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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. Jesus Christ Pose

    BRAVO SAM HARRIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    WAKING UP HUMANITY ONE PERSON AT A TIME!!!!!!!!!

    April 15, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  2. Jazzman

    There are no atheists in foxholes.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • NJBob

      You are SO wrong!!

      April 15, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • NoTheism

      I was...

      April 15, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • blastoff

      What?????
      Hitchens

      April 15, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • AGuest9

      More noise from someone who believes.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • One one

      There are no believers in the Hospital emergency room.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • tffl

      Of course there are, and you are very arrogant to presume to speak for other people.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  3. Jesus Christ Pose

    RELIGION IS SIMPLY FANTASY. IT IS A GENETIC DISEASE THAT WE ENHERITED FROM AN AGE WHEN WE COULD NOT EVEN BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND NATURE AROUND US.

    WHEN RELIGION LEAVES THE HUMAN MIND WE WILL BE ABLE TO SAY THAT HUMANITY HAS EXITED ITS INFANCY STAGE.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  4. Luis Rubet

    God without Man is nothing. Man without God is nothing?

    April 15, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  5. reason

    The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from iron age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

    Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you live your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4or90cmyhk&w=640&h=390]

    April 15, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Godfrey

      Yeah, nice try. But they WON'T LISTEN.

      Ever. They can't imagine a universe without Yahweh, the tribal Hebrew war god.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Truth7

      There is only one God. Stop using the lies of evil to justify why you don't believe. If you are an adult, and worship your own intelligence, then use that brain to directly ASK GOD if he is there. No one can convince you, but I can assure you that He is real.

      The only he.ll I beleve in, is reversed for the likes of murderers and tbose who choose wrong because they love it.

      Ask God if He is there; do it with an honest heart. Then, study from home.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • rbsrs

      "if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place." Do you really think that such a simplistic objection would not have come to people of faith? Of course it would. It even came to the Apostle Paul. "This God that you worship is the same as my God". C.S. Lewis said that the door to hell is locked from the inside.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • wow

      well, Truth7.. you have successfully insulted the intelligence your god gave you.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Carol

      rbsrs, now try actually rebutting or at least discussing the point instead of presenting the stupidity of your group.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  6. glorydays

    I see religion giving people carte blanche to do nasty things and justify them by using religion. I really don't care what others do or do not believe. I simply refuse to let them govern MY beliefs and behaviors. Religion does not make you automatically a good person. An absence of dependence on religion does not necessarily a bad person. Morality and religion are NOT the same.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  7. blastoff

    The many conflicting statements made in this article is a great example of how religion can paint you into a corner. These would not be issues for her if they were just traditions, which all change over time.
    But add in the regidity of religious rules and you now have guilt!

    April 15, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  8. Steve

    If person hood is a concept for noticing the rights of a human, universal by nature then no child can be directed or psychologically bent to a belief system. At most we should investigate the nature of mind and why some hold to a belief system the child should be left free to choose and understand on it's own without prejudice.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • JP0

      The way to that goal is to keep them from being brainwashed by not exposing them to religion until age 7. Then they are able to see what is BS and what is not. At least this approach worked for my children who are all mentally healthy, intelligent adults

      April 15, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  9. trev da link

    oh well isnt CNN becoming the new TMZ from the news? why is so hard to CNN or TNN(trashy news now) XD to publish interestesting articles such as the ones from the new york times or the wsj??? who cares about the pig jews. At the end we deeply sad hittler couldnt finish the good job

    April 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  10. LedAstray

    This woman, Laurel Snyder, reminds me of my own mother, and is a good example of typical American Jewish "culture." It consists of half-heartedly going through the motions of lighting candles (sometimes) keeping a non-kosher kitchen while bragging about the superiority of rye bread, wanting our kids to be proud of their Jewish heritage while being ignorant ourselves as to what that heritage is.

    Ms Snyder's kids don't have a chance of being either religious or even feeling proud about their heritage. How can they when they are told these things are meaningful, and then seeing all these meaningful things disregarded right in front of their faces? It's blatant hypocrisy and kids are better than anyone else in seeing it.

    Without pride is culture and background, and without an appreciation of one's roots, there can only be confusion and lack in pride in oneself. I am not talking fanatcial nationalism here, just a simple fundeamental pride of your own people and heritage. Italians have it, Irish have it, blacks have it, etc. Jews, in an effort to evade anti-semitism, many years ago, decided to water-down their Judaism, as to make it acceptable to the non-Jew. Perhaps they acceived some acceptance (and I say some because jew hatred is still alive and well, even in America) but the trade off was a lack of pride, culture, and heritage in thier own life, and the confused belief system which pass for "morals" Was it worth it?

    Any others agree, or disagree with me (particularly Jews) I'd love to hear your opinions.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • jon

      Your heritage should never be something to be proud of. Be proud of what *you* did, not something you had no hand in accomplishing.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • WeWereOnThe Moon

      First Jews gave you the base for Christianity then in the 20th century they explained to you how the universe works and made it possible to search it over the internet...have a little faith my friend, Jews will certainly be able to explain how to incorporate belief in the life of a 21st century human.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • AGuest9

      @WeWereOnThe Moon, Vint Cerf is not a jew. Neither is Tim Berners-Lee, nor is Al Gore.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  11. DrewNumberTwo

    I'm always surprised by people who believe that there is a being that is so very important to the world and their life, and then they ignore their teachings and put so little effort into following them and studying them. This is how most of the religious in the USA are. They're religious enough to say that they're religious, and they follow a few of the customs, but they never read all of their own holy book, much less study it. I don't get it.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  12. fastball

    I'm not sure how everyone else feels about this....but I'm getting a little tired of all this faith/religious stuff on what is supposed to a NEWS channel. Every day or two on CNN.com, there's a big giant story about Jesus-this, or evangelicals-that, or something or other...sandwiched between the hard (read : real-life, actual news) events of the day. Can they not stick that stuff in the Opinion/Editorial section? You'd swear this country is turning into Saudi Arabia or Iran with its religious leanings. (of course, we lean the RIGHT way, right?)

