown that delaying childbearing for educated professionals correlates with significantly higher lifetime earning potential. As we face paying for college this is something I worry about. I do not regret my choices but am realistic about the trade offs. It is too simplistic to recommend that we encourage marriage and early childbearing. Continue reading
Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.
The moment could not have been more perfect.
Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.
Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.
In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.
Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.
I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.
When selecting a name for our youngest child, I was campaigning hard for “Jedediah” should the baby be a boy. The diminutive form, “Jed,” sounds so strong and I was taken by meaning of this name, “God’s beloved.” It seemed to be a wonderful name to bestow upon a child. But, like with so many things, my husband provided the voice of common sense and gently persuaded me to rethink my choice. “Though the Hebrew “Yedidyah” sounds beautiful, “Jedediah” might make things a bit rough on the playground.” And so, our third child carries the name “Jacob.”
It is a beautiful name. And one that he wears well. He is a Jacob. Never Jack nor Jake. Only his sister, and only on the rarest of occasions, may call him “Jakey.” His nickname, Koby (from Yaakov), is one that he accepts only from family members. Jacob wears his name so well that it seems ridiculous that we ever considered anything else.
Jacob is the youngest of three children. Lillian, the aforementioned sister, is our proverbial middle child. And Benjamin is our first-born. Benjamin, however, is not like other first-borns. He has Asperger’s Disorder — a high-functioning form of autism. It is a condition that radically affects the family dynamics.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, Rebekah seeks an answer as to why her pregnancy is so difficult. God responds,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
And the older shall serve the younger.
How many times had I read that passage without making the connection.
There are things that at five years of age Jacob can do and accomplish that Benjamin, at twelve, cannot do or has only just learned. Watching Jacob move easily from each newly-acquired skill to the next, we catch glimpses of his older versions. The day will come when Jacob will surpass Benjamin socially and otherwise. It is a day that is anticipated with both pride and sadness.
As parents, we must constantly remind ourselves to regard each of our children independently. Benjamin, Lillian, and Jacob have their own strengths and weaknesses. They have interests, both shared and separate. It is difficult — painful, even — to see Benjamin lag behind his siblings. Yet, to wish that Jacob will always remain behind his brother is unrealistic and unfair. And so we celebrate Jacob’s development even as he bypasses Benjamin’s abilities. It is bittersweet.
But bypassing and surpassing are not the same as supplanting. Jacob’s name means “to supplant” and there are times it seems as though his “normalcy” will jettison him into the role of older brother. But we cannot neglect the meaning of Benjamin’s name: “son of my right [hand].” Benjamin, my sweet Benjamin, is my first-born. It is by him that I became a parent. It is through him that I learned to see the world with new eyes. Though our lives are challenged in countless ways by his autism, he cannot be replaced as the child of my soul.
Our matriarch, Rebekah, put so much stock into the phrase …the older shall serve the younger that she forgot one of the cardinal rules of motherhood; no one can truly take the place of one’s first born child. At least, no one should.
I recently made my first exploratory college visit with my high school aged son. My initial reaction during the tour of this elite liberal arts college was the same as my visit to an Israeli army post a few years ago: “God help us! We’re screwed if our future is entirely dependent on the success of these highly-libidinal teens and twenty-somethings.” The truth is, I loved the small campus, the 1:10 ratio of professors to students, as well as the personalized study programs that they offered. For almost $50K per year my kid would get access to great professors, small class sizes, incredible opportunities for selective, character-shaping internships, plus free-massages, and, get this, puppies in the quad to relieve stress during finals week. As our sophomore Theater Arts major tour guide said, “because who doesn’t love puppies.”
It was easy to picture my kid there, thriving, making life-long friends, generally “becoming”. Sadly, the $50K/year price tag only gave me slight pause. It should have stop me dead in my tracks, but it didn’t. Why not?
First, I was told by our college guidance office that “you just can’t tell what a college’s real cost will be” until you see how much scholarship and aid money they are going to give you. If they really want you, a private college tuition can sometimes even be less than a state school’s (so I’m told). So, why not apply to the schools you really want to go, and then deal with the money part latter?
