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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. studdmuffins

    We've decided to raise our children into our faith. Caveat: When they turn 16 they can decide whether they want to continue with us on our journey or not. They are no longer compelled by us to attend church services weekly.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  2. bizziel

    Their is no god. Religion is an absolute waste of time an energy.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • Ira Radnick

      It's not such a waste of energy if you are the one receiving the benefits of religion. Let's see, income derived from the mindless, invitations to dinners by people who seek salvation through a religious leader, free passes with speeding tickets and other minor offenses, and the pick of the litter with little boys forced into servitude by their parents (alter boys) in an effort to make certain their entire family is saved from some perceived threat of burning in hell for being human.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  3. Lyon

    Your article is very sad to me.You should start lighting candles every Friday night. This probably seems silly but just try it for a few months and see what happens . Your son will likely be lost to Judaism. It is a shame that he will likely be denied access to a beautiful and meaningful spiritual life.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • Ira Radnick

      Yeah, you burn those candles long and often enough and at some point you start a fire and burn the house down. Oh, wait a moment, the flame consuming the candles paid for in the name of proving one's self to be religious are somehow bringing a happy angel into your midst full of blessings? Fables and fairy tales.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  4. unowhoitsme

    The "good" thing about religion is that it keep me on the straight and narrow, but it totally destroyed my life because it's essentially a cult...man's beliefs , rules, and interpretations ABOUT God. I am so messed up that I can't function in society as a "normal" person. I will have to take meds my entire life. Religion drove me over the edge.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  5. ellabulldog

    My wife is Jewish and I was raised Catholic. She is not religious nor am I. There is a difference between being religious and culture. She has a Jewish heritage that is a part of her "food, mannerisms, how she believes marriage or funeral ceremonies should be like etc." Kind of like how I like to celebrate Christmas, not by going to church but by having a tree with lights with presents and Santa. Does not make me religious.
    Our son will be raised agnostic. I don't have to take him to a church or temple just because I was and can raise him morally without the threat that some make believe God will send him to Hell if he is bad.
    I am not saying there is not a God. Either God started from nothingness or the Universe did. We know the Universe is here. We see it every day. I have not seen God. So tend to lean towards the Universe popped out of nothingness. But believing what my parents were culturally brainwashed to believe is not an answer. Following a crowd to fit in and lying to my son is hypocritical to me. It may take a couple centuries but the world is heading towards secularism. The future will look back on this age like we look back on the the Egyptians praying to the Sun God and wonder what were they thinking. Why did they fight these wars and kill over religions so similar but just different enough to cause hate?

    April 15, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • Greg

      FANTASTIC response. It's a sweet relief to finally read a cogent, cohesive thought in the comments section. As Jewish atheists, my wife and I struggle with many of the same questions as far as raising our son. We do not plan on indoctrinating him into religion (no bris, no bar mitzvah, etc) but we do want him to feel part of a community. ... and get the jokes in Mel Brooks movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm :)

      April 15, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Gene

      Well said.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • swanstro

      Proofread you content before it goes live! Your teaser on the front page has an its/it's error.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  6. Gene

    Keeping Kosher is almost nothing to do with religious faith. Kosher is about a sanitary approach in hot climate with no refrigeration. Now times are different and, if the Thora were written today, there would be fewer restrictions.
    What is really hard – is to be Jewish and feeling Jewish but not believing in God.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  7. JerryS

    If CNN isn't supporting Islam, or outright bashing the Judeo/Christian faith, then they are covering a "I'm losing my religion" article. You're pro Islamic atheists CNN, we get it. But can you at least try to become a legitimate news agency again and cover the news??

    April 15, 2012 at 6:18 am |
    • Biozepp

      You just wanted to say Pro-Islamic atheist. You picked the wrong article to do it with don't you think? The world is as concrete as your brain wishes it was. Labeling is easy, but realizing and understanding the obvious variety in the world is difficult

      April 15, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Arlan

      Jesus and Moses is part of Islam. So stop making yourself part of the exclusive club. Go fear monger some place where it works....like the Republican politics!

      April 15, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  8. Karloff

    Deluded people rearing other deluded people.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:12 am |
  9. Bootyfunk

    Raising kids ignorant, but not too ignorant. lol.

    April 15, 2012 at 6:11 am |
  10. Luis

    Howard of Alexandria. Why read what I already know?

    April 15, 2012 at 6:01 am |
  11. Slim Shady

    Well Dan Green, if I am wrong, I apologize. But there have been a lot of countries and people in general who seem to have found otherwise. I have nothing against your religion as it relates to treating people kindly, which I know it does in fact promote.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  12. polycarp pio

    If you dont follow the laws and commandments then how do you receive forgivness? There is no longer a temple to go to and sacrifice animals for their blood and receive the atonement. I feel sorry for the physical decendants of Jacob, you need a saviour, my savious Jesus Christ was jewish and he was given for the jewish people first, they have rejected him so he was also given to the gentiles. kosher cannot save you, following the letter of the law cannot save you. PP

    April 15, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • ML

      Saved from what?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:17 am |
    • Russ

      Umm... you just made me never ever wanna be a Christian.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • John

      Sharing the christian belief that Jesus Christ is our Savior is something we believe in, but I'm pretty sure that when you are doing it in a derisive way you are not in fact sharing our christian beliefs.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Thank God For Miracles

      That is an ignorant post. A Jewish person who does good all their lives & keeps the God made laws of their covenant with him is just as worthy of heaven as a Christian. The dietary laws were a response to certain types of food poisoning & food born illnesses that do not exist under proper modern food sanitation. If all the rabbis of all the sects could be brought together & could agree upon a change.....Then they WOULD change. Because they are NOT a God made law as the Ten Commandments were.
      A good person is a good person, period.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  13. Jennifer Ayres

