The service began with a cheery tune — “Bim bom, bim bim bim bom …” — and the chaotic chatter and shuffle of children in the background. “Shabbat Shalom! Hey!” I haven’t heard this song in ages, I thought. And suddenly I was having vivid flashbacks, unable to resist the urge to sing along with the kiddie tunes.
I was at a Tot Shabbat service in the chapel at Temple Sinai in Oakland — “Sababa Shabbat” they call it there, sababa being an Israeli expression for “cool” or “awesome” — surrounded by more than 75 parents and their children, infants through second grade. I’d decided to go because I wanted to know whether little kids pray. And if they do, what does that look like?
I saw the kids doing a lot of things that evening, though I don’t know that I could characterize any of it as praying. Then again, I don’t know how many adults actually pray in shul, nor how many go for that purpose. Relatively few, I suspect. I go to shul to connect, groove and people-watch. At Sababa Shabbat, both parents and little kids were doing all those things.
While there, I found myself thinking back to my days as a Tot Shabbat kid in Austin, Texas. As my mother pointed out when I told her I was writing this column, I wouldn’t be Jewish without Tot Shabbat. My father was Jewishly disconnected by the time I was born, and my mother wasn’t yet Jewish. All the same, they decided exposing me to my Jewish heritage was a good thing. In the end, taking me to Tot Shabbat exposed all three of us to my Jewish heritage, and we’re all actively engaged Jews today.
While Temple Sinai’s Sababa Shabbat is a Friday evening event, the Tot Shabbat of my childhood was a Saturday morning affair, complete with some semblance of a Torah service during which Rabbi Steven Folberg would take the crowns from the Torah, hold them on his head and say, “What kind of crowns are these? Are they crowns like a king or queen would wear?” He’d bob his head around, the tiny bells on the Torah crowns jangling about as we all shouted: “NO! They’re Torah crowns!”
Folberg also had a large stuffed dog called Tzedakah Puppy, a sort of superhero with a pillowcase for a cape. Tzedakah Puppy would fly into the sea of kids, who would place tzedakah money in the cape. (A few years ago, when last I saw Tzedakah Puppy, he was slumped in a corner of Folberg’s office; the poor dog looked rather worse for the wear.)
Even today, some details of Tot Shabbat are vivid in my mind — as it was my important first point of contact with Judaism.
Sababa Shabbat seemed to be the same. A number of families told me it had been their child’s first encounter with Judaism, or the first point of connection for the non-Jewish parent in their intermarried family. And it was obvious that lifelong memories were being created there.
“Some kids — not your kids — but some kids have the wiggles,” Rabbi Yoni Regev said to the parents in attendance. “And that’s OK!” I thought of adults who sway, clap or fidget during services. So what? I always get the wiggles in shul. Regev is right. It is OK.
Sure, some kids appeared to wiggle more than others. Some were deeply attentive, if intermittently so. Others were like me: scanning the crowd, people-watching. A couple of them seemed to be keenly focused on me, the weird adult with no kids, leaning on a stack of chairs in the back, writing things in his notepad.
Next thing I knew, Regev was saying, “There are some special guests who come to Shabbat …” I assumed this was a kid-friendly intro to the concept of the Sabbath Queen. But no. As the kids, palpably pumped for this next tune, already knew, this was about something much more special, and I’m the odd man out for not knowing the next song: “There’s a dinosaur knocking at my door, knocking 1, 2, 3. There’s a dinosaur knocking at my door — and she wants to have Shabbat with me!” It’s been stuck in my head for a week now.
For Mi Chamocha, the point in the service when we recall the Exodus from Egypt, they sang, “We’re marching, we’re marching across the sea” — and all the kids and parents marched in place as they sang. “We are history, we are family. I remember you, you remember me.” As the song continues, the verb changes. They swam across the sea — complete with windmill arm movements. They hopped across the sea, they skipped, they stomped, and so on.
But it’s not just a cute song about crossing the Red Sea; it’s a great pedagogical tool. Notice that it’s not just about the remote Israelites of old crossing the sea; notice the word “we.” Like that key Passover injunction to see it as if you yourself had come up out of Egypt, the song suggests a way for kids to imagine themselves as part of the Jewish story, stretching all the way back into the legendary, ancient past.
Reaching kids in this way is part of our connection to the Jewish future. We suggest with song and ritual a connection to the distant past; the children, simply through their existence and participation, suggest the tangible future.
Toward the end of the service, I spotted one of the kids who’d been staring at me earlier. He was tunneling on hands and knees under the stacks of chairs I’d been leaning on, reminding me to resist the urge to get too lofty about all this.
But how could I not? While it’s easy to get distracted by the childish antics, and to think of things like Tot Shabbat programs as mere kid stuff, my Sababa Shabbat expedition reminded me that a well-run Tot Shabbat can be so much more.
At least, as my mother reminded me, it was for me.
Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to email@example.com.