Back in 2018, I attended Limmud in the UK as a performer with the band I played in at the time. I’d never been to Limmud before, so I was unprepared for what an exhilarating meeting of minds and souls it would be. So much knowledge and insight was sloshing around everywhere, leaving me rushing around trying to capture as much of it in my goblet as possible.
Also among the performers at Limmud that year was the inimitable Alicia Jo Rabins — poet, songwriter, fiddler, filmmaker, and all-around artist-extraordinaire. We ran into one another in the elevator and said polite hellos; she seemed like a regular person with a violin case. When I later attended her concert, though, it became clear that the low-key woman I’d chatted with was, in fact, a force of nature. Rabins vibrates with creativity. She is, above all, a seeker of meaning—her songs are more than songs, her essays are more than essays. They’re cobblestones on a path she’s laying to connect her (and us) to the past and future while somehow staying connected to the present moment.
Rabins’ newest addition to her body of work is Even God Had Bad Parenting Days, a book of essays exploring the connections of parenthood and divinity. Already a fan of Rabins’ music, I was excited to get my hands on a copy — it did not disappoint. Quite the opposite.
I should acknowledge that I pretty much fit into the obvious target demographic for this book. I’m a young Jewish mother for whom spirituality, and specifically Jewish teachings, feature prominently in life. I’m also a seeker; I look to Jewish text for meaning and clarity in times of strife.
That being said, this book is not only for the likes of me. “I would love for people to know that you don’t have to feel a specific way about Judaism or know anything about it to enjoy the book,” Rabins told me, “My intention was just to bring together some traditions and ideas that I found really helpful so they can be meaningful to some other people, too.”
That wide-reaching approach is clear in the way the book is structured, which is loose. The shortish, clearly written essays progress sort of chronologically, from pregnancy to toddlerhood, but are also organized by theme and idea, giving the collection what Rabins calls a “disco-ball quality,” describing each essay as a shining facet on the disco ball of parenthood, glittering in a new way each time the reader turns it.
As a parent myself, I love that the essays are bite-sized — it’s hard to find time to dive into a longer contemplation when I have a three-year-old actively destroying my living room. I also love that the voice is candid and clear. There’s no attempt to hide the messier parts of parenthood; there’s also no shying away from the incomparable joy of raising little ones. It’s part and parcel of the whole experience. Chapter headings like Goodbye, Comfort Zone or The Beautiful and the Gross are nestled alongside others like Snuggling is a Mini-Shabbat or, my personal favorite, Noah Wasn’t Perfect and Neither Am I.
As I read, I kept thinking that this book should be given to every new parent, Jewish or otherwise, along with whatever pamphlets they get at the hospital. There are so many books and essays about how to be a parent, but few as honest as this one. It helps that Rabins isn’t trying to tell anyone how to parent, she’s just telling her experience. Her voice comes off the page in a non-judgemental, easy way. ‘Hey,’ she seems to be saying, ‘We’ve all been there.’ And as a dedicated lover and learner of Torah and Jewish texts, she happens to be in a unique position to connect her story to the traditions and stories that came before her. I certainly would have benefited from knowing that other parents also struggle to ask for help, to love their bodies, to stop trying to be perfect. It would have been nice to know that I have some role models in my traditional texts.
“One thing I love about writing is that it helps me know what I know,” says Rabins, “It’s hard for me to access what I know when I’m moving through life, negotiating the day-to-day. When I’m writing, it’s like listening to a wiser, experimenting voice inside me. I tend to give myself a lot of permission to write very freely without worrying about it sounding good. I think everything in the book was deep inside me, but I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to name it until I wrote it.”
Indeed, life can feel like a marathon, and stopping to consider our connections to the traditions and texts that came before us doesn’t necessarily end up at the top of the to-do list. For Rabins, though, it feels imperative to make these connections. She describes her pursuit of meaning as “a real relief.” Sitting down to ruminate on biblical and rabbinical texts as they connect to her own experience served to replenish her energy, allowing her to return refreshed to her children. “In that way, it felt like a privilege to be able to take these little breaks and work on it,” she says.
Even God Had Bad Parenting Days is just one cobblestone in the yellow-brick-road of Rabins’ career. Upcoming, she has a lot going on. Her film, A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, was just released on all streaming platforms, and she’s finishing up a spiritual memoir, to be released in the next few years. “It’s about my own spiritual journey,” she says, “with a lot of misadventures along the way. It’s kind of lyrical, and very personal.” I’ll definitely be waiting for that one. In the meantime, we can enjoy this very valuable addition to the literature of early parenthood.
Alicia Jo Rabins’ new book is Even God Had Bad Parenting Days: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for New Parents, published by Behrman House, Inc. and available wherever books are sold.