Note to Reader: This Open Book column is part of my occasional “Ex Libris” series about books that have made a difference in my life. Hope you enjoy it.
A garden gate is normally in one of three positions. A gate that is locked and secure guards what is behind it, and one may assume that we should not enter. A gate that is wide open is inviting, but because there is no transition and no effort is needed to enter, we may not notice our passage. However, a gate that is closed but not secure, is one whose garden is available to us, but only if we make the effort to unlatch the lock. It is by our effort that we notice the garden behind the gate, and we may notice more clearly and intentionally that our surroundings have changed. And if the garden is especially beautiful and meaningful, not only our sights but our minds may be changed as well.
Maybe the book that has made the biggest difference in my life and the life of my family begins with the word “Gates,” and it did introduce us to a garden that our family has drawn from, whether sustenance, pleasure, or comfort, for the last 30 years. It was given to us as a welcoming gift when we joined a Jewish congregation soon after our second child was born. The name of the book is “Gates of Shabbat,” and the garden that the gate both protected and invited, was that of tradition. As this is the season of traditions, whether religious or familial, this thin book, and what it meant, came to mind.
The ineffable fact of parenting (and maybe, if we want grandkids, this is something we should not share with our grown children), is that no one really knows how to be a parent, because every child is different, every parent is different, and every generation is different. And yet parenting comes with such an awesome responsibility that we are always looking for direction and support, so that we may in turn provide direction and support to our children. This sense of uncertainty and discomfort come not only as a parent, but at all life stages and meaningful times, whether weddings, births, deaths, or yearly extended family gatherings. How do we celebrate or commemorate such a special time, and in a special way? There is continuity and comfort in harking back to those memories of how our families observed these special times, and through tradition came to be closer. Maybe it is grandmother’s recipe, or grandfather’s toast over dinner, our parents’ Christmas Tree ornaments, a cherished prayer rug, maybe a religious observance itself that may go back centuries, if not millennia.
This little book introduced us to the observance and welcoming of the Jewish Sabbath, which begins Friday evening at dusk. We were aware, as anyone who has watched “Fiddler on the Roof” may know as well, about prayers over candles. But page 20 of the “Gates of Shabbat” book reads “Place your hands on your child’s head…” and goes on to show in English, Hebrew, and in transliteration, how to bless our children before the Sabbath meal. This one page, followed by the familiar lighting of candles and blessings over wine and bread, was how we opened a gate to a more active and educated observance of our Jewish heritage. Our children, always mesmerized by the lit candles at the center of the table, and appreciative of the special attention we placed on them, stayed at the table just a little longer than they might have other nights, and we talked about the accomplishments and challenges of the week just ending. Soon we added our own tradition, congratulating each child on some positive achievement of the past week, and a little simultaneous peck on the cheek by each parent. Eventually, we decided to participate more actively in the synagogue, our feeble Hebrew language reading ability improved, and this in turn led to interest, then to study, then to observance, then to understanding and appreciation of many parts of our religious tradition.
This Christmas season is also filled with many traditions, both religious and secular, and we have been honored many times by friends who have invited us to share in them, whether to decorate their tree with cherished family heirlooms, enjoy their special Christmas recipes, or just visit with them and their loved ones at a special time in their lives. We in turn have invited friends to help light our Hanukah menorah, attend our Passover seder, or taste Terry’s incredible gefilte fish (her mother’s recipe!). We have also been honored to be present at somber occasions where tradition has strengthened our friends and their families, or shared in celebration of births and weddings, expressing joy in unique and colorful ways. Each family has their own gate to this garden, to which they may turn at times, and which they may nurture, protect, and rediscover.
We visited with our son and his family a few weeks ago, and spent time enjoying our baby grandson. We were there over a weekend and were touched to see Joe and Lauren bless their baby Friday night as we had blessed Joe so many years ago. They put their hands on Nathan’s head and uttered the same words, but with a greater Hebrew fluidity then we did. And then they included a blessing that, while part of our tradition, we had omitted in our haste and our inexperience for 30 years. We saw the birth (or is it renewal?) of a tradition within our family that Nathan will remember and maybe share when his time to bless his own children arrive. We were watching as a new flower bloomed in this garden of tradition. I hope that as Nathan becomes an adult and embarks on his own life’s path, he may come across his own closed gate through which he might take the effort to enter. May he, and all our children, and all we love, be introduced to their own uplifting, comforting, and meaningful garden.
And, whatever your traditions this season may be, my family and I hope that you will enjoy them in health and in happiness.