AS A YOUNG CHILD, I went to bed each night only after reciting the Sh'ma, that ancient Hebrew prayer proclaiming the bond between one God and His "Chosen People": me and my family. It was an obligatory bedtime ritual -- magical, consoling, and, best of all, the medium for a nightly loving interaction with my father. I never missed. And on nights of anxiety, when a wild thunderstorm rattled the rooftops, or when a spelling test loomed the next day, I said the prayer once again after my father left the room -- just in case He didn't hear me the first time around.
The ritual of bedtime prayer may be out of style, but not the yearning for such experiences. From the very beginning of life, children display their insatiable delight with events that are repetitive and familiar -- the songs and rhymes that accompany feedings, the endless round of peek-a-boo games, or the comforting routines of bedtime. As they grow, they find security in the knowledge that there are special times for special happenings -- like Thanksgiving -- when family members gather, particular foods appear, and symbols and celebrations replace the everyday treadmill of school and work.
The emotional needs filled by rituals -- regularly practiced customs purposefully elevated to ceremonial significance -- by no means wane during childhood. Throughout our lives we can be strengthened by recurrent themes -- whether religious, cultural, or familial -- that give our existence comforting anchors and definition.
To begin with, rituals offer all family members a precious feeling of solidarity. Our forebears evidently knew what they were about. They organized their lives around such events as Sunday morning church services, Friday night Sabbath dinners, ceremonial unfurlings of the flag on the front lawn, or sitting down together each night to read aloud as a group.
These were among the marvelous ways our parents found to bring household members together for events that transcended the private interests of any one of them.
The instincts of our parents are now being validated by behavioral scientists. From their clinical students of families, George Washington University psychiatrist Steven J. Wolin and anthropologist Linda A. Bennett conclude that "ritual life is important because it reinforces the family's identity and gives all members a shared and necessary sense of belonging."
Equally critical, the practice of rituals gives us a sense of belonging to a larger community outside the family. It tells us in tangible ways who we are, and who else is in our human network.
In the home of my childhood, predictable ceremonies graced every aspect of life. We recited blessings before eating and said grace after meals, we walked -- did not ride -- to synagogue each Saturday morning, and we shopped together for our weekend chicken only at that special butcher store where, as my mother put it, "all the meat and all the customers are kosher."
I knew as a child that such acts were essential ingredients not only of my home, but the homes of Irving and Jo-Jo down the street, and Maxie next door, and Arthur and Melvin up the hill. I knew who I was -- and who out there in that often-hostile world was linked to me. Among my own, on Saturday morning, all dressed up and marching to services with my family, I was the real I.
Rituals, moreover, can provide a strengthening sense of order and meaning in times of trouble. They can help maintain the form and rhythm of lives shaken by trauma and grief, restoring a belief in what Samuel Clark called "the eternal fitness of things."
At GW University's Center for Family Research, Wolin and Bennett have been studying the impact of alcohol abuse on family life, and they have found what they describe as "ritual-protected" families. In homes where alcoholism causes a disruption in the most cherished rituals of family life -- for example, traditional holiday celebrations -- children are likely eventually to become addicted to alcohol themselves. But not so in homes where, despite parental drinking, the practice of rituals continues to affirm the family's unity.
Many of our forebears, I am convinced, were helped to weather the crises in their lives through a devotion to rituals that offered precious structure to an otherwise formless existence. On any modern-day stress scale, my parents and their contemporaries would have gone over the top. Impoverished immigrants to a new land, unfamiliar with language and customs, they faced new and seemingly insuperable challenges each day.
My own father was a case in point. His life was filled with chronic uncertainties. Here was a biblical scholar who had committed to memory the Old Testament and its rabbinic commentaries, now struggling to sell a 20- year-endowment life-insurance policy to the grocer around the corner. His yearning for a more secure life for himself and his family was never requited.
I am convinced that the terrifying quicksand on which my father walked turned to bedrock through his enduring commitment to the rituals of family life. Rooted in religion, the ceremonies and routines of our household held our uncertain world together. Into an existence that lacked either rhythm or repose, they brought both.
