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Family Life: When My Children Became Orthodox
by Brenda Zeller Rosenbaum

I was having breakfast with my husband Paul and our son Neil at our Jerusalem hotel when our older son Glen came into view.

He was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and—to our surprise as Reform Jews—a kipah.

We hadn’t seen Glen for about six months, since he’d graduated from college and started a year of volunteer work in Israel. Soon, Glen was telling us how he’d been spending weekends learning Torah and classical Jewish texts with his best friend from college. Glen was so taken with his newfound knowledge, he’d decided to defer medical school an additional year to begin formal Jewish studies there.

This last news was insignificant compared to Glen’s stunning announcement the following year: After completing his medical training, he would make aliyah, moving to and living his life in Israel. We had never considered that Glen would stay in Israel and live so far from home. With deep-felt sadness we talked about the losses such distance would bring—the prospect of not seeing him often, and the limited interaction with grandchildren, should we be fortunate in that regard some day. Glen lovingly acknowledged he would miss us, but remained committed to his decision. A few years later, our younger son Neil and his college sweetheart, Tina, began to explore traditional Judaism. By the time they married in 1998, six years after their graduation, they had embraced Modern Orthodoxy. Fortunately for us, they continued to live in the States.

There is an old saying that parents are supposed to provide their children with roots and wings. Friends have joked that we did too well in the “wings” department. Do we wish that our children lived closer to home? Of course. Do we believe they have the right to decide? Absolutely. Did we get over it? We did.

Some Jewish parents whose children have turned to Orthodoxy struggle with a sense of loss. Some feel rejected when their kids choose such a different path; some don’t like aspects of Orthodox Judaism; some have concerns about women’s rights, particularly when daughters turn to traditional practices; some resent having to accommodate children by observing kashrut in their own homes.

For us, Glen and Neil becoming Orthodox did not engender these feelings. Perhaps because their turn to observance was incremental and our participation was welcomed and valued, I felt accepting of their changes and included in their lives. Both my husband and I respected their choices as independent adults, and we chose to view some of the accommodations we would need to make as inconveniences rather than impositions. This outlook has allowed us to reap the many benefits of “go with the flow” parenting of adult children. We’ve danced joyously at their weddings (in the men’s or the women’s circle); eaten festive meals together on chilly nights in their sukkot; and had wonderful experiences with our grandchildren, such as the time my husband Paul offered our three-year-old grandson Akiva a blessing on Shabbat and the little one asked, “Can I bless you too, Grandpa?” He placed his hands on Paul’s lowered head and then, looking startled, said, “What do I say now?” Paul slowly recited the blessing, and our grandson echoed the ancient words in his own endearing way.

Not wanting to miss such significant moments is the best explanation why, when we visit with our children and grandchildren in their homes or ours, we make Orthodox practices our own. More important than practicing our usual observances is making sure everyone in the family feels comfortable being together.

Our observance of kashrut allows our children to eat in our home. After all, if they would not break bread with us when they visit us, what kind of relationship would we have? That’s why we serve them kosher food only, labeled with the requisite hechsher (kosher certification symbol). We use two kosher sets of dishes, pots, pans, and silverware—one set for meat and the other for dairy. Our self-cleaning ovens and stove-top burners are easily kashered with high heat. The counters are covered with vinyl cloth and the refrigerator and freezer shelves are lined with wax paper to provide fresh, unused surfaces for preparing and storing kosher food. The dishwasher, which cannot be kashered, is not used.

No doubt, having grown up in a kosher home makes it easier for me than it would be for many Reform Jews to kasher a kitchen. Still, it is challenging for me to cook all the Shabbat meals prior to sundown on Friday night when I’m used to preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner one at a time fairly close to their moments of consumption. The “cook and freeze” method helps beat the clock.

As our sons also follow the requirement to immerse new dishes and utensils in a mikveh-like body of water, I periodically dip the latest purchases in a nearby pond, reciting the appropriate blessings—all the while chuckling to myself as I imagine a neighbor calling the police to report: Some crazy lady is throwing dishes in the pond!

