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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. Jimmy

    The reason she is having a hard time explaining it to her child, is because she has conveniently ignored a key part of her religion and determined that this key-tenet of her religion is "not applicable in her household". If you follow this down its logical path, this means that every part of her religion can be ignored, which also then means that it is all a bunch of BS.

    So yes, it is difficult to explain to a child why you should respect BS which you yourself have already rejected.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  2. The honest truth!

    Truth
    The bible, the book of moron, the koran all = Toilet paper!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • NewMexico720

      So?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Jazzman

      Just like the theory of the evolution and the big bang theory!! All man made up crap.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Gaunt

      Jazz, you and yourdeliberate ignorance are what is wrong with humanity. The big bang is a theory that fits all the available facts, and is the best theory postulated from the evidence so far.

      Evolution is an endlessly proven, unquestionable, scientific fact, if you dont accept this, then the problem is not with evolution, its with you.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Jazzman

      Gaunt... WHAT FACTS??? Theory is a GUESS!!! MISSING LINK????

      April 15, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Jazzman

      Science is so arrogant!!! We may be thousands of years away before we know the truth.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Jazzman

      BTW, how many planets do we have in the solar system? We don't even know!!!!

      April 15, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Gaunt

      Thank you for going out of your way to demonstrate the staggering level of your own ignorance. I presume that you are either homeschooled be abusive zealots who neglected bacic science, or are too young to attend high school. Astronomers know exactly how many planets are in the solar system half wit.

      Evolution is not a 'guess', it is a universally proven fact, demonstrated in o=ver a hundred different ways, including experimental evidence. Religious zealots squealing for the 'missing link' comes right out of the 1960s kid, we are way past that now. Please, please stop humiliating yourself in public, and go try reading a book. Any book.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  3. Norm

    Religion...The great divider.

    The cause of wars and bloodshed for most of our existence here on Earth.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • rbsrs

      People are the great divider. Nationalism has caused more death this decade then anything. The atheists of the french revolution killed priests in the name of "reason". People kill others over their sports teams among thousands of other non-religionous reasons.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Gaunt

      There will always be good people who do good things, and bad people who do bad things. But for good people to cheerfully and willingly do bad things, that takes religion.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  4. The honest truth!

    The bible, the book of moron, the koran all = Toilet paper!
    Thats what they are good for!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Jazzman

      Just like the theory of evolution and the theory of the big bang!!

      April 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  5. esoteric1

    If all scientific discovery and religious docrine were suddenly lost to all of humanity, the rediscovery of the science would be the only one of the two that would be identical to what was lost. That says it all.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  6. DD

    Religion & belief IS A CHOICE and raised the kids that way, my beliefs encompass a wide range rather than just one. RELIGION IS PERSONAL. So, I can sum it up as follows: ME GOD. That's all I need.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  7. JJ

    This is an excellent example of a person with a working brain struggling with the |d|ocy of fideism.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • esoteric1

      yup...common sense is the greatest enemy of religions.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  8. TomCom

    When you are athiest you should keep it to yourself. People will judge you and some will no longer socialize with you.
    The enviroment can be pretty hostile if your a kid. America's Christian culture does not tolerate those that do not believe.

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

      Never quit playing the fear card do you?

      April 15, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  9. Andrewq A

    I don't buy it. This article is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a Jew. Its not a faith or religion, they are a people. Just look at the Bible, Talmud, or any number of Jewish Texts throughout the ages. Not once are the Jews referred to as a religion. They are a people with a unique set of religious values. And like every collective group of people, Jews are free to interpret Jewish law as they see fit. If you don't keep kosher, its not some spiritual revelation. Its that you don't keep kosher. If you don't observe shabbat, its got nothing to do with your "belief" in god, its just something that you just don't do. Jews according to their religious values aren't required to believe, they are required to do. Faith is the glue that holds it together (one god, chosen people, and all that stuff) but at the end of the day you are judged by your actions, not by your beliefs. So if not keeping kosher suddenly makes you think you are lying to yourself, then maybe you need to go back and ask yourself why aren't you doing the things that make Jews so particular in the first place. Start going to shul more often, do a trial of keeping kosher and observing shabbat, and see if that changes your perspective on things. But stop deceiving yourself that you can avoid the things that Jews do and still relate to what makes Jews unique. And if you find that kashrut doesn't really do anything for you, and your quest for enlightenment still isn't over, thats great too. I'm not telling you to go all ultra orthodox, Those guys can be just as crazy as anyone else. But kashrut was obviously a trigger for something so I'd start there. Even if you don't want to, which might be the problem in the first place.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • esoteric1

