January 26, 2012
When I was growing up my family didn’t observe many Jewish rituals. We didn’t light candles on Friday night and my dad’s idea of keeping kosher was not putting bacon on a cheeseburger. None of us knew which prayers were said for eating, drinking, or celebrating the holidays, unless they were printed on the pages of the Maxwell House Hagaddah. As a child it didn’t matter much to me but as I grew up, it became a problem. I sheepishly muddled my way through services and holidays feeling more like an outsider than a good Jewish girl.
Then, when I was in college, I read about Rabbi Akiva, one of the most renowned Jewish sages, who began his Jewish studies at the age of 40. This gave me hope and encouragement and the belief that it is never too late to learn how to be Jewish.
Sociologists and anthropologists have long known that rituals function as powerful tools to define family roles and to pass on cultural norms and family values from one generation to the next. Rituals create a sense of identity and belonging; they tie the individual to a group or community. They mark important life-cycle events, commemorate life transitions and permit us to express important emotions such as love, fear, joy and grief. Perhaps most importantly, rituals provide us with a sense of stability, order and regularity: They constitute an anchor in a tumultuous world and act as a compass by which to navigate.
My own definition of ritual is quite simple: It is the creation of sacred time or sacred space in our individual lives, family and home. It can be as simple as the morning ritual of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper or as complex as praying three times a day. But one thing I know for certain: Creating meaningful rituals for yourself or your family is a powerful and effective way to build a sense of safety and well being into daily life.
When our kids were little, we began to experiment with creating Jewish rituals based on what was important to us at the time. We found ways to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays using art, music, food and games. On Rosh Hashanah, we baked a birthday cake for the world’s birthday. On Passover, we built a tent on our back porch and sat on pillows and blankets, then walked through the yard “to the Promised Land” for dinner. Over the years, we wrote our own song book using melodies from Dylan and the Beatles.
The rituals we created evolved over time as did our family. Some, like celebrating Shabbat on Friday night, have become more significant now that the kids no longer live at home. To this day, we never let a Friday night go by when we don’t call them to wish them a “Good Shabbas!”
Building a treasure trove of Jewish rituals may seem a daunting task but it doesn’t have to be if you decide to take it one step at a time. Start out with just one idea or hope or intention. Perhaps you would like to have one night a week when you all have dinner together. What a perfect night to celebrate Shabbat! Can’t make a whole big chicken dinner? Buy a challah and special cookies for dessert and invite your family to light candles.
It’s fun to learn as a family and creating meaningful Jewish rituals can provide a basis for important conversations that differ from the everyday talk of schedules, homework and car pools. Participation in Jewish rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles, building a Sukkah or saying a blessing over food suddenly becomes a possibility when you don’t worry about doing it exactly the way your grandmother did or more importantly, doing it “ exactly right”. Opening up our hearts and homes to new ways of experiencing Judaism will open our families up to seeing how Judaism can help us understand, honor and celebrate everything from the birth of our children and the purchase of a new home to the way we give to charity or mourn the loss of a loved one.
In the chaotic world that we live in today, it’s hard to create a sense of safety, predictability and well-being within our families. Jewish rituals can help us create a more loving, stable and secure home, as well as inspire us to live a more meaningful life, if we choose to let them become a part of our family’s traditions.
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