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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 Loves You

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2bpc7LSRZc&w=640&h=390]

    April 15, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  2. Carter Mobley

    In order to gain the right to teach one's religion to one's child, one must first ensure that one's obligation to educate and emancipate the child has been carried out. This means that one must first ensure that the child has attained the mental capacities, the political freedom and security within his family and culture to question the concepts of a religion without repercussion.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • humberto

      Don't put your hand in the fire, you liar.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  3. Jesus

    Just try to explain Deuteronomy 21 to any rational human being. If you can attribute omnipotent wisdom to that brutal, irrational, and ignorant statemernt of "God's law" then you've done something that no other thinking 21st century person has ever done-deified the the code of laws that existed 1800 years ago. That's all the Babble is-a codification of laws in parable form that is purported to be proscribed by a God and whose violation is punished by God. That's what the ruling class did way back then when policing the populace and communications were primitive. They needed to establish control. They did so with the Babble-a vehicle for injectiing fear and retribution for "unlawful" acts that will be punished after death.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • gotram

      any bible scholar will tell you that the old testament is in fact a codification of Hebrew laws and an origin story. The new testament preaches love and understanding. The old testament is also much older than 1800 years. I would suggest educating yourself on the "babble" (that's a really witty play on words...) before you denounce it.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  4. achepotle

    Teaching a child religion is akin to child abuse. The parents should be charged and the child removed to a secular foster home.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  5. Jesus

    Try to explain Deuteronomy 21 to any rational human being. If you can attribute omnipotent wisdom to that brutal, irrational, and ignorant statemernt of "God's law" then you've done something that no other thinking 21st century person has ever done-deified the the code of laws that existed 1800 years ago. That's all the Babble is-a codification of laws in parable form that is purported to be proscribed by a God and whose violation is punished by God. That's what the ruling class did way back then when policing the populace and communications were primitive. They needed to establish control. They did so with the Babble-a vehicle for injectiing fear and retribution for "unlawful" acts that will be punished after death.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  6. PumpNDump

    What makes your "religion" and "faith" more valid or real than the Greek & Roman Gods, The Druids, Mithrasian faiths, Hindi, Shintoism, Ba'al, etc? NOTHING! It is NO more relevant, accurate or real than the other faiths you "compete" with for money. Yes, it's all about money & power and leading dimwits with myths.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Maybe it all becomes clear when we're born again. Although some of my Baptist friends have complained to me that they've been born again any number of times, and nothing ever seems to have changed.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  7. Me

    Maybe it is time for you to read Torah and to read it to your kids. Torah will explain what the laws of Kashrut are and why we Jews were told to follow them. Once done with the five books of Torah continue with the rest of Tanakh, which explains what happens when we don't follow what Torah says. Sounds like you have a very smart son. Use that to your advantage. Shalom.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • Carter Mobley

      Very smart son indeed. He fights aganst a notion that he is somehow not 'kosher' (I.e., not 'good') but he is at the mercy of anyone who would teach him a religion before he has attained the age of reason and the mental capacities to rationally challenge religious concepts. Let us work together to enumerate and enact the human rights of children.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • amjp

      OK, but yours is the Orthodox position. The majority of American Jews don't keep the "ritual" commandments, which include kashrut, but do try to keep the "ethical commandments," which is viewed by the other branches of Judaism as the core of the religion. I respect your decision to follow Orthodox practice, but I don't consider myself any less of a Jew for not doing so.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • me

      I guess Moses and King David were Orthodox Jews. Read Torah, follow Torah, have a relationship with the Almighty. It is time to start returning. It has always been time to start returning.

      April 15, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  8. 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 11:16 am |
  9. David Broniatowqski

    I agree with the person who commented that this article "jumps the shark."

    I think everyone agrees that Judaism is a religion with a steep learning curve and a strong focus on education. Furthermore, there are TONS of resources available for anyone who is interested in learning about Judaism, especially in today's online society.

    So the idea that "It’s not easy to explain something to a kid when you haven’t yet figured it out for yourself. " and just leave it at that seems lazy to me. If she really wanted to figure it out she could have read something, asked someone, etc. Judaism is a community-based religion and there are community resources available. The later parts of the article elaborate on her reasons: "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."

    In other words, she's unwilling to truly explore her own practices and be open to changing them. I would have much more respect for her if she had done her homework and then reached her conclusion. Instead, she's approaching Judaism from the perspective of someone who has already got her answers figured out and is trying to justify them post-hoc using, at best, pop-culture representations of something that can have deep religious, social, anthropological, etc. significance. In the process she is trivializing Judaism.

