When my son was nearly 5, he and I moved to a new home. It was only 30 miles away, but those 30 miles changed everything. We left the insular Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel, and settled into a Modern Orthodox community in Rockland County, New York.
Although I was virtually alone, I was determined to remain connected to my past and remain observant. My commitment didn’t come from a particular religious belief, but from the strong resolve to stay connected–and help my son stay connected–to our network of Hasidic relatives. For my son, I believed, it would help nurture a relationship with his Satmar family.
But things didn’t go as I’d hoped. Staying religious as a full-time single parent meant spending Shabbat in our tiny basement apartment, waiting, waiting, waiting for the day to pass. My son also had trouble fitting into the religious community and, despite my best efforts to go to shul and participate in meals in the neighborhood, we felt shut out. It wasn’t from lack of effort on the community’s end. We simply didn’t fit: nothing of my socioeconomic situation as a struggling single mom belonged in middle-class Modern Orthodox suburbia.
For a while, I paid an Orthodox boy from my block $6 an hour to entertain my son on Shabbat. But when the days got longer, and the humidity more unbearable, the misery thickened too. And I realized that if I didn’t give up being observant, I would turn tradition into a punishment. And that was the last thing I ever wanted to do.
So, with a heavy heart, we began to fill our Saturdays with trips to the pool, the park, and the gym–all activities that were not accepted in my former community on Shabbat. I felt like it was the right decision, but also that it came at the price of my son’s education in a religion I so much wanted to share with him. Soon, he would confuse Saturday with Sunday and forget the prayers and traditions that I could never forget.
But I continued to send my son to a Chabad day school, and there he learned from his friends and teachers about Orthodox values. As he grows–now he is 8–he’s increasingly absorbing the social and educational messages about religion, and starting to ask questions. Over dinner, at bedtime, in the morning while we sit on the stoop and wait for the bus, he often asks, “Why don’t we keep Shabbat?” “Why don’t we keep kosher?” “Why don’t we go to the synagogue?”
I always tell him that I am not observant now, because I found that it made our home happier, but that I feel very connected to our Jewish heritage and that I try to observe traditions in my own way. I also tell him that he is welcome to do otherwise, and that everyone’s minds work differently, everyone believes something else, and that he should do what he believes in.
A few months ago, he started to keep kosher. I think what motivates him is the social context, and that it’s a reflection on social norms and his desire to fit in. But I’ve gone to great lengths to accommodate him and make sure that I never am in the way of his practices. It’s been some months, and he still stands by his kashrut rules.
While my official mantra is that my child can express his religiosity any way, I am quietly glad with this development. I feel a sense of pride to see my son read the label on food for kosher ingredients, or pass on a sandwich that contains both dairy and meat. I often wonder why I want him to be Orthodox when I don’t ascribe to its philosophy.
This week, as I was pushing some meat plates out of the way to get him a dairy bowl for cereal, I had a realization that perhaps explained why.
I want my son to grow up with a strong Jewish identity, a strong Jewish education, and a passionate sense of his place in the Jewish community. I harbor a fear–perhaps irrationally–that he will not get any of that comprehensive education and commitment outside of the Orthodox realm. I am afraid that if he won’t read labels, or spend Shabbat differentiating between muksah (forbidden on Shabbat) and not-muksah, he will not grow up with the same understanding of Jewish law and its role in Jewish history.
I think about this fear I have of my son losing touch with his Jewish identity and I wonder if it is valid. I wonder if it is a good idea to encourage my child to take upon himself the burden of traditions I don’t observe. It’s a question I wrestle with as a Jewish parent who forges her own path in an unfamiliar world. But when it’s Friday night and the sun is setting outside the window, and my son looks on seriously as I light candles, I silently hope, in my own form of prayer, that whatever I do, right or wrong, I will raise a child who embodies all that is beautiful about our Jewish heritage.