Mom Will Decide How Jewish We Are

Last night we sat at Art’s Deli (see how Jewish we are), and talked about our family schedule for next week. The kids have their first day of school on Wednesday, but Thursday is Rosh Hashana. My husband, Jane and Alexander all groaned in chorus.

“Do we have to stay home that day?” My husband asked.

Notice that no one asked if we had to go to shul. We’re not good with shul (Temple). We haven’t belonged to one in the last few years. The one we left simply wasn’t a good fit, and with the exception of Chabad the rest of them feel like a country club. You join, you pay, and maybe you network. Nothing about them felt particularly necessary to me, and my husband specializes in irreverence.

“We don’t have to stay home that day, we can go to Temple. The kids can go with Grandpa…”

And then there was more moaning. It’s the second day of school. They don’t want to fall behind before school starts. Alexander wants to organize his desk. The kids were understandably nervous about missing the second day of school.

And at that moment I wanted to cry. I felt like the ground was falling out from under me. We’ve not embraced the Jewish schools for a number of reasons academic and social. But at that one horrible moment, I thought, “Shit. This isn’t fair to my kids.”

My kids are in a Xtian school. It’s not Catholic, and it’s not *technically* parochial, but it’s on a church property, and they say benedictions and Lord’s Prayers, and things like that. To their credit they also sing John Lenon’s Imagine, so I’m not feeling like holy rollers are out to convert my kids, but it’s definitely not a setting for observant Jews. Dinner last night reminded me that we are not Observant Jews, and I feel badly about that fact.

My father is an observant Jew. My mother bought a house at a seance (not kidding). I’m comfortable in a conservative temple, but I’m not interested in joining one. My husband hates it, and frankly it’s too late for my kids. They don’t like it.

We’re not Kosher, we don’t observe Shabbat, and Jane will not be having a Bat Mitzvah.

I however felt the world close in on me when my husband said, “Mom will decide how Jewish we are.” And it was somehow a decision to be made. Do I honor Jane and Alexander’s desire to be in school? The guilt is extraordinary (waving hello to my Catholic friends). Rosh Hashana has always felt like the least moving of all Jewish holidays. I dislike having to purchase a ticket. It makes me feel like I’m off to a tent revival.

However, a small part of me wants my kids to have the experience. They’re growing up in a secular home, with a father who told them that there is no G-d, but who plays along with the Tooth Fairy.

To be very clear, I’m not necessarily in disagreement with my husband. I don’t really want to go to services next week, my kids don’t really want to go, but it’s a shanda for the goyim.

So I’m still deciding how Jewish we are. And I’m very hopeful that we can find a house in Beverly Hills soon so that my kids can go to a good public school that is closed on Jewish Holidays.

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Comments 25

  1. I have no great advice. They are your kids and you and Mr G need to figure it out. Religion is not so much about ritual and attendance. It’s about living by the golden rule and trying to do no harm. I’ve been to too many religious services surrounded by people who I know to be dishonest in business and life. They usually pray the loudest.

  2. I don’t buy the it is too late for your kids argument. It is not too late, it is just a matter of them finding meaning in it. I am not trying to sell you into joining or going. My kids go to a Jewish day school. It is a great school and the kids go on to be very successful, yadda yadda yadda.

    There are some great shuls out there that don’t feel like country clubs that offer a meaningful experience. The problem is that the high holidays are not the time to find that place. It is a crazy time of year that makes everyone a little bit nuts.

    If you really want to get the kids involved, get them into something where they make friends. Let them go to a Jewish youth group, send them to some Jewish camps. It goes a long way.

    Anyhoo, my soap box is broken and I have to run coach soccer. Shana tova

  3. You know what, Jessica, I often have the same feelings as it relates to our family. *Technically* we’re Catholic, but we haven’t been to church in years. I’ll be honest, I lost a bit of faith when my Dad died several years ago, but that’s the reason we haven’t been *good* Catholics. I agree with the prior comment in that as long you guide your kids with the most basic decent life principles, you are doing pretty good and quite frankly way better than many people!

  4. The Atheist in the room has no advice on the Temple/Stay Home/Go To School question, but I will tell you that I am also hoping for you to get a house in BH soon, but for my own selfish reasons (same area code.)

  5. $0.02 from a Chabad Rabbi…
    Have a meaningful holiday dinner at home Wed. night with your family. Talk about yourself and what it means to you to be Jewish.
    Call the local Chabad and find out what time they will be having Tashlich services. Take your family out on Thursday afternoon to Tashlich and ask the Rabbi to sound the Shofar for the kids. Everyone is happy…
    Happy New Year and good luck!
    Yisrael

  6. As a Reform Jew who went to a largely non-Jewish schools – I understand your kids’ angst…or at least I think I do. It definitely singles you out as being ‘different’…at the beginning of the year, no less. But I also think it’s part of their identity – and it’s important to understand and recognize that. Ultimately, it helps you get along in the world.

