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My Faith: Raising religious (but not too religious) children
Laurel Synder is raising her two sons Jewish, but not kosher.
April 13th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Faith: Raising religious (but not too religious) children

Editor's noteLaurel Snyder is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a poet and author of many books for children. Follow her on Twitter at @laurelsnyder.

By Laurel Snyder, Special to CNN

(CNN) – A few years ago I was invited to my local Jewish Community Center to do a reading of my picture book “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.” It was going to be a child-friendly event, so I took my kids along.

Now, “Baxter” isn’t really a book about being kosher. It’s about wanting to be accepted into a community. But I always like to make sure my listeners know what the word kosher means before I read it, since the joke at the center of the book depends on that. So as usual I asked the Jewish Community Center crowd if they could define the word.

Before anyone else could answer, my own son Mose, who was 5 at the time, jumped up and shouted out, “I know! I know! Kosher is us! We’re kosher!” Then he sat back down again, beaming proudly.

And I might have been proud too. Only, you see, we’re not kosher.

On the drive home I tried to figure out what to say to Mose about his mix-up. I wanted him to know what it means to be kosher, to live by a rigid religious dietary code, day in and day out. But I also needed him to understand that we’re not.

How could I show respect for this part of our Jewish tradition while also suggesting that it doesn’t seem relevant in our own household? Should I just blame it on my own parents, who didn’t raise me that way?

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It’s not easy to explain something to a kid when you haven’t yet figured it out for yourself. One of the most helpful/terrible things about having children is that they require us to think things out explicitly. That often means they make us face the very things we’ve been avoiding.

Sometimes, as a result, kids challenge us to become more mindful or observant. I hadn’t been a member of a synagogue for years when I became a mom. I hadn’t hosted a Passover Seder or found the time to light Shabbat candles.

Even though I worked for a Jewish agency and wrote about religion professionally, when it came to my home life I was almost completely unobservant. Judaism was something I thought about more intellectually than personally. Religion was an interesting idea more than a belief system.

Now I light candles each week and say the blessings. I belong to a havurah – a cohort of local Jewish friends who get together for monthly potluck dinners – and also a synagogue.

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Because there’s something about having kids that makes me want to be a better version of my Jewish self. I want something special to pass on to them. Something more than “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”

But sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes my kids help me recognize the limits of my faith.

In truth, I do not keep kosher and I don’t really want to. My husband is not Jewish, though we’re raising our family to be. So, yeah, we eat tacos for Shabbat dinner most weeks and usually skip Friday night services.

This is the truth and I have to own it. I can only shift my life around so much without feeling inauthentic. Lying to my kids about my religious life is no way to model the value of faith.

So when, after the “Baxter”/kosher fiasco, I set out to write my new picture book, “Good night, laila tov” (laila tov means “good night” in Hebrew), I wanted to paint an honest portrait of my largely secular household.

I wanted my kids to recognize the family in my story as Jewish, but also as, well, like us. Which is to say, not exactly kosher.

On some level I was reacting to the fact that most of the Jewish picture books in my home feel like they’re about someone else. They’re usually set in a Polish village a century ago, or on the Lower East Side of New York City, where mothers cook and fathers pray.

I wanted “Good night, laila tov” to be a sort of lowest common denominator. Contemporary and universal. It’s not about Jewish history, and it doesn’t have a single rabbi in it. It won’t teach you new Hebrew words or show you how to say a certain prayer.

It’s just a story about a Jewish American family going camping, experiencing nature, love, work and rest. In writing it I hoped to capture something typical, something natural, something simple.

And it does present, to my mind, Jewish values: Nature is spiritual, and takes us beyond ourselves. Time spent with family is sacred.

The family in the book plants trees and picks up their campsite, because caring for the earth is part of Judaism, I think. Along with caring for each other.

