I never want my kids to feel like there is a right way to be Jewish.
Because that’s the way I felt growing up. Even though both my parents are Jewish– and their parents, too.
I grew up in the 1980s in New Jersey in a town that was predominately Jewish. I wanted to be like the popular girls who seemed so together: pretty, well adjusted, wealthy, and yes, Jewish. So I tried to copy them. I thought wearing Guess Jeans, having beautiful hair, a big house, a big fancy car, and a mom who stayed home and always looked glamorous that I would finally become Jewish in just the right way. But I failed miserably. My parents were artsy. I wore Lee Jeans. My mom worked outside of the home. We didn’t live in the fancy part of town. No matter how much I blow-dried my hair, it remained frizzy. My nails were always dirty.
Why was being Jewish so difficult for me? I kept looking for the places where I could fit in–as if to feel Jewish you just had to find the right fit. I never thought to look inside myself. I ended up quitting religious school. I never had a bat mitzvah. The other girls were getting mean and I didn’t want to be around them anymore.
I didn’t think too much about being Jewish again until I met my husband. He grew up in a Conservative Jewish family. The first time I attended High Holiday services with his family at their synagogue, I watched in awe as my then-boyfriend chanted and prayed so beautifully in Hebrew. Yet it brought me back to that familiar place of my childhood—I felt left out of something that was close but ultimately out of reach.
Did God like you better if you could read and speak Hebrew? Were you more Jewish if you could follow along in services? Languages were always so difficult for me. Almost 20 years later and thousands of Shabbats hosted in my home, I still mumble my way through the blessings and still sometimes feel like somehow I am still not Jewish in the right way.
I’m now a parent to two beautiful children. And of course, all my own childhood issues have risen to the surface. I want my kids to know there is no “right” way to be Jewish. Their Judaism is not mine, nor their father’s, nor their grandparents’. I want them to embrace their Judaism fully and yet fully define it for themselves.
Now they attend a secular school in San Francisco–one that is diverse. It’s a school that feels just right for our family, a place that embraces children and families of all backgrounds. After school many classmates go off to Mandarin, Hebrew, or Farsi school just as easily as they go off to soccer, ballet, or music lessons. My kids move in this world of differences yet are proud of being Jewish just as their friends are proud of being Iranian, Japanese, or Irish.
Our synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, is also diverse and though it’s quite large, to me it feels like a small neighborhood shul. The clergy are smart, creative, cool (in a good way) and kind. They are invested in my children–caring about what they think and how they feel. They “get” teenagers.
My daughter will be starting in the 8th grade post-bat mitzvah teen fellowship program next year. We let her know it was her choice to make. My son will begin 6th grade next year. He’s already got a million ideas about his bar mitzvah (though I don’t quite know when to break it to him that laser tag is definitely not an option).
What’s most important to me is that my kids know that I don’t judge their “Jewishness.” They don’t go to Jewish Day School. My daughter sometimes orders bacon in a restaurant and my son occasionally hides a comic book in his prayer book during services. But my kids are 100 percent Jewish, through and through. They are filled with light and love and are bursting with Jewish values. I trust them to make their own decisions about what’s right for them.