"Never let a teachable moment go by."
That was my grandmother's life-motto. She graduated college in 1920, teaching in the Chicago Public School system all her life.
It's a cliché to say that Jewish life is all about learning. We spend a lot of time teaching our kids about the holidays' histories, practices, traditions, etc. But do they also provide "teachable moments" outside the actual holiday? Do we find parenting moments with the holidays as backdrops?
I asked some of my mom-friends this question and got some interesting answers.
I'll start with my own. When my older daughter was about 8 or 9, we were discussing Purim costumes. She asked me how to tell the difference between a costume for Vashti and one for Esther-they're both queens. We started talking about how boys sometimes treat girls, how men treat women, what's right and wrong about those situations, and how a girl needs to stand up for herself. Proudly, she wore a queen costume as Vashti that year, with a cardboard sign around her neck that said, "No."
My friend Becky has two girls, 4 and 6. Her side of the family celebrates Christmas, so for her, Chanukah became a teachable moment. Christmas is the holiday "we help Grandma and Poppa celebrate," reinforcing the idea that different people celebrate differently, and that we don't love them any differently because of it. We can admire aspects of others' celebrations, without theirs being ours, and without compromising our own beliefs. The girls are just now beginning to notice other Jewish families practice differently; Becky can teach tolerance in our own community, too.
My sister Batya is an amazing writer. Years ago, when one of her three sons was in the 7th grade in Israel, his Bible teacher answered the question, "Why do we have Yom Kippur," with "So we can suffer." My sister was understandably appalled, and not long after, a three page, beautifully written missive arrived in our emails.
Yom Kippur, Batya wrote to us, was more about basketball. She went on to say that, if you're going to play with a team, you absolutely have to follow the rule that if you make a foul, you raise your hand and say, "It was me." If you don't, no one will play with you. She went on to talk about brutal self-honesty, awareness, and making amends, but the teachable moment for her was to acknowledge when you screw up, and then really change your behavior. It makes people trust you more.
A new friend, Amber, has two kids, 10 and 7. She has recently joined the Jewish community, and for her Yom Kippur provided another opportunity for a teachable moment. For Amber, she conveyed to her kids not to let the sadness of having hurt someone take over. People will either accept your apology or not, but that shouldn't stop you from making the attempt. She could talk to her kids about "righteous apologies," and how that carries on throughout the year.
Finally, Pesach afforded some fascinating teachable moments. My friend Hillary's kids are grown, but when her younger daughter was a teenager, and they were preparing for this holiday, she said to her mom, "But there is no slavery now…" Hillary took that comment and opened a window for this question, "Well, we're all slaves to something at times. What are you a slave to?" and the conversation went from there. Of course, we know that some people around the world are in slavery, in oppression, but Hillary went a different way, going deep and personal. An excellent teachable moment.
For Joyce, it was a chance to show her kids that we Jews lived and have fled from many places, so she puts food from Jewish communities around the world on her table. She wanted to let them know we live in a bubble in so many ways, and to think globally. For Anna, Pesach was an opportunity to say, "Jews don't do schadenfreude" when we recite the plagues. Think how that Egyptian mom must have felt on that last night."
Jewish life is all about learning, but it's not all "how-to." Our traditions provide context for both every day and monumental life lessons. Keep your eyes out for your own parenting moments.
Anita Silvert is director of Enrollment for Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and continues to teach, write, and perform in the Chicago area.