Parenting and the Synagogue

Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year and it comes rife with all the feelings the secular New Year comes with- feelings of renewal and of fresh starts and of “this year will be different”. As I sat (briefly) in synagogue, the tunes of my childhood resurfaced from the cobwebbed recesses of memory. I knew every word and lilt- as if they were singing “Ring Around the Rosey”. Nostalgia and familiarity seeping out with every hum. If I closed my eyes, I could’ve been 12 years old again in my childhood synagogue singing the same song. This is the point of the liturgy- to create memories and build familiarity. I will always know my way around these services because I’ve been participating in it for decades.

I looked across the partition to the mens section of the synagogue looking for my oldest son. Since he’s deemed a man now that he turned 13, he should be sitting in the same semi- comfortable chair as I was, albeit on the side where all the action happens. I looked for his mop of hair covering his eyes and couldn’t find him. I saw a few of his friends sitting quietly with their fathers and wondered where my boy was. I excused myself and awkwardly shuffled out of my row, conscious of how annoying it is for the prayers to make room for one to leave the aisle. Apologetic smiles and nods all around. I left the sanctuary and walked into the social hall where I found my son leaning against the wall looking bored and out of place. He was with his friends who wore the same expression of “when is this over?” Flipping water bottles to pass the time, they were making the best out of a less than ideal situation. I made eye contact with my son and mouthed to him to get inside the sanctuary please, right now, thank you very much. The requisite eye rolling followed and he hung his head and followed me in.

Herein lies the dilemma of a former Orthodox woman trying to navigate parenting and religion: What do I want my son to do in the synagogue? Perhaps more importantly, why do I want him in the synagogue? What does he want and how much should that play a part? What does he feel when he enters the sanctuary? Does he hear the music and feel anything? I would ask him but he’s 13 and lives by the less is more philosophy when it comes to talking about feelings (or talking period). If given the choice, he most certainly wouldn’t go. He’s never connected to the synagogue. Even when he was a toddler, he didn’t like going. My other two children do. They enjoy sitting with me and reading their books, playing by my feet. But this child, my man-child- he does not. I get it. Given the choice, I do not go either. So why does it bother me to see him outside of the fold?

Because of my upbringing, I’ve internalized the message that being observant, religious, whatever you want to call it- is the ideal. We were taught that being in the synagogue meant you were a “good” kid. The kids in front playing wall ball were sketchy. They were the equivalent of the T-Birds from Grease. Directionless, prone to no good. The kids sitting with their parents were surely on the road to success. They had discipline and goals. They had good parents. As black and white as that seems, it’s what was imprinted on me from the time I was a little girl. This concrete, limited and false narrative is nearly impossible to shed. It’s visceral and irrational. Like much of religion.

I see my eldest son slink back out of the sanctuary a few minutes after the shofar blasts were heard. He knew enough to stay in until the end of the shofar blasts. I let him go. I sit back down and open my Anne Lamott prayer book and read her soothing truths. I know my son. I know who he is. A sensitive, kind, anxious, funny as hell boy who feels others pain as deeply as his own. He wants to be a psychologist so he can help those who suffer. He will do great things if given the opportunity. His beliefs are evolving and will likely shape-shift as he grows. Right now, he declares he doesn’t believe in our religion. But what I think he’s really saying is “I don’t connect to this expression of religion”. He will find his way. It may not look anything like what I’m used to. That will have to be okay. In the end, what I want him to embody is to be kind to ones who need kindness the most. To include the excluded. To be a good friend. To respect elders. To speak up against injustice. My son, who’s flipping water bottles outside the sanctuary while the cantor sings, is that kid. My prayer for the New Year is that he stays exactly who he is and that I look at him and feel joyous pride.

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