    I think our ancestors outlawed pork because there was a health problem occurring due to their limited knowledge of the proper handling of the meat. Much like the way that we recall food products today if there is a problem detected. They just didn't know how to solve the health issue so they outlawed it all together for the good of the populations,

    April 15, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Slim Shady

      Many scholars share your opinion. Swine were a carrier of Trichinosis, shell fish were notorious for sea food poisoning as were reptiles, therefore "don't eat them" back then. Why can't others see such simple logic? It astounds me. Culture and tradition perhaps? Thank God they don't sacrifice children to Moloch anymore at least.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  14. Debbie

    @Truth: well said. For the author: Don't worry, you and your children will be just fine. I've found one absolute fact in the years following the births of my daughter and son: Every day, week, month and year is a learning experience for both the child/children AND the parents. While (hopefully) maternal and paternal instincts are present before conception, parental experience isn't magically bestowed upon arrival. You're doing great! Raising children within a faith-based family, helps them to be more grounded, if you will. You're right on track.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:34 am |
    • Slim Shady

      No argument with me there, so long as no one is covering their women head to toe or stoning people.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:46 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      You do not need a belief in any god to raise good children. My daughter was raised relatively secular and is drug free, crime free, alcohol free and about to go off to college. Parenting is about you, not some invisible force guiding you.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:50 am |
  15. jarodbee

    In the Netherlands a law against ritual slaughter, the jewish way or the muslim way (equally horrible), has been partially adopted by parliament. Torturing animals has nothing to do with freedom of religion. All this religiously enforced behaviour condemns their followers to lead fake lives and when they force their children to do the same, it is almost criminal.
    Healthy communities can do without any of these religious straightjackets.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:29 am |
    • Steven Brooks

      Any 'torture' is purely the product of your own industrialized society – we do not allow or encourage the suffering of animals.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Slim Shady

      Good point. Leave the animals out of it. All three of the major religions holy books quote the same verse but they don't abide by it; The old testament which covers Jews and Christians says: "Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel." And about Mohammed is was said: "The Prophet is so kind to animals that he would not pull the garment or awaken the cat", so all these people apparently are blasphemous heathens by their own definition.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:38 am |
    • Dan Green

      I'm afraid you are misinformed and misleading people. Jewish Law prohibits causing any pain to animals, the slaughtering has to be effected in such a way that unconsciousness is instantaneous and death occurs almost instantaneously. Your message makes it appear as if animals are sacrificed in some way during a Jewish service, which is untrue.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • Composter

      Yes, as Dan has said, the laws of kashruth require animals to be slaughtered in a painless and humane manner, and also specify that the animals animals are treated and fed well during their lives.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  16. Jake90

    People are starting to realize that all religion does is create extremists. This results in people being less religious, and over time there will be more atheists and agnostics.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:18 am |
    • Slim Shady

      You nailed it right on the head. I believe there is a creator. I mean look around you, this is one pretty amazing place and if indeed he sent someone here to help lead us down a good path, I think its great. But someone's obviously wrong because they all think they are right. Is it the American Indian, the Bhudists, the Muslim, the Mormon, the Christian, the Catholic, the Jew? Even among groups there are denominations swearing their way or the highway. Ever notice every single one is run by men and there is always someone in charge? Kind of messes the whole "Universal Message" thing up in my opinion.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:24 am |
    • Justus

      Jake 90 and Slim Shady: I agree with you mostly for the "western" religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims), but I think that the Eastern religions are quite a bit more advanced and not as dogmatic.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:59 am |
  17. Luis

    I couldn't finish reading the whole article. Is the bottom line that the majority of Americans not kosher? Or just more literature made to insight the religious extremist.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:15 am |
    • Howard of Alexandria

      Force yourself to finish the whole article. Don't ask others to give you "the condensed version." How would you ever know if their condensed version would agree with your own take on it?

      April 15, 2012 at 5:33 am |
  18. citylimitssaloon

    This whole story honestly sounds made up. Is it just me or does it seem some "writer" just made this up because it sounded like a good story and would make a lot of people interested in reading it? It's just my opinion but was it just me?

    April 15, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Slim Shady

      It's silly, seriously. It was more than likely a method of safely butchering meat which got out of hand and then somewhere along the line, someone on a power trip claimed God demanded it. Do you really think God cares what is in your hotdog or how the hell you cut the meat to put it in there? I'm not anti-Semitic and but I am completely serious. It's the same as moyles. Are you kidding me? It's nothing but men self proclaimed special authority by God himself to claim power over others and it is just as bad as the Pope declaring he was appointed by God or followers of Mohamed for that matter.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:16 am |
    • Rick

      Isn't that part of what writers do, making up stories?

      April 15, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • ohmylorelei

      I assure you it's a true story.

      April 17, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  19. jacob S

    something that isn't talked about much is prices. Kosher meat is significantly more expensive than non-kosher meat due to several logistical reasons. I keep kosher, and being a carpenter during the recession means i'm an obligate vegetarian

    April 15, 2012 at 5:02 am |
  20. Slim Shady

    How conveniently you left out the meaning of Kosher and the cruelty is bestows on animals including shechita, shackling, the ripping out of the trachea and worse while the animal is still alive. I don't blame you for not wanting to be Kosher, it's barbaric, inhumane and torturous. Don't believe me? Spend a little time searching Google. I'd never eat "Kosher" again.

    April 15, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • Steven Brooks

      Liar.

      Dirty, ignorant lying liar.

      Learn truth, which is opposite in every way to your ignorant, hateful lies and against the humane slaughter of animal food.

      April 15, 2012 at 5:24 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.