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By Courtney Naliboff
Flying makes me nervous. It never used to, but a few years ago on a bumpy trip back from England, I lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle. I used to pop a Xanax and snooze my way through the anxiety, but now that I’m a parent, I need to stay awake and alert to tend to my daughter on flights.
Without my sedative crutch, I turned to superstition to get me through a cross-country flight to California this winter. I bought a little silver hamsa necklace with an elegant branch and leaf design on the palm. I put it on before we left our island home in Maine for the airport, and haven’t taken it off. If the Evil Eye had any designs on our airplane, we’d be covered.
We got through the flight (Penrose is a much better traveler than I am these days) and landed in the warm embrace of my husband’s extended family, all of whom live in Southern California. His mother’s side is from Guatemala and his father’s side is Italian and German. Dozens of them descended on his childhood home for the holidays, drawn by Penrose’s presence.
She sat on my lap and met relative after relative, warming up slowly to each new person. When she got overwhelmed, she would turn into me and often hold my hamsa in her hand.
“This?” she asked.
“It’s my hamsa,” I answered.
“Ham,” she replied, touching it gently.
Beyond the irony of her abbreviation for the symbol, she began to connect my necklace to the jewelry of others.
“Abue ham?” she asked, wondering if her grandmother had a similar necklace.
“Abuela doesn’t wear a hamsa; sometimes she wears a cross,” I said. “I wear a hamsa because I’m Jewish. Abue wears a cross sometimes because she’s Catholic.”
“That’s right, Mommy’s Jewish.”
“Me joosh?” she asked, pressing a palm to her chest.
“Yes, you’re Jewish too.”
“No, Daddy’s not Jewish.”
Although this was Penrose’s second holiday season, and she was enthusiastic about candles, latkes, and matzah balls (and Christmas tree lights and wrapping paper), it hadn’t yet occurred to me to talk to her about our Jewish identity, and how that differed from her father’s side of the family.
As a secular humanist, I haven’t imbued our day-to-day life with Jewish rituals. My husband doesn’t practice any elements of Christianity, and we are planning to celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah. When we are in Maine for Christmas, we often attend the Lessons and Carols service as musicians and enjoy the quiet evening of storytelling and song, but we’re hoping to avoid the Santa and tree elements of the holiday. We often talked about the fact that Penrose would be the island’s first Jewish child, and my excitement—and anxiety—about that. I wanted to find a way to start explaining to Penrose what it actually meant to be “joosh” other than wearing jewelry. But I wasn’t sure what she would understand at 20 months old.
“To me, being Jewish means that we are connected back thousands of years to strong people who fight for what they believe in,” I said. “We help people and we work to fix the world. We never stop learning. We celebrate holidays that remind us of our freedom. We eat delicious things.”
She nodded and squirmed off my lap to find her abuela. Over time, we’ll continue the conversation. She likes to look in the Union Haggadahs I inherited from my grandfather and pretends to read the prayers out loud. She would be perfectly happy eating latkes every night, and asks to see my hamsa when it’s hidden under a sweater. Every night, especially, for some reason, when she’s singing “Bow wow wow, whose dog are thou?” she runs through the list of Jewish family members.
Even though she might not yet understand what it means, my heart swells with pride when she ends the list with “Me, joosh.” It’s not a question for her anymore—it’s become a part of her story.
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven, an island off of midcoast Maine. There she teaches music, theatre and English, takes her daughter to the beach, plays music and teaches Pilates. Her writing can also be seen in MaineBiz and Working Waterfront.
If you’re a parent, there’s always those questions you know your kids are going to ask you at various ages and stages that you mostly want to avoid. Things like “where do babies come from?” “What’s sex?” and “Have you ever tried drugs?” I think over the years I’ve done a pretty good job at either changing the subject or placating them with a vague answer and offering up real facts when necessary. But as they get older, the questions become less about physical body functions and more about real subjects that I honestly don’t know HOW to answer. And a recent conversation with the kids proved more challenging than I thought.
It started innocently enough as the 6 & 8 year old were getting dressed to go to Friday night family services at our synagogue.
Kids: “Hey Mommy? Does Matt go to church?”
Me: “Um, no, not really.”
Kids: “But isn’t he supposed to go to church? Isn’t that like the opposite of temple? Like people who aren’t Jewish who are Christmas go to church, right?” (Yeah, my kids still don’t get the concepts of the names of other religions. Either a mom fail or they haven’t paid attention to half of what I say to them. Or both. Let’s be real though, trying to explain to them the difference between Catholicism and Episcopalians is pretty much next to impossible at this stage. I know my limits.)
