It all started on Rosh Hashana 13 years ago. It had previously been my practice to stand for chazaras hashatz and Torah reading, but that year I was three months pregnant and trying to navigate, for the first time, the intersection of my identity as a Jew with my identity as a Jewish mother. I would stand for a moment, feel weak, and sit back down. A few minutes later, the aron would be opened again, and I would try again to stand – and sit back down. The woman behind me finally leaned forward and said “Just sit!” She managed to sound both exasperated and encouraging when she said it – she had clearly realized why I was having trouble – and I knew she was right, and appreciated her validation. I knew in theory that if I wanted children, I wouldn’t always be able to do everything I had done – but it was so new to me, and the implementation needed some work.
The following year, we were visiting relatives and I was all set to bring my baby to shul on Rosh Hashana – I had never missed shul on Rosh Hashana! – but our host was shocked at the very idea. “No one brings babies to shul on Rosh Hashana! I never went to shul when my children were young!” I was devastated, but decided to try it anyway – what else could I do? I had a vague sense there might be a generation gap, that my peers and I had perhaps been taught to value (and even expect) regular prayer (even in shul) differently than she had. Again, the words made sense – “parents of young children often can’t make it to shul” – I could understand that, logically. But the implementation – the reality that I might have to stay home on Rosh Hashana and scramble to hear shofar later – that didn’t compute. And again, I was encouraged: I arrived at shul and saw a number of strollers parked outside, though I still trembled in more fear of my baby making a sound than of Divine Judgment.
On Simchas Torah, I was once again thrown by the realities of my new role, as I realized that I couldn’t go to shul at night and might not even make it on time for hakafos in the morning. Simchas Torah is one of my favorite days of the year; while many women I know hate being in shul on Simchas Torah (for a variety of interrelated reasons I can understand), I have always loved it. Even if there were just a few women dancing, even if they just walked in a circle a few token times before breaking into groups to chat– I always danced. I always listened with excitement to the Torah reading; even the calling up of Chasan Torah and Chasan Bereishit gives me chills. I cry every year when Moshe dies, and am awed every year when G-d creates the world. “And G-d said, Let there be light. And there was light.” Whoa.
And of all times, Simchas Torah should have been the day I could bring my baby without fear that she would disturb others; the generally increased chaos should cover me, right? Yet, the implementation stumped me; only once I was actually a mother did I realize how the practicalities of things like bedtime and morning naps would affect my life.
It’s amazing, actually, how I continue to be kind of stumped. I’m taken by surprise again and again, trying to navigate life in general and, at this time of year, the chagim in particular. Occasionally, I remember to get a babysitter ahead of time, for my kids who are too young or unwilling for shul babysitting – or for the hours babysitting isn’t offered. Some years I take them, some years I stay home. Some years it goes smoothly, some years it doesn’t.
I make similar efforts, with similar rates of success or failure, on any Shabbos or other holiday – but Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Simchas Torah stand out as some of the most compelling occasions in terms of my desire to get to shul, and some of the most challenging in their unique schedules and demands.
Why do I do this to myself, working myself into mental and physical tizzies (not a word I use often, but it seems appropriate) to pretend I can still daven in shul like I used to?
In a moment of particular frustration one Shabbos, I commented to my daughter (then the oldest of three) that I looked forward to one day being able to daven fully in shul again. I made the comment deliberately, wanting to convey that shul attendance was something I valued, even though it might not look like I did. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she responded that she hoped we wouldn’t have any more kids, so that day would come sooner – not the message I’d hoped to instill.
Why do I do this to my kids, confusing them with mixed messages about what I actually want out of my personal and communal religious life? Wouldn’t it be easier on them if I just sat back and relaxed (ha) into parenthood, instead of trying to walk this delicate balance of teaching them what I’d like to do without making them feel like I resent the reasons I can’t?
During a shiur for women years ago, one woman whose kids are long grown (possibly from a similar generation as my hostess that Rosh Hashana) expressed frustration with parents who bring young children to shul and allow them to make noise and disturb others.
