Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgivukkah Meshugana

Something about preparing to go away next week, as we've never done before (we usually stay local for the turkey holiday--so local that we walk to Thanksgiving dinner), has made my life cray-cray. Maybe it's the Thanksgivukkah (a word that I can neither spell, nor pronouce) thing that has sent me just this side of over-the-edge this week.

I'm not the only one. I've heard reports that one family member, a preschool teacher at a Jewish school, has been slightly manic trying to cover what should have been two separate months of curriculum over Hannukah and Thanksgiving: two staples of the Jewish preschool calendar. No doubt. Louisa came home today with a the classic hardware-nuts Hannukiah AND a "hand turkey". All in one day. It's enough to make your head spin.

I'm sure the unlikely confluence of these two first-semester holidays is what made our family decide to finally take the plunge and get on a plane to celebrate the most American of holidays in a foreign country (Costa Rica). I've celebrated Thanksgiving in England (something full-circle about that), but never in the tropics. I'm looking forward to eating local sweet potatoes (or some similar tuber) in a land at least closer to whence they actually hail (Did you know that there were no sweet potatoes--or any kind of potatoes, for that matter--in the Plymouth colony?--a little tidbit I picked up this week while researching a freelance story. Because domesticated potatoes come from South America, and they hadn't made it that far north yet, apparently...). Rum drinks and Thanksgiving sound appropriate, too. After all...rum, the triangle all brings back colonial history.

Bella is studying colonial history in school. There's a lot of talk, these days, even in elementary school, about the difference between history and myths. My girls are all over the "truth" about the first Thanksgiving. They ate oysters and clams! And venison! There was not a pumpkin pie to be found. Ultimately, the Thanksgiving story is about the triumph of needy humans over the scourge of starvation. The new Americans figured out, one way or another, how to eat and survive in their new, wild home.

Thanksgiving, like Hannukah, is so much about food. We eat the same things, year after year, such that we forget the origins of the ritual. I'm sure I thought, as a child, that kosher marshmallows were consumed by Native Americans and Pilgrims at their unified feast in 1621. In our family, we usually host a big Hannukah party. It has become our tradition to serve latkes and lox and (non-Beluga) caviar. Yum. Ask my girls and I would venture to guess they believe caviar is a Hannukah food.

Somehow, in the midst of this busy week of packing and finishing time-sensitive projects and cursing myself for not ordering sun-protective gear on the internet, since it is nowhere to be found in stores, we found time, as a family, to go visit a wonderful local organization with a mission to make sure every family in NYC can have a festive holiday meal. The West Side Campaign Against Hunger feeds thousands of families throughout the year. On Thanksgiving, the needy can receive a turkey, and all the accoutrements. For several years an interfaith coalition of synagogues and churches and schools have come together to raise money to support this mission. This year, both our synagogue and our school are members of the coalition.

On Tuesday evening, we attended the kick-off event for the Thousand Turkey Challenge. Bella and Ruby learned about the hunger cycle, and about food insecurity right here in NYC. I hope that they will appreciate our own feast even more, knowing that many families are guaranteed no such thing. Tzedakah and celebration go hand in hand, and what better way to celebrate Hannukah on Thanksgiving, than to donate some gelt to a worthy organization dedicated to feeding the hungry. Please consider donating a turkey, by clicking here.

Happy Thanksgivukkah!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Experience, But Not Expertise

As we both struggled to get our little ones bundled and out the door at the end of preschool this morning, I commiserated with another mother. All the other kids has already gone, but our two were sitting in their cubbies, ignoring our pleas.

"Louisa's been expressing her non-compliance lately," I said. Which is true. For example, earlier this morning, she insisted that she wanted to ride her bee to school. Here's a visual:
Needless to say, it's not our chosen mode of transportation, except between her bedroom and the living room. I had to literally pry her off the thing, screaming, so that I could then wrestle her into her puffy jacket, to get her out the door. Life is so unfair.

So, anyway, the mom of Louisa's co-conspirator in non-compliance says to me: "but at least you know what to do. I mean, you are experienced."

