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Hebrew School Ambivalent

“Do we have to go to Hebrew school today?” my middle son whines, snorting and stomping about. “I hate it!” I take a deep breath and try not to roll my eyes, but I fail. It’s an old fight. One I’m tired of. I think back a few days, calculating. Did they go Sunday?

My son, sensing my hesitation, barrels forward, literally, and now his big green eyes are pleading up at me: “And I have a lot of homework, Mom! Really! A lot! Really!”

They did go Sunday, I remember and sigh. I am going to cave.

“You can skip it,” I say, but he already knows and is cheering around the house. Apparently, a day off from Hebrew is like a get out of jail free card.

I don’t blame him. We’ve been working with the school for quite a while on making the curriculum less “feh” and more “fun.” But as many of my friends would say: “Hebrew school is not about fun. You go because you have to.” I don’t agree, but then again, I didn’t “have to.” I never went to Hebrew school. My parents were too busy getting divorced to be bothered.

Maybe if I went through this rite of passage I’d feel differently. Or maybe if we were at a Reform synagogue like we should be, instead of a Conservative one (location, location, location), Hebrew school would be a breeze. Maybe I’d be more involved, maybe I’d care more. Maybe, but probably not. Being Jewish in a religious sense is not important to me. I’m in it for the tradition, for the family, for the latkes.

I’m sure that seems awfully cavalier, but it is what it is. I’m busy juggling my three growing boys and my husband, my sick father, my crazy household, my writing, etc. There’s school, sports and family — there’s almost too much to fit in, so that by the end of many days we all fall into bed exhausted but generally satisfied. It’s a good life. Puh! Puh! Puh!. But it’s not a religious one.

My friends are split down the line. Half make religion a priority. They attend Friday night services, holiday events and synagogue functions. Some even keep kosher. They are involved and connected. Then there’s the other half who show up on the High Holidays, usually just in time for the rabbi’s sermon or the blowing of the Shofar. They rush through the Seder to get to the matzo ball soup, and might enjoy a cheeseburger now and then.

Which is why, sometimes, especially when filling out that fat check to the synagogue, I wonder if it’s worth the struggle, if all the old rites and prayers really mean something to us.

I could argue they don’t. That these antiquated rituals have no place in our modern lives. But then I sit in synagogue, not knowing the prayers and feeling like I don’t belong, and see my children mouthing the words or singing them proudly and out loud because they do know them and they do belong, and I think, well, that’s something.

So in this wishy-washy fashion, year after year, we continue on, walking a fine line between being members and being dropouts. We belong to a synagogue that we basically attend on only the High Holidays or for school services or bar mitzvahs. We send our kids to Hebrew school twice (cough, once if we’re lucky, cough) a week, because somewhere deep in my head, I feel like we’re supposed to.

I have an image of my Grandma, who died too young, standing over her dining room table, her head bowed and covered with a lacy shawl, lighting the Sabbath candles.

When she is done, she comes back to young me waiting at her kitchen table and brings me a cup of layered pudding and cool whip in a pretty green glass. We play cards, usually cassino, war or a little-known game called pishe pasha.

That was decades ago, back when we lived in Brooklyn only blocks from my Orthodox grandparents. Back when my parents were unhappily married. Before the divorce, my mother’s remarriage and the move to Long Island. Back when I was tied to something, or someone, religiously Jewish.

Of course I’m proud of our heritage, and I love celebrating the holidays and knowing I have kids who can actually read the four questions, but whether I care about Hebrew school or belonging to a synagogue is an ongoing debate.

And yet….

We are members. We sort of show up. My boys will become bar mitzvahs. Even if I kvetch, or if Hebrew school gets bumped for baseball or a family party, or because Mommy’s a pushover, it’s still on the list.

Although really, only God and Grandma know why.

Alisa Schindler has written for The New York Times’ Motherlode blog and for Kveller. Her blog is Icescreammama.com.

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