Me: “Well yeah. I guess he’s *supposed* to go to church. If you’re part of a religion a lot of times you go to services. But not everybody belongs to a church the way we belong to the temple. Matt doesn’t belong to a church and he doesn’t go. We don’t go to Shabbat services every week either, so that’s OK, right?”
Kids: “Yeah it’s OK, but did he EVER go to church?”
Clearly they weren’t letting this go. My brain was spinning trying to figure out how to explain that my Irish Catholic boyfriend grew up with a serious religious education, went to Catholic school, was the head altar boy, represented the church at community functions like funerals and actually hung out with his clergy because it was fun. Matt’s connection to religion growing up very much shaped him, much like how my involvement in my synagogue shaped me. But as an adult? Times change. Views change. Beliefs change. New traditions get formed.
We had a good talk, but the questions kept coming.
Kids: “Does Matt pray to Jesus? Or does he pray to God?”
Oh. Dear. Now they want to talk about prayer?!? It’s a subject that I’m not entirely comfortable with because *I* wrestle with it.
Me: “Uhhhhhh, kind of? I mean, he believes in God. It’s really hard to explain guys.”
Kids: “Well remember that time we went to church for that wedding and everybody kneeled and said prayers to Jesus and then ate those cracker things? Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that mommy? Does Matt know that? Did he do that stuff at church?”
This is seriously so hard to talk about. So the conversation continues, which at times has inspired our own adult conversations about what we each believe, various experiences we had in our lives and how we live now. I recently shared with Matt that one of the things I love about being a Reform Jew is being able to interpret prayer and beliefs to create personal meaning. I never expect him to one day tell me he’s converting, but the longer we’re together, the more he seems to get and appreciate my connection AND the more I understand his own connections – yes, even if he no longer goes to church, sorry kids.
I think with life’s experiences we turn to what we know in looking for answers, healing, serenity and more. My kids are starting to figure this out as they ask me those tough questions and I’m proud of them for wanting to understand and decide things for themselves. As parents we provide these types of tools for our kids; my family and Matt’s family gave us amazing foundations to start with. We may not have grown up attending the same type of services, what we both believe in now might not always mesh up, but the values we both learned along the way match perfectly. So keep the hard questions coming as we all learn more about ourselves in the process.
Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the ‘80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the “token” Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parents’ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.
The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path … and the story wouldn’t be totally wrong.
But it’s also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if I’m reading the story of me, or someone else. I’m no longer that ‘80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesn’t always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And I’m sure by now you’re wondering why.
My name is Amy, I’m a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 ½) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. I’m a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.
This place isn’t exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while I’m at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope you’ll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isn’t so simple for me—and if it’s not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.
So as an introduction, I’ll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, I’m looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. I’ve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that I’m staring at. The idea was absurd as I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasn’t part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.
Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, I’ve got a real live one, and I’m totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriend’s tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point that’s what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.
The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care … not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew how—I joined in.
I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who don’t believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.
So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.
This week, InterfaithFamily is celebrating its important work and the leadership provided by InterfaithFamily Founder Ed Case and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston President Barry Shrage in making it possible for more of us to #ChooseLove without needing to decide between love and a Jewish life. Leading up to Thursday’s celebration, I hope you have had a chance to read IFF’s own Liz Polay-Wettengel’s “An Open Letter to Judaism from an Interfaith Family” on Medium this week, as well as Molly Tolsky’s great response on Kveller. In her essay, Liz Polay-Wettengel speaks some honest and difficult truths about her family’s path to, with, and outside of Judaism as an Interfaith family. Molly Tolsky underscores the importance of Liz’s piece, and shares her own experience, one that rings true to so many of us, of how often Interfaith couples are whole-heartedly raising their famililes Jewishly, even while there are those in our community who still decry “the problem” of their couplehood.
I am lucky that my family’s story is not filled with the denials, closed doors or simple no’s described in these two pieces. A huge reason for this is based in a single exchange I had with InterfaithFamily, with Ed Case specifically, eleven years ago.
