At 7 a.m., I came downstairs on a school morning and discovered that one of my 6-year-old twins was busy. He’d filled up a container with water so he could watch his expandable water toys grow – again. After the toys grow enormously in the water, we dump out the water. We let them dry and shrink and put them away for a month. This is a frequently repeated ritual in our house. Any good science experiment is one worth repeating, right?
Good teaching requires frequent repetition. Life, it seems, is also probably the best teacher. I’ve been thinking about how to cope with and learn from the repetition of the Jewish calendar as it applies to life’s ups and downs.
One of our dogs, Harry, has been very ill with lymphosarcoma. By the time you read this column, Harry, aged 13 and a half, may no longer be with us. For people who have animals, you know how hard this transition can be. Yes, there are all sorts of veterinary interventions for pets now, but this cycle of life and death can’t be avoided. Although, historically, some Jews have lived in cities, away from animals, Jews have also lived, worked and loved animals on farms, in villages, towns and cities. The Talmud teaches us that we must feed our animals before we eat. More generally, Jewish tradition teaches that we must treat animals humanely, and cannot allow an animal to suffer unnecessarily. (This applies even in kashrut, to animals we eat.)
Harry’s illness requires our kids to be careful. Our dog is very sore, and cries out sometimes at night, which wakes up the little boys. We’ve been slowly introducing the topic of dying at odd moments, when we sense our kids need to talk. Jewish tradition has supportive rituals for illness, death and burial. While these aren’t necessarily applicable to our bird dog, it’s a useful way of remembering that our tradition gives us help during times of illness, death, and in mourning.
The timing of all this has also hit my husband and me. When we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life, both of us recall relatives who passed away around the time of the High Holidays in years past. If you keep track of the Jewish calendar (as well as the secular one), you may connect Jewish holidays with your personal history, such as associating, as I do, Kol Nidre with the death of a great-uncle, who was walking home from shul when it happened.
Tying our lives to the Jewish calendar and to these mourning rituals helps us connect to generations of Jews who came before us, who mourned people (and animals) and who made an effort to live with joy as best they could.
Recently, my husband and I became Canadian citizens. We juggled our citizenship ceremony with three trips to the vet in one day. At the ceremony, the official suggested we would always remember the date. Instead, I wondered if I could forget Harry’s medical needs while we were at the ceremony.
When we got home, we chose to celebrate becoming Canadian. Friends came over. They’d planned to meet our kids after school if we were late getting back from the ceremony, but we all gathered together instead. My husband got us a cake from Eva’s Gelato, and Marcello, one of the (Jewish Argentine) owners, insisted on a big cake – because our citizenship was a big thing! (Thank you, Eva’s!)
As Sukkot and Thanksgiving occur, we have this opportunity to reflect, with gratitude, on the amazing things we have. We can be thankful for plentiful harvests and food, for the opportunity to celebrate outside with our families and friends before winter hits, and for our good times, together.
Watching those silly toys expand in the water generated memories of other holidays and happy occasions. When we lived in Kentucky, we were fairly isolated and did not have many Jewish friends nearby. However, we mail-ordered a lulav and etrog, and we built our sukkah on a brick patio in our backyard.
Over the years, we had some big Sukkot dinner parties there. We lit candles, as it was dark in the sukkah, and we would eat a fancy meal with some (non-Jewish) friends to celebrate. Meanwhile, in the yard, just beyond the sukkah, the fancy table setting outside and the lights, I saw that our bird dogs, Harry (the setter mix) and Sally (the pointer mix), were doing every kind of rambunctious (and embarrassing) and loud dog play. Our guests were biology professors, like my husband. They laughed, making jokes about how to observe and understand dog behaviour, before returning to enjoying their meal and time outdoors. Harry the dog stopped roughhousing so he could chase crickets as they hopped about on the bricks.
We use ritual and holidays to mark time passing, and to observe our traditions in many ways. The Jewish calendar can help us embrace both the hard times and the sweet and memorable happy ones.
Harry the dog has been a laidback, playful, loving and opinionated part of our household, much like his movie namesake in When Harry Met Sally. I’m hoping to hold onto the dancing lights, those fall sukkot and the young, cricket-chasing dog. I’m remembering the frolicking while doing my utmost to ease the last days of an elderly, sick dog.
Chag Sukkot sameach.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She the author of the book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.