Under cover of night, she (or perhaps he) slinks into your child’s room, eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness, until they fix on the sleeping figure within. Slowly moving toward the bed, the prowler stops inches from the pillow. A hand reaches out, carefully searching for a small yet recognizable object concealed beneath. Once found, the item is delicately removed and a token left in its place. Mission accomplished, the intruder departs as soundlessly as they came…
No, just the tooth fairy (a.k.a. Mom or Dad).
The tooth fairy, that uniquely American rite of passage, is one of the few opportunities for Jewish parents to tell outlandish — and publicly sanctioned — lies to their children. And, while I firmly believe in the importance of honesty in raising kids, I’m just fine with this little white lie. Why? Because all kids — even Jewish ones — need a bit of magic in their lives.
My children, having spent most of their lives in the South, have grown accustomed to the onslaught of stories, songs, and personal appearances by Santa Claus during the Christmas season. Many Southerners we’ve met aren’t even sure what Hanukkah is, asking, “but you still put up a tree, right?”
When they were young, my husband and I calmly explained to our kids that Jews didn’t believe in Santa Claus. Later, as they grew, we confided to them that Santa was a lovely (but fictional) story told by Christian parents to their kids. Armed with this knowledge, they began to observe their peers through an entirely new lens; mentally cataloging those who still believed and those who didn’t. To my knowledge, they never gave the secret away; perhaps simply knowing something that many of their friends didn’t was satisfaction enough.
So, considering how well our kids — and, for that matter, just about every other Jewish kid in America — handled the absence of a holiday superhero in their own lives, one might wonder why we (personally and collectively) perpetuate the totally unnecessary myth of the tooth fairy.
My theory? We champion the tooth fairy for the magic of it, pure and simple. As a Jew by choice, I have embraced the richness of my new religion and the chance to share its traditions with my children. Still, over the years, I’ve felt some nostalgia for the (very secular) excitement I once felt for Santa Claus growing up. When would he arrive? What would he bring? If I stayed awake, could I get a glimpse of him?
And while most Jewish parents may not have the same perspective as me, I believe we all share the same inherent desire to keep the sense of magic alive in our children for as long as possible. And that’s why we love the tooth fairy.
We excitedly tell our kids that there is a magical something out there that finds value in their little white offerings. We tell them and they believe us, because they want the magic as much as we do. And for a few years, at least, belief in this exciting otherworld wills it into existence.
Eventually, of course, children grow up and learn the folly of their parents. But even then, the need for the magic continues. Even after they knew the truth, my kids asked if the tooth fairy would still visit if they kept putting their newly lost teeth under their pillows. To be sure, no one was in a hurry to give up the easy money (although at $1 per tooth — the fairy’s going rate at our house — nobody was getting rich, either). Rather, it was the notes the tooth fairy left that seemed to be the biggest prize. In each letter, she praised their beautifully brushed teeth, marveled at how they lost it (e.g., knocked out during a basketball game), and discussed how the tooth would be used in the renovation of her all-tooth castle.
As the author of these notes (my son actually learned the truth after finding my note on the family computer’s hard drive) I’ve enjoyed the magic as much as they did. The looks of anticipation on their faces before they went to bed, the intimacy of stealing into their rooms and exchanging their gifts for one of my own, the looks of excitement when they bounded down the stairs the next morning — dollar and letter in hand — made every late night waiting for them to fall asleep worth it.
So let’s be proud our collective creation, the tooth fairy. Because whether you’re young or old, this world needs as much magic as it can get.