Identifying with Jewish Gratitude Over Jewish Guilt

Karen White

Not too long ago, I introduced HaMotzi, the blessing over the bread, into my dinner ritual with the kids. It's informal, and I don't force the issue when the kids have friends over or when we are out to eat. If my younger daughter sings the entire thing with "Blah blah blah blah-blah," I don't chastise her. But most nights, we manage to squeeze it in before one child or the other shoves all the broccoli into her cheeks and says "My I pls b excsd?"

I don't remember exactly when we started… probably not too long after the Jewish new year. My younger daughter usually goes along with it-it reminds her of her old Jewish preschool, and she likes to sing. My older daughter used to roll her eyes. I've persevered, ending each recitation by taking the girls' hands and turning to each of them, saying: "Thankful for you, and thankful for you." We all like that part. Since I rarely manage to get all the kid food on the table and something for myself before the girls are ready to bolt back to their imaginary Schnauzer orphan rescue squad, or whatever fantasy they're playing out that day, it gives us just a moment to pause-together-in thanks.

A few months ago, after begrudging participation, my older daughter piped up with a zinger: "Daddy says God isn't real. He says people made him up." My first instinct was to correct the anthropomorphism-to break the association of God with maleness. But I had to be careful here. This was important. There was a lot on the line: the presentation of a unified parental front, even in separation, but more importantly, my precious Sunday mornings with my younger daughter. Without a notion of God, I might not have a leg to stand on when it came to Sunday School for her sister, and out the window would go my time alone with my younger daughter. Think fast, Karen.

"Well," I began, "Daddy may be right, or he may be wrong. I don't have any way to tell you for sure, and neither does anyone else. It depends a lot on how you define God."

My daughter pressed on. "Do you believe in God?"

"I believe in something larger than our selves. And I'm uncertain about what that is," I admitted. "But what I can tell you for sure that what I believe in is gratitude. We have so much good in our life that it makes me want to say thank you to someone, or something. So when I say HaMotzi, it makes me feel good. I like it."

She paused. "I guess that makes sense," she finally said. And since then, she has sung along, loudly and without objection. Occasionally, I even get a "thankful for you" back at me.

I believe what I told her to be true. Jewish guilt is legendary; it is at the root of much cultural humor, about mothers-in-law offering to take the bus and children being left to stare down overcooked asparagus because of the people starving someplace across the globe. More gravely, it underlies our superficially care-free liberty in the wake of the Holocaust's atrocities.

But guilt and gratitude are two sides of the same coin. If you are a card-carrying environmentalist, or a mother who travels regularly for work, or (yikes) both of the above, virtually everything you do leaves a grimy residue of remorse. So you have a choice to make.

You can sacrifice indulgence to tread more lightly. To some extent, I do, but let's face it: I'm an American. We're hogs. My job requires that I fly around the globe, dress nicely, stay in hotels that insist on washing my towels every day (even if I follow the instructions on their 'Because we care' cards)… not exactly a "leave nothing but footprints" lifestyle.

You can walk around with your tail between your legs, using guilt as a questionable antidote for excess. But there is nothing I dislike more than when people excuse their actions by "feeling horrible" about them, when they know they'll go back out and do it again the next day. Love it, or leave it.

Or you can pry open door number three, the one marked "Gratitude." Instead of being consumed by whether you deserve what you have, you can honor it with appreciation. When I feel my heart sinking because I am a 10-hour flight away from a child with a croupy cough, when I buy myself something new to wear out of self-conscious vanity, when I eat a meal that would feed a family for a week in many parts of the world, I think to myself: there is beauty in this too. And for that beauty, I give thanks.

My success here is intermittent and imperfect. I still feel remorse, and sometimes I am so down on the world that I forget how fortunate I am. And I'm not suggesting that you can justify excess simply by being thankful for it. But still, when I think about core values, I identify more with Jewish gratitude than with Jewish guilt. It feels more useful. As a parent, it feels downright obligatory; to saddle a child with guilt that they are too young to process into anything but anger and resentment feels irresponsible.

I aspire to a life of optimism. And perhaps a whole new stereotype for Jewish mothers-in-law in the future. Maybe, as I am dragging my valise to the bus station, I will remember to tell my children how much I appreciate them. A girl can dream.