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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 • My Faith

soundoff (3,114 Responses)
  1. Pipe-Dreamer

    Atheisms and their atheistic wailings toward the chivalries of today's humanely religious devotees resonates without really stating so! God was 1st in all things Celestial and even in 1st things Terrestrial! God is the enveloper who wraps up the developer! God is the sweetness and likewise the soured! God is the thorn upon a rose-stem! God is forever within all lines to ever be drawn! He is the Supremeness for the sublime and weakly formed! He is the shadows where the sun's rays cannot penetrate! God is forever the builder and we are His buildings! In sanctifications are humanists found Holy!

    April 15, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      ...more like the thorns in our sides and the aspartame in our sodas.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Observer

      It's the factless rantings like these that turn off people. Less preaching and more realism would help.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • Jill

      Wailing profusely in three buckets for those. In essence, the potato drew lots but little praise in her chalet. Forsaken by global pesticide merits we exert ourselves pungently in the twilight of their squealing. Homer and Chaucer imbibed but not while sharks nested and mountains were climbed in dividing lines.See how they run. See how they run. Nevermore can the Dauphin eat lunch with barbers and Carmen.

      Vigorously,

      April 15, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  2. Phosphorus

    Religion: A viral transmission of toxic memes that can cause the host a wide range of physical, emotional, and neurological disorders, or in extreme cases may lead to the death of the host and/or additional members of the population.

    Virus: A molecular religion.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      @Phosphorus, Well said.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  3. myklds

    I was raised independent of any belief. When I learn a little about philosophy and science, I became an atheist. But when I learn big deal, I've been converted into Christianity.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Eric G

      Learn?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Are you saying that you tired of learning, so you converted to Christianity?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      Well, when you're ready to step back out of fantasy land we'll be waiting here to welcome you back.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  4. TheOtherAnswer

    "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." This is a pure example of you justifying what you do just so it u works for you. Use whatever rational you want really I am sure someone famous probably had a great quote along those lines that can help justify your case. You can keep telling yourself about going into parts unknown but the bottom line is, your entire family is unclean due to what you have done. The awful thing is, you do not even take the time to understand your belief at all so really your not even Jewish in my book. You just practice judaism... poorly.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  5. Arick

    Also, if God is so great, why is Santorum out of the race?

    April 15, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Observer

      And Perry and Bachmannn and Cain. Looks like God may have lied to all 4 of them.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • JT

      Yeah, looks like the Mormon was Jesus' favorite all along and the True Christian®. I guess the two batshit crazy Evangelicals and two batshit crazy Catlicks were just hearing voices in their heads or Jesus was just fucking with them.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  6. Arick

    Never met a "True" Christian who wasn't a backwards moronic reject.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • ryan

      Nothing undermines the good arguments of atheism like the example of atheists like yourself.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Jill

      ryan go suck your own self. Again.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • ryan

      Thanks for contributing to my point.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  7. DeeCee1000

    Religions ultimately divide and create bigotry toward other human beings. You don't need a religion to be a good human being. I'm glad the fastest growing population in the US are the Atheists and people without any religion.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  8. Big Man

    Gee, and what about all those stories. Having a problem backing up with history and archeology. The supposed Exodus comes to mind. Remove all the fluff from the bible, not much left to honor or celebrate. All this pieced-together tome are myths and other stories taken from other cultures. The Old Test was created as a nationalistic tool. If you will, the Jewish "Mein Kampf."

    April 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • reason

      See what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:

      April 15, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      You're correct, back then the Jews believed that it was okay, even good to kill off all of the non-believers. . the Catholic Church believed the same thing at one time during the 600 yr Inquisitions.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  9. Rick

    'My kids and I are on a journey together. We’re setting out for parts unknown' There is no unknown in faith, God is real and he is to worshipped!

    April 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • I thought jesus was white

      let me help you raise good christian children that will become you: 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 5:05 pm |
    • edwardo

      The desire to be worshipped is narcisstic. So your god is a narcissist? That alone makes him unfit for worship.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • tony

      That's what the more piousRoman Dads said about their gods.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  10. Phosphorus

    I used to religious, but then I heard about a little blue pill called, "Rebornium." You see, rebornium balances the neurotransmitters that produce religious delusions when they are out of balance, causing neural misfiring. Now, with just one Rebornium, I can feel as though I'm being reborn all day, but I don't alienate all of my friends, family, and coworkers in the process. I'm reborn everyday to a natural world full of natural consequences to natural actions.

    Rebornium may not be right for everyone. Side effects may include an increase in mental acuity, cognitive enhancement, improved memory and overall intelligence, and the ability to question things that you are exposed to. If you are having difficulty with navigating through reality due to born again religious delusions, ask your doctor if Rebornium is right for you today. Take control of your life...take the natural route...Rebornium.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Phosphorus,,,,,, ,,,,,, ,.

      Implications for the main purposes to imply may well implode in on one! God once was and God tenderly is and God will forever be but a God! Though the world and its' humanists and their humanisms may one day be gone from the Clestial Cosmos, we will not be gone within the framed worings of Fractal Cosmologies every and any where that cosmological Life does ever abound! The implications regarding Fractal rythms in its' many dimensionalized quadrants of stellarized selectivities is the apartides of much rumors! God does ever so Love the imginative ways of the enlightened comrauderies of any life form with the capabilities to digest the outright harmonies of leveraged sciences dispurging ever so often!

