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When I married my husband, a Jew by heritage, an atheist/agnostic by choice, we had planned to give our children the best of all worlds. We would read books on all religions to ourselves and to them, enlightening their young minds with stories of heroic people from long ago, ensuring that they learned to be kind and loving to others.
Then I did some reading. Not so much in religious texts, but in a local parenting magazine--and in the classifieds, no less.
Last fall, I discovered an advertisement for a class teaching the "Alef Bet of Creating a Jewish Home." With two young children, I knew that a parenting class would be good, and I was intrigued to learn more about Judaism.
My prior exposure to Judaism had been relatively limited. In middle school, I went to a friend's Bar Mitzvah (apparently translated by his parents to "Big Party"). I attended some Holy Day services with my mother-in-law, but those were in a hotel ballroom relatively devoid of religious symbols. I enjoyed Passover dinners, with all the ceremony and good cooking that goes along with them.
I was raised Catholic, but I had never felt at ease there. Because of a promise to my grandmother, I was confirmed; but I bristled at the Church's dogmatic, rigid approach. I rebelled by singing in a Presbyterian choir in high school. I stretched my spiritual wings by becoming a member of the Church of the Brethren and doing a year of voluntary service.
And now, I have children who are part-Jewish. I decided they needed to learn what their Jewishness meant in terms of thoughts and deeds, and that meant I needed to learn. I needed more than observing what my relatively nonobservant in-laws could show me. I needed more than just reading textbooks. I needed real-life ideas to share with my real-life children. After all, how do you know where to turn when you don't know where you're going?
As I took this twice-monthly "Building Blocks" class, my mind and my heart opened. I discovered a dozen other mommies struggling with the same kinds of issues. How can you teach your children about Hanukkah when the vast majority of those around them celebrates Christmas? How do you make Judaism interesting, fun and educational? How do you explain that Daddy is Jewish (kinda) and Mommy is not (or vice versa)?
I discovered the following: Religion is like clothing. It is the parents' responsibility to dress the very young child appropriately. ("Here is your red coat.") As the child gets older, explanations may be added, but the clothing decision is still ultimately the parent's. ("You need your red coat because it is very cold today.")
Eventually, the child will be able to choose between a red coat, a blue coat, or even no coat at all. Undoubtedly, if my husband and I had only spoken of religion in the theoretical sense, our children would have been running in the snow with shorts on, and wondering why they were cold.
Because the class met at a local temple, I was able to become comfortable there in a non-threatening way. I learned where the restrooms are (which is very important when you have a three year old). I found out about Hanukkah festivals and dressing up for Purim. We went to a local mall and made a paper Passover plate, complete with cotton-ball eggs.
This past winter, my husband and I picked out and lit candles on our family menorah together for the first time, which we have chosen to display year round. We have made plans to attend services together on a regular basis. My children and I have been learning the songs and prayers together at Tot Shabbat (our temple's preschool Friday service).
This spring, we chose to publicly celebrate our decision to raise our children Jewish; our children received their Hebrew names at Friday night services. We were joined by my classmates and their families, my husband's family (mine lives out-of-state) and several of my mother-in-law's friends and fellow Mah Jongg players.
After much research and consideration, our son was named Aharon Yitzhak (roughly translating into a "mountain of laughs"--which he is). My daughter was given the name Meira Rachel, to reflect the light she has been, leading us onto this spiritual path.
This fall, I will be taking another class, this time an in-depth study of the holidays and Shabbat. As my children grow, I look forward to growing in my knowledge as I learn with, and for, them.