This Wednesday night marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is the first day of the Jewish High Holidays. For many Jewish families, the next few weeks are emotionally charged and inspiring times. From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Simchat Torah, these holidays offer an opportunity to celebrate as a people. We celebrate our families, we celebrate the new year, and we celebrate a new life held together by prayer and community. For anyone going through or touched by divorce, this emphasis on family can be a breath of fresh air ... or a great source of stress. Let's look together at what can go right, what can go wrong, and how to make this time of year work for you and your children.
You may go to services, run into your ex-husband, and find yourself thinking the whole time: "I really can't stand him." Your friends, trying to be nice, may say the wrong thing. Even worse, they may feel so uncomfortable that they say nothing at all. Your kids, reunited with their extended family (grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles) may feel down or act out, remembering a time before your divorce.
For better and for worse, the Jewish religion revolves around the family. This is true regardless of your level of observance. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot and Simchat Torah each carry memories for the Jewish people and, most likely, for you as a parent. These memories have the power to cut straight through denial.
Perhaps you've been trying not to think about your ex. Well, now he and his extended family may be staring you in the face, and you are going to have to cope. You will have to deal with the idea of your ex wife showing up at her parent's house with her new boyfriend, or worse, with your kids and her new boyfriend. On the other hand, you may be happy and enjoying the freedom of single life, only to be reminded that your ex husband is lonely and miserable. Guilt can be just as difficult to avoid as your ex in-laws
As a parent, you also have to remember that the holidays can be a trying time for your kids. Denial is often a healthy response for many children whose parents are going through divorce. They tend to trust their parents enough so that they can feel stable and secure despite the changes around them. After all, young people have plenty of their own issues to worry about as they navigate the demands of going to school, making friends, and growing up.
The holidays can upset a child's denial, if only for that day or night. Your eight year old may all of a sudden become needy or your teenager may pick a fight with you. Take a breath and try not to rise to the bait. Be prepared to listen to them and give them extra attention. If they bring up a concern about their Dad or Mom, provide support and reassurance. Kids are remarkably resilient and, if you give them the proper attention, their troubles will probably pass.
Yet, despite the challenges, the High Holidays represent an opportunity that's truly good for you and your children. For many, they are an important rite of passage for a Jewish family going through a divorce. Participating meaningfully throughout these sacred days helps to internalize and normalize what's going on: you and your children will learn that this divorce can and must be part of a new family life.
While it is normal for Rosh Hashanah or Succot to be difficult at first, these holidays get easier with each passing year. Your reconfigured family soon creates and enjoys new memories that have a life of their own. As your children mature, these new memories (coupled with the very old communal memories of the holidays themselves) will help them to decide one day their own level of religious commitment.
Aside from all this family stuff, the High Holidays are powerful in and of themselves. They carry a significance that can speak to each of us, as long as we are open and receptive to their spiritual meaning. Rosh Hashanah teaches us the beauty of renewal, while Yom Kippur reminds us of the importance of personal responsibility and redemption. Each of us can benefit from this message of repentance, or "T'suvah," which literally means: to return to our better selves -- and to God. Even the simple beauty of a Succah can provide a sense of healing and divine protection for those who dwell within. Allow yourself the opportunity to be touched by faith. These timeless rituals have the power to speak to each member of your family -- both to you and your kids alike.
Make no mistake, the holidays count; try not to let them just slide by. Even if you are not that religious, find a community that feels right for you and your kids. Don't be afraid to try a new synagogue. Take a fresh start. Let these holidays inspire you, as they have inspired generations, to use the problems of today to make a better tomorrow. Our tradition believes that you're part of an ancient community of souls who are committed to a better future. For a parent going through divorce, there is no more important message.
Here are some easy tips on how to handle the holidays as a divorced or divorcing parent.
1. Forewarned is forearmed. It is not a question of whether you or the children will be triggered by these holidays, it is a matter of how badly, and a matter of what you are going to do about it.
2. Remember that, difficult as the holidays may be, they can also represent a constructive part of your healing from divorce.
3. During family meals, whether on Rosh Hashanah or Succot, don't drink too much. You may say something in front of the children that you will seriously regret.
4. Pay attention to your kids. If they are acting out or sullen, reach out to them before you scold them. They may have something important to tell you about what they are feeling.
5. Try not to expect too much from your family and friends. They sometimes do not know how to respond to you now that you are divorced. You will be surprised at who disappoints you and who comes through for you during this time. Do your best not to succumb to self pity or resentment, even when you are feeling at your worst. Keep your eyes open for people who truly make you feel cared for. They are out there.
6. Finally, try to identify with the meaning of these wonderful holidays. From Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah, the main message is the transformative power of renewal and the experience of having a loving relationship with God. These holidays inspire us to believe that we human beings have the capacity to make the world a better place, both for ourselves and for others. Let this special time remind you that better days lie ahead.