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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. Miss liz

    Who do you think gave us the internet? That's right, God. So we could find answers. Gotcha. (and I don't mean Al Gore, he is quite godless)

    April 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • just sayin

      Huh? I am guessing you are being sarcastic

      April 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  2. KAS

    I'm presuming the author doesn't (or now won't) go anywhere near any area with a Hasidic or Conservative jewish population. After reading this article, she'll probably have to fear for her life as these groups attempt to hunt her down for openly admitting she's a Sunshine Jew.

    But hey, it's religion. Common sense doesn't enter into the picture.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  3. Matt

    Kids are just smarter these days. They know when something is BS because they understand the concept of reasoning. They also know when to stand up for their non-beliefs, which is way more acceptable these days than in past decades. Also, kids these days know that praying will not solve your problems or give you the answers. Thats what the internet is for.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • stanknasty

      I've gotten many answers to prayer...it depends who you pray to.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  4. Ricardo

    Ironic, in trying not to be overly religious she ends up being religious.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  5. Miss liz

    ...and those that think we came about because of "magic dust" or whatever are the biggest idiots of all. There is no magic. God did it all.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Miss liz,
      I'm confused. Are you being sarcastic?
      The only "magic dust" I can think of is the stuff God supposedly created Adam out of and then you say:
      "There is no magic. God did it all."
      But isn't God the magic?

      April 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Nonimus

      oops... troll... never mind.

      April 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  6. stanknasty

    A religious ritual without a relationship with God is of little to no value at all... she feels uncomfortable with explaining her kosher /non kosher because there is no God in it...just rituals. Relationship with God is something internal that the Spirit molds in you as you open your heart and listen to the little soft gentle voice inside...that's where it begins. It's a great place to start.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  7. Miss liz

    Idiots need religion. More than anyone.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • lt_murgen

      Please define idiot.

      Is a person with a PhD in religious studies inherenttly more stupid than someone with a PhD in 15th century French Literature?
      Is someone with a PhD in experimental physics less stupid than one with a PhD in religious studies?

      April 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  8. Chazz

    My parents were not religious at all. However, I do thank my mother for taking me to church every Sunday for years. It gave me the ability to make a choice for myself, and not just have what my parents believed forced down my throat. Sure I ended up just like them, but at least I made an educated decision for myself and did not have that decision made for me.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • OOO

      If you are thankfull for that, why aren't you angry at them for not taking you to temple every week so you could have a choice with that as well?
      Obviously, they can't. So why are you thankful for the church part?

      April 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  9. i am neat

    religion is for idiots.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • lt_murgen

      Please define idiot.

      Is a person with a PhD in religious studies inherenttly more stupid than someone with a PhD in 15th century French Literature?
      Is someone with a PhD in experimental physics less stupid than one with a PhD in religious studies?

      April 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  10. Pipe-Dreamer

    Religion will always be one branch and politics the other branch while the vines of socialisms will ever be entangled upon these two branches! This is the Truth in but a few words! Plainly and simply this Truth is written!

    April 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Horus

      Self-egrandize much?

      April 16, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Take home mesage: Don't drink and type.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "This is the Truth in but a few words! Plainly and simply this Truth is written!"

      Hmmm... it took two sentences just to claim that it was plain and simple.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  11. Jay

    This woman needs to admit a few things to herself. 1. Shes not religious. 2. She only goes through the rituals because thats what she was taught to do. 3. She probably doesnt really believe in God therefore cant have real faith in him. 4. She just likes the traditions but doesnt know why she does them.

    Once she admit all that to herself, she can dump her traditions and let her kids dump them too.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Mike in NJ

      Oh, Jay, you're exactly the kind of open-minded, tolerant-of-the-way-others-worship, kind of person we all strive to be.

      Oh wait, I forgot, that was sarcasm. Please put a dollar in the "Judge Not Lest YE Be Judged" Jar, and have a great day.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • sarahjoann

      Excuse me, but who granted you moral authority over others? Is there some clause in your holy text that makes you the supreme judge of who does and does not truly believe in god? Just a thought.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Will

      I agree 100%. I'm raising my son without a single second of religious training. And really, that's what it is, training. Religion and God are learned behaviors just like racism. What Choice would he have if I raised him in the catholic enviroment I was raised in. What choice did I have? Of age, I'll show him a mass at any structured church he wants. I'll let you know in 15 years what he decides without outside influence. Hopefully he decides to be rational and chooses none, he can decide for himself.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  12. Miss liz

    Yes, Truth 7. But good luck to you with the not sinning thing. Good luck with that.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  13. OOO

    Where are the dinosaurs Moses put on the boat?

    April 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Horus

      I almost choked laughing while drinking and reading this comment – Very Funny!