    I do agree with recoveryrabbi…Taschlich is a relatively short service, performed by a body of water…and it’s quite lovely. And if you don’t go, well , at least you have Yom Kippur to deal with any leftover guilt you may have!

    In the meantime, shana tova.

  7. Sounds like you are being very hard on yourself. It’s a struggle living in a secular world. I grew up in Atlanta where I was one of a few Jews in our school. It was always awkward when I was the only one missing school for the high holidays, and my parents weren’t even religious. Now I live in NY where the schools are closed for not just the first day of Rosh Hashanah, but the second day also. It certainly makes everything easier. I agree with the peeps above – have a nice dinner on Wednesday night and talk about the meaning of the holiday. Then find a tashlich or some other service where you feel comfortable the next day and try to get them excited about it. My hubby is kind of apathetic, too, but he’s very loyal on the holidays. Happy New Year.

  8. I agree with Jack. It’s never too late. There are so many other ways to create a meaningful holiday without going to synagogue. Invite friends for dinner, cook food that is sweet, and discuss your hopes and dreams for the coming year. If you give up on this, don’t be surprised if your grandchildren are not Jewish.

  9. As an quasi-observant Jew married to a man who’d rather not be anything raising a Jewish daughter, I feel your struggle. I also understand the whole country club of a Conservative shul issue. My shul varies but in general it’s less country club and more sorority.

    I agree with Rabbi Recover and Ms. Freeman that Tashlich is a good compromise. It’s a fun service – who doesn’t like throwing bread into water. My 7yo really likes it because it’s a service she can do.

    I do have to say that sitting through a full adult service for HH is difficult for many adults, much less children. I had no choice as a child and it was excruciating. Children’s Service is a much better alternative if you have it. If you don’t then don’t worry.

    However, with religion I have to say that if you don’t feel it then don’t do it. You kids are smart. They’ll see through it. And if your kids won’t be b’nai mitvah then only do the fun stuff like Purim and Simchat Torah so they like being Jewish.

    Jews are a people first, defined by our one-ness. Not by our Jewishness. It’s better your children go to school and know you love them and bless them to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah or like Abraham, Issac and Jacob. People of good character who value themselves and their people. If you make them go to shul and they hate it, they don’t hate you, they hate being Jewish. And being different and not fitting in. Not fitting in with the non-Jewish kids at school and not fitting in with the Jewish kids who always go to shul or day school or religious school or services. Either way it’s awkward, and it shouldn’t be awkward being proud to be a Jew.

    {steps off soapbox and unhijacks your blog}

  10. We are the Christian version of your family. We live in a predominantly Jewish community and I have merely visited wonderful churches three blocks away without investing more than a couple of holiday Sundays. Every time we start that conversation, we come to the conclusion that church will interfere with our weekends. I am pretty sure that the unspoken rule around here also is that “Mom will decide…” but this mom hasn’t gotten it together to put my foot down and make sure we participate in some services and find a church home.

    I really understand the guilt – I grew up in a few different versions of Christianity, from Southern Baptist to Methodist. I think a little religion is a great thing – I believe if I hadn’t had religion as a child, I would have wound up a statistic. I decided in my thirties After nearly completing conversion classes to Judaism, that my religion really is beauty of nature and the arts. I looked at painting and design as my way of worship – in Christianity it is considered a sin not to use one’s God given talents. (Or should I say G-d?)

    Bottom line – I was one mikveh away from being a full fledged Jew when I met my not very religious Lutheran, married him and had his son. God really does work in mysterious ways. If we decide to join a church, it most definitely will have to have less fear invoking dogma. Maybe we should start a religious movement that stresses education more than faith, like Judaism, but with fabulous gospel music and cheeseburgers after services.

  11. I used to think it was never too late – but I’ve met many, many adults lately who are struggling with their faith – really a lack of taught faith — and how to raise their kids with some. Most recently a good friend who grew up with no faith experience and now married to a Catholic husband and trying to raise kids Catholic. Hard to answer questions when you don’t know what you believe yourself. Throughout the whole conversation she kept saying, “I wish it had been different growing up. I wish I’d had SOMETHING.”

    Guess the question is, how much “something”? I usually vote for more rather than less b/c it not only helps cement what their beliefs are, but also helps make decisions on who they choose to marry — my friend had no idea what marrying a Catholic man and raising Catholic children would mean — and now she struggles with how much of Catholicism she accepts and understands. Would she have chosen differently knowing more back then on how it all lined up with her own views? Who knows. But at least you start with a point of knowledge and your own basis of faith.

    Kids change everything, don’t they? You either know what you believe or you don’t. My hope is that mine can answer that question, too.