    So much of the religion is constructed around getting people to ask questions (like the Seder that we just had...) so when people simply don't because "that's not what we do" I find that lazy. Hence, jumping the shark.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • amy clift

      I agree with your response to Laurel Snyder's article. I would have suggested at least one resource that has been helpful to many people, parents or not. That is Rabbi Harold Kushner,s book When Children Ask About God. It is amazing how so many educated people never actually think about the BIG questions but their opinions get published!

      April 15, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  10. bsa

    I'm not sure what the point of this story is. No offense, but you just sound kind of lost.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Lost&Confused

      I too believe she is lost. She has added confusion to her life in many ways. You can't be part of a big something and only believe and practice part of it. It is sad but a lot of people fee as she does. Assimilation is never good to a Jew.

      April 15, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  11. WeWereOnTheMoon

    At this point of human history, belief in God is a proof of human modesty.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Modesty is not something our species is especially good at. Couldn't you have picked something else?

      April 15, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • WeWereOnTheMoon

      Irresponsibility?...perhaps

      April 15, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  12. jojojo

    That there is a creator that intervenes on our behalf, answers prayers, that he
    cares who we sleep with and in what position, what food we eat and on what
    day, is a ridiculous proposition, it's a claim to a truth that no one can make,
    those that tell you they know should be distrusted, great damage has been
    done and continued to be done by such people and ideas. You are better off
    thinking for yourself taking all the risks and pleasures that result.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • J

      Well said.

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

      All that is true unless you are a character in a simulation game called " Earth" played by " God"

      April 15, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  13. bsa

    So in other words, your family is basically "like everyone else" and religion plays virtuallly ni significant part of your life. However, if you don't adhere to any jewish law - which by your own admission you don't - then other than birth what makes you jewish. Or perhpas that's enough for you. So how do you seperate yourself from the christian world? It doesn't sound like you do. I'm just saying that living a jewish life is not about being "like everyone else". I'll mention the word seperation, because it plays an important role in religion and belief and gives us character, religion and even our personality. It's what makes us unique, whether as a person or a people. And it is the separation of beliefs, rituals and laws that catagorizes deifferent religions And if those differences are not practiced then ultimately everything gets amalgamted and the loser is religion and along with it the wonderful culture it has to offer.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Maybe we should give her a break. She writes children's books on this stuff. Moving from that to a higher order of thinking is probably tough.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • kreateur

      Who the hell are you to tell a person what living a Jewish life means? You are a human being too and have no right to judge.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  14. exuberantyou

    The problem seems to be that you're trying to make your children understand how important Judaism is in your life when, in fact, it's not. You've married outside of your faith, you don't observe in any authentic manner, you're picking and choosing to include practices that meet your needs, with little care about whether they're really part of the religion. And the truth is that all that is OK, but don't expect it to be enough for Jewish continuity in your children's lives. These very modern interpretations of ancient traditions don't typically hold people to their faith. They're nice because they help infuse your kids lives with fun celebrations (hannukah presents, challah bread, etc.), but ultimately the children will grow to see that it was a choice for you, not something that was of critical importance in your life, and therefore they'll take it or leave it, depending on whatever is most convenient for them at that moment.

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

      I doubt you'll have the opportunity to do this, but if you have a chance to live in Israel for a few years you will find multiple interpretations of what a Jewish life means there as well. The country is 75% secular and many do not lift a finger to participate in tradition, but they are proud Jews and feel connected even if only intellectually and emotionally. Judaism is most definitely about interpretation and the very act of a person engaging in the question of what it means is participating in Jewish life. People here need to stop judging and get off their self-righteous high horses.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  15. Moncada

    I encourage the idea of Evolution because that to me just proves there is a God. And I am not joking.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Yup

      Well.... It's better than saying a book of fairy tales has the proof of god.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  16. One one

    It seems religion boils down to one simple central theme. If you believe, you get to go to heaven, if you don't, you go to hell.

    All the other stuff (morality, meaning of life, etc.) is just window dressing. Take away the central theme and what have you got? A book of rules? No need for god's And myths for that.

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

      How do you know it's a myth supposedly?

      April 15, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Colin

      Ah yes, hell, one of my favorite Christian superst.itions.