But as I wrote, I found myself a little afraid that, in attempting to write a picture book for everyone, I was letting the Jewish particularity go. Aren’t family nature, and environmentalism tenets of faith beyond the Jewish world, in every religion?

What did it say about me, my choices, my household, that the Jewish life I was choosing to depict looked like it could be any household at all?

Then I come back around to that moment with Mose, that moment of realizing I’d somehow misled him. Because whatever I’m unsure of, whatever I don’t know about faith, I do know this: if it isn’t honest, it doesn’t count.

The purpose of faith, as I understand it, is to infuse life with greater meaning. To make it more real. Not to dress it up. Not to pretend.

My kids and I are on a journey together. We’re setting out for parts unknown.

And while we may find ourselves changing as we trek along, there is a sacred quality in simply being who we are today. Of stopping on the trail and taking a deep breath. It’s enough, I think, to be exactly who we are, kosher or not.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laurel Snyder.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Judaism

soundoff (3,114 Responses)
  1. nookster

    A zealot is a zealot. Whats the difference between a wacked out orthodox jew and a drooling southern evangelical? How about a hari krishna banging on drums or a muslim praying 5 times a day towards saudi arabia? The list goes on and on. Whatever your religion its just as rediculous to another religion as yours is to them. Its all an ignorant fools dream.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  2. TomCom

    I do beleive religion was a way for empires to help control the people.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  3. cosmicsnoop

    This woman is trying to be religious when clearly she is not. She needs to be who she really is and just stop with the religious baloney. She is doing nothing for her kids except to instill some major confusion. Just be straight with them and say I view this as all nonsense and we are not participating. It's pretty simple and most people are now doing this. In a generation or two, I see only strange, outsider communities being the only ones following any religion.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  4. welbray

    My origin are french/abenakis(native)/irish(catholic)/jews . Teaching kid to beware of people that use religion/politic/or a cause to promote hated or intimidation etc his not easy.Just hoping that a lots of parent teach there kid (foreign culture)in that way and respect other religion .As well respecting the culture of a country and not imposing a culture that his foreign...

    April 15, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  5. bencoates57

    SEE EN EN thinks the problem with this country is religious belief. That's why this BELIEF BLOG is front and center on weekends - to try to tell the country how and how not to be spiritual.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • esoteric1

      "be spiritual" what does that mean?...think for yourself..it is just scary how you people are like puppets.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      It's difficult for me to see how eating tacos, not to mention the other weighty subjects mentioned by Ms. Snyder, help to achieve the objective you stated. Maybe this is just attention-seeking.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  6. jon

    I couldn't get past the fact she named her son "Mose" did she forget the 's' or did she just want to make sure her son had to go through life being teased over his name?

    April 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Dennis

      Baby names -

      Mose \m(o)-
      se\ as a boy's name is a variant of Moses (Hebrew), and the meaning of Mose is "saviour".

      April 15, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  7. NewMexico720

    The Jews had Jesus executed by the Romans.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • wow

      no they didn't. The jews were just being nice to jesus, they made him a wooden airplane. .. he just kept falling off.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • Beth

      If Jesus existed he was Jewish himself. There were many Jews alive at that time and most, if that story is true, had nothing to do with Jesus. Are YOU responsible for the deaths of people who are USA allies who were accidentally killed by our military? Are you responsible for the deaths every American commits? Why am I responsible for the supposed death of Jesus a few thousand years before I was born? You might want to try not spreading hatred and being a responsible person here and now and try helping to me the world a better place in some way.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • NewMexico720

      @Beth... I'm responsible for at least four when I blew them away in Iraq when they tried to gun us down. That much I know.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • Dennis

      It was part of his ineffable plan to kill himself using the romans. Even Dumbledore could have escaped the romans.
      Or Obiwan "This isn't the jew you are looking for."

