Raising Jews: Dayenu
וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ: וְשנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ
V’hayu had’varim ha’eileh asher anokhi m’tzav’kha hayom al l’vavekha, v‘shinan’tam l’vanekha v’dibar’ta bam
And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart, and you shall teach them diligently to your children
(Excerpt from Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
If all I accomplish in this life is to raise my two kids as well-adjusted, ethical, Israel-loving Jews: Dayenu! I will have fulfilled one of the most critical mitzvot—no easy task in today’s modern world in which, in reality, all Jews are Jews by choice.
For my children it would be so easy to assimilate into American culture, lose their identities as Jews, explore other religions, and date people of any faith. What’s more, they will soon be moving on to college, where defending Zionism and Israel is more complex than ever. In spite of each of these challenges, I am confident my kids will remain committed Jews and strong Zionists.
My husband and I decided before our first child was born that we would send our children to Jewish Day School. We gave our son and daughter Hebrew names—Israeli names, actually. Giving them English-equivalent names in addition to Hebrew names seemed redundant, so we skipped that altogether. Aviel Natan and Shira Daniella are now 16 and 14, respectively.
Given the strong-willed (some might even say “stubborn”, but we would just argue with them until they surrendered) nature of their parents, it’s only fitting that our kids are each independent thinkers in their own right. So it should have come as no surprise when, at the advanced age of four, Aviel became a self-proclaimed atheist, nor when, at age nine, Shira became a vegetarian.
In the case of Aviel, we did not try to influence his decision, but rather spoke openly with him about the existence or non-existence of God. Today Avi is still an ardent atheist who loves to discuss his beliefs with others. He has read the New Testament, and is fascinated with Internet chat rooms and fora spanning all faiths. Apparently, though, few of his interlocutors are equally enthusiastic: he has been blocked from participation in all but the Mormon chat rooms. Give credit where it’s due: those Mormons don’t give up easily.
One of the most amusing conversations we recall from the kids’ childhood came about when Shira tried to convince Avi that the parting of the Red Sea by Moses proved the existence of God, because who other than God could perform such a miracle. They were ages 6 and 8 at the time.
In sixth grade, Aviel, along with two of his classmates, were ostracized by their Judaica teacher for posing the question of finding meaning in the prayers of the Siddur, if one doesn’t believe in God. Unable—or unwilling—to meet the challenge posed by the sincere boys, the teacher took the rest of the class to another location and left the three of them to fend for themselves for the remainder of the period. The eleven-year-old boys just shrugged and moved on to discuss evolution. Clearly, the school was unprepared to respond to the insightful, sometimes heretical questions children ask: perhaps that’s one reason why that institution recently closed its doors.
The following year, Aviel prepared for his Bar Mitzvah. We considered Avi’s atheism irrelevant to the question of his participation in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony; indeed, I don’t think it ever occurred to him to try to get out of it. In a preparatory meeting, the rabbi asked, “So Avi, tell me about this God that you do not believe in.” Avi’s response began, “First, let me say that I reject the premise of your question.” Fortunately our rabbi was neither insulted nor intimidated by Avi’s beliefs, and they were able to have a deep and meaningful discussion. For Avi, not believing in God doesn’t make him any less capable of identifying as a Jew.
Avi’s next project is creating a computer game based on the Israeli War of Independence. His moral code, his sense of what is just and ethical, and his upbringing as a Jew have combined to create a fervent Zionist who takes great pleasure in defending Israel in online fora or wherever the opportunity presents itself.
Shira remains committed to vegetarianism, an admirable stance that helped influence my own return to the vegetarian diet I’d abandoned two decades ago. Kindness to animals is a core Jewish value, but it’s not the only one Shira embraces. She spends summers at Zionist summer camps, several weekends a year at youth group Shabbatons, and even the occasional Shabbat morning service with me.
Recently, during Passover, I decided not to go through the effort of changing over to our Passover sets of dishes. To my surprise, Shira seemed disappointed, complaining that she “no longer feels Jewish.” Was her comment just teenage hyperbole, or an astute critique of my flaws as a parent? Who knew that bypassing this relatively minor tradition would affect my daughter so deeply, so much so that for the first time she did not observe the Passover dietary restrictions. Her remark led to a discussion of what she felt was missing in our ritual observances. I can tell you one thing: we’ll be using the Passover plates next year.
I can offer no formula for success in raising good Jews. My personal experience suggests that the sincerity of your own convictions is what matters most: sooner or later, children will see through their parents’ hypocrisy. Even with the best intentions, though, there is little doubt that a significant amount of plain old luck is involved. I feel very blessed on this Mother’s Day, and on all days, that my own kids appear to be well on their way to living happy lives as Jews who will contribute positively to society.