      I don't have to kill, I don't have to steal, I don't even have to litter. All I have to do is have an honest, rational and reasonable disbelief in [the Christian] god and he will impose a punishment on me an infinite times worse than the death penalty. And he loves me.

      Dark Ages nonsense.

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

      What you've written doesn't pertain to Judaism, however. "Salvation" is primarily a Christian concept. The focus of Judaism is not on belief, but action, and not on the afterlife, but this one. There is only one primary believe in Judaism, and that is in "One God." The rest of the commandments pertain to what you DO, not say.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • amjp

      That should be "belief" above, not "believe." Sorry!

      April 15, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • One one

      @moncada. How do I know what is a myth?

      April 15, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  17. tony

    All children should be educated in the undestanding and need of morals.

    It's teaching them that there is something solely on their side that both allows them to override morals and forgives them for so doing that causes the evil in the World.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  18. Colin

    God Meets His Physics Teacher

    Teacher: God, I have some bad news for you. You’ve been getting away with murder for eons, but I’m afraid that now you have to start abiding by the laws of physics.

    God: But I don’t want to!

    Teacher: I’m afraid that doesn’t matter. Look, you made this Universe and set the rules, you have to abide by them. One cannot tell his servants to do one thing while he does another. I think Jesus said that.

    God: That f.cking kid. He’s been nothing but a problem since puberty. It’s his mother’s fault. All high and mighty the way she is, “I’m a virgin, I’m a virgin.” No big surprise there, she went to a liberal arts college and studied women’s rights. She loves the Indigo Girls and played a lot of sport. You do the math.

    Teacher: Anyway, the game is over. Time to start abiding by the rules.

    God: But I am omnipotent, I can do what I like.

    Teacher: Well….sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s the first thing to go. You see, the laws of physics state that an omnipotent being cannot exist. It is a meaningless concept, like a four-sided triangle, or a square circle. Once universal laws exist, omnipotence cannot.

    God: Not even for Rupert Murdoch?

    Teacher: No, not even for him. Now focus, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to start with Archimedes and get you up to quantum mechanics by the end of the day.

    God: But I’m omniscient. I already know everything.

    Teacher: Sorry kiddo, strike two. Omniscience is essentially a meaningless concept, too. Knowledge requires data to be input, stored and recalled in a useful manner. To be truly omniscient would require an infinitely large data storage unit with access to all parts of it at over light speed. Given the natural limitations of data recall, you are actually a bit of a dunce, by the standards of the gods.

    God: Why only light speed? What does that have to do with anything?

    Teacher: We’ll get to that, around 3:30 this afternoon. This is going to be a long day.

    God: That doesn’t matter, I’m immortal. I have all the time in the World.

    Teacher: Ok, so how do I break THIS news?....

    You’re not. To be a god means, at a minimum, that you must be a complex being at some level. Now that you are governed by the laws of physics, this means that you are subject to the laws of thermodynamics and entropy. Over the long term, you must decay. You can be sustained for a very long period, but ultimately it is a finite period.

    God: You mean…..I’m getting old?

    Teacher: Yep, I’m afraid so. Noticed that slaying the first born, sending plagues to kill thousands of innocent people and wiping out Canaanites has lost its allure? Nothing but a peaceful middle age, full of Viagra and memories ahead of you now. Look how fat Buddha’s become.

    God: So, if laws of physics exist, that means I’m not omnipotent, I’m not omniscient and I’m not immortal. Hell, I’m not even a god. Gods cannot exist. Jesus Christ, I don’t even exist!

    Teacher: You do the math.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • bannister

      I read that whole thing. Sorry, but it was terrible. What is your point exactly? That no being can be omnipotent? That a human teacher knows more about the laws of physics than the intelligence that created the physical world in the first place?

      Humans live in a very, very small world with a very limited perspective. We only understand what our human brains will allow. Change the perspective (perhaps through death?) and suddenly, all of our known physical, earthly laws become irrelevant – or perhaps just seen in a different context.

      Simply put, you can't prove there's not a God – any more than I can prove there is one. Nor do I have the childlike need to prove either. I am simply happy observing and marveling at this beautiful world.

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

      "The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

      "How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us-for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."

      Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars-and yet they have done it themselves." -Nietzsche, 1882 Parable of the Mad Man.

      April 15, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  19. tony

    The people who say you can't use logic are ....the people who can't understand logic.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  20. Geraard Spergen

    "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."

    ROFL ! Pretending is the essential prerequisite religious faith.

    April 15, 2012 at 11:04 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.