Since the day our 11-year-old was born, we’ve poured on the love, hugs, and Legos. But we slacked big time on his Jewish education.
Although I was raised Reform and my husband Conservative (the nephew of a rabbi, no less), we’re both essentially agnostic and take our cultural Jewish identity for granted. We really get Jon Stewart. You say sheket bevakashah, and we’ll both say “hey.” My husband can read Hebrew (never mind its meaning). I really like salty fish slathered in mayo. We feel Jewish. Unfortunately, that sense of identity was formed at the knees of Yiddish-speaking grandparents—it’s not something that can be passed on. And while our son has his own quad of adoring grandparents, they’ve long since abandoned their parents’ more traditional ways (my side leans towards atheism, my husband’s towards guilty apathy). And so our son’s sense of being Jewish is surface, at best.
It didn’t help that when my son started pre-K at his Park Slope, Brooklyn school it was an up-and-comer; Jewish kids were scarce in his grade and none of his close friends were Members of the Tribe. His first inkling that he was different than his pals came about during the holiday season when he was 7, and we had to explain that Santa would not be shimmying down our chimney. Not because he wasn’t good, but because we’re Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas. Yes, Santa was real (we didn’t want him to be the kid who blew it for believers); no, he’s not visiting you. Harsh. He got over it, when he realized he’d get eight Hanukkah presents instead. We lit the candles, had him recite the blessing with us, and that was his Jewish education for the year.
In retrospect, perhaps we should have sought out other kids like him and sprung for Hebrew school even if, at the time, we thought the whole organized religion thing was kind of suspect (given such worldwide strife)—and who could afford it, anyway? In retrospect, perhaps we could have found some wiggle room in our budget, but it just wasn’t a priority then to us. It’s the “us” that gets to me now, because this was about him, my son, and not about us, and we’ll forever feel some regret that the deep sense of identity that we take for granted will never be his.
So now our son is halfway to 12, and 13 is looming with a neon sign flashing now or never. Even my mother—the atheist!—is feeling the guilt. The least religious woman I know, the most confident that there’s nothing beyond this life, offered to pay for bar mitzvah tutoring lessons to get him up to speed. But even if we could manage this, the system rewards longtime devotion: Temples generally do not bar mitzvah kids from families who aren’t members. Trying to get the deed done would be complicated at best. I’m sure it’s possible, but practical? I’m not sure I want to subject my busy middle schooler to a year of Hebrew study so that we can feel better about our choices.
And also there’s this: Is it cheating to bypass the years of learning, the immersion in Jewish life, to make my son a proper man in the eyes of God?
I’m going to eat a bagel with whitefish salad and think about it.