Why, indeed, do we do this to the people around us, risking others’ chances at spiritual connection – or, at least, quiet – for the sake of our own crazy idea that we should get to daven in shul even with a baby, with a toddler, with both, with four of them tugging at us and stage whispering and whining and maybe even starting to yell before we can whisk them out? What are we thinking; how can we be so insensitive?
Let’s be clear that simply sitting back and allowing children to wreak havoc in shul is not okay. But coming from a place of consideration for the kavod due to the shul and to prayer, as well as consideration for the people trying to engage in prayer, I think there are some gray areas.
In responding to that legitimately annoyed shiur attendee, I took the role of devil’s advocate – or to be honest, my own advocate (though I don’t think I’m so terrible) – and set out to describe for her, with other mothers at the table nodding along, what those parents are thinking. It’s not insensitivity, I explained, but hope.
(Okay, maybe some people are just insensitive and/or oblivious, but that’s not what I’m talking about now. Maybe in some future article.)
We were taught to value prayer, and we were even taught to value communal prayer, and we don’t always know how to give that up – or want to. True, we were also taught to value sensitivity towards others, as well as common sense; we were also taught to value our children’s needs above all else. But do we really have to give up on one value completely for the sake of another? Some choose to do so, to whatever degree, but many of us resist that course and instead turn to hope: We hope we can make it to shul in time for mussaf; we hope the baby won’t cry; we hope people around us will be patient with us as we root around for Cheerios in hopes of calming the child so we don’t have to leave before kedusha. We hope we can find the right balance, in shul-going as in every challenge we face as parents and as humans.
Ultimately, we engage in these challenges because we care so much, about so much. We don’t want to let go, not unless we really have to. For our own sakes and for the sake of our children, for their growth and their growing appreciation of the many ways to thrive as a Jewish adult – we keep at it. We hold onto all the complexity and strive for a piece of each of our sometimes-competing values, even if it’s hard for us and maybe confusing for our kids and potentially – I’m so sorry – annoying for others.
And we deeply appreciate support and encouragement, and lots of patience, from those around us.
For a number of years, my Rosh Hashana services have consisted of running in and out of davening, feeding and supervising my kids (who are either too young for shul babysitting when it’s offered, or simply prefer to sit with a book than run around in the babysitting room) in between trying to catch shofar and other key parts of tefilah. Sometimes I bring them in, only to have to run back out when one starts yapping; sometimes I let them hang out in the hallway with their snacks and books. My husband shares this dance with me – though his shofar-blowing responsibilities leave much of the childcare in my hands for much of the time.
Last year, my then-two-year-old made a particular spectacle of herself, running back and forth (in front of the chazzan!) with her lunchbox, setting up her food alternately with me and with my husband, and occasionally actually eating some of it. She was so good in the sense that she didn’t say a word, but the running itself… I was mortified, and would have taken her out, but for the kind words of people near me who told me not to worry, that it was fine..
In fact, thankfully, no one has ever said a word of criticism as we attempt to figure this all out. (Some might well be thinking it, of course.) Instead, they smile sympathetically when I try to apologize, and later they tell me how cute my kids are and commend me for my efforts.
I’m also not the only one, a fact which is itself an important piece of communal support. I have friends who make similarly crazy efforts; we smile sympathetically too, as we pass each other heading in and out the door.
The communal support and encouragement I’ve received at every stage, from almost everyone around me, has been priceless as I’ve tried to figure out what to do with each of my values at each moment. That kind of supportive atmosphere is crucial for all our boys and girls as they grow and navigate their own challenges, as parents or not, each in their own way.
So, generation gap or not, when you see a parent managing the balance differently than you did or do or think you would, I suggest the following: Smile, and show them you know they’re doing their best. Reassure them that it’s okay to sit down when they need to, and it’s okay if the kids make a little noise before they can be whisked out. And be sure to tell them their kids are cute.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.