      April 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • wow

      i was brought up catholic.. so-do-mi-zed by priests, one is a bishop today. It is a filthy religion. And yes, the catholics blamed jews for killing their jesus making it easier for catholic hitler to cause mass destruction of human lives. Pope never stepped in and the vatican was never bombed, proof alone of the connection. (Want to see pics of the pope and bishops with hitler, just google 'pics of pope and hitler')

      April 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Beth

      That is not what I'm asking. I'm asking whether YOU are responsible for deaths of others that you do not commit personally. Christians have killed many millions of people during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the Salem Witch Trials, etc. Are you in any way responsible for those killings?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • jrvinnh

      Jesus was a dissident who was speaking out and encouraging the people to resist against both the local puppet government and the ultimate authority, the Roman state. As such he needed to be eliminated because he was a threat to the system.

      Unfortunately he was eventually hijacked by another corrupt system that was probably worse overall than the Romans were.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • wow

      well, Beth.. I'd have to say supporting a religion as that.. one that continues lies and deceit, makes you part of it. Even in modern days, I see nothing done to help the families and children of so-dom-y helped by this group. This kid doesn't know what suffering is. Many children victims are mentally ill and others committed suicide, I'd have to say that is some pretty serious suffering to cause that end. All they ask is the truth revealed, yet they are denied the truth as the church lobbies to stop laws that would expose it. Normal people would bail out and call their senators to demand laws change, unless they support the destruction.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Beth

      wow–I have no idea what your point is. Your post is not clear.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • wow

      wouldn't expect you to. If I belonged to an organization, it sure wouldn't be one that destroyed childrens lives. Which is why many have left the disgusting organization, they don't want to be part of it. Those who stay support the organization over the lives of children, making them part of the destruction. Of course you will deflect as others have, after all – you believe you are on a selfish salvation trip and the heck with those children dumped by the roadside.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • Beth

      wow-you don't seem to know much about Judaism. We do not believe in the concept of 'salvation'. That's a Christian belief. We don't think we have anything to be saved from. We don't believe in the devil or hell, etc. I don't necessarily even believe in god but I'm still very much Jewish. Judaism has no required beliefs. Even among Orthodox, I would be still considered to be Jewish by birth. I'm not sure what you think Jewish people do to children but I haven't heard of whatever you are talking about. Your post makes really no sense.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  8. NJBob

    It is morally and intellectually wrong to raise children to believe religious myths are true. It is an abdication of a parent's responsibility to teach their children to think rationally.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Beth

      There is no belief required in order to be a Jew, though.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • wow

      you are silly, Beth. Have you ever heard 'practicing jew'?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Beth

      Even Orthodox people consider me to be Jewish. There is nothing required of me to do or to believe in order to be Jewish, actually. You might want to read about this topic more. YOu do not seem familiar with it.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  9. mary

    Thank you for such an insightful and lovely article. Yes, having children does challenge us to 'face up' and so whatever lingering doubts we carry from childhood about our religion suddenly become magnified at the moment we have to clarify our position. Good luck on your journey; you're off to a good start.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      A good start at what? How can you tell?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  10. jrvinnh

    When objectively tested using scientific methods, the "Man In The Cloud Theory" makes predictions that do not agree with observation or experiment. The evidence strongly suggests that this theory is false.

    After thousands of years of testing science against religion, science and scientific thinking have proven to be a better mechanism of understanding the truth.

    For thousands of years religion kept us bound up down here on earth. Recently, science has flown us to the moon.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • NJBob

      It's difficult to see how people can be so proud of their religion. Frankly, I would find it acutely embarrassing.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  11. Flippy1124

    "If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.”
    Penn Jillette

    April 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  12. Blasphemy

    Can't you make Kosher tacos?

    Is it the ingredients or the presentation that makes something Kosher?

