89: Ma Tovu

89: Ma Tovu

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Ma Tovu

God gives us dreams a size too big so that we can grow in them.

~Author Unknown

The first four times we went to Sharing Shabbat, the weekly children’s service at our synagogue, we didn’t make it through the opening prayer of Ma Tovu. I cried after the first two weeks, and by week four I was ready to give up. Perhaps it was a mistake to think Jodie could become a Bat Mitzvah.

Jodie was diagnosed with autism when she was two and a half. Many parents of children with autism say the day their child was diagnosed was the worst day, and that after that initial shock, things improved. That hasn’t been our experience. Every family celebration and milestone is bittersweet, because it is a reminder of Jodie’s constant struggles. Looking at the empty seat at the Thanksgiving table after Jodie has gotten up after two minutes because she can’t sit still is just as hard for me as it was to hear the initial diagnosis. I felt a huge emptiness at my brother-in-law’s graduation; the whole family was there, except Jodie, who, despite being the oldest cousin, had to stay home with a babysitter. But I knew the hardest of all would be to let her Bat Mitzvah date pass by as if it were just any other day, without any sort of recognition or celebration.

Jodie has gone to special needs Hebrew school through a wonderful program called Matan since kindergarten. In our home, she says the hamotzi (the blessing over the bread), as well as the blessing over the candles, because she learned them in Matan. She has always loved music, so I thought maybe, just maybe, she could learn a few more songs and prayers and become a Bat Mitzvah in more or less the traditional way.

And so despite our initial failed attempts, and thanks to a well-timed, very encouraging phone call from the Sharing Shabbat coordinator, we labored on at Sharing Shabbat. Yes, we labored on Shabbat; it was not easy for either of us to get through those first few weeks. I brought her favorite Sesame Street books, and then from time to time slipped the prayer book inside and used hand over hand to point to the words. Usually she’d respond by screaming “No Book! No Book!” so loudly that everyone turned and stared. But eventually Jodie seemed to get used to the rhythm of the service. By week six, we had made it through two minutes and had sung Ma Tovu. Halleluyah! And sure enough, the next week we made it to the song Halleluyah, a full four minutes in. A few weeks later we were joining in the blessing for the Torah. And after three long months, we actual ate bagels at the oneg after services.

It was certainly not easy for Jodie, as I’m sure it was not easy for the families at Sharing Shabbat. Jodie struggles to sit still, to pay attention, to be quiet. Her behavior is unpredictable and at times loud, disruptive, and aggressive. It takes many attempts at something new before she will accept it. But somehow she came to find comfort in the music of the service and in the repetition of the prayers week after week. Her favorite part seemed to be the end of each prayer, when she would smile broadly and sing a super loud and quite off-key “Amen!” We listened to the Sharing Shabbat CD in the car and she recognized the music, saying “go to the services” and singing along with her hearty “Amen!”

Jodie works hard every day to learn things that others learn without effort and take for granted. She struggles to communicate. She doesn’t know how to make friends. Her body rarely seems at peace. But she seems to have found meaning and a sense of belonging at Sharing Shabbat. On Saturday mornings, when I’d say it was time for services, she would smile. Whether she enjoyed the service or just looked forward to the bagels and donuts afterwards, I’ll never really know. But she happily went to services and participated with her robust “Amen.” And for this we are so grateful to the entire Sharing Shabbat community.

On June 5, 2011 Jodie became a Bat Mitzvah. Once again, she exceeded our expectations. Her thirteenth birthday didn’t just pass, unmarked, like any other day. Sure, she held a baby doll while she stood on the bimah in front of the family and friends who gathered for the occasion. In her other hand she held a box of Cheez-Its (I hope they are kosher). It wasn’t her best behavior at a service. And when the rabbi presented her with a copy of the Torah as a gift from the community she looked right at him and shouted “No Book! No Book!” But she said the prayers and read her line of Torah and added many joyful “Amens.” Afterwards our friends and family came back to our house for lunch and several raucous rounds of the hokey pokey. We were all there to welcome Jodie into the Jewish community as an adult. A great day. And I still cry every time I hear Ma Tovu. Amen.

~Alison Singer

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