“I don’t know why / I share my lunch / a Cherry Coke / a Nestle Crunch.” If you’re from a certain generation, you know that this is the middle school “Weird Al” inspired parody of the Jewish prayer Adon Olam. I used to snicker this to my friends in a whisper, as Mr. Klein, the most notorious Shabbat usher, would shush me into submissive silence.
Another time, while blissfully eating my plain bagel and sipping my Yoo-hoo, I got called to the “Principal’s office” of Hebrew School. Mrs. R — who had a striking resemblance to Miss Trunchbull from “Matilda” — went on a loud tirade berating me for not being able to memorize the Hebrew prayers as fluently and quickly as all of my other Hebrew school peers.
Even later in life, when I went to the Hillel on my college campus freshman year, I was peppered with questions about what private Jewish day school I went to as a child. When I responded that I’m actually from a mutli-faith background, I was wholly ignored.
I say all of this not to degrade my faith, but to simply say, my experience with formalized Judaism growing up had a pro-list of bagels and a con list of almost everything else.
Fast forward many moons, my daughter recently came home with her first “progress report” from her Jewish preschool. I perused all the grades like the good Jewish mother I am, to find mostly Ps (proficient) in all categories. Sure, there were some Ds (developing) but for things such as “Can regulate own emotions when corrected” (she is my daughter after all).
Then, shock and awe. Under the category “Judaism and Jewish Customs” she received an OUTSTANDING. I genuinely laughed out loud as I shot off a text to my husband. “An A+ Jew,” I joked, “the first one in the family!” He responded by saying at the conference earlier that day, her teachers inquired about how observant we are in our household, because our daughter was so engrossed in the prayers, customs and traditions of Judaism in the classroom.
I looked up from where I was standing, watching my daughter nosh on her after school bagel. (See? We do have some Jewish traditions in our home.)
“Hey, Miss S says you love Shabbat and all the Jewish things at school.”
“Yes, Mommy, you cover your eyes like this after you light the Shabbat candles.”
She then proceeded to show me.
“See, Mommy? And then we say this…”
She started to recite the blessing as best a 3-year-old can, but admittedly more coherently than I ever could throughout my childhood.
My daughter continued speaking about being the “Shabbat Star,” when she got to be the one to light the candles in school. She then told me the full and complete story of Purim and ended her toddler tirade with a list of people in her family who are Jewish.
“And Mommy is Jewish like me. Right, Mommy?”
I hesitated. Of course, I am Jewish. But am I Jewish like her? Do I find the joy in Judaism that she was finding so early?
I smiled. “Yes, Mommy is Jewish like you.”
In that moment, I felt conflicted. There was such obvious pride beaming from my child, but my own pride over her was tinged with guilt. We haven’t been doing a weekly Shabbat in our home. While we definitely opened presents all eight nights of Hanukkah, we surely did not light the candles or do the blessings every night. Our Passover seder’s big tradition is the family Olympics of how many bottles of Santa Margherita we’ll empty — well, that and the yearly gossip session after the extended family goes home.
Throughout the following week, and even still, in moments of silence, I am finding myself reflecting on how I can integrate my daughter’s love of Judaism and Jewish culture with my own conflicted feelings.
Of course, I called my mother, who like any good Bubbe, gave me a mouthful of hard truths and high praise for her precious granddaughter.
“It seems like my granddaughter is taking the good from the experiences she’s given. She doesn’t scoff at some of the old-fashioned traditions or hold a grudge against one person who certainly doesn’t represent Judaism as a whole. She takes what she needs and values and keeps moving. You could learn something from her, Rebecca.”
Feeling properly admonished, I decided my mother was right. (See, Mom? I put it right there in writing. This sentence will live forever on the internet. I’ll teach you how to bookmark this the next time I call.)
I decided to take a page from my daughter’s book and reframe my thinking — for my past-child-self and for my daughter and any future children.
Sure, I do not attend synagogue with any type of regularity. But I do attend all of the young family events with my daughter, everything from “Shabbat in the Sukkah” to the Purim spiel to apple picking at the orchard on Rosh Hashanah. From these events, my family cultivates the Jewish value of family and fellowship.
And no, I do not know all of my prayers and their meanings, but during life-changing moments, I often find myself taking comfort in their familiar words. Whenever the words “May God bless you and keep you” start, I instinctively beam at my daughter with pride and endless, unconditional love. When my Uncle Herbert recently died, it was the Mourner’s Kaddish that we were able to recite as a family that gave us strength. Through many Hebrew prayers, my family cultivates the Jewish value of being thoughtful and purposeful with our words.
Of course, I roll my eyes when the tuition increases, synagogue dues become more taxing and we have to give money for another Scholastic Book Fair. But we often sit around the dinner table discussing injustice in the world and how it connects to our lives. When our town was gathering items for Afghani refugees, it was my daughter who helped me collect, organize and deliver necessities to our local community center. My daughter reminds me with unwavering timing that Friday is coming and we need money for her tzedakah box. Every Hanukkah, we do eight days of giving, where we pick one thing to do that will improve the life of others. One night last year we made care bags for sick children in the hospital. My husband organized the items, my daughter decorated the bags with happy drawings and I delivered them. With our family’s focus on community and action, we are cultivating the Jewish values tikkun olam and tzedakah.
If I received a report card for my own Judaism, I do not think it would be “outstanding.” Most days probably proficient. Or maybe even developing. But if that report card wasn’t grading my experience of formal religion, but that of Jewish values and experiences, maybe I’m actually right on track.
I love my family. I love being Jewish. I have, through my daughter’s opening of my eyes, found a love of Jewish practices. And while I can always develop more as a Jewish woman and mother, I think that’s pretty outstanding.