I was waiting in the examination room of the pediatrician’s office with my two daughters. They were digging through the basket of children’s books in the corner, and my 4-year-old found a small board book with a red and green cover. “Here, Mommy,” she said as she brought it to me, “let’s read this one. It’s about Christmas.”
My daughters know a fair amount about Christmas. They go to a home daycare run by a lovely Catholic woman; she does Hanukkah crafts and plays Shira Kline’s music even as a large tree decorated with lights and colorful ornaments stands in the corner of her living room. They understand that Christmas is something that our Christian friends do, and that we’re Jewish, so we celebrate other holidays.
I flipped through the small board book and saw the name “Jesus” on several pages. “Oh, sweetie,” I said, “I don’t feel like reading this one. It’s not Christmas time. Let’s find another book. How about Peter Rabbit?”
It had been a long day of working, running errands, and packing for our synagogue’s retreat over the weekend. The visit to the doctor’s office was squeezed in between daycare and dinner after I noticed that my 3-year-old’s tonsils looked swollen (they turned out to be fine, of course). Even on a good day, explaining the Jewish perspective on Jesus to a preschooler would feel tricky to me. At the end of a busy day, I couldn’t imagine where to start.
Twenty-four hours later we were eating dinner in a large dining hall at a Jewish summer camp a couple of hours from our house. A few dozen families from our synagogue had come to the camp for a weekend retreat, and after lighting the Shabbat candles and making Kiddush, we stood in line to get our meals from the long buffet tables. It briefly occurred to me that I didn’t have to ask for lists of ingredients for anything on the table; everything was kosher. As we sat down at a table with two other families, my 4-year-old looked up behind me and loudly announced, “Look, Mom! It’s Moses! And Pharaoh!”
After years of sharing oneg in the Fellowship Hall of the church where our synagogue is located, my gut reaction was to correct her. The images on those walls are of Jesus, and although we usually cover them with decorative wall hangings during our events, sometimes we forget. But this time, my daughter was right. We weren’t in a church. We were at a Jewish camp, and it was Moses up there on the wall. There was no ham layered in with the turkey coldcuts, and the meals were either meat or dairy. Not both.
In the beginning of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), we are told to build a fence around the Torah. It’s an important aspect of halakha, or Jewish law. The idea is that you wouldn’t want to do anything that could be confused with something prohibited; it’s why those who keep kosher don’t mix chicken and milk. The fence around the Torah is also about not making choices that might lead to violating halakha; for example, individuals who do not write on Shabbat might choose to avoid even picking up a pencil.
I am not a halakhic Jew, so I never took the idea of building a fence too seriously. Yet as my family and I celebrated Shabbat with our community, I saw it in a different light. For me, it’s not about rules and violations. Rather, it’s about creating a life and finding a community that supports my values and makes it easier to live by them. I don’t avoid pork and shellfish because I think they are inherently bad foods or because God prefers it that way. I avoid them because I care deeply about being Jewish and raising children in a Jewish home. Each time I make a thoughtful choice about what food I eat, I am saying something to my family, my friends, and myself about what matters to me.
It’s not always easy, especially in the diaspora. Like everything in life, it’s a double-edged sword. I value the diversity I grew up with, and I want my children to learn about different cultures, beliefs, and traditions. In some ways, the diversity is the easy part. It’s in the air around us, in the ads on TV, the conversations with friends at preschool, and the books at the doctor’s office. But my daughters are young, and they are still figuring out how the world works. My job is to give them a foundation in Judaism so they have a solid ground to stand on and come home to as they explore the world. Being on retreat with our synagogue was a rare opportunity for my family to come back to find our own footing once again, to be fully immersed in Jewish living and values. I didn’t have to worry about answering awkward questions about bearded men or building a fence around the Torah for the sake of our values; the presence of our community and the structure of the camp took care of that for me. For that, I am grateful.