Tuesday, September 24, 2013

So Many Holidays, So Little Time

It's the holiday season, for some of us. Jingle bells for the Jews.

A friend who works for a Jewish institution posted on Facebook that it's always this time of year when she hears a lot of, "Why are your offices closed? I never heard of this holiday you speak of." Thank you, Miryam, for this: http://www.isitajewishholidaytoday.com/

Yes! I feel sheepish, at times, having to explain that there's "yet another holiday" this week, and that once again my children will be home from school. It's a lot of celebrating, all squished together into a short period of time. I remember trying to explain to friends in high school, or at the office, why I was missing so much school/ work this time of year: "it's another Jewish holiday...don't ask." You could tell they weren't sure whether to believe you. It doesn't really seem plausible, does it?

And right after the summer! How in the world can you get back into your family's routines when your preschooler has only one morning of school a week for the first three?

Of course, for those who observe, it doesn't matter when the holidays fall; whenever they arrive, we greet them with open arms. We do our best to cook and prepare and be merry. We make the brisket, twice (once for RH, and once for Sukkot)! (OK, let's be honest "we" don't make the brisket; Josh does. I ordered it, though. That counts for something.) We drop everything and run to Savta and Saba's house, where, if we're lucky, we fight for a bed with siblings and cousins. At least this year it was warm; no need for down coats in the sukkah.

Sukkot is an important holiday for our clan. My siblings and I attend our own shuls in our own towns for the high holidays, but every year, the extended family gathers for this strangest of holidays--the one where we shake the imported branches and eat in a hut. (How do you explain this one to the neighbors?) It's really the crunchiest of Jewish holidays. We eat outside! Under the stars! It's like camping. With lots of good food.

First cousins

The saddest time for us was when we were in London, and couldn't make it home for Sukkot. But, on the other hand, it was exciting because we had a small garden, and our very first (and very tiny) sukkah.

The pop-up sukkah

Yes, it's all a bit odd, but not strange at all, if it's what you've always done. I feel grateful to have Sukkot in my life, and in my kids' life, because it's so wacky and fun and specific to Judaism. There's nothing like it anywhere else.

It's not over yet, this holiday season. Oh, no! We've got Shmini Atzeret (I know! Are you excited?) and Simchat Torah, a perennial childhood favorite. We will dance, we will sing, we will rejoice, and then we will say goodbye to this holiday marathon for another year. Phew. I'm exhausted.

!חג שמח

Monday, September 16, 2013

On the Moral Compass of Children

The news showed up just before Yom Kippur, just before that time of deep reflection when we wrestle with the challenges of being human: Girl's Suicide Points to Rise in Apps Used by Cyberbullies.

Fifteen Florida middle school children participated in bullying another child so relentlessly that she took her own life. At age 12. Twelve. When I read this, I found myself muttering, almost moaning, aloud. Rebecca Sedwick was "absolutely terrorized on social media" says the local sheriff.

Rebecca Sedwick

How could these kids do this to another human being? Who is the evil child living in the world who would send this text message: "Can u die please?"

What? asked Bella, on hearing my audible shock. I hesitated telling her about the article--for a minute--because the idea of discussing suicide with my children is somehow sickening. I don't want them to know that it exists. But of course, like just about everything in this world, they know, or they will know, whether or not I tell them. Instead of trying to explain, I said read this, and handed her the article. At 10.5, she's not much younger than Rebecca. She will be in middle school next year. And she will get a phone, in not too long. I wanted her to know, in the starkest terms, that every word that she types, anywhere, has lasting effects, both on herself, and on others.

Bella was mystified by the article. "But why were the kids mean to her? Why?" she asked. As if there should be a reason. 

"It doesn't matter why," I told her. 

Do I think that Bella is a potential bully? I certainly hope not. But one must ask: did the parents of those fifteen children think their children were? And what did they do to prevent them from unleashing such hatred on another human being? 

Is it even plausible that such a large group of children all were lacking a moral compass? The dynamics of the group are strange and powerful. Children will gang up on the weak, even if their individual inclination is to be kind. It's a mob mentality, where ethics go out the window, and evil spreads like fire. When the horror is over, the individual child might defend himself saying, "But it wasn't just me! Everyone was doing it!" So the group becomes both the impetus, and the excuse. 

This is not a phenomenon seen only in children, of course. Think about the Holocaust. Think about neighbors turning in neighbors.

A parent of a teenager told me that the students in her daughter's high school are required to sign an anti-bullying pledge at the beginning of each year. I wonder if those pledges work. I wonder if, perhaps, Rebecca Sedwick's bullies had to sign one; according to a school official, the school has an "extensive anti-bullying campaign." They do? What the hell is happening in this campaign?

The term cyberbullies makes the culprits sound like strangers on the internet out to terrorize young people, when in fact these were classmates of the victim. The article mentions that there was regular bullying, too--i.e. pushing and hitting. Though unmentioned, there was undoubtedly also social isolation and intimidation--common forms of bullying, especially among girls, that often go unnoticed and unaddressed. It doesn't matter where or how they did their evil work, the end result is the same: a group of children terrorized another child, with no regard for her feelings or her well-being. 

It seems to me that the more explicit we are with kids about our expectations of them, the more information they have to make ethical decisions. We tell toddlers, over and over, to "be nice." We need to find a way to tell older kids to be nice, too, in ways that they understand, in as stark terms as necessary. Maybe we can start by having them read the article.

