Thursday, September 13, 2007

Homeschooling the holidays

One of the first things that we did when we arrived in the U.K. last year was to purchase a mobile phone. The inexpensive pay-as-you-go clunker which we selected had few options or accessories (though it did a perfectly serviceable job of enabling us to call and be called). Its one distinguishing characteristic was its ring tone -- a tinny, scarcely recognizable rendition of REM's 1991 hit "Losing My Religion." It was, though I didn't realize it at the time, an apt theme song for my tenure in this country.

Judaism played a big role in my life and in the lives of my children in the U.S. As an interfaith couple, Paul and I have always struggled a bit to find the right religious balance in our lives, but our kids -- whom we are raising Jewish -- never lacked for Judaic identity and influence. Temple preschool, Tot Shabbat, holidays at Grandma and Grandpa's, even lighting the Sabbath candles each week were all a regular part of their existence. We were part of a Jewish community in the States and that, in hindsight, made it awfully easy to be Jewish.

In direct contrast, our London lifestyle has proved to be an almost entirely secular experience. Without a built in community and classroom reinforcement, my kids' Jewish identity seems to disappear a little bit more with every passing month. Joining a synagogue when we're only here for a short time seemed unnecessary, but I did originally figure that I could easily keep my kids' religious education up on my own. I hunted down challah on Friday evenings for the first few months, making sure to say the prayers with my kids. But life got busy, and without the preschool influence and the social aspect of the holidays to keep my kids engaged, the whole Judaism thing has really fallen by the wayside for us far more than I'd anticipated. The fact that we are Jewish is just not a daily factor in our lives here.

Today is not just any day, however. Today is Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish new year -- one of the holiest days of the year. While I've been able to forgo religious commitment and connection most of the time, today it weighs heavy on me that my children and I are not in synagogue. (I did look into obtaining high holiday tickets, but with no local worship options, the prospect of traveling a long distance via public transportation to pray with a community of strangers felt somewhat less than appealing.) The kicker came when I announced a few days ago that Rosh Hashanah was fast approaching. "What's Rosh Hashanah?" my formerly Jewish educated children asked. I have to admit, I kind of freaked out.

And so, today, we have had a non-traditional holiday around here. I kept my children home from school to mark the occasion as a family, and promptly at 9:30 this morning, we all sat down at the kitchen table to figure out just what this Rosh Hashanah thing is and why it is relevant in our lives. Using the dozen-or-so page booklets which I'd created for each child using web-based resources, we read about the holiday and its meanings. The kids colored pictures of shofars while we listened to the sounds of the shofar blast online. They completed mazes and word hunts and more coloring sheets to reinforce key Rosh Hashanah themes. While we snacked on apples and challah dipped in honey, children's holiday music played in the background (thank you, World Wide Web) and the kids and I soon joined in. Julia made some resolutions. Both kids did a craft project. And finally, everyone watched a lovely film with a moral which teaches the importance of being a good person. (OK, it was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But seriously? Filling a whole day with enriching and meaningful activities for the 3-5 year old set is HARD.)

God willing, this will be the only Rosh Hashanah that I ever spend at home in sweats and fuzzy bedroom slippers. I sorely felt the absence of family and friends and a Jewish community today (though I haven't necessarily missed the fight for a parking spot near the temple or the hunt for high holiday-appropriate attire). I look forward to returning to familiar prayers and shared prayerbooks in over-filled sanctuaries next year. But by the same token, there was something really special about the way we spent Rosh Hashanah today. I had fun teaching my kids about their heritage, and their enthusiasm for the lesson and activities was really gratifying. Today, we came a little closer together as a family and we celebrated something that plays an important role in who we are. There are worse ways to start a new year.


Blogger Gina said...

Wishing you a sweet new year. I love that you kept the kids home to teach them the importance of this day to you. Good for you!

And as I recall, Ministones - and now, this blog - a Rosh Hashanah resolution for you? :) Three years. You've done well, girlfriend.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Kristy said...

What a wonderful, wonderful way to celebrate a holiday.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

I think you found a great way to celebrate the holiday. Even though we did go to services (Okay, so it was an hour-long family service...), I still felt as if I was missing something today since this is the first year in a long time (maybe ever) that I am not celebrating with my parents in FL. Glad that you all had a great day! L'Shana Tova!

9:07 PM  
Blogger Iota said...

Well done you! That is a day well spent.

I am a bit sad for you, that you haven't managed to find a worshipping community to be part of. One of your early posts, I seem to remember, said that you had researched what synagogue to join even before you left the US. It sounds like it is important to you. I'm sure it's not too late. You've still got a year, which is a long time in a child's life. Or have your week-ends got too busy?

9:14 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Happy New Year, Rebecca! (Shana Tova?)

I can sense your longing and the feeling you're missing something. But, in reading about your day, I would offer that I don't believe you missed anything at all. In fact, it sounds as if you all gained quite a bit, together. It sounds wonderful.

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Jill said...

Shanah tovah! To tell you the truth, it sounds like your kids had a more religious experience than mine did today. We took all three of them to services today, where they read "The Lot at the End of My Block" and Richard Scarry's "Best Word Book Ever," colored on a doodle bear, and asked us "How much longer?" oh, at least a gazillion times. Can't wait til tomorrow! Seriously, be proud of what you did for your kids today. Have a wonderful holiday, and we can't wait to share the holy days with you next year.

3:43 AM  
Blogger denzylle said...

I also thought I recalled that you had checked out a local synagogue and / or that the children went to Saturday school...?

I'm surprised to hear that there is no worship option close to you as you're living in Hampstead, but perhaps that's because your choice of temple would not necessarily be the one closest to your home.

However, I thoroughly applaud your decision to take the children out of school for a special day of learning and celebration. As others have said, I'm sure they gained more from that than they might have from a service (especially as they needed to be 'reminded', and your teaching would have been closer to their needs than participating with an external group would have been).

11:32 AM  
Blogger Liesl said...

Happy New Year to all of you!

I think having a day at home and having the kids do a little homeschooling was a great idea. I bet they'll always remember this day for the closeness you all had :)

2:09 AM  
Blogger mk said...

I think it was a great way to celebrate! Later on in their lives, won't it be fun for you to hear them remember "how we used to celebrate the high holidays" and it will be this year when you lived in London!

I had not realized you were Jewish until today's blog entry. It's interesting that I just finished reading two books by Tova Mirvis (The Outside World and The Ladies Auxilliary). Both are books about women attempting, with varying degrees of success, to participate fully in an Orthodox Jewish society. As they say, "I laughed, I cried, I'm going to read it again and again." I'm Baptist, and it was fun to see that even I could relate to a lot of the sameness that comes from families attempting to make their own holidays and feast days special, no matter where we live or who we celebrate with.

P.S. If you haven't read them, they are reads!

4:57 PM  
Blogger Frog in the Field said...

This is a lovely insight to your life, glad I popped in.

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

Shana Tova! and an easy fast on Saturday.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Hi Rebecca,
I have spent the past 2 days reading your blog. My family and I just relocated to the UK (we live right outside of London) from a suburb outside of Phila, PA. We will be here for 2 years. We are Jewish as well and have not found many other Jews here. Seems as if we are having your experience just 2 years later. I would love to chat if you have the time.

11:20 AM  

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