      April 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      You should ask your doctor if Rebornium is right for you. You might even be able to smoke it out of your pipe.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      Half the fun is trying to decipher what @Pipe-Dreamer is saying. He's like a poor man's Alan Ginsberg, but instead of smack, he's hopped up on god.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Some eat of the body of Christ, some drink of the blood of Christ...this guy smokes the bones and toe nails of his sky fairy.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
  11. Todd

    Anti-Christians had their best chance to squash Christianity when they had Jesus' body tightly wrapped up in linen and lying inside a tomb behind a two-ton stone and an elite military guard. Three days later the body is gone and the authorities are coming up with a phony story to cover it up. And they never DID recover a body. And centuries later, the brilliant anti-Christians on this board and everywhere else are still groping for their jocks to explain it.

    April 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • I thought jesus was white

      the worst are the christian stories.. they are spectacular, as expected. repeated stories just seem to blow up quickly, now don't they. Especially when there are repeated for so many years. We all know how a simple story repeated in one day among 10 people get distorted.. Imagine what 20, 30, 50 years would do to the stories.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Observer

      Non-believers aren't like Christians who believe in talking serpents and unicorns.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Eric

      Hmmm CSI Jerusalem?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Arick

      If it is in a book, it must be true!!!! You know those Lord of the Rings books? All true.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  12. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????lol!

    April 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Troll, your insight is astounding.

      April 15, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      lols

      April 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  13. Jesus Loves You

    If you want to be burning in a lake of 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 4:50 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      If I were to bring marshmallows to this lake of fire, would that be blasphemous?

      April 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Truth

      Nothing wrong with most religious people that a bullet will not fix.

      AMEN!

      April 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • JM

      The J man might have not even existed ... what are you talking about?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  14. People Wake Up

    Religion is the opiate of the masses!

    April 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      ...and the bubble gum underneath my shoe. I chose the bubble gum metaphor so that I wouldn't offend anyone. :-)

      April 15, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • rsquared

      That quote is by Karl Marx. You know, the communist?

      April 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      "Kill them all, let God sort them out." Arnaud Amalric, a Cistercian Church leader during the times of the Albigensian Crusade. He was simply giving advice on how to distinguish friends from foes. He was hailed for centuries for his wisdom, and his advice my smiled upon by Christians for centuries thereafter.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      *was smiled upon*

      April 15, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  15. Here we go.

    bibles and korans are what people wipe with!

    April 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      The King James version is extra absorbent, but the New International version is extra plush! Both are Angel Soft, soft, though.

      April 15, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • edwardo

      I wipe with burqas and turbans.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      They're soft too.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • becool

      Koran is not a issue and out of comparison , it's just another BAD copy of Judaism and unclear stories of the New Testament. So, it doesn't make any sense to mention it. We have just the Bible whether we believe in it or not.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • ugh

      SHUT UP. Say something true and honest, not what your little brain has been told to say over and over and over and over......

      April 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • seriously?

      Thats all you have? It is not healthy? You might need to read a book and get something/anything to back that up.

      April 15, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Prayer changes things, sometimes, but only on special occasions, and only if we squint our eyes hard enough, double up our fists, conjure all of our brain power and think with all of our might, "pretty please?"

      April 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Proven ,

      April 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • wow

      wow

      April 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • I thought jesus was white

      yes, praying to a volcano, has identical effects.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      ...and when your prayers are unanswered, what rationalization do you make then?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  17. Phosphorus

    I wonder how many people say they leave everything to gawd, but still look both ways before crossing the street?

    April 15, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  18. Pete

    I admire your courage to share what you did, and there is a lot truth in what you said. I am sure many people who read your article understand exactly what you are mean and share the same values as we do. We trust God to share our truth, and leave everything to God. Thank you for being who you are.

    April 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • I thought jesus was white

      nothing like bragging, huh?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  19. mark

    To Laurel:
    Somewhere along the line you became disconnected from Judiasm; and you lost your connection. It might be the loss happened within your family several generations ago. I am not certain. You do not have a Jewish spouse. So for you it is a very difficult situation; because your spouse does not know anything about Judiasm; so your child will be confused.Judiasm is a rich religion and very complicated and being immersed in a Jewish family helps alot. Keeping kosher is only a small part by Judaism only a part of the puzzle. For a woman to be in a marriage with a partner that it is not of the same faith; puts
    her in an awkward position. Everyday when men go to synagogue and put their phyllactaries on they have a group of things
    that they thank G-d for; one of these is "thank you for not making me a woman". Laurel probably has a great partner but the
    mere fact that she is the woman ; she has limited options and abilities to transmit the religion to the child.She herself does not know what she wants to transmit; although she knows that as a mother she wants her children to be Jewish. Again; somewhere all the line the connection with her religion and her people was lost. It is sad and it is not the fault of the person; it might be the fault of the Jewish community. Anyway all the best and I wish I could help your son be a "good" Jew. It is a
    lifelong process that comes with difficulty and much hard work. But now being that Jews have completed celebrated the holiday of Passover where we thank G-d for saving us from the throngs of Egyptian slavery and commit ourselves to devote ourselves to the Torah what better time to start than today. Thank you; wish you and your son all the best Mark

    April 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  20. tnfreethinker

    "if it isn’t honest, it doesn’t count." ... simple truth

    April 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.