Morning Rituals

For as long as I can remember, Mom would get up long before daybreak to begin her day.  She would brew a pot of coffee, pour a cup for herself and one for Dad, add two teaspoons of sugar per cup, then return to bed, coffee in hand, where she and Dad would sit quietly talking for a bit.  We kids were not allowed to bombard them with our demands until they had some time alone together.  This was their daily ritual, one that never changed in all the years I was growing up (except when camping, then the roles reversed.)  It is a most wonderful and intimate way to start one’s day, I imagine.  I remember being on the other side of their bedroom door and hearing their muffled voices.  We never knew what they were talking about, and at times wondered how two people could always have something to discuss every morning, day in and day out. But, they did, and to us this seemed perfectly normal.   I was in high school before learning that this morning ritual was an uncommon habit not practiced in the homes of my friends.     

 Another morning ritual–winter morning ritual– from when I was very young also brings fond memories…now.  Although we lived in Louisiana, winter could (once or twice a year at least) produce a “cold snap,“ with temperatures plummeting into the 20’s.  Central air was a rarity found in few homes at that time.  Rather, we had open flame gas heaters in every room.  That way we could heat the rooms in use, and close off the rooms not in use. At night we slept with no heat in our bedrooms because Mom was too fearful of blankets accidentally being tossed onto the flame. That meant that when bedtime came, we would have to crawl in between marble cold sheets. To say that this was no fun is an understatement, but once I crawled in and made a little cocoon for myself, the chill would quickly dissipate.  It helped that the bed was piled high with Momma Futch’s (Grandma) or Mom’s home-made quilts.  The next morning while it was still dark, after Mom put the coffee on to brew, she would come around to each of our rooms to light the heaters while we were still in bed.  When we arose, the room would still be chilly but not frigid.  Just as bad as crawling into bed at night between cold sheets is stepping into icy clothes in the morning when dressing for school.  So, time permitting, we would warm our clothes before putting them on by standing in front of the heater and literally holding our garments over the flame.   My three brothers and I would each claim a heater for this purpose while Mom was in the kitchen preparing breakfast.  It’s a wonder we didn’t burn the house down!  Speaking of breakfast, we had a variety of choices the entire time I lived at home: Quaker Oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, Ralston. Add to that  a piece of toast (no one makes toast as good as Mom does.  Ask my kids.  She takes a piece of bread, dots it with dollops of butter, sticks it in the oven to toast, then slathers it with plenty of homemade jelly) and a glass of powder milk and we were set for the day! There you have it; our winter morning ritual on cold Louisiana mornings!     

my piano
My Piano


Our move to Kentucky when I was fifteen years old changed some of our rituals.  No longer did we have the open flame heaters.  Now we had central air. Mom was no longer the “alarm clock” who woke us up and started us on our days.  I missed that.  But we still had an alarm clock to get the family up and going in the mornings.  Me.  I played piano, but as I began high school, finding practice time proved to be quite challenging.  Mom’s solution?  Practice first thing in the morning before going to school.  So, each morning around 5:00 (or 5:30 if I overslept) I would get up and practice the piano.  Since I had to do this, it wasn’t like this was my choice, I would begin by practicing a few scales–in fortissimo!  I am told (by my brothers, and a couple of cousins who lived with us for a few months) that I played so loudly the walls would shake.  A bit of an exaggeration, I assure you, but practice I must, and if that was the only time available, then the family had to endure this with me.  The truth of the matter is that playing the piano was seriously important to me. Throughout high school I found ways and places to practice (the school‘s chorus room during study hall, the church piano when no one else was around, etc.)  At one time in my life I was pretty good, good enough to win a small scholarship to begin college.  After a couple of years, however, I forfeited my scholarship by changing my academic major.  Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had continued with music.  Today my piano is a living room ornament, a dust collector, but from time to time I still enjoy sitting down and plunking out a tune.  Much to Richard’s relief, I gave up those early morning practice sessions long before I met him.    

negel vasser
negel vasser


My rituals have changed over the years to reflect the changes I have gone through.   When I chose to become Jewish, I took on the rituals of the Jewish people.  Even so, some things don’t change.  Much like Mom, I, too, am an early riser.  Once awake, I find it impossible to stay in bed (most of the time…there are exceptions.)  When the last of the kids left home, my mornings became my quiet time.  For the past decade, my ritual has included more “thank you” time, more prayer time.  Before my feet touch the ground, I thank G-d for having kept me through the night, and giving me another day.  I then wash my hands, pouring cold water over one hand then the other a few times.  This is followed with blessings, prayer and thanksgiving.  Only then do I make myself a cup of coffee as I ease into my day.  Unlike me, my husband the scientist wakes up immediately ready to discuss some deep complicated physics problem, or a burning world issue, and he wants my opinion, even if it’s four o’clock  in the morning.  Fortunately, however, over the years he has learned that trying to engage me in anything resembling deep animated discussion before I’ve had my first cup of coffee is a dangerous proposition.    

