Elmo Says Shema, But My Kids Don't – Kveller
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Elmo Says Shema, But My Kids Don’t

When I was a child I thought I could talk to God and my dead grandparents. I thought they could hear me, watch over me. I thought they knew what was in my heart.

I was jealous of my Christian friends who prayed at night before bed. I had seen children kneel at the side of the bed, hands pressed together. And I saw it on Little House on the Prairie. One night, I actually tried it. I didn’t know about the crossing myself part, but I was afraid my parents would walk in and find me praying and I would get in trouble. It just wasn’t something a little Jewish girl was supposed to do. We don’t pray before bed.

When my children were born, I read to them every night. Even when they were newborns and couldn’t focus on pictures let alone words, I read to them. And I sang to them. Every night. I sang the Yiddish lullabye, Ofyn Pripichik and Kenny Loggins’ House at Pooh Corner and Sesame Street’s I’d Like to Visit the Moon, as sung by Ernie and Aaron Neville. These were the songs I sung. These were my prayers for them. That they’d be adventurous and bold. That they’d know that however far away life would take them, they would always be grounded by love and home and tradition.

But I didn’t teach them to say the
before they went to sleep. I didn’t know I was supposed to. And quite honestly, even if I did know, I don’t think I would have done so.

I first read about this ritual in Slovie Jungreiss-Wolff’s Raising a Child with Soul. In it, she talks about teaching children to say the Shema before going to sleep and reciting Modeh Ani when they wake. I liked what these prayers meant. I liked that we woke feeling grateful for the day. But I wasn’t comfortable with the prayers. I thought Jewish children don’t pray before bed.

Last week, a young woman I know posted on Facebook that her young daughter had “taught Elmo to say the Shema all by himself!” It was adorable. I pictured the little girl holding the red, furry paws over the big ping-pong ball eyes and saying the prayer. It made me feel guilty. Am I a bad Jewish mom?

Thing is, it’s not like it’s too late. It’s really late, but not too late. I guess I could still tell my kids this is something I want them to do, but to be honest, I don’t want them to. I guess it makes me uncomfortable. It’s more Jewish than I want to be. And I guess, to be honest, it’s not that I want my children to grow up Jewish, it’s that I want them to grow up to be Jewish like me.

Maybe I’ve heard, known, too many stories of people whose children have grown up to be so much more observant than their parents and that their observance and requirements cause too large a barrier between them. But I don’t think I thought about that. I think it just felt…weird. Maybe it’s that the unshakeable belief in God I had as a child, I don’t have as an adult. As much as I want my children to have faith, as important as I feel a belief in God is for a child, it feels inauthentic for me to tell my children to pray in their beds. Perhaps I didn’t and don’t teach my children to say the Shema before bed because, quite simply, it wasn’t something I did. And not that I’m doing everything exactly like my parents did, but reciting prayers, in Hebrew, upon going to sleep and waking is foreign. It doesn’t feel right.

I like to think that we have a lot of options. That just as there are many ways to parent, there are many ways to parent Jewishly. So, I’m not a bad Jewish mom because my kids don’t say the Shema before bed. And who knows…maybe my friend with the daughter who teaches her dolls Hebrew prayers doesn’t, like I do, bake fresh challah every Friday morning.

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