As for times when I am not with my sons, I choose not to do anything for them that they would find unacceptable, such as shopping or cooking on Shabbat for an upcoming family get-together.
What do our Orthodox sons think about the flexible, pick-and-choose Reform Judaism practiced by their parents? Truth is, they never raise the subject; nor do we. We tend to be uncritical of one another, opting rather for sh’lom bayit (peace in the household). And I feel certain that for Glen and Neil holding fast to the commandment to “Honor thy Father and thy Mother” is more important than engaging in debates of this kind.

We have learned much from our sons. Inspired by their example, we will often reflect on the week’s Torah portion or another text. Paul now reads the Tanach every morning, or books such as Luzzato’s The Way of God and Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics. He’s also taken to wearing a cap or kipah at home, not eating forbidden foods in restaurants, and reciting the Sh’ma daily.

Our grandchildren teach us as well. Our four-year-old granddaughter Eliana once asked, “How many mitzvahs did you do today, Nani?” Taken by surprise, I managed to describe two deeds that might qualify, but she insisted on hearing more, much to the amusement of her parents. And seven-year-old Akiva, observing my needlework depiction of Creation in Genesis, confided, “You know, Nani, HaShem [God] created the sun and moon the same size, but after the moon complained, HaShem made the moon smaller. Then the moon was sorry. So HaShem decided to use the leftover pieces of the moon to make the stars.” Later, I found out this was a midrash he remembered. Now it is written on the back of the framed needlework, destined someday to be his wedding gift. And sometimes the children will ask us, “How old are you, Nani?” “How old is Grandpa?” Then they’ll subtract the number from 120, Moses’ length of years, to tell us happily how many years we have remaining. What gifts!

On occasion our grandchildren question why our observances differ from theirs. We simply explain that in our community it is acceptable to do x, but we know that in their community it is not. They seem to accept the notion that not all Jews act in the same way.

Whenever possible we celebrate the Jewish holidays with our family. On Shabbat everyone dresses in “Shabbos clothes” and sits together at the table, enjoying prayers, blessings, singing, stories, and a fine, unhurried dinner.

On Saturday morning the younger children and I celebrate our own tradition, which we call “Shabbos Tea.” At about 8:00 am they appear at our bedroom door, asking enthusiastically, “Is it time for Shabbos Tea, Nani?” We drink tea with little slices of challah spread with butter or jelly on a table set with a decorative tablecloth and napkins, colorful flowers from the garden, and plates and teacups from a child-size tea set. Shabbos Tea is a popular event, despite Nani’s insistence on good manners and polite conversation.

Shabbat afternoons are lovely, too. We’ve surrounded our backyard with an eruv, a symbolic fence made of twine that creates within its boundaries an enlarged private space where one can carry or move permissible objects on the Sabbath. For observant Jews, the eruv provides a way to honor the Torah’s prohibition against carrying objects in a public space at this sacred time. The eruv thus allows us to experience the joy of carrying a baby—our grandchild—into the backyard on Shabbat and enables the other children to have fun playing with toys there. It facilitates enjoying to the fullest a summer Shabbat afternoon with our most treasured visitors, our children and grandchildren.

Now, we ourselves find that pausing for Shabbat provides a peaceful respite at week’s end and helps differentiate one week from the next. Paul puts on a white dress shirt and turns off the computer. We enjoy a special dinner that might include mushroom or chicken soup, roast chicken (a favorite), and, unlike weekdays, dessert, all served on our “good” china. Often friends join us, adding to the festivity. We not only sing the blessings over candles and challah—familiar practices for us—we’ve added the welcoming melody of Shalom Aleichem, the complete Kiddush, and, after the meal, the Birkat Ha Mazon.

Fundamentally, though, Paul and I remain committed to Reform Judaism. We are longtime members of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts, where I offer support to the bereaved as part of the temple’s Chevra Kadisha and help the congregation’s Hebrew High School seniors with their essays on Judaism required for siyyum (graduation). The two of us also attend Shabbat morning Torah study at Beth El.

As Reform Jews, we recognize that Jewish expression is a matter of choice. Our children’s choices may not be ours, but we honor their decisions, for we love our children as they are.

I grew up with Orthodox grandparents and Orthodox/Conservative parents, raised our family in the Reform tradition, and now grow older with Orthodox children and grandchildren. The pendulum swings. The crucial thing is to smile and go along for the ride.

Brenda Zeller Rosenbaum is a member of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts and a founding member of Beth El’s Tzedakah Hevra.




 


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