Morning rituals create fond memories and foster feelings of security.  But they do more than that.  Rituals are the glue binding families together, and oftentimes bring us back together for various events and holidays throughout our lives. How often do you and your family fondly reminisce about some ritualized activity when gathered together for some event?  Rituals identify who we are and Whose we are.  Rituals mark momentous events reminding us that we are part of a bigger world. They help instill in us our value as individuals within a community, be it religious, familial, cultural or ethnic.  Our days are filled with rituals from arising in the morning to reclining at night.  They are important, for the seemingly small, insignificant rituals become the fiber of our lives.  For me, not only do these rituals provide mooring for my soul, but in addition to everything else I have written here, they create that connection which strengthen my relationship with G-d, and provide markers along the path to holy living.    

Memories of morning rituals from my youth are strong and vivid indicating their importance to me.  Morning rituals continue to be vital  to my spiritual, mental and emotional well-being.     

What are some memories of your morning rituals? What feelings do you have about those rituals (then and now)?  How have your rituals changed over the years?


The Festival of Channukah

This year, Channukah begins on the evening of Friday, December 11, 2009.  Since I have family and friends who do not observe this holiday, I thought it might be nice to share with you the story of Channukah (brief version) and some of its customs.

What is the festival of Channukah?

In ancient times, the Greeks ruled over Israel and issued harsh decrees against the people.  For instance, all religious practices were outlawed, Jews were not allowed to study Torah, Greek citizens were allowed to steal from the Jews, and in general they were treated very badly in  many ways.  The Greeks even ravaged the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, and defiled all that was ritually pure.  These were extreme times for Israel.  After suffering years of abuse, a scraggly band of rebels rose up against the mighty Greek overseers.  From the Hasmonean House, a band of rebels, the Maccabean family, rose up and overpowered the mighty Greeks and regained the Temple.  It was on the twenty fifth of the Jewish month of Kislev that the Israelites prevailed against the Greeks.  When they victoriously entered the Temple, they found only one jar of pure oil that could be burned in the sanctuary, just enough oil for one day.  They needed a continuous supply of pure olive oil to keep the light burning everyday.  They lit the Menorah anyway and prayed for a miracle.  And instead of burning for just one day, the Menorah burned for eight days, long enough for the people to press pure oil that could be used in the sanctuary thereafter.  In celebration of the miracle of the oil and lights, the Sages decreed that every year, beginning on the twenty fifth of Kislev, lights be lit at the entrance to homes on each of  eight nights to publicize the miracle.  These days were to be called Channukah–inauguration, consecration; one could also interpret the word as “chanu” [they rested] kah [on the twenty fifth] — for on the twenty fifth they rested from the battle with their enemies. 

What are some of the customs of Channukah?

*One tradition is that no one works while the Channukah candles are burning. In fact, women especially are admonished not to work!  And some traditions allow the women not work at all during the days when the Channukah candles are lit.  (I don’t know anyone who does that but it sounds like a good idea.)

*It is tradition to eat foods fried in oil (latkes, yum!) commemorating the jar of oil through which the miracle occurred. 

*Great focus is placed on learning Torah, and in order to induce their children to study Torah, fathers would give gelt (money….today we give chocolate coins) to children for learning Torah during Channukah.

 *One beloved custom is the game of dreidel, played by children everywhere.  The dreidel (Channukah top) is inscribed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, heh, and peh, an acronym for nes gadol hahah poh — “a great miracle occurred here.”  Outside the land of Israel, the peh is replaced with the letter shin, the first letter of the word sham meaning “there”, referring to the land of Israel.

There are numerous customs. and stories abound about this beloved holiday.  It is a time of gaity and laughter, learning and lights, food, family and community.  One of the customs we have instituted in our house over the years is storytelling.  After we have lit the candles, we read stories about Channukah, stories passed down through the years of miracles that happened during this festival.  And, once the candles are lit, I sit down, enjoy the latkes and apple sauce, read a story or two, and I do not do any work until the last candle has burned out.

May you have a happy Channukah!