On Rosh Hashanah, there are numerous services to celebrate the Jewish New Year and to announce the High Holy Days that culminate with Yom Kippur. Amidst the more solemn services for adults, our synagogue hosts two children’s services, both of which we attended today.
We were one of the last families to arrive for the morning service, and the room was packed. K saw her friend S sitting near the front and promptly asked to go sit with her. Fine, we said.
Three little boys from the same class jockeyed for space in front of us, and their various parents were scattered nearby. One of the boys watched as my father-in-law bent to greet me with a kiss on the cheek. The boy loudly exclaimed, “Gross!”
The leader opened the service with some words and songs. The little boy who was repulsed by the hello kiss sat and fidgeted for about thirty seconds, then leaned over and smacked his friend on the head with a prayer book. Friend responded with a swift elbow jab to the ribs. As the first boy lifted the book up to launch a second strike, his hastily tucked-in shirt came out of his pants, revealing a large bubble gum stain on the shirt-tail.
The dad of Bubble Gum Boy glared daggers at his son. The mom put her hand on the Bubble Gum Dad’s shoulder to calm him down and gently mouthed the word No to her son.
It was time to chant the V’ahavta, and the room swelled with singing voices. The lighthearted singing was no competition, however, for two little girls who were loudly arguing about whose turn it was to hold the prayer book. Their argument turned to screeching, and the V’ahavta flowed on, verse after verse, sung in the ancient Hebrew melody I so adore. The two little girls in front came to blows, and their parents pried them apart, carefully smoothing their hair and rearranging their fancy dresses.
K jumped up because she had decided to sit with us for a minute. Two minutes later, she leapt up to rejoin her friend. AR tagged along behind her, back and forth. I shook my head at the girls and gestured for them to stay in one place, indicating that this was not a social event but a religious service.
As we began to chant the Avinu Malkeinu, Bubble Gum boy and his friends turned their attention to their kippahs (little skull caps also known as yarmulkes that Jewish people — most often boys and men–wear to cover their heads). The boys tossed their kippahs in the air, wiggling around madly to see if they could get the little caps to land back on their respective heads.
One boy gave an overenthusiastic toss of his kippah and it landed on my father-in-law, who handed it back. AR sat in Papa’s lap, sucking her fingers and holding her lovie, all the while watching the boys with wide-eyed interest.
“You know what’s going to be interesting for us one day?” Andrew whispered to me with a grin. “Grandsons.”
Bubble Gum Dad was growing red in the face. He caught me watching him (I had completely lost track of the service), and I gave him a big smile. His shoulders relaxed, and he smiled back. We had a sympathetic moment.
I noticed the congregation was beginning to say the Shema, and the words rolled off my tongue without a thought. I say the Shema every single time I board an airplane. It is my own superstitious attempt at feeling as if I have control over whether or not the plane will stay aloft.
The kids throughout the room quieted for a moment as they said the familiar Hebrew words. Just as the prayer came to an end, a toddler began screaming and crying. The baby’s dad carried him out of the room, and as the older brother realized that the father was leaving, he too began screaming that he wanted to go with Daddy. Big brother managed to disentangle himself from his mom’s grasp and ran out of the room, leaving mom alone at the children’s service with no children.
That clever mom made no attempt to follow them, settling in to enjoy what might be the most peaceful part of her day.
And so the service went. Bits of Hebrew interspersed with childhood tantrums and glimpses into the dynamics of other families. It was great.
I must confess that I love watching other kids misbehave, especially in public. It is so gloriously reassuring to see that the crap my kids pull is matched by the antics of their peers.
When I am fortunate enough to be the mom with the quiet kids at the grocery store or Target, I direct sympathetic glances toward the parents of screaming kids. I feel very protective of those moms and dads and want to smack the rude people who mutter mean comments.
Don’t they know the parent of a kid throwing a tantrum is already breaking into a sweat, wishing for a Xanax and scanning the room for escape routes?
Kids don’t care whether you are in a car or an airplane, a theater or a museum. When they lose it, they let it all hang out. On airplanes, I tell myself, “It’s okay. I’m never going to see these people again.” But you can’t really say that in your local grocery store.
Or your religious service.
The afternoon service was even more chaotic than the morning service. After the opening hymn, the Rabbi explained to the children the significance of starting a new year. He asked the children what they had accomplished or achieved during the previous year. Hands shot up, and one by one, kids shouted answers into the microphone.
“I learned to ride a bike!”
“I learned to ice skate!”
“I learned Chinese!”
“I learned to poop on the potty!”
“I learned to swim!”
Each answer was met with great approval and smiles by the Rabbi, as the proud parents beamed.
Once again I was distracted and began looking around the congregation, but this time I noticed something besides the craziness of the atmosphere.
I noticed that there were several families who had adopted children internationally. I noticed there were families with parents of two different races, their beautiful children a testament to the blending of cultures. I noticed brothers and sisters dancing together in the aisle as Cantor Howard strummed on his guitar.
Rabbi Brant and Cantor Howard invited all the children to join them as the Ark was opened. There was a mass movement toward the front of the sanctuary, and within minutes, noisy kids filled every square inch of space on the pulpit. K was literally hanging off the side of a podium, craning her neck to get a glimpse of the Torah.
My favorite and most chaotic part of the service had arrived– the singing of Ki Mitzion. Rabbi Brant picked up the Torah, dancing up and down the aisles, followed by the members of the congregation, who loudly sang and danced and clapped behind him. I danced with baby C in my arms, listening to the joyful music, and I was suddenly overcome with gratitude for my husband and three girls, for the chaos and love in our wacky house. I blinked away tears as I nuzzled C’s fuzzy head.
After the service, we walked with much of the congregation to Lake Michigan for Tashlich, which means the symbolic casting off of our sins as we start the new year. The children each carried a small bag of crackers to toss into the water (not just to feed the ducks, but also because the crackers represented mistakes the children had made during the previous year).
Unfortunately, my children ate most of their sins during the walk to the lake, so we made do with tossing pebbles and rocks into the water. After a gloomy day of rain and wind, the sky cleared, and the late afternoon sun lit up my daughters’ faces as they ran around, searching in the dirt for small rocks and stones. AR got a hole in her tights, and K’s dress was soon covered with mud. The girls shrieked with laughter and chased their friends. C pointed to the birds in the sky and said, “Buh! Buh.”
I couldn’t ask for anything more. It was a sweet start to the new year.
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