How my two-year-old brought me to synagogue
BY: Charles Lane
I have been Jewish my entire (38-year-long) life, but, until this year, had never taken part in a Simchat Torah celebration. My two-and-a-half year old son recently changed that. He's attending a Jewish preschool, and was insistent that his parents be present for the Simchat Torah festival, which commemorates God's gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. It's not the most sacred of days on the Jewish religious calendar, but the celebration is the kind that appeals to children, because it's raucous--as I discovered when I found myself swallowed up in a singing community of hundreds of celebrants parading through the synagogue, Torah scrolls held aloft. His class at school learned what the holiday meant, and even made paper flags to carry in the Simchat Torah parade. My toddler joined other small children capering around the usually off-limits sanctuary; the kids were even granted, for this special day, access to the Ark where Torah scrolls are stored.
Carrying my little boy on my shoulders around the room, I found myself experiencing new feelings of religious joy and community membership. The fact that we enjoyed the festival, largely because we found so many of our friends there with their children as well, was an unanticipated benefit. We observe Shabbat more frequently now, too, largely to reinforce--or keep pace with--what he is learning in school. I wouldn't have expected a child so young could already be teaching things to me, but it turns out my two-and-a-half year old is helping me learn to appreciate Judaism.
Like many if not most American Jews, I was raised in a secular home. My parents made sure I had a basic Hebrew education and a Bar Mitzvah, but beyond that, we never did much more than attend High Holiday services, stuff ourselves at Passover (ritual aspects of the Seder having been abbreviated for convenience's sake), and exchange gifts at Hanukkah. Since I spent a great deal of my young adulthood overseas in countries where there was little or no Jewish life, there were many years when I didn't even do those things. Simchat Torah, along with other festivals such as Purim and Sukkot, barely registered with me. Truth to tell, I harbored a vague antipathy to them, considering them corny and irrelevant at best, "just for the Orthodox" at worst.
What changed? I got older, got married, and started a family of my own. Basic issues of Jewish identity and religious belief could no longer be treated with youthful insouciance. The woman I married was not Jewish. Before she and I discussed the possibility that she would convert to Judaism, I was concerned that we might not have a Jewish wedding ceremony, or that our children might be raised with either no religion or with a muddy mixture of faith. I was concerned about raising a morally or psychologically confused child. I was concerned about fitting in with the rest of an all-Jewish extended family. Yet, most of all, at some level of identity that apparently had been formed even by the relatively light touch of my parents' influence, I didn't want to give up being any kind of religious Jew myself, which is what I was sure would happen if my family, and my children, were not Jewish.