      Wrong....1) All "Jew's" are Jewish. 2) All Jewish Jew's are not 'a people", They are just "people" like all of us.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  10. NewMexico720

    The Jewish religion is nothing but a spectacle. All their hallah-babbah oink boink rituals they do is just to put on show to those that are watching. Just like the Pharisees of ancient times. They never change. This religion, like all others will soon be destroyed by the governments and when they do, thats when the real horror begins.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • esoteric1

      I'm dumber after reading this.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  11. Zargoth

    "The purpose of faith, as I understand it, is to infuse life with greater meaning. To make it more real."

    Make it more real? Are you serious? Do you have any idea how silly this sounds? Perhaps if you did not have this fantasy life, reality would be real enough for you!

    If you need religion to give your life meaning, then you have something lacking at your very core...

    April 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  12. Dave, Central Illinois

    The ignorant comments from nolimits333 (a coward who will not use hir/her own name) show a lack of education and class. The historic Catholic church funded many expeditions and studies of "creation" which paved the way for modern science. The difference between non-believers and believers boils down to this: do you believe in the laws of random chance or intelligent design. Looking at the incredible diversity of life and the many integrated systems it takes to make life possible, I vote for intelligent design. Maybe before spouting, little people like the poster I mentioned should think a little about the subject they are spouting about.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • BlogHaha

      I d rather be a Butcher than to be Kosher

      April 15, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Gaunt

      Then you are a fool. There is no evidence for intelligent design, none. lets repeat that, for the hard of thinking. There is NO evidence for intelligent design whatsoever. Complexity is not and never has been a problem for evolution. That is without even going into the vast, mutually supporting mountains of positive, verifyable evidence (observational, historical, geological, paleontological, and laboratory) in dozens of fields all demonstrating the unquestionable truth of evolution.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • esoteric1

      There is nothing "random" about nature and the changes that take place within it.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  13. BlogHaha

    Have you heard of AshtonKutcher ?

    April 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
  14. JosteinGaarder

    I admire her honesty about her belief.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • BlogHaha

      I don't

      April 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Dennis

      I find you can't get people to shut up about them.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  15. T

    Imagine what the world would be like today if Religion were not taught to children until "after" the age of reason...

    April 15, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • JT

      They would laugh in your face and think you suffer from some kind of mental illness as you tried to get them to believe in all the mythology.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Dennis

      The three desert death cults would join the other mythologies in obsolete obscurity.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • WoWT

      The kids would certainly be better off.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  16. BlogHaha

    So what ?
    My rant is definitely not Kosher
    Guess what ?
    I don't give a Butcher
    Whether Jews like it or not.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  17. Truth

    The bible, the book of moron, the koran all = Toilet paper!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Jazzman

      Theory of Evolution, theory of the Big Bang and something from nothing = the stuff on toliet paper

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

      To: The Honest Truth – You are really looking for a comment to your post huh? LOL!

      Well, all I can say to that is, can you imagine if you weren't able to take a dump? You would be full of it. You should use the brain God gave you to think about that every single time you have to take a dump. While you are taking a dump, just say to yourself "I am so wonderfully made" then you can wipe your ass with whatever you choose.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  18. Maureen

    "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things
    Prayer changes things" (it changes nothing)
    I saw this comment and thought of those who had been prayed for in times of sickness. All the prayers in the world didn't stop them from dying. Or from pain and suffering. All prayers do is make us feel better about the situation. It gives us hope. And then they find that missing little girl in the woods dead. Did prayers help her from a horrific death? NO! Did praying prior to finding her change anything? No!

