My Childhood Versus My Children’s

By Jim Keen

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?


About 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.