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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. Moncada

    Tom Tom, the Piper's Son: If you use the words "stupi d, dimwi t, troll (when I am not even being confrontational or posting to upset others)" and call me a troll, there is obviously something flawed in your judgement.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      When you learn how to spell "judgment", you azzhole, notify the media. It'll be cause for fireworks, considering your status as a moron.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Moncada

      Tom, Tom when you know the similarities between Atheists and Animists, and how Atheism leaves the door open for the belief in spirits then correct me on my grammar.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Azzhole, when you can manage to figure out grammar, I'll be happy to correct your other idiocies. Morons like you must learn to walk before they can run. You're crawling. Barely.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Atheists do not believe in the supernatural. Spirits are supernatural. Therefore, Atheists do not believe in spirits. A Greek philosopher from before our common era would have easily induced this logic as well.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Moncada

      @Phosphorous- Look it up in a dictionary please.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Which dictionary to you prefer to defend your thesis? Finding definitions in dictionaries to be in total agreement is quite difficult at times. Ever try to look up the definition for the word definition? It's fun!

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition

      So, if you were under the presumption that a favored dictionary's definition is universal, or that there's a consensus of each word, you'd be mistaken. Asking an Atheist to look up the definition for the word "Atheism" is like asking a man or a woman to look up the definitions for "man," and "woman." It's kind of silly.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Monastat only uses the dictionary to prop open her window when her farts stink too much.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • Moncada

      I looked it up on Webster, maybe I should check Oxford.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  2. Moncada

    Tom, Tom the Piper's son: There is a difference between Gods and Spirits, I recommend you study a bit more.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I recommend you go get fucked, and really well, for once in your sorry little life, Monastat.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Absolutely, there is a difference between the two, but they are both supernatural, and Atheists stand apart from any word that has an "ism" connected to it, which means, "the belief in." Of course, the one exception is the word, "Atheism," which simply means a lack of belief in theism. You misunderstand what it means to not believe in the supernatural. We don't pick and choose what supernatural fairy tales to entertain delusions of. We reject them all equally. We are equal opportunity supernatural rejectors.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  3. matdaniel

    Something that most people can't understand is that religion is not about to please ourselves but to please god, whoever the god is. Religion is obedience to the doctrines, not a half way route walking but a conscious acceptance of the rules and the giving of ourselves to the god that is worshipped.

    How then the woman in the article declares herself as Jewish but is not keeping the diet given by her god? Does she think that religion is just a game? Perhaps, this is why she thought to blame her parents for not teaching her to keep such a diet? Does she still is a child or is she an adult who can depend on herself to decide what to do and evade excuses to explain her child why they are not kosher?

    Because this kind of believers, the word "religion" has not much meaning today, because one can be a religious person without become a fanatic, just to obey the doctrines "as is" this is religion.

    When one starts to ask why this diet and not a different one, or why I must rest on Shabbat and not on Mondays, or what was before God, or why there is suffering if God loves us all... these questions can lead to philosophy, but surely are not religion. Religion is obedience, questions about God's origin and behavior is philosophy, simple as that.

    Jewish values won't accept sodomite couples raising children as parents, Jewish values will always keep what God has taught to be done; Jewish values go hand by hand with moral, with integrity, dignity, and solid principles, all of them given by God.

    We cannot take it easy with religion, because is better to be a solid atheist than a half religious person. My opinion is that while some people still giving deceived suggestions about what can be obeyed and what can be passed by about God's commandments, there will be more social corruption because the failure to be real men and women of God.

    If you think that you are a religious person, don't play with your god, because doing so you are not only lying to yourself but you are also bringing down to everyone near you.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • IceT

      Why does God need to please himself so much?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  4. sybaris

    "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."

    Wrong.

    Most religions promise an afterlife with a creator and teach that attaining that "heaven" is the ultimate goal. In turn this faith dilutes the value of the corporeal life because the eye is on the eternal one. It is not uncommon to hear the faithful proclaim how they long to be with their creator.

