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. Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

    Another child religious propagandist, filling their heads with unsubstantiated cultural lies about the nature of existence and reality – how sad. Keep kids away from religion – it's bad for them.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  2. jojojo

    How many here are devote Muslims?

    the Koran is the perfect word of the creator of the universe, once having

    heard this and rejecting it you be sent to hell for eternity and so will your

    children. Every thought you now have in defense of your belief could with

    slight modification be used in defense of Islam, the logic is exactly

    identical, my good book is better than yours does not work. What if

    Muslims are right? You have been born in the wrong place to the wrong

    parents given the wrong beliefs, where is Allah's compassion? He could

    give us a sign to everyone here and change this in an instant, but he won't.

    Hell awaits you and your offspring because you can't help but mislead you

    Hold this vision second and appreciate how little sleep you have lost over

    this possibility, feel in yourself how carefree you are and will continue to

    be, what are the chances we will all go to hell for eternity because we reject

    the Koran, the perfect word of the creator of the universe? This is how

    Christianity appears objectively.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      All religion is false. There are no gods. There is no "hell". There is only existence and non-existence. Silly threats made up to scare people are losing their effectiveness in the light of science and reason.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  3. paula

    Wow, You could have been writing about me and my family. You hit it right on the head!! I This could have been my story!! It has been a challenging journey to raise my 3 children with a respect of their Jewish ancestry and their fathers' Catholic background. I want to tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to find this wonderful article. I have kept these thoughts/concerns to myself believing my situation was unique.
    P.S. The 3 children are now grown..Eldest Daughter live in Tel Aviv and loves it They grew into the adults we dreamed them to be.. Shalom!!

    April 15, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  4. Bob Hope

    Since you care about people and nature so much, why don't you speak out about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. That doesn't seem too kosher to me.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  5. tony

    The big flaw in religion is thinking that god supposedly gave you a wonderful brain, but you are not supposed to actually think or question with it. . . .. Right . . . .

    April 15, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • WeWereOnThe Moon

      lol, good reasoning.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • reason

      This is one the biggest paradoxes of religion. A god or gods supposedly create rational human beings but send them to eternal suffering if they think and act rationally.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  6. I thought jesus was white

    Raising good christian children begins here.. First you must begin by sp-an-ki-ng your child. (Yes, sp-an-k-in-g is far easier than sitting down with them teaching respect, and having lots of kids just takes time, but forget that for a moment.) You need to rob your childs spirit and sp-an-k-in-gs does just that. After all, they need to identify with you, that's good trauma. Next, bring them to church where they hear words like 's-i-n', reducing them is important. You must make them unworthy, less a person. And that must follow with a group singing and ch-an-ting (Hitler knew that.) There you have it, proper brainwashing begins here. Good luck now.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      Hitler knew that because he had a catholic upbringing and was a devout christian destroying the people who killed jesus. The pope and the vatican liked hitler..

      April 15, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Bill

      You make some excellent points but you lost me at Hitler.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  7. Colin

    So Crad, you must believe in a lot of gods.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • I thought jesus was white

      the christian bible says there are many gods

      April 15, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Jesus Loves You

      Christians believe the gods of all organized religions are real because they cannot prove they do not exist.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      If I understood him correctly, there is no reason to be rational nor is logic logical. God is real because he likes it that way. But I'm still at a loss in understanding how Ms. Snyder has advanced anyone's spirituality one whit. Maybe this piece was best read by eight year olds.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  8. YBP

    Teaching religion to children is unhealthy and unfair. Children do not have the intelligence, education or life experience to determine fact from fiction, or interpret and understand the allegorical nature of ancient religious texts. (Neither do most adults, but that is another issue.) To say that a child is of a certain faith is as absurd as saying that he or she is also a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. But more importantly, religion is a choice, and to many, an important choice. Everyone should have the right to weigh the facts and the fables, and decide for themselves if (and what) religion is something that he or she believes in. This of course will lead to fewer and fewer religious people in the world. But that is the only way that human civilization will begin to finally move forward. Teach children more science.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Moncada

      Weird, the more Science I learn like Evolution, Biology and Physics the more I am convinced that there is a God above, my God.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Yup


      I question your learning. Sounds like you go to a Christian school lol.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Sam

      If you took your kids and put them in a locked castle and fed them food but had no contact they would find G-D on their own, it has been proven in the times of the Romans. You say do not teach kids religion, that is not what you do, you try and teach them that there is no such thing as religion or G-D. It is sad that you feel the need to try to get your children not to believe, if only you took your energy and did your own learning you would be able to find that there is a "higher Power" then you and yes there is a G-D that your soul will have to answer to on the day that it returns to its maker.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • Mark

      "Teaching religion to children is unhealthy and unfair. Children do not have the intelligence, education or life experience to determine fact from fiction, or interpret and understand the allegorical nature of ancient religious texts."

