Choosing an identity for our children, and watching them choose it themselves

  
Passover table

Emily’s 19-person seder brought enjoyment to a gathering of 19 friends and family

Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac n’ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.

“I am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,” she said.

“Oh, that must have been fun,” I replied.

“Yeah, it was tons of fun!”

“What other holidays do you celebrate?” I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.

“We also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,” she continued, “but we have Christmas too,” she said, “because my mommy is Christian.”

“Oh, really?” I replied. “That’s interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,” I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldn’t call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack, what do I say! I’m much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, but… how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old! 

I continued to play along with the conversation. “I suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. She’s a very, very liberal Christian,” I added. “And she celebrates Christmas, yes.” Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.

When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year. We’d only been dating for a few weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his father’s holidays.

This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.

I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.

When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least that’s how I remember the conversation going. We’d just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, “I’ve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.”

I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. “Really? You’d do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,” he told me, “meaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. I’m so glad you’re open to this!”

Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. I’ve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would “honor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.” This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say we’re going to raise our children as solely Jewish!

That’s funny, I find myself thinking. I thought we’d agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didn’t I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?

Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, children who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, children who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.

How confusing!

At least, it sounds confusing to me. I’m not sure it’s confusing to our older daughter. It’s simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, “I’m the only Jewish kid in my school.” I’m not sure that’s quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewish—and whether she’d say it this way or not, she knows, too, that it’s not quite that simple.