The Sunday morning routine in my house is a common one. My alarm clock sounds a tinny, unwelcome ring at 7 a.m. I rise and shuffle to my 6-year-old son’s room, where I begin the painful process of dragging him out of bed. Soon I’m bundling him and his snack into the car and driving him to our Reform synagogue for his weekly dose of religious school.
“Jack” is not happy with this arrangement. In religious kindergarten, he learns stories of the Creation and only wants to know where the dinosaurs come in. He colors pictures of trees for Tu B’Shevat and constructs cardboard menorahs for Hanukkah, but he’d rather be building forts out of Legos. He learns a few words in Hebrew, but frankly, everyone he knows in New Hampshire speaks English and he just doesn’t see the point of having to memorize other words with the same meaning as those he already knows. In short, he has no desire to attend religious school.
Ordinarily, my husband and I take Jack’s interests into account when planning his activities. But we are overruling him on this one. He’s going to attend religious school, we have announced, at least through his bar mitzvah year. That’s seven more years, and the matter is not open for debate.
Even as I made this pronouncement to Jack for the first of many times, it struck me how ironic it was. Because here’s the interesting part: neither I, a Jew raised in an extremely secular environment, nor Jack’s father, who is of a different faith, ever attended a day of Jewish religious school in our lives.
So why are we insisting that our son spend three hours of each week learning about Judaism?
The answer to that question, I think, lies in a universal desire of parents to give to their children more than they have themselves. Some parents want their kids to have more financial security than they do. Others hope their children will experience a happier family life, or a more fulfilling career.
In my case, I always knew that I was Jewish. But growing up, I never really learned what that meant.
Both of my parents are Jewish. We lit menorahs every year on Hanukkah and ate matzah on Passover. I was taught about the Holocaust, that anti-Semitism existed in the world and that even today, some people would hate me because of my religion. But I never heard the stories of the Old Testament. I never absorbed the rhythms of Hebrew or the laws of the Torah; I never learned what keeping kosher really means or why I should care. I understood that Jews had survived millennia of oppression, but I never learned as a child the core of what it was that could so fortify a people that they could persist and thrive despite a constant history of efforts to eliminate them.
Thus, as my husband and I prepared in our thirties to become parents and made the decision that our children would be raised as Jews, I knew that I wanted my children to have a better sense of their Jewish identity than I did. I wanted them to grow up feeling at home both in the world at large and in their own Jewish community. Ultimately, they might choose to accept their Jewish heritage as adults, or they might choose to reject it. Either way, I wanted to be confident that they would comprehend the significance of such a decision.
My husband and I took our first steps into a synagogue with caution, knowing that the world we entered would be largely unfamiliar. We crept toward Judaism at first with the stealth common to cats sizing up their prey. We sat through Friday night services, our lips unmoving as others in the congregation sang songs and recited Hebrew prayers that were completely unknown to us. We discovered holidays about which we’d been ignorant, like Purim, Sukkot and Shabbat. I found, to my surprise, that many Jewish values comported with my own. I was not familiar with the phrase tikkun olam, for example, but the notion of “repairing the world” had thus far been the guiding force of my career. Family, freedom, education and social justice were all lights in the Jewish world, and these were all values I hoped to pass on to my as-of-yet unconceived children.
Nearly five years ago, when my husband, Jack and I moved to New Hampshire, we were invited to a Havdalah service at our new Reform temple. After asking what that word meant (it is a ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and ushering in the new week), we agreed to attend.
As the service began, someone dimmed the electric lights in the sanctuary as others distributed candles to everyone present. We lit our candles and someone began to strum melodies on a guitar. I glanced at my blond-haired, blue-eyed son, not yet two years old, and I gasped at a scene that surely has played out across continents and centuries. My son was bathed in candlelight and listening to the music, and he was surrounded by his new community—his new Jewish community. In that moment, I felt, for the first time in my life, the link to 5,000 years of Jewish history. That history and this people are mine, and they are his.
So that’s why Jack goes to religious school: so he can grow up with a real understanding of this part of his identity. By insisting Jack get up on Sunday mornings, I can give my son a gift that neither I nor his father ever had.