      ................... It is sad how foolish you are to think that you have "intelligence, education or life experience to determine fact from fiction" children are pure and have more instinct then you would like to give them credit for, you should be so lucky to be able to once again even for one moment have the clarity that a child has before they get sucked into "Life, and all the new age garbage including fairy tales and TV that they get their false life experience from).

      April 15, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  9. Sabapete

    So the question is raised – why aren't you kosher? What's the big deal? Given the variety of choices of kosher food readily available at nearly every supermarket, it's easy. So you don't mix meat with milk; so you have different sets of dishes for each; so what? It's a lot easier than lying to your kids or confusing them well before they're old enough to understand and make their own choices.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  10. how to become a good christian:


    April 15, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  11. Jesus Loves You

    If you want to be burning in a lake a fire and acid like Gandhi is right now, ignore Christianity and just live life being a good person. God will punish you accordingly.

    If you want to be sipping margaritas pool-side with Jesus like Hitler is right now, become a Christian. God will reward you accordingly.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Crad

      Doesnt make sense.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      Faulty reasoning based on false premises. Hitler – obviously – didn't follow the Ten Commandments, which Jesus insisted his followers do. Just for starters. Hitler wasn't a Christian; he just lied about being one because it was politically convenient.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      Post by 'Tim Rigney' is an instance of the No True Scotsmen fallacy.


      April 15, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Jesus Loves You

      Tim, you need to go to church more often if you think anyone who breaks the ten commandments goes to hell. As long as you accept Him and worship Him, that is all He cares about.

      It does not matter how many millions of innocent lives you slaughter, or how much peace you bring. Hitler was saved because he was a Catholic. Gandhi is in hell because he was not.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      I was confining that statement specifically to Hitler and his "ilk."
      Re: "No True Scotsman": ditto.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  12. Tim Rigney

    Reason? Logic? Take electrical engineering some time, you'll learn that reason and logic have their limitations too.
    We know *nothing* about the true nature of the Universe and yet some of us claim that there can't be a God simply because that's the way they want the Universe to be. With no evidence for it – or against it.
    That's not logical; it's an inference based on emotion.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Crad

      Perhaps the best post ive read in a while. When i see people mocking the concept of god its curious to me. I always thought the nature of science was exploration, and the staunch declaration of no god is dogmatic and illogical. Especially when based on "proof". Proof is an earth based concept and not universally applicable. Why would you use proof to determine gods existence, its a very very weak indicator.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Colin

      The same tortured logic could be used to prove Leprechauns. We have no evidence they don't exist, therefore they do.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • James

      That is not a logical statement so it's flaws are not flaws in logic. Logic requires proof of something's existence not proof of the lack of existence of something. The flaw in your statement is that you want to divide 'faith' and 'logic' into separate constructs but you insist that faith have equal standing with logic in logic's realm but don't give logic equal standing with faith in it's realm.

      There are indeed several issues with logic but most of them can be resolved by eliminating the bias and ignorance of those trying to incorrectly use logic.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • Crad

      Colin. You absolutely missed the point. And the idea of proof or not proof was an afterthought to his post. Why did you ignor the whole first part of his post? It made complete and perfect sense

      April 15, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • reason

      People who use reason and logic to understand the world acknowledge they do not have all the answers. It is with religion that people claim to know the truth based on nothing but faith.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Colin

      Crad, we know a great deal about the Universe and absolutely nothing we have discovered lends any credence to a late Iron Age Palestinian god being behind it. Silly stuff.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      James, the point I'm trying to make is that it's not possible to use logic, ever, to prove the existence or nonexistence of God; and yet atheists constantly try to make the claim that belief in God "isn't logical."