    Conversely, believing that this life on earth for maybe 80 years is all you have "should" induce one to value it above all else.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Beth

      You seem to be mistaking Christianity or some other religion with Judaism. Judaism doesn't focus on heaven or the afterlife and people are not trying to do things in order to get to go to heaven. There is no hell or devil, no need to be 'saved' (that's a Christian concept). You are assuming things about Judaism that aren't true. I'm not Jewish because I think it is the path to an after life. I have no idea what happens after death. I'm Jewish no matter what I do based on birth and culture. Judaism focuses on doing good for the world in the here and now, not on earning a way to heaven.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  5. Moncada

    Mooncaca? Really Tom, Tom? If you represent Atheists you give them a bad reputation.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If you're too stupid to recognize another troll, dimwit, it's not my problem.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  6. Moncada

    I don't know but every time Science discovers something new I am even more convinced that my God exists, thank you Science for reinforcing my beliefs.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • sybaris

      Yeah, "science" is bad, bad

      "ignorance" is good, good

      April 15, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Moncada

      No Sybaris, Science merely tries to understand the natural world and is aside from my personal beliefs, for me Science is not evil but just another way for me to marvel at my own God.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You'd find your own belly-button a marvel, you incredibly stupid twit.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  7. Moncada

    Oh but Atheism is the denial that Gods exist, not spirits, so therefore Animists are Atheists.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • chubby rain

      Can't argue with logic like that.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You could, but Monastat wouldn't get it.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  8. Arthur

    Focus on Lying to the Children

    April 15, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • PaulLied

      Children are lied to all the time. They are told Santa Claus is real. That if they are good, he will bring them presents. The parents run around like crazy buying the gifts of course .... And the children whose parents don't have enough money to buy them gifts, well ... they just don't get any.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  9. Moncada

    Science is meant to understand the natural world not to challenge supernatural things, silly Atheists don't know the difference.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • chubby rain

      And if religion didn't step on sciences toes, I wouldn't care about your silly superst-itions

      April 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What utter twaddle. Really Monastat, get a frikken clue. Science doesn't care about your silly supersti tions. Science deals with facts. Too bad you wouldn't know one if it bit your bum.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      We know the difference. If the religious community didn't push Creationism and Intelligent Design to be taught on equal ground as the Scientific Method, we might turn the other cheek or play nice and leave you to your supernatural and magical sky fairies or cosmic butterflies, or whatever mythologies one wishes to lobotomize their brains with.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Moncada

      Oh Phosphorous- Scientific theories have not been entirely proven, but many have been dis-proven, personal Gods on the other hand have not been proven or dis-proven but are real to their believers. It all leaves so many possibilities.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Only to those who don't understand the scientific definition of the word "theory", ya phony fuckwit, Monarda.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Theories are called as such because they have an enormous amount of supporting evidence and have withstood the rigors of trying to disprove them time and time again. They have predictive power that can lead to generating new hypotheses that can be tested so that additional explanations for phenomena can be obtained. Every piece of technology that you use is a testament to this. Unlike religion, science constantly questions itself and attempt to disprove itself so that new models can be constructed or reinforced as new data becomes available. It updates and evolves, and we progress further in all aspects of life because of this...that is, in all things natural. The supernatural is simply an explanation for those that are too lazy to generate testable hypotheses and actually do some work to find a real explanation. Religion and the supernatural have not been able to generate one single testable hypothesis, nor has it ever been able to enhance the social well being of all people...only the few that support the religion that dominates that particular geographical region, and that's because historically they've been free to kill those that disagree. Your turn.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  10. HeavenSent

    Heaven sent us tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and famines, plus cancers, typhoid, meningitis, lupus, and other horrible diseases that cause horrid suffering and death to millions of people worldwide.

    And then he wants to torture you in hell forever if you suspect that he doesn't exist, even given that there is no specific evidence for his existence and that he apparently hasn't shown his face for at least 2000 years if ever.

    Wow, god must be quite the cruel, evil jerk. To be polite.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • fredd

      maybe god wants to punish us

      April 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Beth

      Psst, Jews don't believe in hell and you don't have to even believe in god to be Jewish.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  11. Moncada

    Matter and Anti-Matter
    Hot and Cold
    Nature and the Supernatural
    It seems that everything has its opposite.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Absolutely. You and intelligence, for example.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • momoya

      Yes, without god believers there'd be no atheists. I don't understand how the "supernatural" is the opposite of nature, though. I'm concerned that you may be typing faster than you think.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Moncada

      @Momoya- See there is nature. What is the opposite of nature? The unnatural also know as the supernatural.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      "Also know as the supernatural"? Nope.

