I remember when a prayer book was a battle. My Chabad wife swore by her nusach Ari siddur, would never change the order of the prayers she said or their nuanced pronunciation, expected me to alter mine instead. Yours are more recent, she said. I was newly religious, only a couple of years of daily prayers under my belt; her family was Lubavitch from back when Lubavitchers still lived in Lubavitch. I shot back. I told her nusach Ari was a made-up nusach, that the Alter Rebbe had composed it a mere two hundred years ago, that it wasn’t even real–that he’d cribbed it together from a bunch of real nusachs, hallowed by time and tradition, and his was a weak distillation of the authentic ones.
This is how people fight who are way too intellectual for their own good.
I didn’t want to get married in a synagogue with a sign that claimed the Rebbe was the Messiah. I prayed early in another synagogue, showed up five minutes before I was supposed to be called to the Torah. I was given a Chabad tallis, extra long and with no atarah rimming the shoulders; I bought my own and started to sew it on myself. My wife, taking pity on my poor sewing skills and my lone-wolf theology, finished the job in a much less ragtag fashion.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it makes them feel less like wounds. Flash forward ten years. My kids go to school on Eastern Parkway — not at 770 Eastern Parkway per se, but close enough to count. They’re cholov Yisroel, and I’ve found myself in situations where I’m close to taking a bullet for them, or the social equivalent thereof, rather than having them eat a non-cholov Yisroel cupcake at a friend’s birthday party.
I have moments where I feel a small surge of victory. When one of our kids was in an intense preschool where the only song they ever sung was Yechi Adoneinu, the Rebbe-is-Messiah anthem, and she would sing it all the time, over and over again, on the toilet while waiting for me to wipe her. Or when the two-year-old would draw on everything, including the Rebbe pictures in my pockets from when some random dude would shove them in my hand while I was praying and I’d have nothing else to do with them but shove them in my pocket.
But that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want my kids to feel like these things weren’t holy. When they’re old enough to understand why coloring in any rabbis’ faces (actually, anyone’s faces) with a black Sharpie is somewhat less than respectful, I want them to make a responsible and informed decision about whose face they’re coloring in. Until then, let me just err on the side of “respect everything.” Or, at the very least, “try not to deface absolutely everything.”
Right now the biggest battles aren’t whose tradition will our kids follow when they make a brocha on food, but will either of us remember to tell them to say a brocha at all. Will they even eat dinner? (Trick question: Yes, of course — but only if it’s pizza or scrambled eggs.) It’s Chanukah, and I caught myself, in one of my teaching moments, saying both brochos the Chabad style: lihadlik ner Chanukah not lihadlik ner shel Chanukah, and bee-zman hazeh and not ba-zman.
My wife stopped me and corrected me: “You forgot shell,” she said. I kept going, unperturbed. What I didn’t say was this: Maybe we both forgot, I wanted to reply, but maybe we both remembered.