Second, I’ve bought into the idea that your child doesn’t need to go to the best school she can get into, but to the college that fits her best. What’s the point of going to college if your kid will just be miserable there. Can he thrive there if he feels lost? Won’t she learn more, and live better, in the near future and even well into adulthood if she builds a strong foundation during her first foray in independence? And, how can she do that if the coursework is so overwhelming that she can hardly breath?
Third, and I know that this will sound simultaneously idiotic and self-serving and high-minded, I don’t really care about money, what I care about is people. Can I afford NOT to make a strong investment in the people I love? Apparently after reaching the Jewish age of wisdom (40), and after collecting almost $200K in graduate school debt between my wife and myself, I haven’t learned a damn thing. I have figured out that my student loans might finally get paid off when my youngest kid finishes graduate school. If he goes. If it still makes sense to still go to graduate school in a decade. [My sense is that educational life is changing so rapidly that it’s too hard to accurately predict what is or isn’t necessary to “make it” in the near future.]
Alas, such is the disconnected-from-reality mindset of a parent raised in the 80′s and 90′s, an era so seemingly prosperous that even though I know better it is hard to fathom that this “economic down-turn” can last much longer. Intellectually I believe that we’ve likely got almost a decade of unravelling to go and perhaps a full generation to recover from as a nation.
Reading Jefferey Eugenides The Marriage Plot (it should have won him a second Pulitzer) and watching the new HBO series Girls (working with high schoolers and only have sons, I found the first two episodes so mesmerizingly current and concerning that my wife had to remind me that it was a comedy) I am reminded that college does not guarantee a successful “launch”:
“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think, I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation… Okay, all I’m asking to finish this book is $1100 a month for two years.” (Girls character, Hannah Horvath, to her parents who are cutting her off after two years at an unpaid internship).
I believe that the desire for our kids to “just be happy” is a relatively new phenomenon, no more than one or two generations old. It was not so long ago that parents just wanted their kids to “make it,” to survive. Once the relative risk of survival diminished, a new goal came into play – happiness, and happiness, as an end in itself, has brought for many a wave of depression, an eclipse of the holy dimension, and a deadening sense of total relativism in all aspects of life. It’s the difference between living for something larger than the self (think God and country) verse the living for one’s ego.
The Talmud provides a short template of parents’ obligations to their children:
“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well,” (Talmud Kidushin 29a).
The brief checklist suggests that one must provide for the spiritual as well as physical well-being of one’s children. Circumcision (brit milah), redemption of the first born (pidyon haben), and the study of Torah all sustain the soul, while finding a spouse, learning a trade and swimming speak to the physical survival of one’s children. We could also read into the list temporal (physical, this-worldly )and eternal (heavenly) survival.
Could the right college possibly provide my son with spiritual and physical fulfillment? Is that what I’m hoping for?
In the recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa question what it is that undergraduates are really learning, and how exactly we would know:
In a typical semester … 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?
Remember Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know, I Learned in Kindergarten? I’ve always found the title apt. I would add, and if you didn’t learn it in kindergarten, don’t worry, it’s on the web! If the findings of Academically Adrift are correct, than wouldn’t it be absurd to spend something approaching $50K/year if my kid wouldn’t really learn anything? I don’t expect my son’s intellect to grow considerably; he’s already smart enough (smarter than I, the real measure between fathers and sons). It’s not the money either, though according to the Wall Street Journal college grads should still expect a considerable pay bump over high school grads, between $450K to $1 million over a lifetime. I’ve been so deep in debt because of my own student loans that such numbers feel like Monopoly money.
What I really want in a college for my son are “mastery experiences” that build him up and opportunities that will deepen his understanding of the world and of his place in it. College is not the only place finding one’s causes and path in life can happen, and there are no assurances in the calculation, but as it stands right now, college still seems like the best bet, besides, who knows, there may be puppies.