Shoshana: In the synagogue I grew up in, the fringed white tallitot of the men’s section in the middle of the sanctuary were surrounded on both sides by the dresses, skirts, stockings, and wide-brim hats of the women’s sections to the right and left. When the Torah went around the borders of the men’s section, I often walked to the divider and held out my prayer book, touching it to the Torah and bringing it to my lips. I never called it a “prayer book,” though; to me, the books are siddurim, which comes from the Hebrew word for “order” or “arrangement” because the prayers are all arranged in order. Siddurim is also the modern Hebrew word for “errands”—if you wanted to say “I have errands to run” or “I have prayer books to make,” you’d say the same thing, except the prayer book sentence is pretty unlikely so everyone figures you must be talking about errands.
When you have little kids, taking them to shul on Shabbat can seem like one big errand, and a complicated one at that. Getting out of bed on Saturdays was never a problem for my kids. They’d be up at five or six in the morning, eating screaming fighting playing whining, and just as they’d finally start to settle into the day and there was a chance I might be able to lie down again (day of rest and all that), it would be time to try to pull a shirt over the head of a moving child, to nurse the baby one last time, to find something that still fit me, to make sure I had enough diapers wipes crackers bottles toys to last us through the half hour, maybe, that we’d actually be there.
Request and gratitude are two of the major categories of Jewish prayer. Having little kids makes it harder to use a siddur, because if your attention is elsewhere they want you now, but taking your kids along on the errand of familiarizing them with your—their—house of prayer sure does bring out those prayer components. The object of the request isn’t always God, though: Please put your shoe back on. Please don’t spit up on my skirt today. And don’t forget the gratitude: Thank God we made it to shul before it was over. This time.
Saadia: When I was growing up in Pakistan, my family and I didn’t pray too regularly, and when we prayed it was at home. There was a mosque on every street corner, blaring the adhan five times a day, but it was almost completely a male domain. At the time, I thought I didn’t care: Growing up in Pakistan was fraught with all sorts of minefields without adding any sort of public worship activity to the mix. I never realized that, subconsciously, I yearned for a sacred space that I could share with others.
When I came to the United States as an adult, I was drawn to the mosque almost as soon as I set foot on the shores of my new home. It took a while to find and settle into a mosque I liked, but when I did, I remember standing in the first row of women in congregational prayer, arms folded over my chest, looking downward at the green carpet, my eyes soaked with tears. Hearing the imam recite verses from the Quran out loud; hearing all the women next to me and behind me repeat the verses in one voice, loud and clear, was truly overwhelming. I had found that sacred space I hadn’t known I’d been searching for my entire life.
When my husband and I decided to build a house, we did so within a one-mile radius of the mosque. My children grew up knowing the mosque—and its dining halls, offices, and huge backyard—as if it were their own home. One day, my son came running up to me with flushed cheeks, breathlessly informing me of snakes in the bushes behind the mosque. It was the most exciting thing to him, for his sacred space wasn’t just the prayer hall, but the acres of overgrown shrubs and sand piles and the little creek out back.
Shoshana: Before I became a mother, shul was intimately tied to all the intricate mini-rituals of the communal prayer valued so highly — standing up when it’s time to stand up, sitting down when it’s time to sit down, responding when it’s the congregation’s turn to respond, following along with the weekly Torah reading, taking three steps back and three steps forward, bowing at just the right part of the blessing.
With little kids, though, the heart of my synagogue experience is often the children’s service, an abridged version of the main show, heavy on songs, stories, and games. One synagogue near me is mostly underground, because they stopped building when they ran out of funds; its children’s room, a bunker within a bunker, is often packed on Shabbat. There’s another congregation in my older kids’ elementary school, and the children’s service there is sometimes outside the first-graders’ classrooms, sometimes on the artificial grass across from the basketball court. One recent Shabbat, it was outside, and my five-year-old said the Shema nicely ( Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one ) and helped me brush the dry brown leaves and tiny green fibers off my sweater when we all stood up. There are other mothers there with their kids, but it makes me happy to see many fathers accompanying their children.