When Eric and I were engaged in Los Angeles in 2004, we knew we wanted to be married by a rabbi. We also knew we wanted opportunities for members of both of our families to be involved and engaged in the wedding ceremony. We had taken an Introduction to Judaism class together and had shul-shopped a bit, but we didn’t have one rabbi we knew we wanted to marry us. My parents lived in Newton, where IFF’s founding and national office is located, and they knew a little about Ed Case and IFF. They encouraged us to check out the IFF website, and I was happy when I first poked around to find a link about “Seeking a Rabbi.”
I emailed the IFF general email with a request for some ideas about rabbis in Los Angeles who would be open to marrying us. Ed Case quickly wrote back with a list of potential clergy, at least a dozen long. We started working our way through the list, setting up interviews, and eventually found a perfect fit – a wonderful rabbi named Allen Freehling with whom we both easily connected.
A list of names in an email might not sound like much, but when I compare it to the stories my peers shared this week, I am reminded of our great fortune. Wedding planning is a huge endeavor, and the process lays a foundation for your identity as a couple. If the very first step in this process is to encounter a set of “no’s,” it can derail both your planning and your spirit. Because IFF had actively engaged in assembling lists just like the one Ed Case emailed to me, we had a long list of Yeses to send us down a path that encouraged both our pursuit of Judaism and our identity as an Interfaith family.
This week, I am thankful that IFF was available to Eric and me to support our establishment as a family. Every week, I am grateful for the resources of this organization and the communities it creates to continue this support. I hope you find it helpful to you in some small or large way, too. If you are anywhere near Boston on Thursday, I’ll look out for you at IFF’s #ChooseLove celebration.
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs. It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way. This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.
After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich. We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.
I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old. But for Ruthie I had high hopes. She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe. I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.
“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.
“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.
Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice. This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Or she may not – at least not yet. We don’t do our traditions, we practice them. She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.
Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice. Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice. If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river. In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.
This past week, the JCC Maccabi Games were played in my city, Dallas. Dallas was one of three cities hosting regional games this summer.
The Maccabi Games are an Olympic-style sports competition held each summer in North America. It’s the second largest organized sports program for Jewish teenagers in the world and is part of the worldwide Maccabi Movement. Jewish kids, age 12-16, from all over the world compete. Thirty delegations competed in Dallas including ones from Australia, Mexico, Panama, Israel, and cities across the United States.
The games strive to instill a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jewish values in participants and strengthen their Jewish identity and connection to Israel. The other goal is to foster many of the same values as the Olympics–respect and sportsmanship, excellence on and off the field, and friendships that transcend gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, political and religious differences.
It’s the last of these values that I appreciate the most. Sure, there are kids from across the denominational spectrum competing but athletes from interfaith homes can participate too. The Maccabi Games’ definition of “Jewish” is having “at least one Jewish parent.” At the Maccabi Games, there are no half-Jewish, sort-of-Jewish, not-really-Jewish athletes. There is no one checking whether kids are matrilineal or patrilineal Jews. There is simply one kind of competitor, Jewish.
Matrilineal and patrilineal Jews compete side by side, as teammates and competitors. Children from wholly Jewish and interfaith homes share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, nondenominational and unaffiliated; and those with high levels of Jewish engagement and little Jewish connection work and play together. All the labels that the Jewish community allows to divide us melt away at the games.
As an intermarried Jewish mom of one of the boys in the Los Angeles Westside delegation said, “We do the [Jewish] holidays, but my son never had a
At other times, differences were celebrated. A friend who hosted two basketball players from Australia told me with excitement about how they discovered at Shabbat dinner that the tune for the Hamotzi, or blessing over the challah, was not universal. She and her family were delighted to learn the Aussies’ melody.
To me, these things are what make the event magical. They remind us (or should remind us) that there is more that unites us than divides us. Yet, as a community, we still spend so much time focusing on what makes us different and quantifying and measuring who is really or more Jewish. If we understand the power of respect and acceptance to build Jewish identity and connection, why do we allow the differences to separate us?
I don’t know the answer. But I hope that these athletes, who are part of the Jewish future, will grow up to challenge the rhetoric. I hope they will see the rich diversity of the Jewish people as positive. I hope, that because of this experience they will work to create a more inclusive and united Jewish community.
Driving home from school the other day, Ruthie began singing “Ma Tovu” to herself in the back seat. She repeated it a couple of times alone, and then I decided to try to sing it back to her. But after I got the first two lines out of my mouth, she stopped me.
“No, Mommy,” she said, frustrated, “You sing it like this!”
And she began again, more confidently, singing something that sounded very much the same to me as what I had sung, but was clearly different to her. Her tune, her way.
