jewish identity

How Can I Raise My Kid Jewish When I’m Not Religious At All?

bagel

The first and only time I prayed to God, I was 5. My great-grandmother had died, my mother was crying, and I asked God to take care of Nana. But it never again occurred to me to make a direct plea. I knew we were Jewish—we went to temple on Rosh Hashanah and said the prayers over the Hanukkah candles—but that wasn’t noteworthy; lots of people we knew were Jewish.

Then, in the fourth grade, two months into my Hebrew school education, my family moved from New Jersey to the San Francisco suburbs, where public schools didn’t give days off for the High Holidays and we were the only Jews on the block. Clearly, as part of a desire to create community, our new conservative synagogue started Hebrew school classes in kindergarten. On my very first day, I was four years behind my peers and suffered the social indignities of having to take Hebrew language classes with the third graders and spend additional time with a tutor. I resented everything about Hebrew school, from the afternoons it monopolized to how inadequate it made me feel.

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Memorizing prayers for my bat mitzvah years later meant I no longer felt like a Hebrew school flunky. A week after the big day—during which I’d executed my haftorah perfectly while wearing a dress that looked like it was made from upholstery fabric—my father suggested we go to temple. No longer worried about studying the prayers, I read their English translations and casually whispered to Dad mid-service, “I don’t believe in any of this. I’m not going to come here anymore.” Poor guy: That one must’ve really stung.

We fought about religion throughout my teen years. At 14, before I’d had so much as a boyfriend, I’d argue about the prospect of my marrying outside the faith. I dropped out of Hebrew high school classes when I realized my driver’s license meant I could see my friends whenever I wanted. Once I left for college, I only attended temple for bar mitzvahs and funerals.

My parents saw it as a rebellion, but it was deeper than that for me. Much of the service revolved around worshiping a God I didn’t believe in. I felt uncomfortable sitting in the pews, not participating, surrounded by congregants who enjoyed being part of the religious dialogue and community.

At the same time, I still identified with Judaism. My father’s parents were Holocaust survivors who sprinkled their conversations with Yiddish. Poppy Harry ran a Jewish bakery in Brooklyn while Grandpa Donald sold, of all things, lox and deli meats in Queens. I had a Hebrew name, frizzy, curly hair, and a nose I didn’t appreciate. I was Jewish.

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And then, despite my adolescent warnings, I married a Jew (hello, Shapiro), albeit one equally reluctant about religion. The wedding was a careful negotiation with our more devoted parents. Left to our own devices, we would have been married on a Saturday and gladly let the caterer serve pork and shellfish.

Our traditional Jewish ceremony was performed under a chuppah with the blessing over the wine and the breaking of the glass, but my husband and I eschewed the circling and bedeken rituals. We signed a ketubah and even had our names printed in a hundred little kippahs, but I also supplied the cantor who married us with a version of the Seven Blessings that was adapted by the Society of Humanistic Judaism and did not reference God. Unlike going to temple as a teen, our wedding was a Jewish service I enjoyed and felt connected to.

But now, as my husband and I await the arrival of our baby boy next year, I wonder how I’ll find that same religious sweet spot as a mother. When my parents taught us about Judaism, it was with heartfelt conviction, but what will I say?

I don’t want to raise our child entirely without religion; it’s important he knows where he comes from. He should have an understanding of the beliefs and identity his great-grandparents clung to while surviving the horrors of Auschwitz. And I believe it is traditions and rituals—whether lighting the Hanukkah candles, enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, or sleeping in Mom and Dad’s bed after a nightmare—that make up much of the fabric of our childhood memories and sense of family.

When I was in college, one of my roommates, a WASPy New Englander, was very interested in Judaism. When she asked me questions about my religion, I’d regularly refer her to my father, as I didn’t know the answers. Will I do that with my child? Just tell him to call Grandpa? And will that teach him from an early age that I don’t care, when in truth my relationship with Judaism is complicated and full of philosophical subtleties he won’t understand until he’s much older?

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I know one thing: While it remains to be seen if my husband and I will join a temple or how we’ll talk to our son about religion, much of my Jewish identity has to do with food, and I plan to use it to carry on Jewish traditions to my son. I long ago learned how to turn my Poppy Harry’s icebox dough into hamantaschen, and I make a mean noodle kugel. We’ll introduce this kid to a real bagel when visiting his East Coast relatives. I plan to fry latkes at Hanukkah and make matzah ball soup at Passover.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a haggadah with a more secular, humanistic approach to read from before our son chants the Four Questions, a rite of passage his mother had to endure year after year that I hope will be a part of his childhood memories, too.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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