      April 15, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Crad

      If god is universal and you require proof to believe, then your proof would have to hold true all over the universe, and proof doesnt work in parts of the universe. We cant "prove 2+2=4" in a black hole because logic breaks apart, for example. Not to mention the problem of "proving god" and then having no choice to beleive, then losing freewill. Then we are in a philosophical argument.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      reason: In general in the real world I agree that's true but i.m.o., in these types of Internet discussions the claims of atheists based on religion being "illogical" tend to be rather absolutist. ;)

      April 15, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Colin

      Yes Tim and the point we keep making is that the inability to disprove something is no reason to give it any credibility. Once agin, my inability to disprove leprechauns does not cause one to pause and think they might exist. Silly stuff.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • humberto

      and emotion is not teethered as nature is, that choice also, is the proof of God. So act as foolish as you want, The outcome is forseeable.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Crad

      Reason. Not true. I have heard MANY many people say they are using knowledge and science to determine there is no god. And they too have to have faith, the only difference is they think they are using logic and reason and they need the most faith of all. These are the people that claim to know the edge of the universe and how all life started, yet dont even know whats in our own oceans on out own planets, or can split an atom without killing millions. Its curious

      April 15, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Colin

      Crad, not even proof, some kind of evidence suggesting that a superior being created the Universe would be nice. Unfortunately we have zero. Nada.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • James

      Tim, they are right it isn't logical to believe in any God. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying there isn't a divine being just there is no logical reason to believe in one until there is proof of it's existence. And as I said before logic doesn't require proof of the lack of existence of something or, as noted above, we would have equal basis for the existence of leprechauns.

      I find it acceptable for someone to believe in a divine being based on faith but don't pretend that faith is the same as logic. It is a different basis of belief.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Sue

      Actually, Tim, logic can be used, and has been used, to disprove the existence of specific gods with certain sets of characteristics such as the Christian one is claimed to have; Christian god clearly cannot exist since its claimed characteristics conflict with each other.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Colin

      Crad -"can't split an atom without killing millions". Heard of nuclear power plants?

      April 15, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Crad

      Sue thats not true. All characteristics and "workings" of the christian god can be seen here on earth. Including existing in multiple places at the same time, telepathic communication, and rising from the dead.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Crad

      Colin. Are you aware that we used a nuclear bomb before we created a plant? How can you miss my point so widely? I didnt think i needed to explain my point literally to you.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Crad

      Colin. There are millions of people who have proof that god exists. However you would call them crazy. If you accepted that proof you too would be called crazy, but who would be crazy at that point? Whats proof? You want to apply something purely scientifical to something that created science. Its like trying to solve a math equation with grammar. Why cant people realize that god and proof have nothing in common. You cant prove your parents loved you.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • James

      No Sue it isn't possible to disprove anything's existence with logic. It doesn't matter if it is a divine being or an apple. I teach logic and I can assure you that it just isn't a possibility. You can use logic to show that one's expectations regarding something are not realized but that is a different thing.

      Crad, no person has been proven to rise from the dead. There is no proof of telepathy. There is some proof that time is not linear and some objects can be in the different spots at the same point in time but it is not conclusive.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • humberto

      God dam the social service political priests that call themselves judges, lawyers & psycologists, that lie for the law of man to enslave the spirit of others to live under their criminal will.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Crad

      Actually james. People have been clinically dead for tens of minutes and come back to life. Its recorded. Particles communicate with each other telepathically and there have been numerous tests done to ascertain it happens in humans. Even scientists agree there is a communication device ithe brain that works telepathically. Scientists have proven it.

      April 15, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  13. Wolfman

    She is not really lying to her children. She is just unsure of what to do. However, she buried it quite well. As the article mentioned, children question everything and force you to face things as they truly are, just like these kids did.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  14. humberto

    Thats what happens when you leave your children home alone with women like that.

    Why didn't you ask him why he was Kosher instead of making up crap about how honest you are ?

    April 15, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Tim Rigney

      And atheists accuse religious people of being chauvanists. ;)

      April 15, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  15. Roscoe Chait

    Very confused and confusing article.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  16. OmniVI

    Religion is forced down our throats every single day. It's 8:37 am my local time and I can't buy alcohol until noon. Why? Because some people have a religious belief about Sunday. I don't drink but the point is that someone else's crazy belief system is affecting my life. Why is it having a religious belief means not paying taxes? Atheist are fighting back and the religious are afraid of that.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Sue

      Right on, OmniVI.

      April 15, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Schaz

      But we are slowly getting where you would like to be.

      When I was a child (1950's and 60's) the stores were closed on Sundays.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  17. sinners...

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

    April 15, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  18. blastoff

    She should teach her kids that we are all humans from a single ancestor... that the recent seperations into race and ethnicity are really ruses that have both kept peoples together and apart over the centuries.
    That traditions are there for the choosing, but are not set in stone as the religions would like.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  19. DrewNumberTwo

    How about a more robust comment system, CNN? I'd like to find my previous posts and continue conversations more easily than searching a dozen pages by hand.

    April 15, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  20. Luz Henriquez

    You are lying to your children

    April 15, 2012 at 10:35 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.