Routines into rituals

Rituals in Jewish life series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek

Rad ha-yom, shemesh dom, kokhavim notz’tzim bamarom (Day is done, gone the sun, stars are twinkling in the sky)” begins the summer camp lullaby for lights-out. As my husband sang it for the first time to our infant grandson, I was reminded of the bedtime ritual in our home when our children were young. Books, always books. Lullaby. The Shema.

This was no mere routine, some rote procedure designed to expedite putting the children to bed. It had become a ritual, a ceremony that embodied values important to our family and to our tradition.

How does a routine become a ritual? And why is ritual important at all?

Part of the answer can be found in formal Jewish rituals such as Passover or putting up a mezuzah: they embody the essentials of Jewish history, values, religion, and peoplehood. Thus, they have the potential to inform, influence, and inspire long beyond the ceremonial moment. Ultimately, what a ritual has that a routine does not is “extra-ordinariness,” a separateness known as holiness.

A routine becomes a ritual when it is imbued with a bit of the extraordinary, with a connection to Jewish values or history or peoplehood, such as singing a Hebrew song or prayer before bed.

A routine can also become a ritual by pointing out its inherent holiness, such as the weekly phone call that honors a parent, in keeping with the commandments.

“Sanctification,” writes Wendy Mogel in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, “is the process of acknowledging the holiness in everyday actions and events.”

What does the holiness of everyday actions have to do with formalized lifecycle rituals? Brit milah, naming, and the evolving birth rituals for girls are spotlights on the newborn: momentary events that embody the essentials of Judaism.

But their impact is limited; it’s what happens every day afterward that builds the foundation of a child’s Jewish identity. Relying on the formal rituals of lifecycle events, holidays, and prayer isn’t enough. Children need a multitude of informal rituals that echo the same messages, but that grow organically from within their own families.

Honoring parents
There is no assigned seating at the kitchen table, but the end chairs in the formal dining room are reserved for my husband and me. It is an honorary tradition that echoes the seating arrangements in our own parents’ homes, one that we only later learned is found in the Talmud. To this day, the adult children in our family do not sit in their parents’ chairs.

When Oma (German for grandma) was alive, she always made the challah for Shabbat, well into her 90s. Savta (Hebrew for grandma) used to make the matzah balls for Passover and the chocolate pound cake for birthdays.

Dad always had the tool kit in his trunk when he came for a visit in case we should need some fixing around the house, an offer we couldn’t refuse.

We encouraged and cherished their contributions to the family and in so doing, gave them honor. What are your family rituals that honor parents and grandparents?

Celebrating Shabbat
I recently read about a novel Shabbat ritual: the mother lights an extra candle on Shabbat eve for each child, sharing an anecdote about how each child brought light into the family that week.

In our family, we had two much-loved Shabbat rituals. One was The Shabbat Box, an assortment of Jewish books, Colorforms, pipe cleaners, and other quiet items, that was used only at synagogue.

Our other special ritual was a long lunch with Saba (Hebrew for grandpa) and Savta: bagels and cream cheese, lox, whitefish, and always a yummy dessert. What are your informal family rituals that celebrate Shabbat, synagogue, and family?

Long ago when my daughter was struggling in school, we challenged her to come up with three positive things about the day before she could launch into her litany of complaints. It didn’t take long for her to get the message that there’s always something for which to be grateful.

Three good things shared each Shabbat. Three thank-yous on every errand-run. Three extra groceries for the needy because we can afford to do it. How could you design an attitude of gratitude ritual?

Celebrating birthdays
In our home, birthdays were celebrated in style, with a special meal and a homemade surprise-design cake such as a hot air balloon or treasure chest.

Among the requisite presents were always two of particular significance: at least one Jewish book and a donation to a Jewish charity, often to the Israeli “children’s toy box.” Do you have a Jewish-themed ritual for birthdays?

While we annually emptied our tzedakah boxes and donated the monies to a worthy cause, we rarely had an appropriate donation handy for the occasional panhandler or hungry person we encountered.

The kids suggested we buy fast-food certificates to keep on hand for such occasions and a new ritual was established.

We also learned that our tradition teaches compassion for animals: “One must not put any food in one’s mouth, until the animals have been fed  (Gittin 62a),” so our dog was moved from an after-dinner chore to the front of the line. How do you use ritual to express the value of compassion?

What builds Jewish identity? Formal experiences of lifecycle events and holidays, education and camp, for sure.

But it’s the informal rituals of one’s own family, imbued with the values of Judaism, that make the Jewish message personal and enduring. These are the necessary rituals of childhood.

Family Discussion: What are your routines as a parent or grandparent? How can you turn one or more of them into rituals, something extraordinary, for your children? What would it take to turn some of your routines into rituals for you?


Literature to share

Alef-Bet Yoga for Kids by Ruth Goldeen — Yoga is all the rage, and this book has an added learning component: kids of all ages can enjoy learning the alef-bet while engaging in traditional or modified yoga poses. On each page, a photograph of a youngster demonstrating a pose is superimposed over a boldly colored matching Hebrew letter. At the back of the book, each traditional pose is named and identified for its skill – sitting posture, flexibility, relaxation of the neck, and the like. This is a wonderful resource for the long indoor days of winter and spring.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman — Our texts and traditions tell us about the fall of Jerusalem and the standoff at Masada, but the magic of Hoffman’s novel is that it brings those stories to life. Filled with real characters, raw emotions, and heart-rending challenges, this historical fiction shines a spotlight on a terrible yet important era in Jewish history.

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