      April 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Matt

      Well see, god put the dinosaur bones here to test our faith (trick us). So I guess all these brainwashed people bow to a deceitful lyar.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • just sayin

      Moses? I think you meant Noah. As for Moses, there are Christians who actually think that he turned a stick into a snake and ate the other snakes that came from sticks. Otherwise....magic. lol

      April 16, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Jesus was the second coming....in the first coming God sent his only begotten son to live among men as T-Rex. That didn't work so he tried it again in another venue.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  14. SDFrankie

    I just have no respect for people who are too intellectually timid to admit the obvious truth: that religion is bunk. This lady clearly knows the truth, she just hasn't got the guts to admit it because she'll miss out on all the pretty trappings of religion. It's a false fear. You can have parties and neighbors and family and almost everything else without religion. Does she think her kids aren't going to come to understand that their mom's living a lie?

    April 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • i am neat

      plus her stupid god doesn't want her to eat delicious bbq ribs. what a ripoff.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • lt_murgen

      How does her approach label her as intelectually timid?

      If anything, it shows a willingness to not close off portions of the spectrum of human exerience available to others. Simply because one person sees no value in something does not mean someone else might find it of limited value, or another find it of great value.

      She could say "religion is bunk, I want my children to take no part in it" or "religion has done more damage to humanity than anything else, I will never expose my children to it, or "This is the truth, there is no other, learn this religious doctrine or be punished, child."

      It takes courage to say "I am willing to sit quietly and listen to things I may not disagree with, and I want my children to hear and understand both the ideas and my issues with them."

      April 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  15. Miss liz

    Jews have an advantage in that their culture promotes family, education, and a hard work ethic. If you just narrow it down to those values, you have an advantage over most other cultures. The Jewish religion today, however, really lacks any of the structure it used to have. No prophet, no central leadership, no temples, none of the stuff that lended the religious relationship to God aspect. Most Judaism is secular, I'm thinking. Most Jews I meet don't really subscribe to the Biblical style of Judaism. It's a fascinating culture, and little more at this point.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  16. David Nelson

    Religious, but not too religious? Sounds a little like saying "be truthful, but not too truthful." And if you believe religion is lies, why teach your kids to be religious at all? This makes zero sense to me.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • lt_murgen

      You can be truthful without being too truthful. We prevaricate, we dither, we split hairs to maintain a cordial society. Similarly, one can temper their religion to maintain a cordial society. A certain religion may call upon their adherents to spread the word through direct prostelyzing to non-believers. That doens't mean they need to agressively confront someone in the street.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Miss liz

    I'm not sure exactly how serious the Kosher component of Judaism is, but you sound more guilt driven than anything else. There is no punishment for not being Kosher other than mild social ramifications, right? So leave the guilt behind. It's a time waster.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  18. Truth7

    She is concerned about performing "rituals", but doesn't ONCE mention God. That is her problem, she doesn't believe.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • plucky

      How ya gonna make her believe, torture her?

      April 16, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  19. JeramieH

    Live the type of life that you think is right, and stop trying to put a label on it or live according to someone else's rules.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Well said, bullfrog! And you always have some mighty fine wine.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  20. Miss liz

    It's just what level of commitment you can handle. Lot's of people go to church, but don't implement what they hear there in their personal lives. It's because they are content at the social level, and want to fit into society more than cultivate a meaningful relationship and commitment with their God. Don't torture yourself. You will progress if and when you really desire it. Lot's of people get so burned in this life by disappointment or loss or whatever that they reject any idea of religion or meaning in their lives. For a while. Then they edge back towards the search for meaning. There is room for many levels of commitment. Just like the bell curve, though, very few get to the level where they are very sincerely committed. But we admire that, don't we.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Truth7

      "Many will be called, but few chosen".

      Noah was saved because "he did ALL God commanded"

      Many, many "believers" have NO idea they are being led by false prophets. They think "oh, it's ok if I lie a little" and have no idea that God says "he does not hear the voice of sinners". He's not lying folks.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Miss Liz and Truth7 and all others,,,,

      The "man-made church'd structures" do not make the Kingdom of God! It is of one's body where the buildings of God can be found out and in all truth made said, our bodies are the Kingdoms of the Gods' buildings! I say this becuase I have seen the writings of attainable knowledge to all regarding the innerness of our bodies! Inside our body-buildings are innumerable cellular structures not unlike or no different than the stellarized structures in outward regions of the Great Celestial Cosmos! God's outter-most garment may well be the allness of "celestiality" but God's inner domains are the stomping grounds of Godly Beings we will never ever truly know of in our presnet days timeline(s)! I say this because; for us to "carry on" we need to turn our eyes away from devotionalisms of religious singularisms and make ways to centralize our combined interests for the well-being of all humanists and their humanisms potentials!

      April 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "He's not lying folks."

      Well, most likely, there is no 'He' to lie, so don't freak out folks.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Akmost forgot the Gospels' one most important verse I did,,,,,,,,

      1Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building

      April 16, 2012 at 3:52 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.