December 10, 2019

The Beauty of Ritual

When you have a child later in life, there are many issues you don’t consider. For me, one of the more troublesome has been: Who will be there for the holidays?

At 8, my son is not yet aware of what he’s missing. But each Pesach in particular, I am achingly aware. Throughout my childhood, the holidays marked the times when a flood of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins descended upon our house, filling it with the raucous joy that only close family can impart.

My grandfather, my father’s father, led our seders. Elegant, dignified, commanding respect simply by being a gentleman — a gentle man — my grandfather set the tone for our seders for the next few decades: sensual, spiritual feasts that left our hearts, minds and souls in some sort of cosmic unity. Or at least that’s how it felt.

By the time my son, Alexander, arrived, that unity had begun to shatter. My mother died when he was 2. My brother moved to Florida when my son was 3. My cousins, undermining every value my grandfather tried to instill, dispersed.

Seders soon became makeshift affairs — with an assortment of close friends providing a variegated experience each year.

As much as I am grateful for those friends, the fact that Alexander is not growing up with the same holiday rituals each year tugs at my heart. Oh sure, I fill in where I can at our synagogue, which excels at Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Purim. And I now try to have an annual Hanukkah party for his friends.

But, love ’em or hate ’em, there’s really nothing like being with family on the holidays.

Perhaps unconsciously, I’ve been adding more Jewish ritual to Alexander’s life in other realms. I have sung the Shema to him every night since he was born. We light Shabbat candles as often as we can and go to the children’s Shabbat service as often as the synagogue provides it. (Which means not during the summer months. Did you miss the part in the Torah where God says that going to the Hamptons on summer weekends is more important than a Shabbat service? Yeah, I did too.)

Recently, a new ritual has entered our lives. One evening, as I was fumbling to get the keys out of my bag, Alexander was asking for something that I wasn’t ready to give him. I looked up, and the mezuzah at our door stared back at me. “OK, we’ll see,” I said. “But anyway, it’s time that you start to kiss the mezuzah every day.” He eagerly reached up and did so.

I have to admit, I was a little shocked. This is a child who groans before Hebrew school and likes his Shabbat service only because of the pretty Israeli teachers. But he has taken to this new ritual with gusto, with an enthusiasm usually reserved for kibitzing with his friends.

It has made me think: What other rituals can I easily integrate?

These 3,000-year-old rituals aren’t going anywhere. They’re here to make us feel loved, safe, connected.

The truth is, even when you don’t have a child late in life, families change and often disintegrate. People get sick, divorced, move across continents, die.

But these 3,000-year-old rituals aren’t going anywhere. They’re here to make us feel loved, safe, connected — to provide us with the foundation to create light. And the beauty of most rituals is that they’re not dependent on others: The bond is between each of us and God.

If faith provides hope, ritual provides order. But perhaps more important, ritual provides a reminder of faith, just as nature and beauty do.

Last week, Alexander had to get checked by a cardiologist (for hopefully a very minor issue). For the next 24 hours, he had to be wired up with uncomfortable tabs across his chest. When he realized that tearing off the whole thing was just going to send him back to a long, unpleasant ultrasound, he finally relented to being distracted till bedtime.

I was a little concerned with how he was going to sleep with his chest looking like technological warfare. A slightly tattered, stuffed Torah, given to him as a baby, has been called upon for times like this. “Here,” I said, “Let’s let the Torah hold the monitor so you can just relax and go to sleep.”

When I checked in on him a bit later, he was sleeping peacefully — clutching the spool of the Torah with one hand.

Chag sameach.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author.