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At Chanukah, an education on motherhood

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Child waves to the camera during a Chanukah celebration.<br />
 (monozygotic.com/flickr/ Creative Commons)

Child waves to the camera during a Chanukah celebration.
(monozygotic.com/flickr/ Creative Commons)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Most people associate Chanukah with menorahs, latkes and games of dreidl, but far fewer know it is also the Jewish festival of education, or chinuch.

On Chanukah we remember that we cannot educate others, especially our children, until we educate ourselves.

Looking back, I realize that learning this lesser-known lesson of Chanukah has been the most significant turning point in my decade-long mothering career.

Before I set out to educate myself, my mind was riddled with questions about my mothering life. How was I, an educated woman, supposed to find meaning in changing diapers? How was I, a career-minded woman, supposed to find fulfillment sitting on a park bench and watching my daughter go down the slide for the 20th time?

Until that point, for as long as I could remember, I had been preparing myself for a glorious career as a diplomat or political science professor or congressional aide. Motherhood was barely an afterthought, a forgettable footnote hidden at the bottom of a long list of professional achievements that shattered glass ceilings.

Within five years of my college graduation, however, I had wandered down a much different path than the one I had envisioned for myself.

When I gave birth to my first child at the age of 26, my primary calling, my lifework, became motherhood. During those early years I also attended graduate school and wrote, but mostly my life centered around the early-morning rush to nursery school, long afternoons at the playground and an ongoing wrestling match several times a day with the mess that overtook our tiny apartment.

Motherhood seemed so physical, so menial, so … humiliating.

The hardest part of those years was the sagging weight of a heavy load of deferred dreams. All of my dearly held aspirations, I feared, had ended up in the garbage pail.

During my third pregnancy, a few friends started telling me about a parenting class at a local synagogue. I wasn’t interested. I was working on a book, and I didn’t want to give up even one minute of precious kidless writing time. But after one particularly depressing afternoon full of screaming, a tantrum and worse, I decided it was time to take action.

That’s how I began attending the neighborhood parenting class of Rebbetzin Talia Helfer, a mother and grandmother who has taught thousands of Jerusalem women how to be prouder, happier and better mothers.

Rebbetzin Talia did not make a strong initial impression when I walked into our synagogue and saw her sitting behind a table in her simple gray suit and white sandals. But the moment she opened her mouth, I was hooked. In Rebbetzin Talia’s presence I underwent a revolution, a lightning-quick paradigm shift.

Until that fateful Monday morning I had thought that a dignified, impressive, intelligent woman was by definition a career woman: a lawyer, a clinical psychologist, the chair of a sociology department. Rebbetzin Talia’s very existence disproved that belief. In Rebbetzin Talia I saw a proud mother who was also one of the most dignified, impressive and intelligent women I had ever met.

Over the course of the next three years, every time Rebbetzin Talia would look at me during class, I was able to catch a glimpse of myself through her eyes. When she looked at me, I understood that in her eyes I was not just a mother; I was a MOTHER! By raising Jewish children I was doing God’s will. By being a mother, I was shaping the next generation of the Jewish nation.

Rebbetzin Talia taught me how to be a proud mother, a happier mother, a mother by choice and not just by default.

Over those years, Rebbetzin Talia taught me what I came to call the “seven secrets.” I write about these seven secrets, all based on the Jewish tradition, in my newly released book “One Baby Step at a Time: Seven Secrets of Jewish Motherhood” (Urim). These secrets provide practical and tested tools for infusing motherhood with greater fulfillment, happiness and spirituality.

In the end, Chanukah’s lesser-known message turned out to be the most important “secret” I received from Rebbetzin Talia. She taught me that I must learn how to be a mother before I can teach my children. She taught me that the most meaningful achievements in life are not always accompanied by a large salary, or a lot of recognition, or a shattered glass ceiling left in your wake.

She taught me, at long last, that the small acts of kindness we perform behind closed doors for the smallest of human beings can be the greatest achievements of all.

Chana Weisberg is the author if “One Baby Step at a Time” and “Expecting Miracles.” Originally from Baltimore, she lives with her husband and five children in Jerusalem. To learn more about “One Baby Step at a Time,” go to www.JewishMom.com.

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