I visited my grown children over winter break and saw to my horror that at bedtime they turn on a CD player and allow it to “sing” the children to sleep. I was horrified. Bedtime is for snuggling! Lullabies were meant to be sung by a parent to a child while cozied up together, not by a cold metal box! I tried to be the good mother and mother-in-law and did not share my disapproval. What do you think?
Bedtime might be for snuggling, but it can be stressful as well and perhaps this technique is what works for their family this week. Maybe after a bit of time, you might gently raise the issue of a more warm and fuzzy bedtime ritual. Kudos for not disturbing the peace with grown children — this is always a good policy. However, generating more love in the world, which is what lullabies and bedtime are all about, is a good thing, too! If you are already offering some tender unsolicited advice, you may as well go all out and suggest some Jewish practices and lullabies for preparing for sleep. What could be better than some warm comfy Jewish bedtime memories?
Much scientific research — or maybe quasi-scientific research — has been done about the power of listening to certain messages before sleep. There are the “lose weight, make money, sleep better, have important dreams” efforts that all center around the idea that listening to something before you sleep implants prescribed thoughts and motivations during slumber. That being the case, it would follow that we would want our children to have satisfying Jewish thoughts before nodding off to sleep.
A traditional siddur devotes several pages of prayers to be recited before bed. Saying them in totality is sure to put anyone to sleep! But, for the children among us, you might begin with the simple reciting of the Shema. To say the Shema with our children is to offer our biggest ideas to our smallest of children. The Shema pronounces our devotion to the Almighty and is seen as our formal declaration of faith.
This might seem a bit drastic and heavy handed for a child’s bedtime, but the practice emanates from the notion that sleep is not necessarily a sweet moment before nodding off to blissful rest, but that it can also be seen in a more disquieting perspective, as per Hamlet’s powerful “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He dramatically utters this woeful view, “To die to sleep. To sleep: perchance to dream, ay there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?” Indeed, a common non-Jewish bedtime prayer evokes this same thought:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
Should I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Mind you, the version I knew had something to do with peanuts for brother Jake. That aside, there is something universally frightening about going to sleep. This is not lost on our little ones. The routine saying of the Shema creates a Jewish habit that will signal sleep time and offer the comfort of a routine. According to the Talmud Berachot, it can even offer protection from demons!
This habitual saying of the Shema with children was proven to be deeply significant during some of our people’s most trying times. After World War II, the Shema played an important role in the effort to find hidden Jewish children — of which there were hundreds. Here is one account of Rabbi Eliezer Silver and Dayan Gurnfeld, recounted by Lisa Aiken: “That evening the rabbis came to the dormitory, where row upon row of little beds were arranged. The children, many of whom had been in the monastery since the war started in 1939, were going to sleep. The rabbis walked through the aisles of beds, calling out, “Shema Yisrael. One by one, children burst into tears and shrieked, ‘Mommy!’ ‘Maman!’ ‘Momma!’ ‘Mamushka!’ in each of their native tongues.”
This Shema protected Jewish children in a way that no one could have foreseen and served to identify them when there was little else that could. The Shema stayed with them.
Jewish love and warmth are all-
powerful ingredients to be ensconced and embedded deep into the recesses of a child’s being. The intimacy of a parent singing a lullaby at bedtime is memorable and matchless. That the lullaby is Jewish compounds the dearness of the experience. It will be long remembered.
On cold, wintery Friday nights after the Shabbat meal, huddled under blankets, my father would sing the lullaby “Soraleh” to my twin and me. Picture a cold blustery Pittsburgh night, wind blowing through the old windows, not yet insulated, whistling forebodingly as this song is sung. It tells of two small children — a brother and a sister (perfect for us!) — left alone at home while their mother goes out to get food. The two venture into the woods, where they meet a series of ferocious creatures. Each time, as the beast is about to gobble them up, the children cleverly promise a kichel or some such treat that will yet be brought to them by their mother, thereby escaping harm.
So what’s up with singing such a frightening song to kids before bed? Is this Jewish? Not unlike ubiquitous fairy tales, this lullaby falls into the category of many children’s stories. Bruno Bettelheim, child psychologist, believed that frightening tales are important for children to hear. Scary stories have a powerful emotional and symbolic value to children. They express fears that they may be harboring in their consciousness and that they are unable to express. In the loving arms of family members these terrifying tales are resolved with satisfaction and even triumph — and that is a good thing.
Because our childhoods can blur into one big mass with only rare moments nudging up at us, scenes that break through with clarity carry great weight. That lullaby is one of them. Years later, when hearing it from my father was no longer possible, listening to it play on my computer’s RealPlayer was deeply moving. Perhaps it was the Yiddish, maybe it was the children’s escape, it was probably all of the above together with the warmth and comfort of parent that inscribed it so. No CD player can evoke that!