My daughter started Hebrew School last week. She’s in kindergarten and will be learning the Jewish fundamentals—holidays, traditions, lifecycle events—all the good stuff. For me this is a huge deal—HUGE!—because I’m a Jewish educator. And now my daughter is old enough to finally be in Hebrew School, in a grade that I used to teach! It’s very surreal.
Just before the first day of school, we got an email from her teacher with that week’s essential question which would comprise the core of the curriculum. The teacher asked us to talk about the question with our children to help prepare them for the conversation in the classroom. The question was: What do I do that makes me Jewish?
It’s a perfect point to start a Jewish education. The idea of identifying what we already do that makes us Jewish is spot-on for introducing 5-year-olds to Jewish concepts and ideas. As an educator, I loved it. I was curious to see where my daughter would define her Judaism—would she talk about Shabbat time, our Friday night ritual? Or maybe how we go to Tot Shabbat regularly? Or even how Mommy runs programs for children at a synagogue, or how her preschool was part of our synagogue?
But when I asked my daughter the question, she had no answers for me. After a few um’s and uh’s, she said, “We take care of our family?” I pushed her a bit to answer a little more deeply, and her next response was, “We love each other?”
My daughter, who is being raised in a pretty Jewish household, had no idea what we do that makes us Jewish.
Which made me think for a moment. How does a 5-year-old define being Jewish?
She can’t. Because she has no other understanding of life besides being Jewish. To her, being Jewish is so pervasive that there’s no other way to explain things. She doesn’t know that her non-Jewish friends don’t celebrate Shabbat. Or that they don’t get monthly PJ Library books in the mail. She might know that her non-Jewish friends celebrate Christmas and us Jews celebrate Hanukkah—but beyond that, there’s no way for her to define the parameters to this question.
Being Jewish isn’t cut and dry. It’s nebulous. Not just a religion, a culture, or an ethnicity, Judaism is all of these and more. If it’s hard for me to explain it as an adult, how can I expect my daughter to answer what makes her Jewish at 5 years old?
What’s kind of amazing, though, is that the answers she did give, though not what the teacher was looking for, are pretty darn Jewish. When the great Rabbi Hillel was challenged to distill all of Judaism into a brief explanation that he could deliver while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and learn it!”
As it turns out, loving each other is pretty spot-on. If that’s what she’s learned in her 5 and three-quarter years of being Jewish, I’ll take it.