Indeed a consoling sense of order and predictability warmed the home of my youth. Whether through the joyous preparation of holiday feasts, the suddenly quiet routines that enveloped the Sabbath, or the obligatory visits to the sick or bereaved, this house, we all knew, was on an even course after all, and could not fall apart under the weight of stress.
Unfortunately, there is reason to doubt whether rituals continue to serve contemporary families today as they did in our own childhood. Family life today often appears disorganized and open-ended, each day bringing new episodes disconnected from those that came yesterday or that will follow tomorrow. Absent are recurrent and dependable themes, familiar motifs that give life a comforting sense of coherence.
In too many homes, the end of dinner often signals a race from the table, the sound of shutting doors, and the pursuit of private activities that spell doom for togetherness. The mother of a family with five children told Wolin and Bennett: "I don't think in the past six, seven years we've done anything together as a family. We just sleep under the same roof."
Many have come to regard rituals as anachronisms, relics of a bygone day. In rebelling against the old order, countless young people today have sought to shed old identities, and to find refuge in an a world of eclecticism and assimilation. Many young parents will pass up the effort -- and the rewards -- of an "old-fashioned" Thanksgiving feast around the dining-room table, and opt instead for dinner at a restaurant, or less complicated yet, a day of idleness followed by a fast-food supper.
Others see the practice of rituals as sick -- as pointless, pathological compulsions. In their view, the persistent celebration of baptismal rites to welcome children into the community, or the lighting the Sabbath candles week after week in the glow of family togetherness is the psychological equal of, say, repeated handwashing for hours on end.
Nonsense. The analogy would ring true only if, as in the case of neurotic compulsions, the rituals of family life were private acts, performed to relieve unbearable anxiety. They are neither.
To begin with, family rituals, by their very nature, are social and public acts. "We readily understand that a religious service involves ritual," write Wolin and Bennett, "but exactly where does the ritual end? When Sunday morning dawns nd congregants prepare for their trip to services? On the steps of the building where familiar aquaintances are greeted each Sunday?"
Moreover, it is hardly fear that motivates the practice of family rituals. When a family I know of gathers in the yard each July 4 to hear the father read the Declaration of Independence, they are affirming their search for meaning and beauty, not defending against the stirrings of unconscious terrors. And when 30 or more of my kinfolk and neighbors gather once again next spring for the Passover seder, it will be to celebrate freedom and rebirth, not to deal with guilt.
Ritualistic observances, many of our young also concluded, threatened to rob them of their freedom by telling them how to run their lives -- by naming what was right and what was wrong to do. It was old- fashioned to believe that there are standards for behavior at particular times in particular places. Hang loose, was the battle cry, and give up the shackles of tradition.
Is it possible that these children, despite their apparent quest for an unfettered and unstructured life, were yearning for an orderly and meaningful existence after all? How else to explain the drift of so many thousand into bizarre, even deadly, cults commanded by ritualistic overlords?
In ignoring the rituals of family life, I am convinced that we deprive our families of an important source of psychological strength -- and some of the loveliest and most enduring experiences of our sojourn on this planet.
The gap can be overcome. Once-a-year holiday episodes are hardly enough. Each family can find its own version of Sunday afternoon at Grandma's, or the Friday night togetherness of Sabbath dinner, or family excursions to places of historic interest. Such events, experienced on a recurring and predictable basis, can help give our lives precious solidarity and structure.
There is a cost, however. The pursuit of family rituals takes time and commitment. It means looking hard for rewarding activities around which the family can gather -- and then not letting the obligations of our work and active social lives force them out of existence. It means saying no occasionally to a weekend trip or a golf match if they compete with a scheduled family happening. It means seizing on family milestones -- anniversaries, birthdays -- as occasions for carefully programmed family events, not for gift certificates at Bloomingdale's; reading stories aloud by the fire with the family instead of playing that bridge game at a friend's; or gathering all the cousins for a regular Sunday outing instead of gazing alone, transfixed, at the ubiquitous Redskins.
Such efforts bring their own rewards. The rituals of family life offer comfort and joy to our children -- and to us as well. Indeed we may find in them hints of our immortality. Today's rituals are tomorrow's memories, and a binding link between the generations.