A Taste for Religion and Community – at Age 4!
by Linda K. Wertheimer
My husband was working late, so my son and I had a thrown-together dinner of leftover pasta, yogurt, and carrots. I added one touch, store-bought challah, to give our table a semblance of Shabbat.
The sight of the braided bread was enough to spark my 4-year-old son’s interest.
“Is the temple open?” Simon said.
“Yes, they’re having a service tonight,” I said, glancing at the clock on the wall. It was 6 p.m. The service on the schedule was at 6:15 p.m.
“Is it a grown-up service?” Simon asked.
“It’s for everybody, but not a Tot Shabbat,” I said.
“Can we go? I want to go to temple,” he said.
Part of me wanted to immediately shake my head no. I was tired. I had just gotten a magazine assignment with a tight deadline. In a few days, I was about to start teaching again part-time at local university. I was not really in a Shabbat service kind of mood. I had barely had the time to buy a challah. A year ago, I sometimes made my own challah.
Not to mention, I was in shorts and a T-shirt with scraggly wet hair because we went swimming in the afternoon. But my son was actually asking to go to a Shabbat service. And he still wanted to go when he learned it wasn’t the children’s service which featured puppets. He was already at a place that I had spent decades trying to reach – a comfort zone with Judaism, ritual, and synagogues. He was always eager to go to a service when we asked, but there was something particularly special about his asking. I don’t think he had ever asked before.
“Yes,” I said, “we can go.”
I rushed upstairs, stuck my hair in a ponytail, and put on capri pants. We got to temple at 6:20 p.m. and slid into a row toward the back. A few seconds later, the cantor’s daughter, a big smile on her face at seeing Simon, ran over and sat next to us. By showing up, Simon doubled the number of small children in our sanctuary that night. He and the cantor’s daughter soon moved from our row to across the aisle to sit next to the rabbi’s teenaged daughter.
At the start of the summer, when we went to an early service, Simon often could not last the entire time. He would get bored in the middle and want to go play in the hall for a while. This time, he stayed. He played musical chairs a few times, but most of the time, he paid attention and absorbed the service in his own way. He sang a little at times and bounced in his seat with the music.
No way, at age 4 ½, could he understand everything he was hearing. We do not talk much at home about liturgy. The music and the sense of community draw my husband and me to services.
We have taken Simon to these early services off and on since he was an infant, and each time, as is tradition for any children at the service, he has gone up to the bimah to help open the ark that displays the temple’s Torahs. As a baby, he could not do much but be held in my or my husband’s arms. Now, he usually walks up on his own. At this service, he walked up with the rabbi’s daughter and then staked a place by one of the ark doors so he could open it himself.
As is custom, our two rabbis and our cantor sang the Aleinu, the closing prayer of the service. It is a prayer about Jews’ dedication to and faith in God. I doubt my son understands what the prayer is about. I’m still sorting out the meaning of many Jewish prayers.
What does he get out of attending services? Is it spirituality? Is it comfort? I’m not entirely sure, and he’s not old enough to articulate it. It does not really matter. If I were to guess, I would say he wants to go to services because they’re familiar and comfortable. He feels safe there. He feels love there. He rushes up to our senior rabbi and gets hoisted high up in the air for a hug.
Our son is developing an appetite for temple, and as his enthusiasm grows, so does mine. We have given him lots of exposure to Judaism, but we have tried not to push religion on him. We have just let it sort of be.
Linda K. Wertheimer is a veteran journalist who writes about religion, education, and family for various publications and blogs at Jewish Muse, A Writer’s Blog on Faith and Family. She is The Boston Globe’s former education editor and currently teaches journalism at Boston University.
Originally posted at Jewish Muse