As we walked into my son’s preschool classroom, his classmate waved us over to the art table where he labored with clay and popsicle sticks.
“Look at what I made, Sammy!” Kofi exclaimed.
“Oh, look, Mama!” Sammy tugged at my arm, “Kofi made a T, that’s very exciting.”
“It’s not a T!” Kofi corrected, “It’s a cross.”
“Like a shape?” Sammy asked, and my stomach turned.
“No, silly,” Kofi said. “Like Jesus died on a cross!”
“Jesus?” Sammy asked. “What’s that?”
“You know Jesus!” Kofi explained, “Jesus Christ–who died for our sins on the cross.”
I tried to put the conversation out of my head, but that night, when Sammy–my 3-year-old–told me, “Jesus loves me, that’s why he died for me,” my search for a Jewish preschool began.
I didn’t expect I’d send my son to a Jewish preschool. While we go to shul occasionally and keep Shabbat, we aren’t particularly observant. And I’ve appreciated my son’s experience in his university preschool program over the last year, and valued the cultural diversity and the silence as to questions of religion. I felt especially good about the tremendous range of backgrounds of his fellow classmates–international, multicultural, and poly-linguistic.
I did have some early anxieties, most of which were irrational. I fretted over the food, reminding the teachers frequently: no pork, or shellfish, please. They reassured me just as often that the school-provided snacks were always vegetarian.
Last fall, when his lead teacher suggested that Sammy would use the toilet eventually, I said, “Kine hora,” and she gravely misheard me, thinking I’d called her something terrible. I quickly apologized, rattled by the miscommunication. Last Pesach, when all of Sammy’s classmates were eating chametz (leavened food), convincing the teachers to feed him matzah was a challenge.
“Maybe you could bring matzah for the class?” his teacher eventually suggested, and I did, with vats of cottage cheese, butter, and jam, which the children munched and enjoyed. “The body of Christ!” Kofi alerted us.
There were trade offs–there are always trade offs–and I was mostly happy to make them.
I knew Sammy would be exposed to Christianity in its various forms, and I didn’t have a problem with that. Living in the United States, of course, such contact is inevitable. But I didn’t think he’d become its face.
Last December, long before the “Jesus died for our sins incident” that represented my personal tipping point, I arrived at school one day at the same time as Amaya, the mother of one of Samuel’s classmates. When I entered, Samuel and Amaya’s daughter, a creative, bright, and beautiful child, were singing “Jingle Bells,” their voices carrying across the classroom.
As they jumped up and down, sweetly holding hands, I told myself, don’t panic, it’s an innocent song. I scanned my brain for the song’s lyrics. It’s not even religious, I consoled myself, it’s really just a seasonal song.
Peter, the lead teacher, laughed. “It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the Jewish and Muslim children’s favorite song is ‘Jingle Bells.’”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, “it’s a real thrill.”
To my great relief, Amaya appeared similarly freaked out by the scene unfolding before us.
Still, I bit my tongue and let it go. It was “Jingle Bells,” after all, not “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Besides, a universalist by inclination, I found value in exposing my son to other religions and cultures. Our social group was very diverse, and I wanted him to spend time with people from a variety of backgrounds. I valued that and I thought that school was an important forum for it.
On the other hand, I wanted to inculcate him with Jewish values, and that was not going to happen in the context of his preschool. I was substantially satisfied, until the influence of Christianity reached a tipping point, and Sammy began parroting it. I wanted his Jewish identity to be rooted in a sense of community, not just difference.
Still, there are elements of the school that I’ll miss–including Kofi’s Jesus references, believe it or not. There is richness in diversity, and it is important for children to experience people whose belief systems differ from their own. And Sammy loves Kofi. I’ve already asked his mother about a regular play date once the boys are in different schools. Kine hora.