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My Childhood Versus My Children's

August 2004

My daughters, Gabby and Molly, are now eight and four years old. Recently, I've noticed how markedly different their upbringing has been, compared to mine. Of course, I could point to many factors that differentiate our childhoods: technology, world events, the new Scooby Doo. But the most profound difference between us is our religion and culture. My parents raised me as a Protestant. My wife Bonnie and I are raising our girls Jewish. While we are alike in all the ways that really matter, I have identified eight experiences that my daughters have as Jewish kids that I did not have as a young Protestant.

Chhhhhhallah. Challah. Chhhhhhhh....

The first is an education about the state of Israel. I don't think I even knew where the country was until high school. In fact, when I finally did locate it on the map, I believe it took a couple more years before I discovered that it was the Jewish state. Gabby and Molly, on the other hand, have an in-depth knowledge of Israel. Through their Jewish Community Center preschool days and religious school experiences at the temple, the girls know where the country is, what the flag looks like, and the names of its major cities.

In their classrooms, they have even been on pretend trips to Israel. They have shopped in Jerusalem markets with paper shekels, and have floated in the Dead Sea with their imaginations. They have a general understanding of the country's history and know that this is the place where Jews from all over the world can seek refuge.

It is in these same preschool and religious school classrooms that Gabby and Molly have started to learn Hebrew. This is the second difference between our childhoods. When I was a kid, English was the only language in our house. Not until I reached the seventh grade did I start to learn Spanish as a second language. Hopefully, by the time my girls are in middle school, they will have a good understanding of all three languages. Just having them pronounce the throaty "ch" sound in Hebrew is enough to set them apart. I think that noise is actually made with your uvula. Not having grown up saying "challah" or "chutzpah," I still have a hard time with it.

In religious school, where my daughters sit with their classmates practicing long, drawn out "chhhhh" sounds, they also learn the valuable lesson of tzedakah, or charity. This is the third departure from my upbringing. While the concept of giving to good causes and helping those in need is important to Protestants, I did not routinely practice it as a child the way my own two kids do. It seems that in Judaism, charity is a central foundation of the religion. Gabby and Molly have their own tzedakah boxes that they drop coins into throughout the week. On Friday in preschool, or on Saturday in religious school, they donate what they've collected.

Going to religious school on a Saturday is also something that is foreign to me. In my childhood, religious education took place on Sunday. Having a different day for the Sabbath, we didn't have to worry about Sunday school conflicting with other activities. With my girls, Saturday mornings are not lazy, cartoon-filled, sleep-in times. On Saturdays we actually wake up a half-hour earlier than on a school day. The kids wolf down their breakfast, brush their teeth, and then race off to temple--dressed in their soccer uniforms. This way, when Mom or I pick them up, we can drive like maniacs across town to barely make it on time to their game. After soccer, we're off to gymnastics.

What rest Gabby and Molly don't get on Saturday, they make up for on Friday evenings. In the Jewish religion, this day is Shabbat, or the Sabbath. Friday night dinners are the fifth variance in our childhoods. When I was their age, trying to have everyone eat together on Friday night was, at best, a lost cause. Many times, while one of us kids had baseball practice, the babysitter would show up just as my mom was serving us a frozen dinner. Then Dad would arrive home late, in time for a hug, before he and Mom went out to a movie. For my kids on the other hand, Friday night is often a "slow down time." We say the Shabbat blessings and sit down to have a nice home-cooked dinner together.

Gabby and Molly know that Shabbat is considered the most important holiday in the Jewish religion. This leads me to my sixth difference--the quantity of holidays. In Judaism, there are so many. Okay, so there's one every week if you count Shabbat. But, even if you remove the Sabbath, Judaism is loaded with special days and festivals. As Reform Jews, our kids basically have two different kinds of holidays--the get-out-of-school kind and the yes-it's-a-special-day-but-you-still-have-to-go-to-school kind. Of the former, they have Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover. Some of the latter are Sukkot, Hanukkah, Simchat Torah, Purim, and Tu B'Shevat. In my day, as a Protestant we had Christmas and Easter. Wonderful holidays, but a long time in between.

As a Christian boy, if I had heard of these Jewish holidays I never really knew what they were about. That's how it is growing up in the majority religion. You often don't notice how others celebrate their faith. This is the seventh and biggest of differences between our childhoods--seeing the world through a minority's eyes. I think my girls know more about other religions and holidays than I ever did. They also go through the Christmas season wondering why there aren't more Hanukkah decorations in the mall. Because they are part of an overshadowed religion and culture, I believe they will have a certain sensitivity and respect toward other peoples' customs and viewpoints. They will carry this with them throughout their lives. At age thirty-seven, I am playing catch-up.

So what's the eighth difference in our childhoods? Gefilte fish. Need I say more?

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. A Yiddish word meaning audacity, for good or for bad; commonly used to imply something was gutsy. Derived from the Hebrew word for "insolence." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story.
Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.

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