      Can't you do any better than that, troll?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Is the opposite of beetle dung "super-beetle dung?"

      April 15, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  12. Rich

    Take God seriously

    But not too seriously

    How do you do that?

    April 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  13. Hello

    I don't see the full view from this author. What is the point of these ideas? Can there be some other articles from Laurel? With all the respect, but I'm very confused how to understand or how to applie it.
    "Now I light candles each week and say the blessings"............. But to who?
    "Aren't family nature, and environmentalism tenets of faith beyond the jewish world, in every religion? .......... What does this mean?
    However, I don't trust, pretend or try to follow any kind of religion. It is just men – made.
    Either you believe with all your heart "The God of the Bible", or you do not, and so become religious.
    I hope to see other writings from Laurel, and it's true that raising children and building them up, it is a great responsibility and joy.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  14. Moncada

    Atheists even believe that everything trees, wind, water, etc. have their own spirits. How can I make that claim? Well because Animists are Atheists in the simple fact that they do not believe in a single powerful being.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      YOU ARE A MORON.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • IceT

      Just like Abrahamic believers are mentally ill since they believe in invisible beings ... your logic not mine.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Moncada

      Atheists also believe in many Gods since they do not believe in one all powerful being.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Sez the microcephalic who doesn't know what "atheist" means.

      Big surprise.

      Really, dear, why don't you go help your mommy set the table?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • IceT

      Now I'm just embarased for posting a response after reading Moncada's other posts. I feel duped.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      @Moncada, You've never looked up the word, "atheist" in the dictionary, have you? You might want to do a little self-education before you try to talk at the adult table.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Was Moncada dropped on the head at birth, or strangled by the umbilical for a few, but crucial moments? Either Moncada is a troll or kind of special...short, yellow school bus special.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's a common troll. Nothing special, no intelligence, just a stupid jerk.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • Jespo

      The father of the Abrahamic religions....good ol Abram, married his own sister Sarai, later called Sarah. Your faith started in madness and continues the tradition....the madness of hatred, intolerance, fear, and ignorance.

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

    April 15, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  16. .

    Let's face it. CNN hates Christians because they like their gays like Anderson Pooper and Richard Kwest.

    Wanna know what Richard did one night in Washington Square park after a meth laced night on the town with his boyfriend?

    He had a rope. One end was tied around his neck. The other end was tied around his johnson.

    And he was dressed up like Adolph Eichman.

    And CNN has a problem with Christianity?

    April 15, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nah. CNN has a problem with zealots like you.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Moncada

      Atheists don't even know which shoe goes on their left or right foot.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • .

      Gonna go and tie the knot tonight, Tommy Boy?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I guess you are.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Mooncaca, your right and left foot look the same, both having webbed toes.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  17. abbydelabbey

    fanaticism, extremism is simply unhealthy....

    April 15, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  18. 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 5:58 pm |
    • Leave Gandhi alone

      Poor man must be turning in his grave!

      April 15, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  19. reason

    How about you teach them what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:

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

    April 15, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  20. carl

    to teach them Jewish Values.. Explain to them about how Jews held a Monopoly on the Trans Atlantic Slave ships, they used Rum to get West Africans addicted to it so they would sell their Children. Teach them the Truth about Aaron Lopez and the fleet of Jews in the new world. Then also explain to them how (Media is a monopoly run by them too) Then teach them how jewish banks were the fall of the Roman Empire (it fell over time) as will they be the fall of future empires to come including currently our empire .. "The british Empire" ..But good thing your not too religious in hasidic values cause how they treat women? i'm sure you'd appreciate those VALUES!

    April 15, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Gloria

      Speak on it Carl :)

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

      Hey carl and Gloria, should we go into detail on some famous Christian values? You know, like stoning someone to death for eating crawfish?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Beth

      Maybe you prefer to teach 'Christian values' such as murder and torture a la the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, being most all the slave owners in the USA, the Salem witch trials, etc, etc. you are an ugly bigot. I know many good Christians and I see good in Christianity despite the above things. You are spewing lies and ugliness. Yawn. Gets old. go back to your KKK message board.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:19 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.