I have three young sons. Wherever they go, they bring a whirlwind of energy and crumbs.
We recently attended an event for families at our local botanic garden. My sons, of course, raced through the exhibit to reach the cookies and entertainment at the end. The boys were drawn to a set of giant foam blocks in a corner and set out building a child-size wall they enthusiastically destroyed and rebuilt. Over and over. For kids, half the fun of stacking a tower of blocks is the satisfying chaos that ensues when they collapse (or get knocked down by one brother body-slamming another into them). This game went on for half an hour.
I stood nearby monitoring the shouts and laughter, ready to pounce like any seasoned parent should their play become too wild. Activities like this often end with someone in tears over an injury or injustice, but the kids seemed engrossed and had even pulled several others into their game. A father of one of the other children watched for a moment. He asked if all three of the boys were mine and inquired about their ages.
He stood quiet, mouth slightly agape in mock shock, after I told him, "Yes. They're mine, all two years apart." I'm accustomed to strangers reacting with this way. My husband and I often receive comments about our family from well-meaning strangers at the grocery store, the mall, the airport. Our boys, so close in age, so energetic, often bouncing around us like puppies, draw attention from older people and fellow parents alike. This dad looked at me, eyes gleaming, chuckled, and asked me, "So, what's bedtime like at your house?"
I knew exactly what he envisioned. It had to be difficult rounding up these three little boys, so gleefully hurling each other about. Most children resist bedtime on a good day, but these three must form a revolution against their parents, barricading themselves in their rooms armed with toothbrushes and pillows.
He couldn't be more wrong. Truthfully, bedtime brings us a respite from the day, a moment of peace that we love in our house. It consists of routines that bring down the crazy, and ends with the ritual of reciting the Shema . After showers and pajamas, books and blankies, we quietly say this treasured prayer with each boy. Though we are not traditionally observant in our household, we have incorporated the daily recitation of the Shema with our children each night, along with a few other religious practices that fit our family. This is our way of infusing our busy, secular lives with meaning and providing a framework for our children to form their own Jewish identities.
Our Shema ritual started several years ago, when my oldest son, then in preschool, experienced some anxiety at nighttime. Frightened of bad dreams, he took a long time to settle down for bed. To bring him some comfort, I suggested we sing the Shema together, and in the darkness of his little blue bedroom, a beautiful family tradition was born.
Now, to hear my youngest son, just three years old, sing the Shema by himself in his sweet sleepy voice is often the most treasured moment of my day. " Shema, Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, The Lord is one," he says from memory and leans over to plant a wet kiss on my cheek. I used to say the prayer for him, to him, but now he recites it himself, just like his older brothers and his parents. For me, this passing down of a religious tradition, however small, represents what it means to raise a Jewish family.
Bedtime fills us up with love at the end of our long days and compels us to slow down and be mindful of God in those last moments before sleep. All day, we are pulled by so many external commitments, school and work, sports and business. The constant pinging of cell phones and iPads creates a soundtrack to the already frenetic pace of our lives. But at night, sharing the Shema with each of my boys reminds me of my commitment as a Jewish parent. These little boys end the day with a bit of Torah on their lips because of what I do, how I help guide them. Their hearts and minds calmed before sleep sharing in this brief spiritual moment.
So, looking back, I should have told that dad at the botanic gardens that no, bedtime at our house looks nothing like the foam block bedlam before him. Instead, it is a treasured time between parents and children, sharing love for each other and Jewish ritual.
Leslie Hill Hirschfeld is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.