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How Do I Explain the Religious Spectrum to My 7-Year-Old?

We were watching Fiddler on the Roof, my daughter’s favorite musical. During the scene in which the families prepare for Shabbat, my daughter noticed that the moms wave their hands over the candles, cover their eyes and say the blessing.

“Grandma does that,” my daughter said.

During the wedding scene, she remarked on the black suits and hats worn by the men. “Some of the people in our neighborhood wear the same outfits,” my daughter piped.

Then she asked me an interesting question about why some Jewish men wear black hats and suits, and why some don’t. More questions followed: Why do some of the girls on our local baseball team wear long skirts over their uniforms, why do some women wear wigs, why do some kids go to Hebrew school, and the list goes on. What she didn’t ask was understood: Why don’t we do those things?

My daughter is almost 7. Her father and I are divorced. He is not Jewish. I grew up in an interfaith family; my mother was raised Jewish, my father Catholic. I am situated somewhere in between–perhaps not theologically but definitely as a necessity. While watching the musical, my daughter and I had a little chat about the ways in which people express their religious beliefs. I’m not sure it went well. I was trying to present an inclusive view of various types of Jewish practice, from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform. We talked mainly about the differences one can see, things we notice in our predominantly Jewish neighborhood. We have many Jewish friends (and relatives) and they don’t all practice Judaism in the same way.

I thought the conversation had ended–on an upbeat note and pleasantly: People can choose their own way of expressing their religious beliefs. But my daughter wasn’t satisfied. With the insightful innocence of a first-grader she turned to me and asked, “So, you mean some Jewish people are more Jewish than other Jewish people?” More. Less. More? Less? So much for the conversation being over. I had one of those unsettling parental moments when one realizes that what one is about to say really, really matters. I even did that imaginary projection into the future where my daughter tells her therapist how badly I handled everything and messed her up for life. Ah guilt–the great leveler.

My daughter identifies strongly with Judaism. Some of her friends go to Hebrew school, attend services at synagogue, speak Hebrew at school, and half her family practices Judaism. She even surprised me once, when we were saying a prayer before dinner (a non-denominational one at that), by covering her eyes with her hands and saying the prayer silently. When I asked her what she was doing, she looked at me quizzically. She said matter-of-factly that her prayer was private and she was concentrating and this was how Grandma does it.

Up until the latest viewing of Fiddler on the Roof, I hadn’t actually given much consideration to my daughter’s religious education. No, that’s not true. I have considered it; I just haven’t committed to it. I was raised Catholic. It didn’t stick. But I also didn’t have a choice, a fact that was related to me by my parents. I went to church every weekend from the time I was very young until the time I left for college, when I quickly shed the practice. I had 10 years of weekend religious instruction, made all the sacraments (First Communion, penance, confirmation), and even attended one very long year of Catholic school.

I didn’t want to over-interpret my daughter’s question–“So, you mean some Jewish people are more Jewish than other Jewish people?” I wanted to respond in an age-appropriate way that was satisfying and helpful for her. I didn’t want to assume her question contained a value judgment about being “more” or “less” Jewish (as if more might be better than less or vice versa). Her question was sincere and astute, but it certainly struck a chord. My daughter considers herself Jewish. She wants to know how to show it. I have not yet discussed it with her father who is Episcopalian but doesn’t practice his religion in any formal way.

And, if I pursue religious instruction for my daughter, should I also for my son? And what about me? I suppose I’ve considered myself on hiatus from practicing a religion, but I’m sure that won’t cut the mustard with the kids. I know from experience that what I do sets the example. My mother always came to church with us. She had converted to Catholicism two years after she married my father. Then, one day, at Mass, she didn’t go to Communion. She stayed in the pew. When I asked her about it she simply said she didn’t feel she could take Communion anymore. When I said I didn’t want to either, I was told that it wasn’t my choice. When I was an adult, I could decide for myself. At the time, I was to attend Mass with the family, take Communion with the family (except for Mom) and toe the line.

I don’t want to do this to my daughter. Recently, she and her brother and I were discussing an upcoming Jewish holiday and whether or not we would celebrate it. Before I could reply, my son told me that he is Jewish and Christian and this is what he tells people at school when they ask which holidays he celebrates, Christmas or Hanukkah. My daughter agreed, but she added that she likes being Hebrew. I was surprised at their matter-of-factness, though I’m not sure where their vocabulary is coming from–school perhaps?

My daughter loves the character of the Fiddler as he makes music from the rooftops, shadows Tevye during his moments of reflection, and symbolizes the unrelenting yet questioning nature of faith. She also loves it when Tevye talks to God in his disingenuous yet good-natured, self-effacing manner.

“Jewish people talk to God,” my daughter told me as we watched the musical.

“Many people talk to God,” I replied. When they do so, they are being more or less themselves, I thought to myself. Are we being ourselves? Do the kids need more definition about who or what we are regarding religion? These questions push to the forefront of my mind as I ponder the kids’ remarks about celebrating holidays.

Concerning my daughter’s religious education, perhaps my own self-reflection is where I will have to start. For the present, we (her family) will proceed with kindness, and give her as much opportunity to express her faith as we are able, and hopefully as much as she rightly deserves.

Felice Indinoli Bochman

Felice Indinoli Bochman is a writer, editor and artist living in Boston with her children. She edited “Miraculous Coincidences,” a narrative about growing up in Jewish in Communist Russia (MGraphics Publishing).