A rabbi for a decade, a mother for seven years, Ilana Grinblat combines both identities in “Blessing and Baby Steps” (Behrman House). In 48 essays, she traces the lessons she has learned from the parenthood experience, starting with conception. Her book follows ones like Wendy Mogul’s “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children,” which lean on Jewish tradition. The book is an extended answer to a question she asked herself during pregnancy: how would raising children — she and her attorney husband now have two — “change everything?”
“When I had children,” the rabbi writes, “I had to learn to become more patient, responsible, and responsive, I had to become a mom. I worked harder than I ever did in the past.” Motherhood taught spiritual lessons. “When I stopped running after God, I found God standing at my side.”
Rabbi Grinblat now teaches Midrash at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles..
Q: There is no lack of rabbis’ books of lessons to children. Why did you decide to write about lessons from children?
A: In my first years of motherhood, I found that I was learning a great deal from my children and from the ways parenthood changes one’s life. Many of my sermons and teachings were based on what I was learning from my children. At the same time, I also taught this material to a group of parents and nannies at a community center in Long Beach, Calif., and I saw how these teachings could generate discussion about the joys and struggles of raising children. In time, I realized I could pull these reflections together in a book to share these insights with others.
What is the main lesson you learned from your children?
The main lesson I learned from my children is how to find wonder in the simple moments of daily life. For this reason, the central motif of the book is a verse from Psalms (92:6) “How wondrous are Your works, God, how deep Your thoughts.” When I was in rabbinical school, one of my teachers, Rabbi Perry Netter, told us that when he saw the beauty of the Grand Canyon for the first time, he said this verse. When my son was in his first months of life, that verse kept coming to mind again and again, as I held him and marveled at the miracle of new life. The verse returned to me at different moments over the years as my children reached new milestones, and it therefore became the central motif of the book.
Young children instinctively approach daily life with wonder. To them, the world is new and full of surprises. When I watched my children take in the world, I began seeing it from their perspective and noticing the small wonders around me.
We read about a growing, super-competitive, prepare-them-while-young-to-succeed-in-school-and-life atmosphere. Do you feel this pressure as a parent? How do you shield your kids from it?
Thankfully, I don’t feel this competitive pressure as a parent, but it is something that I am aware of and careful to avoid. The smallest comments that we make as a parent can have a big impact on the hearts of our children. I remember whenever I would bring home a grade on a test — such as a 98, my father would ask me: “What happened to the other two points?” The other day, my son came home with a spelling exam — where he had missed just a few of the questions. I told him that I was proud of him and that he had done a great job. I try to instill in my children the love of learning, rather than a competitive atmosphere, and thankfully the school that they attend shares that value.
What have you found — in Jewish tradition and in your own parenting experience — about the balance a parent should reach between micromanaging children’s young lives and giving them the freedom to make their own mistakes?
Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches that God created the world by a process called tzimtzum (contraction). Before the universe existed, God was everywhere, so in order initiate creation, God had to contract to make room for the world. I think of this idea often as a parent, when I need to take a step back in order to let my children grow and make their own mistakes.
Have you found common lessons from motherhood and the rabbinate; are the skills transferable?
Yes, definitely. Both parenthood and the rabbinate involve caring for the needs of others. I find that the same set of skills or qualities are needed for both jobs — patience, problem-solving, diplomacy, and perseverance. Both parents and rabbis teach how to face times of joy and sorrow. Both parents and rabbis create holy spaces where God can be found. Rabbis create sacred spaces within their communities and parents create them in their homes.