    April 15, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Beth

      I was wondering that, too. It is the Kosher symbol on a product and other things that make food Kosher or not. And different Jews think different things are Kosher. It's pretty complex. We don't really keep Kosher ourselves, well, a tiny little bit but not in a way those who do would think was doing it. Look at packaging in the grocery store. Some things have the letter K in a circle on them or U, etc and those are Kosher signs.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • esoteric1

      there are hundreds of obsurd rules...there is a company in Alabama I think that has a full staff of rabbi's who make sure the rules are adheared too...it is absolutely rediculous...unbelievable. There was a great story on this on NPR.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  13. TomCom

    I was raised a Catholic. Every Sunday we had school and mass. Today II'm an athiest. My kids have never gone to church.
    We have never discussed religion. They know I'm an athiest but I do not talk about it much with them. They do see extended family and friends are religous, but also see that our morals are more intact than most of them.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • Locksmith

      Excellent Tom! I am on that track as well.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  14. esoteric1

    "Mommy why aren't we kosher?" lets start here, because I'm sure God has better things to do than cut a lambs throat and drain its blood or make sure Matzah isnt cooked more than 18 min before eating....or wearing a head scarf or a silly black outfit with tonsured hair....or whailing at a pile of old stones made into a wall, or swinging a gold insense holder on a chain.... It is absurd. "Son lets worry less about whether our pickles are inspected by a rabbi and more about being a good person" start there you religion obsessed obsequious fools.....its sickening and all "religions" are full of this nonsense.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Raven

      You may think it is absurd, but to a god, does what you think matter?
      How can a human judge a god? Any human, any god.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • esoteric1

      Raven....that is exactly my point....all these things / rules were written BY MAN.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  15. Adrian

    I love my Atheism! It is because this life ends that it has meaning. Enjoy eternity freaks!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  16. jtucker4

    "I don't know. Go play in the street."
    "Okay, Daddy!"
    ...problem solved.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  17. Anna

    Laurel, being Jewish is not about faith, as you mentioned more than once in your essay, it is about deeds. Also, going to shul on Friday evening is an American invention, so don't feel like you are betraying anything. Have a nice dinner at home with friends and family, doesn't matter if it isn't a traditional jewish meal, and you will be observing and honouring shabbat in a more profound way than rushing through a meal to get to shul. Don't look at the clock.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • esoteric1

      I am sure that if "Jews", and any Christians or any other religiously "labeled" people for that matter, would label themselves "human" first, we wouldn't have 90% of our problems.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  18. Adrian

    I love my Atheism. It's so nice not beliveing in devils and angels and spirits. Because we die and there is no eternal life, every moment is prescious! I am not wainting to die, but dying to live!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:01 am |
    • Beth

      I like Judaism because there is no devil or hell in it and because the focus is on the here and now and doing good for others in this life time. We don't think about what happens after death and we don't know. And Judaism doesn't require a belief in god, even, or any particular belief. You seem to have assumptions about what Judaism is that do not fit with what it really is.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • jrvinnh

      When the computer between our ears shuts down that final time and the consciousness process is permanently terminated, so are we.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  19. To the Ms. Snyder

    You are Jewish, you will always be Jewish. Observant or nonobservant, it cannot be denied. It is your responsibility to fully educate your children in Judaism. Your personal conviction to the Jewish faith and practices is your choice and ultimately your children's choice. Seek wisdom and navigate wisely. Pigs are swine and unclean, and perhaps one of the filthiest animals on earth. Just do some research and visit a pig farm/slaughterhouse. You are blessed to be a Jew - don't abandon that blessing.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • taintnothing

      The best thing you can possibly do is steer clear of morons like the one above. Stop feeding your kids fairy tales.Bacon is good and has nothing to do with an invisible god.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Locksmith

      You're a moron, animals are usually pretty filthy, pigs or not. Yet we kill them, clean them up and eat them.
      Get over your religon, and get over your outdate bronze age myths.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • Andrew

      It's a choice. The fact that you're pushing it as a "responsibility" should indicate why more than half of all Jewish kids in the U.S. become secular.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  20. Bob D Iowa

    What has CNN become The Christian Nation Network.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.