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Happy

Michelle Obama is hula-hooping for health on the South Lawn of the White House. Jamie Oliver’s going to teach obese America how to cook their vegetables, and eat them too. Herbivores, frugivores, and locavores are putting their stakes in the ground, amidst the moist dirt of organically grown slow food.

Meanwhile, my 20-month-old daughter went to synagogue over the holiday of Simchat Torah and learned the word “candy.” We were spending the holiday with my parents, and my girls were dressed in traditional New York Jewish holiday autumn glory, patent-leather shoes and red wool coats. On the way to synagogue, I noticed that other children on the sidewalk were carrying big plastic bags (luckily for them, they don’t live in Palo Alto, where plastic bags are illegal; I considered hauling them back West by the thousands, to sell on the sly at Whole Foods).

On the way home from synagogue, those children’s bags were full, Halloween-like, with candy. Lollipops, chocolates, sucking candies, soft candies, Fruit Roll Ups, Gushers, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, Craisins, York Peppermint Patties, Snickers, M&Ms, gum, Jelly Bellies, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Luckily, being from Palo Alto, we were limited to our pockets.

This is not solely a New York phenomenon. When my oldest daughter was a young toddler, at our local synagogue, a kind-hearted older kid gave her a lollipop and opened it for her, in the course of the two minutes I’d turned my back. I was aghast, and immediately took the lollipop away. Tragic crying ensued. I decided that this attempt to shield my child from the relentless world of synagogue sweets was futile. I gave her back the lollipop. She sucked on it with wide eyes and a tear-stained face, then pulled the lollipop from her mouth, smiled, and said, for the first time, “Happy.”

Rabbi Eleazer of Worms, who, in the 12th century, formalized the ritual of putting honey on the slates of Jewish children attending Heder for the first time, would be delighted. This is one approach to teaching children how to love Judaism. My younger daughter hears the word “Torah” and immediately says “candy.” My older daughter learned to associate shul with “Happy” at a tender age.

But is this really what we want to teach our children? To associate religion with empty calories and fleeting sweetness, which leaves in its wake sticky fingers and an aching tummy, which must be later toned with hula-hooping? Shouldn’t we instead be serving them nutrient-rich, filling, and fulfilling foods? Isn’t that what we hope our Judaism provides us and our children? Something substantial and substantive?

And yet. I love the autumn in New York. And there is something especially magical about being in my parent’s Sukkah, especially, on a cold, brisk morning, for breakfast. And there’s no Sukkot breakfast like Entemann’s Crumb-Topped Donuts, freshly baked in the Bronx. As I took a bite one morning this past trip, my flax seed and oatmeal thousands of miles away in sunny California, I couldn’t help but smile, and mumble through the powdered crumbs, “Happy.”

–Maya Bernstein