    April 15, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Krista7x

      my sentiments exactly. the last time i remember praying was 3 years, 5 months, and 5 days ago. i remember praying for my family as i usually did. 4 hours later i found out my 22 year brother-in-law had committed suicide. in his suicide note he tells of crying out to the lord for help, obviously to no avail. his is just one of a million tragedies. give me one story where prayer changed something and i will give you 100 others where it was simply a banter of words spoken to the wind as a crutch to make an already hopeless situation more hopeless. deep down i think everyone wishes there were someone listening, but the sad truth is, simply, there. is. not.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  19. NonoTheist

    All forced religion is child abuse

    Forcing your child to believe in a fantasy world so far removed from reality that the child needs years to recover from the magic thinking and bizarre rituals that border on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

    Teach your children critical thinking, they will thank you for it.

    Teach your children to be comfortable with not knowing all the answers.

    Teach your children how to teach themselves. Teach them how to search in a library, teach them how to safely search the Internet.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:16 am |
    • Beth

      My son is Jewish, even if he doesn't ever go to a temple ever again he is going to be Jewish. I am Jewish. My son is not learning any fantasy or myths. He is not learning any beliefs but is being taught to try to help make the world a better place by helping others. You are assuming Judaism means beliefs in a lot of fantastic things. It may to some Jews. But there are many Jews who are not Orthodox, who do not take the bible literally and who don't teach our children that.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Beth

      Also, I pretty agnostic myself. Judaism does not require a belief in god. I don't believe in hell or devils, etc. Don't know what the after life, if there is one, holds. Not my interest.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Zargoth

      To pick & choose among the parts of a religion for the ones you like best... what does that really say to the children about what you really think? Why not just do as Nonotheist suggests, which is so very well put.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Beth

      I just found a branch of Judaism that goes with what I believe and in my branch I am not 'picking and choosing'. And even Orthodox Jews will tell you that I am most certainly Jewish, being born from two Jewish parents. I'm doing the things nontheist suggests. They in no way go against being Jewish. They are actual at the basis of my Judaism. I think thinking for oneself, being a critical thinker, debate, etc is a very basic part of being Jewish.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • esoteric1

      Beth...you cannot say, Read a story and decide that you don't like some parts and remove them....see then it is not the same story, so you really didn't read it at all. The "reason", no punn intended, all religions are clearly NOT devinely inspired is that hundreds, thousands of groups and individual people read the same book/story, but decide to take parts out and interpret parts as they see fit ...like you. If The Bible were 'devinely inspired" than it seems pretty logical its ONE understanding would be clear to ALL and there would be no "orthodox" or "non-orthodox" or any other variation, because God's word would most certainly be perfectly clear to ALL. If this were the case then science and evertything else would surely be clear and there would be no argument about devine truth...ever, which is clearly not the case. It is clear Religion's are products of man for these reasons, absolutely clear period.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Beth

      I think you are assuming a lot of things about me and Jewish people in general. I don't think the bible was divinely inspired. I think it is fascinating from a historical point of view but not much beyond that. Our temple has 3 different Jewish bibles. One has older English language that some prefer. Another has modern, egalitarian language and the translation also differs usually only slightly but sometimes more than slightly from the first. And there is a 3rd version that is also modern but with many more foot notes and explanations than the other one. No one could go to our temple and ever believe in a literal translation of the bible because there isn't ONE. There are many translations of it. And you do not seem to know that much about Judaism because Judaism has been constantly evolving and changing since its inception. It looks quite different now that it did in at many points in history. It will continue to evolve, I'm sure. I think it is being very much Jewish to have this evolvement. I am sorry but I do not think you know much of anything about Judaism and your post isn't a logical response to what I wrote as a result because you assume I think things I don't and you assume Judaism is things it isn't. Best wishes to you.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  20. nolimits3333

    Science flies you to the moon.

    Religion flies you into buildings.

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

      Extremely well-said!

      April 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • YES!!!

      Exactly right!

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

      Nothing more to say!

      April 15, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • mikstov33

      Nasa used to fly to the moon......science and religion have one thing in common in this era....both takes a boatload of money to make them relevant. Just ask an astronaut or a televangelist.
      Sleepy or drunk pilots are more likely to fly one into a building or mountain or the ground.
      It is really not CNN or any other news organization that is trying to create a negative view of faith, they only write stories they believe their public wishes to see or hear. Radical zealots of all stripes are to blame for creating the views we see on the internet blogs slamming any and all faiths.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:44 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.