I was pregnant with my first child when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, an unbearable nightmare just a year after treatment for the last round ended. Her hair had grown back, she had emerged from a year of isolation, her immune system recovered from being shocked into submission as the chemotherapy and radiation coursed through her body, and now, we were back in this dark place of fear and surgeries and treatment plans.
The last few months were the hardest. I couldn’t get on a plane, and neither could she. I marveled at the changes in my body, and dreaded the changes to hers, terrified and elated, anxious and worried, spiraling into the unknown.
My mother and my son are soulmates. From the minute he was born, with her by my side, they have shared a deep spiritual connection. Even in the midst of her own trauma, she’d carry him through the house for hours, singing as I slept. She is his best friend, his trusted confidant, his partner in crime, and they love each other with a divine love so pure it sometimes hurts.
Seeing them together now, seven years later — walking hand in hand, playing canasta, lighting the candles, sharing a meal — is more than simply joyful. It is the continuation of a chain of tradition in which we give ourselves completely to the people in our lives. It is gratitude for our family, our people, our community that grounds us and supports us and cares for us in our time of need. It is Judaism in a nutshell, an overwhelming sense of being part of something greater than ourselves, passing that truth from generation to generation.
I try to stay present, and to hold this joy, this gratitude, this depth, this knowledge close to my heart. And so, each time these two see each other, traveling across the country to hold each other in their arms, I offer a blessing.
Blessed are You, God, Source of the universe, for giving us life,
for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this day of joy.
- Rabbi Jen Lader
As a secular Jew raised in the cultural Judaism of Workmen’s Circle, Jewish ritual did not play a large role in my life. This was summarized perfectly at my wedding when our Rabbi said, “So let me guess, you want it short and with as little religion as possible.” But even then, the joy of ritual began to creep into my life as my non-Jewish husband and I signed our ketubah with our immediate family looking on — the perfect start for our Jewish family.
While we chose a Jewish daycare for our kids, we picked it because it was a loving community close to home. Religion and ritual were not integral to the equation. But then, each Friday, my oldest son began to insist on wearing a button-down shirt (which he affectionately calls a “work butt”) to school in honor of Shabbat.
Then March 2020 happened. Cancelled plans, cancelled Passover, cancelled art show, cancelled everything. In those dark days of isolation, we all longed for something to look forward to. But what? And how? That’s when the importance of Jewish rituals became clear.
First, we started a Shabbat Zoom, 5:00 Friday nights. Family from across the country would fill my computer screen with smiling faces. We joined together and lit the shabbat candles, my three-year-old son and my 69-year-old cousin leading the prayer together. The smiles were like hugs through the screen. It was the first time that true joy overpowered the fear. The traditions of the Jewish week gave us a momentary, necessary pause from the outside world.
Then I completed the transition into both Jewish Mom and Pandemic Parent when I baked my first challah. The first attempt was a nightmare never to be spoken of again.
Each attempt got a little better. I reached out to friends and cousins for challah tips. I texted pictures to show the rise, the dough ball, the braids. My kids and husband gladly taste tested each batch.
One year and countless batches of challah later, I have the recipe memorized and a full list of tips from my notes app to share.
Now, every morning my 2-year-old looks up at the bread cabinet and says, “Challah! Challah! Challah ... please,” until I oblige. I try to explain to him that not every kid gets fresh baked challah every week, but he just looks at me and says, “More ... please.”
It took a pandemic (a plague!) to teach me that being Jewish is my happy place. I don’t see weekly Friday night services in my future, but I never saw ritual challah baking either. Now, I have learned to be thankful for the peace and routine of the Jewish week. Being Jewish brought me joy and connection and purpose when I needed it most.
- Ariana Carps
Part of the rhythm of the Jewish holidays for me is Gefilte Fish Making Day.
Each year, my father will complain about the smell (long before there is any smell to complain about), my mother will dig up the yahrzeit candles to cover up the smell, and my mother, my sister and I will gather (often times with my mother’s best friend Lori) to make the fish.
Years ago, the fish was the purview of my mother and my Bubbie. The process had a language all to itself. Mainly, the fish had to be ... puchie. I have never determined if this word is actually yiddish or just a jibberish word somewhere from my family’s history – but it refers to the consistency that the raw gefilte fish is supposed to be. It describes an airiness of the batter, something you can almost hear as the batter is being mixed.
Years ago, when my Bubbie was in her 80s, my mother realized that there might be a day when Bubbie was not there to make the fish. So my mother and Lori demanded that Bubbie not put anything in the bowl until it was measured. I was away at school that year, but I laugh imagining them trying to forcibly restrain her from adding a dash of salt or a pinch of pepper until they could determine the mass of the dash or pinch.
This process resulted in a written-down recipe on a notecard, now stained with fish, among other things. My Bubbie passed in 2003, but now each holiday when we gather together, my sister and I taste the raw fish and declare whether it needs more salt, or pepper – or puchiness. This year, my 10-year-old daughter took part, wetting her hands and rolling the balls to be dropped in the fish stock.
Watching my daughter, my heart filled with joy with each plop of a gefilte fish ball into Bubbie’s stockpot.
- Alicia Chandler
Joy. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s the first thing people think of when they hear the word Judaism.
We Jews tend to emphasize the serious or even the sorrowful, because those moments, those rituals, radiate a power that is palpable. And that’s fair. Those moments deserve attention, and are worthy of the respect and awe that they conjure up. But joy…
Sometimes I think we associate joy with frivolity. That in the absence of tears or deep introspection, the ritual, the words, the practice is somehow… less.
To which I say:
I love Judaism, and I am in love with Judaism, because of the joy. And while I could fill pages about how that joy touches me each and every day, I’ll temper my enthusiasm a bit, at least here at the beginning of this beautiful project, because, as the cliche goes, this isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. (A joy marathon? Could there be anything better!)
So let me start with a small joy, and let me also qualify that statement by saying that there really is no such thing as “small” joy, because even something that is a frequent occurrence, even part of our everyday routine, can still fill our hearts in magical ways.
My joy today is the whisper bracha, the soft but still audible words of blessings and thanks I say over practically anything and everything — having a cup of coffee, eating a piece of fruit, seeing trees in blossom, even seeing a beautiful person. Judaism asks me to take a breath, detach from the rhythm of habit, and say, Wow!
And I’m filled with joy to oblige her. Because it’s not just the mindfulness or the psychology of that recognition of gratitude that’s joyful. It’s the permission to whisper even if nobody is around, to let words of thanks tickle my lips all throughout the day. To laugh at myself when I forget the bracha, or mess it up in some way.
Because I really don’t think G-d cares if I get the words right. I think G-d cares more about the tickle. I think G-d cares more about the smile, the breath that allows me to step out of the flow of the day and just be.
I think G-d cares about the joy.
- Rabbi Yoni Dahlen