Ah, yes. That. The assumption that because she's not my first (or second) toddler, that I somehow know how to mind-meld my two-and-a-half-year-old into doing what I say. Ha.

So here's a story to prove that experience does not always equal expertise.

Louisa wore undies to school today for the first time. Hurrah! She's been using the potty since the summer at home, to varying degrees of success. But until now, I didn't have the confidence to send her to school in a pull-up. I was worried she'd pee all over the place. In fact, just last week she peed in the stroller while I was collecting the big girls from school.

This is only interesting because I did a better job toilet training my two older kids. They were both trained within a few days. We took away the diapers, they graduated to big girl underpants (except at night), praised them for their successes, and we never looked back. Done. I knew how to toilet train so well that I'd practically given seminars on the subject, to eager, newer parents who wanted to know how it's done.

And then, along comes child number three, and I do everything wrong. I started too early, because she had a bad rash and, let's face it, I was just so sick of diapers. Then, since she didn't really seem ready, I kept the potty around as an option, instead of an obligation. I put her in pull-ups whenever there was a chance of a possible accident, rather than just letting her get the hang of holding it in, and discovering the consequences. I even (shame) yelled at her, once, for peeing on the rug. And once for peeing on my bed. Major no-no. The potty training stressed me out this time, which for sure was the root of my trouble.

How could I have made all these mistakes, knowing what I know? No answer there, except that each kid is different, I suppose, and so is the parent, by the time the next developmental milestone arises. I keep thinking about that next approaching milestone for Louisa, which, unlike potty training, was actually very stressful the first time(s) we went through it with our older kids: the move from the crib to the bed. Once they can get out of bed, all bets are off. Parents lose.

So I've been wondering, is there any way we can maybe we can just skip straight from sleeping in the crib to sleep-away camp? Advice accepted. After all, you're all experts.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Bat Mitzvah Debate Follow-Up

Drumroll . . . we made the decision regarding when we should celebrate Bella's bat mitzvah.

It was fascinating discussing this question with so many deeply engaged, thinking people: rabbis, educators, and parents. Some rabbis prefer bat mitzvah at 13 because it keeps girls in Hebrew school another year. Several people I consider "professional" Conservative Jews told me they had never really pondered the question. One clergy member told me that in her congregation, bat mitzvahs are usually at 13, although 12-year-old girls are counted in the minyan. "We are consistently inconsistent!" she said.

The contemporary feminist arguments for bat mitzvah at 13 are strong. As my rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, added to a Facebook discussion:
"one has to ask why rabbinic tradition assigned girls maturity to 12. I think it is not a modern assessment of intellectual or emotional maturity - though these may be real - but a less nuanced report about menarche. In other words: It was time to get busy! I would prefer that such considerations vanish from contemporary ritual decisions."
On the other hand, Professor of Rabbinics Rabbi Gail Labovitz said this, also on Facebook:
"I lean towards 12, though I get that it does not seem egalitarian, and I am very much, generally, committed to egalitarianism. The age [of bar/ bat mitzvah] does indeed have a link to the onset of puberty, but this is true for both boys and girls - indeed, well into the rabbinic period one can find contesting voices in rabbinic lit. as to whether bar and bat mitzvah should be decided by a universal age limit, or by demonstrating actual physical signs of puberty. At the same time, the rabbis did imagine that a girl "became" bat mitzvah at 12 just like a boy becomes "bar mitzvah" at 13 . . . . So in our day, if we are expanding the realm of mitzvot that we think women should be responsible for . . . . then those responsibilities kick in at 12 - and girls who don't fulfill them until a year later might be thought of as sinning..."

Compellingly, several people told me that bat mitzvah at 12 is a feminist ritual, because it celebrates girls' coming of age in a different way to how boys' maturity is celebrated; it breaks the pattern of using the masculine as the standard.