May Rebecca Sedwick's memory be for a blessing...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Remembering 9/11, The Day That Changed Everything

For me, today is a day of remembering, and of beginning. Of looking back, and looking forward. While remembering the events of September 11, 2001, I said goodbye to my youngest child as she started preschool. In my mind, this is all related.

This morning I sat outside Louisa's classroom. (Louisa has a classroom!) As I waited, I chatted with a mom who has three girls under age four. I told her that I also have three girls, but that my big ones are 10 and almost 9. And this lovely, lovely woman, sure-to-be-my-new-best-friend said to me, "But you look like a kid! How could you possibly have a ten-year-old?"

"You just made my day," I said, and then explained that the reason we started our family when we did had everything to do with 9/11.

Today, we are all remembering. We remember the people we lost. We remember the disbelief. We remember where we were, down to the minute. We remember the phone calls, the ones that went through, and the many that didn't. We remember the feeling that our city was changed, forever. We remember making eye contact with strangers in Union Square, and seeing tears. We remember walking to Chelsea Piers to give blood, and being turned away. We remember the photographs of the lost, on every light post, on every bus stop, and the desperate loved ones diligently posting them, hoping.

The soot and dirt and smoke seeped in through our windows, entering our lungs and our blood. I had to leave. A downtown Manhattan refugee at my parents' house for the chagim, I fell into a silent cloud. Always a verbal person, I had no patience for words, then. What was there to say? Instead, I immersed myself in images. For the first time in my life, I made Rosh Hashanah cards, each one painstakingly cut and pasted from colored construction paper, a child's project.

I had no children, then. Nor was I a child. I was a young-ish adult, living what was, in retrospect, a relatively carefree existence. It didn't feel carefree, though. After leaving grad school, I was struggling to gain a foothold in my career. I was working full-time as an editor, but without title or benefits. I felt mistreated, undervalued, and underpaid. On that fateful day in 2001, I had a meeting about a new and exciting job opportunity. But, like everything else that day, the meeting was cancelled. And never rescheduled. Things like that happened, then. Everything changed, in the matter of an hour.

When I awoke from the stupor (was it weeks later, or was it months?), I had a strange, new compulsion. I wanted to have a child. I still didn't have a proper job, and Josh was still in grad school. We were in no way financially secure; we were just starting out. But none of that mattered. My plan on this earth was to share my life with children.  It was a seize-the-day, the worst-could-always-happen mentality; after all, what if there is no tomorrow?

In the spring of 2002, I became pregnant with Sunshine, as we called our in-utero peanut. I was 26 years old, which made me the youngest in my childbirth education class by roughly ten years.

Someone observed to me recently that growing children can act as markers of passing time. Their ages at different points and places remind you where you once were. That's true of when you first started dreaming about them, too.

This morning, for an hour and a half, my baby played and socialized and simply existed without me there to take stock in her experience. I've never had trouble letting go before; how unexpected to find myself tearing up last night at orientation, when the teacher talked about separation. "They're not babies, anymore," she told the room full of parents, and for many of us, this was news.

Our children will always be our babies, even when they go off to school on their own, even when they leave home. We'll always remember how they came to be.

Time passes, but the memories don't fade. We remember, as we always will, the day(s) that changed everything.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Longest Sunday

Forgive me. It's been almost a month since my last confession. Oh sorry, I meant, post.

Where has the time gone? Not coincidentally, my last post was on August 13th, and Bella came home from camp on the 14th. So, it's been a month filled with beach days, endless car rides, sisterly screaming matches, lost flip-flops, sunburns, ice-cream, potty training, barbecues, family gatherings, arguments over summer assignments, backpack and shoe shopping, boredom, and a high holy day thrown in for good measure. You know it. You just lived it, too.

My friend Debs, who lives in the UK, texted me to say she misses my blog posts (bless you, dear). When I told her today was the first day of school, she replied, "Wow, your holidays are long!"

Yes, they certainly are. My kids had eleven weeks vacation this summer (I had to count it twice to be sure, because it seems crazy), while Debs' kids had only six. Think about the difference. That's a lot of time to entertain the offspring, and it costs a lot of money. For many working parents, it's a major financial hardship. Also, studies have shown that for many children all that time out of the classroom means more catch-up academically at the beginning of each new school year.

I'm not sure that I'm ready to argue for a true year-round school schedule, mainly because I love (and my kids love) summer camp. But I do think that the school year could be adjusted and lengthened a tad . . . maybe a few more days off in the winter, and a few days more of school at the end of summer.

True, this year felt especially long because of the awkward occurrence of Rosh Hashanah just after Labor Day. The past week has felt like one long Sunday, in which we're all supposed to be happy and free from obligation, but we're all-too-aware that the return to school, i.e. real life, is coming. Anxiety has been simmering in my girls like a pot of water taking forever to boil. Even Louisa, who starts pre-school on Wednesday, knows that school is coming, and with little awareness of time, she doesn't understand why we don't march to her new classroom right now.

Which is all to say that this morning was a blessing, indeed. "I feel like a new woman," I texted back to Debs, imagining the reclaimed space in my brain now that my kids will spend a few hours each day having theirs stroked by someone other than me.

Happy family on the first day of school