    Shana tova — and a year of health, happiness and success – xo

  12. Jessica,
    What a powerful story. As so many have written, it’s important to make the religion your own, however that is. Having just returned from three years in Israel, I have had the privilege of being exposed to many different ways of “being Jewish” and “practicing Judaism.” One thing I can say that we took back with us is the idea that the holidays have to be celebrated in the way that connects them meaningfully to you and your kids. As Shira Adatto says (above) it really is never too late. It’s just a question of if you want to, and how. That of course is a very personal decision.

    For us –
    on Yom Kippur, we host people stopping by our house to talk about the day or whatever it means to you, during breaks from services. For Rosh Hashanah, my husband’s family hosts a “Rosh Hashanah on the Mountain” service that is self-led and includes a great discussion. It is followed by tashlich at the local stream. Shabbat is a day of not consuming and not working. We made choices that made the holidays more meaningful to us. I list these off only because we also are turned off by some types of shuls, so we found ways to find the meaning in a different way.

    I think it takes guts to put out your thoughts about being Jewish/practicing a religion, on a public blog. It’s a tough, personal choice. Whatever you do, follow your heart.

    Best,
    Debra

  13. The timing of this post is nothing short of amazing. Because approximately 2 minutes ago my husband and I were debating the merits of going to Kabbalat Shabbat services at our temple and I feel guilty because we haven’t been in almost a year now. Add to that the fact that I’ll be at school all day on Rosh Hashana (my MIL is serving Rosh Hashana dinner on Saturday, because, um, better late than never?) and this born-Catholic now-practicing Jew feels horrible.

    Because I want to do better than this, and we can, but for us it’s an issue of our insane schedules (husband has worked 80+ hours this week and is on call tomorrow night) and the fact that we really don’t like our temple. It’s the only reform temple within a 40 mile radius (don’t be Jewish in the Inland Empire), so it’s not as simple as going somewhere else. It’s hard to want to go at the end of a week like this, even though it is important to us. Thankfully we don’t have children yet, so we’re only deciding our own religious lives.

    It is tough, it’s especially tough for you to have to be the decider (I’m ironically the decider even though my husband is the only real Jew in our house) because you get all the guilt for not being just like your father and that’s not really fair to you. Maybe the kids are old enough to be involved? Maybe they should help make the decisions, and maybe once you share with them how important it is to you and the meaning of the holiday (if they don’t already know), they’ll surprise you with their decisions? I know it’s a big maybe, but you have pretty great kids.

  14. There’s faith and then there’s culture. Judaism is both. Your kids will ultimately sort out the faith thing themselves, but you need to live the culture. The second day of school is a non-issue; they’ll catch up. There’s also value in the perspective of other-ness that they can get being the only (or one of the only) Jewish kids at a Christian school. Of course, they’ll be pissed off, but something tells me you’ll get over it.

  15. My husband observes Rosh Hashanah as a two-day celebration. I observe it as one, as does our public school by being closed that day (I think it has to do with the number of Jewish teachers –possibly moreso– than the number of Jewish students). I will not keep my kids home that second day of Rosh Hashana.

    I was not required go to Hebrew school as a child, so I didn’t. I lived in a Jewish area, but when I went away to college out in the “real world,” I felt ignorant and uncomfortable about Judaism and my Jewishness. I swore my kids would go no matter what. I finally had my bat mitzvah a few months ago and my first son’s is next year.

    I think my basically atheist cousin put it well when he said he wants his kids to have enough of a Jewish education that they know what they are rebelling against when the are older.

    Good luck making your decision.

    Shana Tovah!

  16. I think religion is what you make it. As a bat mitzvahed/ don’t believe in g-d Jew who’s sending her son to Jewish Day School I don’t have any good answers. You should just do what you feel comfortable and what works for your family. If my kid wants to be a rabbi and he’s happy – great. If he wants to ditch out of the Jewish school for Catholic mass, feh, but if it makes him happy, fine. Good luck with your quest for the right “Jewishness” for your family!

  17. In college my Jewish boyfriend (yes, his mom hated that he was dating me) would tell his parents how important it was that he go to school and tell his teachers how important it was that he stay home/go to shul. He then spent the day playing billiards.

  18. I agree that religion is what you make it. I chose to continue the traditions of my childhood home, not because I am such an observant Jew, but rather because I always enjoyed the family time, the special meals, the gatherings. I’m not sure how I feel about the God part (tsunami’s? children dying? hurricanes?) but I enjoy the idea of it. I don’t fast (my husband does) because I’m not sure what the point is. But I’m famous for my annual break-fast’s. Point is, do what you feel comfortable doing and the rest will come naturally.

  19. The only way I can relate – I grew up very reform, as did my wife, and we joined a *conservative* temple. Not because of the religion but because of the community – our kids had gone to preschool there. They are growing up with a shared value system that to me is more important than the all the rest, and I love watching my boys learn and be a part of it. (I admittedly could use a few less hours in temple during the high holidays, but small sacrifice to be surrounded by families we know and for our boys to enjoy being at a place they are comfortable).

    A very happy healthy holiday season to your family – spending it together is what’s most important ;)

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