Last July, I sent my Jewish kids to Vacation Bible School at a local baptist church. I had just given birth 11 days earlier to my third baby, and I was willing to lend the little souls of my two older children to Christ if it meant four mornings of free childcare while I lazed around with my newborn and cleaned spit-up off my nursing tops.
My son, an old curmudgeon in a 3-year-old body, wasn’t impressed with VBS, but the path to my daughter’s heart is lined with craft supplies and VBS had crafts. One day they decorated paperboard crosses with magnets on the back. My kids dutifully brought home their bedazzled crosses and stuck them on the fridge.
“Is this what the real cross looked like?” my daughter asked me.
“Well, no. I think it was made of wood,” I said.
“You mean it didn’t have sequins?”
“Ummm. No. There were definitely no sequins.”
“Why not?” She was horrified. “Why didn’t they want to make it pretty! And sparkly!”
“Let’s have a popsicle,” I said, lest I find myself explaining the design of ancient Roman torture devices to a 5-year-old, or bungling the discussion of another religion’s central theology.
While we are an interfaith family, my husband is the sort of Christian who attended Sunday school until age 9 and never went back again. But VBS wasn’t my daughter’s first foray into Christianity. She attended two years of church preschool, one at the same baptist church. I had been hesitant to send her to Christian preschool at first, but the Jewish one was full and exorbitantly expensive, and the secular ones were just exorbitantly expensive. Then we moved to a rural Southern town where it was Jesus or bust when it came to early childhood education, so we picked Jesus. (According to a sign by the highway, Jesus also has a pet sitting service, but we never called him for that.)
The Christian preschools were respectful of our Jewishness. We even provided the materials for the lesson on Hanukkah and sent in Jewish stories to read. But still, despite the fact that most of the preschool curriculum was ABCs and caterpillars and glitter paint, my unease remained every time my daughter came home singing a religious song or holding a photo of herself dressed as Mary in the manger.
Because of Christian preschool, we have a baby Jesus left over from a king cake. Don’t put Baby Jesus in your mouth, I tell my 3-year-old. Baby Jesus is a choking hazard. We have a children’s bible that has become a favorite bedtime book. Some nights we read about Jesus healing the sick, or the Last Supper, or the three wise men. I try to steer her toward Queen Esther or the exodus from Egypt.
Because I’m Jewish–and also because I’m secular–I feel a knee jerk resistance to my daughter’s interest in our nation’s dominant religion. I understand the fears of assimilation and cultural loss. The voices of religious minorities are a vital part of our American ideal of liberty, and with recent events like the decision in Town of Greece vs. Galloway, I am reminded how essential it is our voices are not drowned out. I worry too about raising a girl while navigating the patriarchal currents of Judeo-Christian traditions; Judaism, at least, is a more familiar coast.
Perhaps my unease exists not only because I’m unqualified to answer questions like, “Why does Jesus have two dads?” (not for the same reason Heather has two moms), but also because I don’t feel equipped to teach her about Judaism either.
Like my husband, I’m also a religious school drop-out whose first act of adolescent rebellion was refusing to learn Hebrew (I was a pretty lame rebel). Religious conversations trigger the hard questions about life itself–why we are here, why do bad things happen–questions where I’m not sure of the answers myself. I’m still scarred by the phase my daughter went through at age 3 where she repeatedly grilled us, for months, on what happens when we die. We did our best to answer without frightening her, but give me a birds and the bees talk any day over explaining mortality to the tiny people I can’t imagine life without.
For her 6th birthday, my daughter received a guitar from her uncle. She wrote songs about mean kids, jungle animals, and Jesus on the cross.
“Jesus loves me,” she tells me sometimes.
“Well, who wouldn’t?” I reply. After all, Jesus was a mensch, the OG hippie. I hope that learning about other religions will teach her empathy for those who are different, and respect for the diversity of customs and beliefs that enrich our country and color our world. I don’t know what her beliefs will be next year, or what they will be when she grows up, but one thing I’ve learned as a parent is that a child’s heart and mind is her own.
In the meantime, maybe I’ll get the craft supplies out. A sparkly Star of David would look great on our fridge.