Last week my 17-year-old son told me he didn’t consider himself Jewish. I could tell he was looking for a reaction from the gleam in his eyes.
“OK,” I said. “That’s your choice.” I knew better than to engage in the argument he was looking for.
If I had, I’m sure he would have told me that he didn’t believe in God, that science was more interesting than Judaism and that religion was a social construct.
This is his latest favorite tagline — everything is a social construct.
“Yes,” I would have agreed. “Judaism is a social construct, one of my favorites.”
Yet, despite my cool reaction, I was a little disappointed.
I’ve made a significant effort to raise my kids as Jews, an effort compounded by my decision to intermarry and raise our kids in Kingston, Ontario, a city with a small Jewish population. For years I’ve celebrated Shabbat, taken my kids to synagogue and taught them about the holidays. I also taught their Hebrew school program for years — from the preschool Lego mishkans and candy sukkah, to hours of bar mitzvah tutoring.
Teaching a small group of Jewish children stories, Torah and Hebrew reading, prayers and Jewish history was an amazing opportunity to create Jewish community for myself and my children. When the kids got older, I re-taught myself how to chant Torah so I could teach them to read it, too. The hardest — and most enjoyable — part was the endless debates with my older son to form his bar mitzvah d’var Torah into something our rabbi found acceptable and was also genuine to his own learning and sense of self.
My son has always had a skeptical, questioning approach to Judaism. At age 5, when his Hebrew school teachers taught him the creation story, he asked them, “Haven’t you heard of science?” His favorite word for years was “why?” He challenged each and everything his teachers taught him, as I wanted him to.
My son’s announcement that he wasn’t Jewish anymore also wasn’t a surprise because it was age appropriate.
“Have your kids reached the hating Judaism stage?” a fellow congregant asked me when they saw me without my boys at tashlich this year.
I nodded. I remembered being at that stage myself: At 16, listening to Led Zeppelin with my non-Jewish friends was way cooler than being a member of my USY chapter’s Abraham Joshua Heschel Society.
I have tucked away my disappointment and told myself not to worry because I know my son has solid Jewish values. For example, he knows that the number 613 is not only our area telephone code, but the number of mitzvot commanded in the Torah – including visiting the sick, taking care of the poor and protecting the environment. He occasionally has difficulty respecting his elders — mainly his father — but I’m certain he’ll outgrow this.
There are a few other signs that my son is still Jewish:
I’ve heard him singing in Hebrew when he thinks no one is listening.
He got excited about a computer science internship in Israel.
I recently overheard him tell his younger brother what he was saying was a “gansa gishikhte,” Yiddish for a big story.
And, recently, he has a lot of opinions about the Hamas terrorist attack and war in Gaza.
My son’s Judaism — a combination of values, concerns about Israel, and interest in Yiddish and Hebrew — is lurking just underneath his teenage bravado, whether he likes it or not.
All teens need to figure out who they are as they carve out identities separate from their parents, but declaring himself not Jewish might be the most Jewish thing my son is doing. I say this not only as a former teen who wrestled with my Jewish identity, but because of the biblical story of Jacob.
I’d learned about Jacob as the founder of Israel and the father of the 12 tribes when I was a child, but I found new inspiration when I taught the story to my children at Hebrew school.
Jacob steals the birthright intended for his older brother Esau by tricking their blind father. Then years later, on his way home to confront Esau, something mysteriously wrestles Jacob in the desert. This thing is first called “eesh,” a man, but is later called “malakh,” an angel, and then later is called God. After wrestling all night, this angel/God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “he who wrestles with God.”
Could there be a cooler name? To me when Jews are called the people of Israel, it is not only in the modern political sense of Israel the country, but also in the biblical, wrestling with God sense: To be a Jew is to wrestle with morality, with God, and with Jewish identity. To be the people of Israel is to have more questions than answers. We are not placidly accepting religion or identity, but are actively struggling to understand.
This is what I did as a teenager and this is what my son is doing now.
I haven’t told my son this story. I can only imagine the eye rolling I’d receive. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it when I was his age either. So I’m keeping this story to myself, mostly because it’s not an argument I feel like engaging in, but also because it feels like a precious secret.
Wrestle away, I think. Someday you’ll come out on the other side.