Then there are the practical issues. One rabbi/parent told me that her daughter was unhappy with her Hebrew school class, so holding her bat mitzvah at 12 was a way to "graduate" and move on to Prozdor (Hebrew school for high schoolers, in NYC). She was not the only rabbi who told me that they based their decision of when to hold their own daughters' bat mitzvah ceremonies primarily on the particular circumstances and needs of that child.

Bella goes to a Conservative day school where the practice is for girls to celebrate an in-school bat mitzvah at 12. Bella is eager to get the party started, so to speak, and wants to do what her friends will do. The bat mitzvah is a celebration of a change in status for the child, and as such, it makes sense to have the in-school bat mitzvah at the same time as the synagogue celebration.

In addition, I'm all for celebrating milestones at once. In general, I try to make the kids' birthday celebrations as close to their birthdays as possible--no month-long birthdays for me, if you know what I'm sayin'.

Taking all of the above into consideration, and needing to make a practical decision, we decided to hold Bella's bat mitzvah soon after her 12th birthday. In March 2015, we will be the proud parents of a bat mitzvah girl. Mazel Tov!

And now I officially feel old.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Find Your Folks

When Ruby was a toddler I took her to an indoor gym class, to keep her moving in the cold winter. While she was climbing all over the equipment, another girl her age could neither climb up the very small ladder, nor slide down on her own. Her mother never let go of her hand, "helping" her all the time. The mother asked me why Ruby was so capable. My answer was, simple. Practice; allowing her to try.

This mother needed permission to let go. Seeing Ruby on the slide gave her more confidence to let her child try.

There is a notion I remember hearing when my kids were still too young for it to apply, that parents should look to local custom to help determine when to grant freedoms to their kids. That is, if the neighborhood kids are riding their bikes on their own at nine, then you know it's fine to let your kids do the same. Or, if most kids walk to middle school on their own, let you can feel comfortable letting your kids do it, too. The local custom part is important, as it acknowledges that what is normal in suburban New Jersey may be very different from the streets of Manhattan.

There's a community spirit to this reasoning, that puts the onus on making these leaps of faith--after all, letting our kids out of our sight can be seen as such a leap--on the shoulders of many families. The community spirit encourages families to trust each other, and to watch out for each other.

Parents using each other as guide-posts is a great way to work together to raise our children. But it can be hard to do this when there is little trust among parents, or when parents fear that only they can ensure the safety of their kids.

Once, years ago, my family was walking on the sidewalk with another family in a moderately busy area (not in NYC). The other family's child, age 4, rushed ahead with my kids, ages 4 and 6, who were playing, running, etc. My girls were used to walking behind us, in front of us, around us. Josh and I were watching them, but we did not insist that they hold our hands, except for crossing streets. The other family had different rules. The parents became furious with their child for running ahead and "not staying with them" -- i.e. doing exactly what we allowed ours to do all the time. I said "It's okay, we're watching them." But the parents shrugged us off, and punished their child anyway. They clearly didn't trust us, or our norms.

Without doubt, there are children who require special limits because of their own limitations. Know thy child, above all else. But this child seemed normal to me, capable and responsive. The parents' fear, and their need for obedience, were very different from our parental ethos.

Now that Bella and Ruby are walking to school on their own, I feel the tug of the variety of opinion on children's freedom. Some parents of similar-aged children bristle ("not my kid"). A few give their children more freedom than we do. There's no consensus.

So what gives? Aren't we parents supposed to be looking towards each other for guidance?

 I wonder if this is a New York City dilemma. After all, NYC is not a neighborhood in the traditional sense, in that it's so big and diverse. So, like in all other social spheres in this city, we need to go searching for our "neighbors"--the folks whose ways speak to us--and elect them as our community. I reckon this applies elsewhere, too.

When I need to, I find my free-range parenting friends to buck me up and give me support. One friend in particular, who has a slightly older child, tells me how it's done. She told me what to say to Bella before she took the subway by herself the first time, and how to prepare her for the what-ifs. She also told me that Bella could do it, just like her daughter had. And sure enough, Bella can. We all need friends like this! Parenting need not involve reinventing the wheel in each family. Wherever you are, find your folks.