Many new parents may well grasp for the right words to express their feelings to their newborn... or not, because our ancestors already thought of this. A long, long time ago, carers of newborns came up with the solution: nursery rhymes, blessings and prayers.
My own firstborn son knew the songs I had sang to him while he was still in my tummy. And many parents know the kicking gets stronger when there’s groovy tunes playing outside the womb. My son had a thing for Otis Reading.
Our first language is song, rhythm and rhyme. They’re love potions.
The importance of blessings was not something that even occurred to me, until I watched a Friday night chat with Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein on Facebook Live for the 92 Street Y and the 92 Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.
Rabbi Rubinstein said he still blesses his grown children, [in person] and other times he says the blessings over the telephone. It speaks volumes for an adult who can take the time out to have a quiet, and somewhat solemn ceremonial moment with their children as they grow from infancy to adulthood. It creates a healthy space for the sentimental, beyond greeting cards and paid advertisements.
I wanted to ask Rabbi Rubinstein more about his attitudes to blessings and language, and in addition to him included another personally influential teacher, Robert Kaiser, as well as a Liro Jääskeläinen, father of three and a researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Helsinki University, and Marlene Edelstein, author of Matriarchs: a Little Book of Heresies.
If you blessed your baby and child in a ceremony and every Friday, could you describe to me the significance of this for you?
Rabbi Rubinstein: I did bless my children every Friday night when we lit and blessed the candles. It helped us create “sacred” time, a moment when the trains stopped running and we were all home. It also affirmed for my sons that no matter how mischievous they might have been they were still precious to us and to God. When they were young I held them and their heads were on my shoulders. As they grew I knelt and held them. Now they’re taller than me and older than I was when they were born so they have to put their heads on my shoulder when I bless them but we never miss the blessing if we’re together on Shabbat.
Robert: I feel privileged to give a blessing, to the one who has given my own life such blessings. Now that she’s becoming a bit older, she understands the meaning of this. I hope that when it is her turn, she feels the same, giving blessings to her own children.
Liro: I did not become religious in my interfaith marriage until relatively recently, in my early forties, and while I have been very much enjoying learning and trying out different aspects of Judaism, in terms of blessing my children, I have so far only been blessing our youngest at bedtime on some of those evenings that it has been my turn to watch her go to sleep. Our older children are already young adults. I think what is beautiful and spiritually meaningful about blessing one's child is that the blessing asks for a loving-caring connection between the child and HaShem. I feel that that it is a moment that makes me stop with the thought of how much I love my daugher, and I think the blessing does give comfort to her, as she goes to sleep faster than on some other evenings. Of course, this is not really the traditional Jewish practice of blessing one's children every Friday evening in the context of welcoming the Sabbath, which I think is a beautiful tradition, and I think would be similarly spiritually resonating. Reading this question, reflecting on it, in fact sparks my interest to try it out.
Marlene: Those first questions definitely put me on a spot, because for many years I simply dropped out of Judaism, and that covers the time when my son was born and was growing up; so I didn't even think of doing the right things. I regret it very much now.
Are there any special aspects of the blessing that you particularly like?
Rabbi Rubinstein: I like the rhythm and certainty of our ritual. And the fact that it felt like a suspended moment very different from the rest of the week.
Robert: This blessing and ceremony is brief, just a paragraph, really: I like the continuity behind it. It binds me in an unbroken chain from past to present.
Liro: Besides tradition having shaped the thoughts conveyed by the blessing into really beautiful ones, I think it is really lovely that the blessing includes placing one’s hands on the head of the child. This gives special warmth, additional touch of love.
How much of your faith and practice/appreciation for Judaism is about language?
Rabbi Rubinstein: I like Hebrew because it releases me from the cognitive and rational. But there is more to this.
Robert: I can't imagine feeling a part of the Jewish community without some familiarity with the Hebrew language.
Living a Jewish life in translation alone misses the ta'am ("taste/experience") of Judaism.So I strive to learn more vocabulary all the time.
Liro: I feel that knowing Hebrew helps connect Jewish people, and I feel there is something about Hebrew enhancing connection with HaShem. Hebrew semantics also play such a pivotal role in understanding Torah, and understanding Torah I believe is the key to happy, balanced, good life where I will have better chances to be true to myself, know when and how to do deeds of kindness to others, and overall live in better covenant with HaShem.
It has been a slow process for me to learn Hebrew, both modern and blessings/prayers, but very rewarding when I see that I am making progress, and I see this also as a long-term learning process. I think Hebrew is a very beautiful language, it is always heartwarming to say and hear "Shabbat Shalom", and recite prayers, such as the Shema, together. I also very much enjoy listening to modern, religion-inspired, Hebrew music by Israeli-Jewish musicians.
Marlene: Since coming back to Judaism I've made an effort to regain and add to the Hebrew I learnt in Cheder as a child, and sometimes I make a feeble attempt at reading from the scroll in Shul - absolutely awesome. My Hebrew isn't very good, but I get a thrill when I find I can actually make out the meaning of a sentence. It confirms me in being Jewish, and that is now really important to me, a kind of a privilege.
Gillian Alfredsson is the owner of Bee’s Knees Health Coaching, and a certified health coach with the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute. She’s also an editor and tutor. She offers consultations in person or on Skype. Gillian became a coach in October 2016 after completing a 6 week training course with Dr. Sears, a trusted family physician with decades of experience working as a doctor and raising children: he has 8 of them.
Feature image: Providence Doucet (CC0)