Friday, September 30, 2011

Bound by Blood and Kreplach

My Rosh Hashanah Table
Jewish holidays with Maya have always been kind of challenging for us.  Leo and I are by no means religious people but one of the things I dreamed about when thinking of having children was to be able to pass on the Jewish traditions to them.

My parents and grandparents were not terribly religious either, although we did regularly attend Shabbat services and certainly spent the holidays in the synagogue.  My parents were active in the Jewish community.  My mom a Sisterhood President, active member of Hadassah, Principal of the Sunday School.  My dad was on the Board of the Synagogue and led the Israel Bonds drive in our congregation for several years.  Most of my parents friends were from the synagogue and I of course attended Sunday school.  As a kid the Jewish community was quite at the center of our lives.  And during the holidays we gathered always at my grandparents home and spent Rosh Hashanah's, Passover's and countless other holidays togehter.  My grandmother's house smelling like chicken soup and kreplach or kneidlach and tsimmes.  On Passover, we all whined with hunger until the Seder was finished and then we raced around the house to find the 7 different afikomen that my grandfather hid for each of us grandchildren to find so we could each reap the reward of finding the hidden matzot.  I so wanted Maya to bask in those same traditions.

Of course it is different.  The Jewish community in Amsterdam is not nearly as small and intimate as was the one in Washington, PA.  Our synagogue here is much bigger and after a few attempts to become active in the congregation here (in the beginning it was tough because I didn't speak the language, after I spoke the language I had too many other things occupying my time).  Still, I feel that now that my Dutch is good enough I should try to find some way in, especially for Maya.

When Maya was smaller Leo and I did make an effort to bring her to services at the synagogue on a regular basis, not so much for the religion but to be a part of the Jewish community and to sew those seeds of tradition.  As she got a bit older though that got tougher as she grew beyond the age that disrupting services migrated from adorable to the teach-your-kid-how-to-behave-looks and when hanging outside the sanctuary playing with the other kids led to older kids coming to get one of us every 10 minutes when Maya was either crying or making a nuisance to kids who were playing games or whatever.  After that we gave up.  And we haven't taken her for years.  It's no excuse but we are trying to balance two jobs, a household and our autistic daughter.  One less thing to navigate just was easier somehow.  As she has gotten older we have considered trying to enroll her in Sunday school but we just couldn't see our way clear to putting her in one more challenging environment where we would have to try to navigate her through.  So, we've stayed away.  

Still, despite the challenges it does make me sad that Maya has no real connection to her Judaism yet but trying to get her to understand Judaism just seems tough, even in an age appropriate way.  The activities of the synagogue are of course geared for mainstream children and as her mother I just feel the need to protect her from yet another environment where she will not be in step with the rest.  She has such a hard time fitting in and at the moment I find it more important to build her confidence and something about putting her in another struggle doesn't seem right to me, even though I desperately want it for her.  In the best-version-of-myself mode (which I am not sure truly exists outside of my own mind) I see myself trying to carve something out for her in the community, some non-linear way to bring her in,  to pave the way for others even, but after working a full time job, navigating Maya through special education, thinking and and over-thinking how to best help her, somehow I never get around to it.

And I can absolutely understand why synagogue is hard for her to get.  It's all language based and not very visual (except for the Torah of course), I am not even sure I get it a lot of the time.  I wonder if they have the Torah in pictograms (something I will Google).

I do read her books about the Jewish holidays and she enjoys the stories but very little of that sticks with her.  Yes, she loves Hanukkah but like most kids connects it with the gifts, but largely she just drifts through the holidays without much interest in them, too ensconced in her own world of Thomas the Train, panda bears, Australia or whatever seems to be the object of her oft-one-track-mind.  She joyfully participates but hasn't at least until now any view of the whole, that these are religious holidays and things we do every year.  I think for her if it is not part of her daily routine it is very difficult for her to grasp.

So I have stuck to the traditions of Judaism more than the actual formal religion of it all.  And in Judaism (and my family) that has a lot to do with food.  And again, I have another reason to be grateful to (especially) my mom and my grandmother as they made so many of the traditional Jewish foods.  We ate certain things at certain times of the year (potato latkes on Hannukkah, kreplach at Rosh Hashanah, hamentaschen on Purim, kneidelach on Pesach, tsimmes at any holiday, kuggle pretty much every week and so on).  I spent so many hours with both of them in the kitchen and now that they are gone, I lovingly prepare the dishes that I watched them make so many times (okay, they always bought the hamentaschen, but still).  And I learned to make a few dishes of my own -- Challah, which was always bought at the Jewish bakery in our family, I now make my own. Living in Europe means that Jewish bakeries are limited (there are a few in Amsterdam but with so few, everything flies off the shelves).  So, I learned how to do it myself (and it is pretty easy, thanks to my Kitchen Aid Mixer).  And Maya gleefully takes part in a lot of this, making challah is a particular favorite for her.

When we eat Shabbat or holiday meals in our dining room beneath the gazes of my parents and grandparents photos which adorn the wall next to our dining room table.  In a strange way I feel as if I am connecting Maya to them in some unspoken way that, even though they are not a present part of her life, she is connected to them by living the same traditions as I did with my parents and grandparents as a girl.  I know it sounds silly but Maya eating and loving the kreplach I make which I prepare the same exact way I watched my grandmother do so many times gives me the sense that she is herself connecting to all those wonderful times I spent with my family during the Jewish holidays.  We are bound by blood and kreplach.   

This year though, starting in the spring with Pesach though I noticed the first glimmer of understanding from Maya about the holidays.  Maya remembered the Seder and when she ate her matzo with charoseth this spring I explained to her that the charoseth represented the mortar the ancient Israelites used and I told her that mortar was a kind of cement she said, "Mommy, this isn't cement, this is apples," the concept of symbolic food just didn't land on her.  This year for Rosh Hashanah I prepared her, we read stories about it and talked about it for a couple of weeks.  She of course remembered dipping apples in honey but the concept of the new year is hard for her to get her mind around.  

Then all of a sudden on Tuesday evening I showed her this video and I could see a little light went on.  Enchanted by the colors, the singing and dancing and the sights of it all, she asked me to play it over and over and started singing along with it.  Then last night, right after we made kiddush (the blessing of the wine) and wished each other Shana Tova (a happy new year), Maya turned to me and said, "mommy, it's a new year, a time to start over, be happy!" And of course my apples and honey were salty with my tears, the sweetest tears ever.

And then another thought came to me.  Sure, at 8 I knew what Rosh Hashanah was, but what I understood about it were two things:  apples and honey and a day off from school.  And this fantastic insight came after years of going to synagogue with my parents and at least 3 years of Sunday school.

So, putting things into perspective Maya is doing pretty well.  My school of Jewish cookery and storybooks ain't half bad!

And tonight I introduced Maya to another very important Jewish food tradition -- Chinese food.

1 comment:

  1. Take away Chinese, I hope.
    Seriously though, religious tradition does get carried down through food, especially with us Jews. Food is also symbolic, in a way. Family, tribe, togetherness. It seems to me you are teaching her a lot more of a Jewish lifestyle than I am with my kids. I don't do kreplach, unless it's carryout, and then I'd prefer Chinese, lol.
    BTW, for my kids music also plays an important role. I think that the power of music to influence our understanding is often overlooked. If she likes the music, maybe try some simple Hora dancing with her. I'll bet she'll love it.

    Shana tova to you, Leo and Maya, Enjoy the coming year!