Nearly a decade ago, back when my oldest was a baby, we went to a synagogue that didn’t do much for kids, and going to shul mostly consisted of me walking in reverse as my daughter bumped her little tushie down the stairs from the women’s balcony, then following her in the other direction as she crawled back up. Three steps back, three steps forward. One Rosh Hashanah—she must have just turned one—I despaired of the synagogue, which right then felt like a space designated as sacred only for those who weren’t saddled with flailing, crawling, walking, running encumbrances. The continuity of a people is all well and good as long as the menfolk remain undisturbed. (We don’t all believe that. But some act like it’s true.) I held my siddur on the handlebar of our orange stroller, wheeling my baby through the park as, excluded, I tried to pray through angry tears.
Saadia: When my husband and I built our house, we made sure it was less than a mile from our mosque. We watched not only our own house being built, but also new, bigger rooms being added to the mosque. We woke up before dawn to drive the short distance to the mosque and pray the fajr prayer with other early worshippers. I took a break from my writing in the afternoon to pray the dhuhr prayers. Most afternoons, I was the only one in the building. There was a sense of tranquility and overwhelming love that I have not been able to forget over the past fifteen years.
Then we had children, and that tranquility fled. We created a prayer space at home, in an upstairs alcove away from the daily humdrum of life. A simple prayer rug or two, a couch for those times when I couldn’t kneel or prostrate on the floor, a Quran on a shelf nearby. Muslims don’t need much to create a sacred space in their own homes, I told my husband.
In the beginning, my children used it as a play area. I would find my daughter holding tea parties with her stuffed animals on what she called “the beautiful rug,” or my son reading a book sprawled on the carpet. When they got older, I would often spy my daughter tying my hijab around her head and preening like a queen, or my son wearing his father’s cap and leading an imaginary group in prayer. My heart, which used to cry out for our daily trips to the mosque, became tranquil again.
Shoshana: “ Brit” means covenant, and the Jewish circumcision ceremony is the covenant marking the entrance of a newborn boy into the Jewish people. I’ve been to many circumcisions in synagogues where the mother was shunted off to the back, her scarcely discernible presence already overshadowed by the testosterone-bearer she had borne a scant eight days before. The mothers never seemed to mind much, but I did, and at some point I decided that if I ever had a boy, I would have the brit in my own home.
I never did give birth to a boy, but our living room was the setting for the four patchwork ceremonies we held to welcome our four baby girls into our family, the Jewish people, the world. I say patchwork because there is no standardized text; pretty much everything about a rite for newborn girls—from whether you have one, to what happens at one if you do, to how you refer to it—is up for grabs. Our family’s preferred term for the celebration is simchat bat, from the Hebrew words for “joy” and “daughter” or “girl”: rejoicing over the birth of a daughter.
As the babies grew and night became more closely correlated with sleep, bedtime became a process set in motion by a story and the recitation of the Shema, the prayer from the Bible that is inscribed on parchment and inserted into a case affixed to our every doorpost (except the bathroom). At first I would be the one saying the Shema, while sitting on one of my children’s beds or on the couch. As they got older, they too covered their eyes with their right hands—well, with one of their hands at any rate—and said the Shema together with me. Now my girls all say it on their own, even (especially!) the three-year-old. What’s a few dropped syllables, a few missing words between girl and God? They usually want me to listen: Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one.
Saadia: Nature is an important aspect of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad once said all the world is a mosque for a believer. When I was little, I took it to mean that a person could pray anywhere, at any time. After all, mosques are for praying, for worshipping God. I think many Muslims feel the same way. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a Muslim man or woman—even entire families—pray at unusual places. The park, a sidewalk in New York, the beach.
Once I found a man praying in the middle of an aisle of an Islamic grocery store, and waited until he finished to tell him he was stopping everyone from their shopping. My daughter kindly informed me I shouldn’t yell at someone who is praying. She was probably four or five at that time, but her wisdom resonated with me. If all the world is a mosque, surely that includes a grocery store aisle amid packets of naan and fried onions?
As my children grow older, I’ve started to rethink a lot of things. The Quran is brimming with reminders of the beauty and power of the natural world: the open air, the stars, the moon and the sun and the seas. What if the Prophet Muhammad meant something else when he talked about the world being a mosque? What if that old man in the grocery store wasn’t off the mark? I’ve begun to teach my children that a sacred space isn’t just the mosque, or the room in our house where our prayer mat is set out. Any space can be sacred, especially if it’s a space that reminds us of our Creator: the park; a sidewalk in New York; the overgrown shrubs and sand piles and the little creek behind our mosque.