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jewish identity

I Use the Three-Letter Word with My Kids

kid

In our home, we talk about God as if He is a member of our extended family, like Zeydie or Uncle Maury. We also talk about the soul. Our boys, who are 6 and 9, ask questions that are impossible to answer:

“Mom, how do you know God is real? Does He talk to you?”

“Mom, how do you know there is a place we go to when we die?”

“Mom, how do you know that my soul will always be alive?”

“I don’t know exactly how,” I respond. “It’s more of a feeling than anything else.”

This seems to be enough for my kids. At least for now, at these ages.

I’m a psychiatrist, and God comes up a lot in my work with patients, especially when people are in pain. They may be in an untenable work or family or health situation, but they find consolation in their faith. For many of my patients, God is a healing and comforting presence.

I’ve noticed that the colleagues and patients that bring up God with me are not usually Jewish. I sometimes feel that “God” has become a dirty word among some circles of my religion. If you talk about God, you risk being thought of as a sanctimonious religious extremist, a wide-eyed simpleton or, God forbid, a political conservative. I don’t really fit into any of these categories.

We are traditional, but not Orthodox. I grew up, though, with a mother and father who spoke about God in many contexts. When I had a scary ache or pain, Mom told me: “God made our bodies to heal themselves.” When I was about to go on a trip, Dad said: “God should watch over you and keep you safe.”

I found this sort of talk reassuring. God’s presence and involvement in my life mean that even today, I never feel truly alone. I have tried to imbue this sense of the Divine into my own children because I feel that it is one of the most valuable gifts parents can give to their children. Based on my own experience and that of believing friends, I think faith is formed most easily very early in life.

As a mother, I talk about the soul because I want death to lose its inherent scariness. My kids already are aware that living creatures die, and because of our conversations, they see dying as a transition rather than an end.

Before our boys go to bed, we sometimes watch videos (Rabbi David Aaron’s short animations) on YouTube that address these heavy subjects in cartoons that my kids can relate to and understand. We also read books with God as a leading character, although sadly, it is hard to find such books by Jewish authors.

Recently, following a conversation on spiritually approaching life challenges, one of my colleagues gave me a book entitled “He Satisfies My Soul.” My colleague is African-American and Christian, and he celebrates God and faith unabashedly, rather than speaking about these subjects in dismissively or in cynical tones.

When I was facing a difficult career decision, another colleague, who is Catholic,  told me “I’ll pray on this for you.” When I was struggling with a difficult pregnancy, my Orthodox friend in Israel said, “I’m going to the Kotel (Western Wall) to say a blessing for your health.”  These gestures felt incredibly intimate and heartfelt to me. But sometimes I’m not sure with Jewish friends that it’s okay for me to act similarly.

For instance, I have a non-practicing Jewish friend who recently got diagnosed with cancer. When I asked him his mother’s name so I could say a mishabeirach (prayer for healing), I felt apprehensive that he might feel I was imposing my faith on him. Luckily, my question was met with gratitude rather than offense. But I wonder, how did we get to this point where the bearers of monotheism can no longer freely talk about Theos?

What seems to be generally acceptable right now is talking about spirituality and mindfulness. No one is offended. But do these beliefs sufficiently gird a person against all of the knocks that can occur in a life? I’m not so sure.

So, I’m going to continue to include God in our conversations at home. When my son recently had a horrible bout of strep throat, he cried to me in the middle of the night pleading that I stop the pain. “This may be a good time to say a special prayer to God”, I said as I held him. Prayer is no substitute for penicillin, but his own prayer went a long way to comfort him.

My approach doesn’t mean that I am free of existential uncertainties. After all, Israel — the name God gives to Jacob, a forefather of the Jewish people — means “wrestle with God.” My children will have many more questions as they grow older and will ultimately choose their own paths.  To me, talking to my kids about God and souls and an afterlife is similar to advising them to eat vegetables and floss at night. They may internalize these messages. Or they may not. But I believe it is a good place to start.

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