This interaction felt powerful as I reflected back on the end of Ruthie’s first year of Sunday School. Up until last September, most of the influences on Ruthie’s religious identity had come from, or at least occurred in the presence of, Eric or me. But in September, when we dropped her off with Morah Naomi for the first time, what being Jewish means for Ruthie began to happen on her own, in a way that is connected, but miraculously independent, from us.
Ruthie is a child who generally enjoys school, and she has relished in getting new knowledge at Sunday School each week. She loves the chance to share our family’s practices with her class, and to learn her own things to bring home to us. This spring, she particularly enjoyed her class “trip” to Israel (not an actual trip!), and is still slowly doling out tidbits about the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea or even the way that Israelis take a midday break for lunch and family every day.
Exploring her Judaism in this way has also encouraged her to articulate her interfaith identity independently, too. She knows that not all of her friends from Sunday School celebrate Christmas with their families, and she thinks she’s pretty lucky that she gets to do that. She asks lots of questions about the faith of our family members and close friends, trying on different ways of fitting herself into the world.
A few weeks ago, we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Mommy, when I am a grown-up, and I get to pick if I am Jewish or Christian, well, I’ll probably be Jewish but I am not sure, anyway, I am going to have a cat.”
Ruthie has only taken her first steps on a lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. At this moment, I am so grateful that it started off with a zeal for learning, an open heart, and curiosity about what it means to make her way in the world with a loving family that includes different faiths. I hope that we can both continue to choose love and embrace the learning journey. As always, I am glad to be along for the ride.
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.
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.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when we got our dog Brady, my son asked if an animal can have a religion. The question was only half-serious. He knew that pets didn’t actually practice a faith, but he wanted the dog to have a religious identity anyway.
But what would that identity be? My son and I are Jewish, my husband is not. We have an active Jewish home and consider ourselves more Jewish than interfaith. Since Brady was delivered to us on a Friday night in December shortly before the start of Shabbat and the day before the start of Hanukkah, we were convinced that his religious identity was preordained. Brady would be Jewish.
But neither of his canine parents were Jewish. So, we gave Brady a bath and called it a mikveh. Now he was officially a Jewish pup and like any child being raised in the Jewish faith, he needed a Jewish education.
My mother-in-law purchased a dog-training book for us at a “Friends of the Library” sale–How to Raise a Jewish Dog. The book offered tips for training dogs from the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary. Apparently, the rabbis were renowned for their ability to teach owners how to create unbreakable bonds with their dogs.
We were skeptical about the rabbis’ approach, which used child-rearing techniques employed by Jewish mothers of previous generations–guilt, shame, passive aggression, sarcasm and Conditional Unconditional Love. As we read the book, I could hear my mother’s voice jumping from the page.
The rabbis’ system focused on instilling in dogs the ideas that our parents instilled in us, such as “be perfect or disappoint those who love you” and “you may think you’re smart, but you’re wrong about certain things.” It also promised to develop three important traits of Jewish dogs–an exaggerated sense of his own wonderfulness, an exaggerated sense of her own shortcomings, and an extremely close relationship with his master.
The book was cute and clever, filled with neurotic, nervous, intellectual Woody-Allenesque prose. I even imagined Allen playing the dog-training rabbi in a film. But we didn’t want a neurotic Jewish dog. We wanted a dog that was just Jewish.
As we thought about how to do that, we realized that we didn’t need a book or a trainer. We already had one of the best methods for creating Jewish identity–Shabbat. Since we had a regular home practice, we didn’t need to learn new commands or systems. We just needed to keep lighting the candles on Friday night.
To make Brady feel part of our ritual, we blessed him when we blessed our son. In the beginning, the touching and blessing made Brady growl, but he enjoyed getting a piece of challah after we said the Hamotzi. Soon he realized that giving thanks for and getting bread followed the blessing for children. The growling stopped.
Routine is a great teacher of humans and dogs. Brady now knows what is going to happen when he sees us set the table for Shabbat. As we begin the home rituals, he sits close and watches as we light the candles. He accepts the blessing for male children and sits as we recite the Kiddush and Hamotzi, eagerly anticipating the challah. As we give him a piece of Shabbat deliciousness, we wish him Shabbat Shalom.
If you want to raise a Jewish pup–four-legged or two-legged–forget about the books and trainers, guilt and sarcasm. Just celebrate Shabbat.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.