Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat teaches at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, Calif. A prolific writer on parenting and spirituality, she is the author of “Blessings and Baby Steps: The Spiritual Path of Parenthood” (July 2011, Behrman House). Grinblat’s parenting columns have been featured on the websites of the Forward, the Jewish Journal, and the Washington Jewish Week, and her blog can be found at www.parentstorah.com.
Grinblat lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Tal, and their children, Jeremy and Hannah. She has strong ties to Connecticut: Her grandmother, Lillian Bayer Marlow, lives in Manchester and worked in the Connecticut State Senate for many years. Her grandfather, George Marlow z”l,, owned the Marlow’s store in Manchester, and her mother, Dr. Linda Bayer z”l grew up in Manchester along with her uncle Aaron Bayer. “We have extensive family and friends in Connecticut,” says Grinblat, who grew up in Washington, D.C., “I have fond memories of visiting Connecticut for Thanksgiving and other occasions.”
Can you tell us about your path to the rabbinate? That is, what made you decide to become a rabbi? And, what came first – becoming a rabbi or a parent?
A: I grew up in a very Jewishly-involved family. My mother was a writer, and my father is a rabbi, so I was raised with the rabbinate in my blood in a lot of ways. Though my childhood experiences were influential, I realized that I wanted to be a rabbi in college. I spent two semesters of college abroad, teaching in a rural Ecuadorian schoolhouse and studying African art and culture in Ghana. I enjoyed community building abroad, but I realized that the communities I most wanted to build were my own – Jewish communities. My decision to become a rabbi goes back to one simple moment in my life. When I was in college, I took out a piece of paper and asked myself: What do I want to be when I grow up? And I wrote one word on the piece of paper. The word was whole. I realized that this meant I wanted to become a rabbi, because the rabbinate combines all my passions—teaching, writing, ritual, counseling, and community building.
For me, becoming a rabbi preceded becoming a parent. I was a rabbi for almost three years before having our first child. I was working as the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach when my son Jeremy was born and then three years later when my daughter Hannah was born.
How has your training as a rabbi helped you gain spiritual insight into the stages of your children’s growth?
A: First, my rabbinic training gave me a body of texts, stories, and traditions through which to view my experiences. Often, when I watch my children, a particular verse or story will pop to mind that deepens my experience of the moment. For example, when I was in rabbinical school, one of my teachers, Rabbi Perry Netter told us a story of how when he saw the beauty of the Grand Canyon, a verse immediately came to his mind: “How wondrous are your works, God, How deep your thoughts.” (Psalm 92:6). In the first months of my son’s life as I held my baby, that verse kept coming back to me again and again. Likewise, once when my kids were fighting over the same toy, a rabbinic text came to mind about the difficulty of sharing. The text helped me understand my children’s struggles as part of a bigger challenge that all people face. These texts help me keep the struggles of parenting in perspective and heighten the joy and wonder along the way.
To me, working as a congregational rabbi is about finding the connections between the story of each person’s life in the community and the Torah. When doing a bar mitzvah, for example, I talk about the Torah portion for that week as it connects to the young man’s life. As I learned to find these links for others, I then began discovering those connections in my own family’s life – between what was happening on a daily basis and the stories of biblical and rabbinic texts. Becoming a rabbi helped me to discover the sacredness in everyday life – which in turn makes me appreciate each step of my children’s growth.
On the flip side, has raising your children impacted or influenced your insight into Torah and/or your work as a spiritual leader?
A: Raising my children has made many of the texts of our tradition enter my heart in a new way. It has given me a more personal relationship with Torah. Parenthood has also deepened my relationship with God. Since God is often depicted in Jewish tradition as a parent, becoming a parent gave me a new way to connect with God. I feel that I learned more about God in my first four years of parenthood than I did in four years of rabbinical school. As a parent, I experience the wonder within ordinary moments and connect with life’s mysteries as never before.
Was there a specific event or “aha” moment that inspired you to write this book about parenthood and spirituality?
A: Actually, there was an “aha” moment that inspired me to write the book. I was on an airplane returning from a trip to Israel when my son was a month shy of his first birthday. It was New Year’s Day (of 2004) and I was reflecting on the year that had passed and how challenging and incredible becoming a parent had been. I realized that many of the sermons I had written over that year were actually based on what I had learned by becoming a parent (though I had never said so in the sermons). At that moment, I realized that I could rewrite the sermons and explain how they were inspired by the experiences of becoming a parent, and that could become the book. I outlined the book right there on the plane.
However the first inspiration for “Blessings and Baby Steps” came earlier –when the verse from Psalms kept popping into my mind in my son’s first months of life. That verse (Psalms 92:6) became the central motif of the book that is ultimately about discovering wonder in life.
In “Blessings and Baby Steps” you say that there are spiritual lessons to be learned from each stage of your child’s life…and that those lessons can strengthen a parent’s character. Can you give a couple of examples of what you mean?
A: Each chapter of “Blessings and Baby Steps” is an example of a spiritual lesson learned from a particular stage of parenting. For example, the stage of pregnancy when one doesn’t know whether one’s child will be a boy or a girl or anything about the child helps us to learn to embrace life’s mysteries. Both pregnancy and the adoption process present the spiritual struggle of dealing with the unknown that can teach us to embrace surprises. Likewise pregnancy and the adoption process both involve a lot of waiting which can help instill patience.
During a child’s infancy, struggling with sleepless nights can cultivate perseverance. Babies and toddlers also can cry uncontrollably for a while, but then when their outburst is over, it’s over. They can teach us about letting go – and not holding grudges. Dealing with a toddler’s temper tantrums can teach how to grapple with frustration. Even the trials of potty training can teach how to roll with the punches and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
Do you think your husband finds the same spiritual meaning and new perspectives that you do as he experiences his children’s growth? Do you think that men in general relate to the insights in your book in the same way as women – or would you say this is a book aimed more at mothers than fathers?
A: I wouldn’t presume to speak for my husband Tal, so I asked him. He said that he found a new appreciation for life from becoming a parent. He said that he finds joy in watching them grow and learn new things. I remember one moment in particular when Tal held our son when he was only a few days old in his arms and said to me, “I can’t imagine going through life without experiencing this.” I know that parenthood has deepened his outlook on life – as it has mine.
I’ve found that the book speaks to fathers as well as mothers and is aimed at both. Actually, the book is also relevant to those who don’t have children of their own because it’s ultimately about how to find meaning in everyday life.
Rabbi Jack Riemer, a father and grandfather wrote a beautiful review of the book in the South Florida Jewish Journal. He wrote: “This is a book that expectant parents and those with small children can learn much from. But it is not only for them. Anyone who wants to know where and how to find holiness in the midst of this world, and how we can relate to the sacred that is found in places that most of us never notice, will benefit immensely from this book.”
What is your next project?
A: My next project is a book called “The Parent’s Bible.” For a year, I wrote columns for the Forward’s website on each weekly Torah portion as connected to parenting. The columns have continued on my blog www.parentstorah.com which is also featured on the websites of the Jewish Journal and the Washington Jewish Week. This book is a collection of these columns. It covers Genesis through Deuteronomy with parenting lessons on each portion. (At my blog, you can join my email list to receive these columns by email.)
Read Rabbi Jack Riemer’s review of “Blessings and Baby Steps.”