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When My Daughter Asked, ‘Who Was Jesus?’

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Julia and I are snuggling on her “Little Mermaid” sheets, Ariel swimming around us. Blue eyes wide, my 3-year old asks, “Mommy, who was Jesus?”

I am stymied. I am so tired. No one has prepared me for this. Moses, definitely. Pharaoh, yes. But Jesus? I look at Ariel’s red hair floating behind her. I’m lost at sea.

Why on this night, of all nights, is my half-Jewish, Catholic-raised altar boy husband not home? If anyone should be fielding this question, it should be him. How does a Jew tell her child who Jesus was?

When David and I committed to raising Julia Jewish, this was not a question we imagined.

“Do you think she’ll beg us for a Christmas tree? What will she say when her cousins get Easter baskets?” I asked.

“Did you want a tree?” David asked.

“Yes, with an angel and star on top. I wanted lights,” I said.

“And what were you told?”

“No. We don’t do that,” I said.

“That’s what we’ll say. Don’t make this such big deal,” he said.

But there we are, in the twin bed: mommy, daughter, and the question. Sea creatures swim around me. I close my eyes. I focus on King Titan. What would he say?

I close the book we’ve been reading, “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” protecting Cindy-Lou Who, but not Julia. From what, I have no idea. I’m stalling for time. I’m silently rehearsing what to say to a child not yet lustful for Christmas trees and Santa Claus, for whom eight nights of candles are still a delight. I am wondering how Jesus showed up on her radar.

I am coming to the realization that I don’t know much about Jesus. I rub my eyes, and an image of a man walking on water appears.

“Mommy. Who he was?” She re-orients me. I kiss the top of her head. Her soft blond curls tickle my chin. She smells like strawberries. “Jesus was a special man,” I tell her. “He lived long ago. Christmas is his birthday and is celebrated by some people.”

She pulls the book. “Read more, mommy.” And that’s just what I do.

“I’m not sure I would have said much more,” my husband assures me later. “It’s a truthful, accurate answer.” I am pleased and put the episode and myself to bed.

Three days later, it’s that time of year when it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas, because it is. It’s also the first night of Hanukkah.

David, Julia, and I gather around the menorah. Together Julia and I wiggle the first candle into its proper slot on the far right of the menorah. The three of us hold the shamash, the helper candle, that lights all the other candles. Gently we touch its flame to the waiting wick. Presents are off to the side — Julia knows it’s blessings first, then gifts.

Just as my mouth opens to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing, I hear Julia singing another melody: the sweet notes of “Happy Birthday Jesus.”

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