On New Year’s Day, cheering for hands-on Judaism


LOS ANGELES (JTA) — New Year’s Day, the first Shabbat of 2010 is coming up, and someone other than your favorite bowl team needs your blessing.

As New Year’s Day begins on Shabbat this year, can we expect the Shabbat Queen to make an appearance on a Rose Parade float? Perhaps accompanied with a court of “malachei ha’shalom,” the messengers of peace, that we sing about to welcome Shabbat in Sholom Aleichem?

After a day of parades and football, can you make kiddush over a HeBrew and chips? Is a leftover party hat as kipah, and roses and challah a timely way to greet the secular New Year?

It’s an eve of “shamor v’zachor,” honoring and remembering the Shabbat — as well as savoring our favorite plays of the day. On this night, while reviewing shopping strategies and return policies, can we transition from the tailgate to the sit-down to have a meal of rediscovery and reconnection with the people who share our lives?

To quote the “Rav” Robert Burns, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?”

Many of us have dining room tables, kitchen tables, sitting empty. Why not fill them this Shabbat with family and friends?

In a 2004 paper for the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American life, several researchers tell us, “the ritualization of dinnertime provides regular, sacred family time, and a family meal “also reinforces both individual and family identity through family conversation.”

To have “sacred family time” — add that to your new year’s resolutions.

A movie that has become a surprise hit, “The Blind Side,” has a Thanksgiving scene that touches on this idea of sacred mealtime.

It’s time to eat, and the big homeless kid seats himself at the host family’s dining room table as the rest of family, plates in hand, deposit themselves in front of the TV. His quiet insistence on remaining seated at the table shames the mom, then dad and kids, into coming back into the dining room to have a sit-down family meal.

With three boys, two now in college and one in high school, nearly all of our meals have been together. It has been a family struggle, though one worth every argument and dirty dish.

The hardest meal to pull off, though, coming at work and school week’s end, has been Shabbat. On Shabbat we take five: light the candles, sing a few songs. But for me, the “sacred” meal, our big scene, is simply just the setting for one key act — blessing our children.

On a day of cheerleaders and sideline cheers, let me lead one.

Together now:

Candles lit and blessing said,
Put your hands on your kid’s head.

Originally the father did this; now mothers and grandparents, do it too.

The first time is going to feel weird; we are not accustomed to touching in Jewish ritual. But everybody bumps now, pounds fists, kisses on both cheeks. Think of it as a head hug.

To begin there are blessings for girls and boys. For boys: “God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” The sons of Joseph, they were brothers of different abilities and desires who were able to live with mutual respect and without jealousy.

For girls: “God Make you as Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” It invokes as role models the matriarchs, the mothers of Jewish invention, women who exhibited great courage, love, and insight.

Next comes the priestly blessing, Birkat Cohanim (Numbers 6:24-26), also called Nesiat Kapayim, literally the raising of the hands. Traditionally pronounced in the presence of a minyan by a Kohen, it also is said at home over children.

Here’s a translation:

May God bless you and guard you.
May God show you favor and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.

After saying the blessing, sometimes my wife and I have asked each of our kids to tell us one thing that made them happy that week. Other parents take a moment to praise their kids.

It never becomes routine.

As a reaction to my children’s weekly behavior, there have been weeks when it seemed ill advised to put my hands on their heads. On other weeks, feeling my own shortcomings, I have asked, what can I really bring to this?

It’s hands-on Judaism, and you really feel it. Isn’t the first Shabbat of a new calendar year a time for a first?

It’s never too late to start. Teens and young adults, who really go out each day into a world much more stressful than the one I knew at that age, really need the connection.

You might say, “I turned out fine without it. Why do I need all that mumbo jumbo? Will they even remember it?”

Recently I asked one of our older boys, Elan, “How did it make you feel on Fridays when we blessed you?”

“It felt like I was important, he responded. “I felt like I belonged.”


(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)

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