    April 15, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • tffl

      This article is in the "Belief" section, not in "News". One advantage of a digital "newspaper" is that there is lots of room, so many things fit...

      April 15, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  13. Jazzman

    Science + atheists = arrogance... We don't even know how many planets that are in our own solar system let alone know how the universe formed!!!

    April 15, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • JP0

      Ignorance + religion = arrogance.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Dennis

      psst...it was by magic.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • blastoff

      You have got to be kidding us here. It is the atheist that says he/she doesn't know how the universe began.
      It is the religious person who is the arrogant one, claiming something he/she could not possibly know – that there is a god and that it created the universe (but had no creator for itself).

      Think about it.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Jazzman

      Atheists believe science. It's their faith. I believe is science and God. My point being, I don't know. We don't know, but I rather have faith.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • blastoff

      jazzman,
      faith is the belief in something without reason. It is the opposite of science.
      Faith is not a good thing. You don't go to a homeless man on the street to perform heart surgery on you because you have faith in him, do you?

      April 15, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Jazzman

      Blastoff... We don't know. We are only beginning to understand science.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • blastoff

      Jazzman,
      What do you mean you don't know? You would go to a homeless man on the street for surgery instead of a qualified Dr.?
      I hope you don't have kids.

      What religion are you anyway?

      April 15, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  14. cranberry790

    CNN now runs a hit job on religion every week to satisfy their atheist base. This is also the base of liberalism and the democratic party.

    If you get your news from CNN, you are getting fed left wing ideology... not the news. It's part of the overall war on religion by liberals. If you don't believe me, just read the nasty/hateful comments below by people who only intend to subvert your faith.

    Regardless of the comments, I have felt the emptiness that those commenters feel. I hope they find the hope and peace that my faith in Jesus Christ has brought me. I am no better... just forgiven.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • AGuest9

      If you are so much at peace, why post something that runs other people down? Yet another hypocrite claiming to be a christian.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Jon

      @Cranberry-Most believers and conservatives say that when someone talks about other beliefs and faiths outside of your own faith. They think it’s is an attack of their religion when its just an article. Are your beliefs so fragile that even a basic discussion causes you distress?

      April 15, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Truth7

      It's worse than just atheists, many are out right believers in sa.tan. Start looking at user names...Jesus said in Revelation that the dragon would use a "flood" to go against the woman. A flood is "many words". Media, all forms.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • JP0

      Why aren't you ove at Fox News getting fed what you want to hear?

      April 15, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Huh

      Until you come to the realization that organized religion is as much the problem as liberals and CNN, you will continue to write silly comments to blogs such as this. More and more people realize they need God and Jesus Christ, but fewer need organized religion.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  15. NewMexico720

    The Jewish faith is so corrupt and weird that they have to hide behind "traditions" and stupid dressing up just to put on a show. Everything they do, say and wear is all about a show. No wonder they had Jesus, a fellow Jew, executed by the Romans. They didnt want to give up their pomp and wicked traditions. Bunch of modern day Pharisees.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Sean

      Im sure your "faith" is way better, and more sane...

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

    Leave yuor kid with your "heritage" alone. Just give him a clear mind for heritage.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  17. portland tony

    By all means teach your children about their heritage and ancestry. Show them right from wrong and most importantly allow them and even encourage them, as they mature, to think for themselves! _

    April 15, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  18. WeWereOnThe Moon

    I decided to teach my kids about their Jewish heritage, tradition and values without putting to much God in to it . If you think about it, all we know about God comes from different peoples interpretations and humans make mistakes, that is part of who we are. I'm trying to teach my kids to think independently and blind faith doesn't fit here. When my kids ask me about God, I'm telling them what I believe to be true "no one really knows, but one thing is certain, we were on the moon and that is pretty amazing achievement for humans, whether we did it alone or with God's help". Humans are amazing and that is a fact.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  19. geogeo

    when will this shtt about religion stop? Shut up already. Eat kosher or not kosher, burn your candles or stick them where the sun don't shine, but don't force your idiotic shtt on the rest of us. I am in the bad mood today.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Mark

      # 1, I agree. #2. Get this out of our government and especially our schools, where people teaching the FACT of evolution are still walking on eggshells, nearly a century after the Scopes trial. Religion is something humans evolved with, unique to our species, but that doesn't make it beneficial to our species, not all traits that evolve in a species are beneficial to that species.
      Forcing a child into a RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • SciGuy

      Rich unintended irony!

      April 15, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  20. vinobianco

    faith does just the opposite, it makes things more fake – it give LESS purpose to life because it's looking towards a higher being and a life after death. it's accepting life for what we can know about it that gives it meaning, not having faith in stories.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:58 am |
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About this blog

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.