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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. Pope_Inquisitor

    religions are ancient myths. Pushing religion on kids as if it is fact is child abuse; it's lies.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:30 am |
  2. Danny

    Beautiful article but very sad. Your version of Judaism is so watered down that you have little if anything, to pass on to the next generation. Being kosher is a very positive part of my family's life. My wife and I raised our 5 children not in a ghetto like Boro Park or Monsey but in downtown Manhattan. We showed them the whole world and we all made a choice to elevate our lives. The message of kosher is being holy. We learn as humans that as humans we have a choice. We chose to follow G-d's commandments and live on a higher spiritual level. Our kids learned early on that we don't eat everything. We also learned that on Shabbat (Saturday) we leave behind our cell phones and TVS and enter a higher spritual place. At Shabbat meals (since no one would go the movies or bowling on Shabbat), all the kids were at our shabbat table each week. My wife and I were able to really talk and communicate with each of the kids on a private and uninterrupted way that is not possible with all the distractions of the busy week. Shabbat is an oasis in our loud and complicated lives. Our children, now all grown and 3 already married have followed our tradition. They saw the beauty in our lives and tradition and have lovingly carried it on.
    The author herself did not even marry Jewish. I am sure none of her children will either. I am sure her grandchildren will no nothing of their Jewish heritage which has become so watered down and missing structure that it leaves nothing to pass on.
    I coined a private ideology when I was young and it went.. "There are many good people who do not need religion and many bad people whom it does not help". Doing our mitzvot and following the commnandments of an Orthodox Jewish Lifestyle helps makes us better people. If anybody would like to learn more about Judaism, feel free to visit my website levinejudaica.com.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • NewMexico720

      While you hide behind "tradition" to feel good about your religion, are you also teaching your kids as to how the Jewish nation was rejected by God for their total and complete disobedience as a chosen nation? Are you teaching them that it was the Jews that had Jesus turned over to the Romans to be executed because the Jewish Pharisees were so corrupt and filthy that they had an innocent man put to death? The Jewish religion is a corrupted belief based on "tradition", NOT on truth and obedience.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  3. Gloria

    What a confused set of people! Just read the bible would you? The truth will set u free...

    April 15, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Dave

      which one? Maybe the one claimed by a midieval king? or one written by adherent of an Arab cult of moohamedians? Or perhaps you're suggesting a Greek one? Specifics pleeeease :)

      April 15, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Gloria

      The Aramaic Hebrew & Christian Greek scriptures / the old & new testament written for ALL mankind.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Ira Radnick

      I was set free after having read "a" bible many times over. What said it all was not what I read, but what a minister once told me. He had a church member in a hospital who was going to die soon. She was relatively young, and had some money from a life insurance policy from her husband's untimely death (car accident both had been in), not a lot, but a nice little chunk. He was required by his church leadership to go visit her and convince her it was best to leave her money to the church, and god would provide blessings for her young children. The kids had no real family as 2 of the grandparents were dead, one was an alcoholic, the other irresponsible. He told me he really hated this part of "his job", and could not wait to find something that allowed him to really help people instead of grabbing their money at every turn. I felt so badly for him, and at that moment realized this is how all religions operate, get money, get money, get money. Gambling is wrong, but church bingo is fine. Eat healthier, but come to the bake sale. Sickening.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • Gloria

      To Ira Radnick: I totally understand your disgust with churches grabbing money from members. Remember, that is the reason why Jesus became ANGRY of the sight of the Jews making money in the temple! God's word is free to read but most people don't read it. This is why our world is in such chaos.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  4. Dave

    Laura is your great grandmother on your mother's side Jewish? Likely not. You're "reformed" and there's probably a lot of intermarriage in your own family. Enjoy your pork and beans as you're most likely not Jewish according to the Laws of Moshe. Why even have the angst of a journey if nobody is asking you to be on the road....

    April 15, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  5. Dynamic

    I plan on raising my kids with the first religion, seasonal rituals, worshiping the sun and stars, etc., and ... isn't that really what we ALL should be doing? "One nation under the Great Goddess"!

    April 15, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Gloria

      Nope, who created the sun and the stars and everything else. I think we should ALL start there and give thanks. Its actually really simple.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • Pope_Inquisitor

      today's organized religions are sick cults pushing myths as facts

      April 15, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • martog

      Hey Pope...ALL religions are sick cults, even the ancient ones!

      April 15, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  6. Welled

    See even Herod had a Temple in Jerusalem and he surely wasn't a Hebrew. So rebuilding a temple you just might want to ask yourself Whos Temple?

    April 15, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Dave

      The first temple was there before Herod. He simply rebuilt it. He also forced himself on a Jewish / Israelite woman in order to claim he cold be a Jewish King... No Herod was an *ss. Nevertheless Jews rebuilt the temple... he didn't lift a finger. He simply allowed it and financed it.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  7. weedouthate

    There are five layers of the torah, the innermost being the wisdom of kabbalah. A kabbalist would tell you that the kosher laws are deeply rooted as a spiritual means for cleansing the heart and cultivating the spirit, a ritual for weeding out hatred including bulllying instincts and sowing the seeds of peace, love, and respect. Once could accomplish the same goal by symbolically rooting out a weed of hatred and replenishing it with sunflower seeds of peace. Perhaps the German pedagogues were on the right trackl when they invented kindergardening as a means to train the children's spirit as well as the mind and body.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  8. NewMexico720

    The Jews handed Jesus over to the Romans to be executed.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Gloria

      They sure did. Its that simple.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Dave

      And your sister handed me $5 for favors I gave her. She still owns me $20. Cheap, she is.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • NewMexico720

      @Dave.... Is that all you charge? Give me your address and you can service me for $5. I'll pay up front too.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Bob

      They handed over one of their own, you idiot. They didn't pick him out because he was Christian. He was a Jew.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Terra

      Well according to your belief then that would mean we did you a very big favor now didn't we??

      April 15, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Gloria

      To Dave: Shame on you! God fearing man that you are...

      April 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  9. 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.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4or90cmyhk&w=640&h=390]

    April 15, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  10. Jerry Pelletier

    Hmm..Funny how we never see CNN poking fun or ridiculing the Arabs beloved Islam or the Koran, I think they are a little afraid!

    April 15, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Nilkinggary

      Do you regard ridicule as a way to advance your life spiritually?

      April 15, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  11. Welled

    Why are people so confusing. I guess if your mother is jewish. Actually in the Hebrew religion its off of the father you can tell by the lineage they use in the OT. They don't mention the mother nessesarly. Maybe some other Semetic clan does things that way. Once again there are at least 9 different semetic peoples. Try semitic on wikipedia. Many of them have their own relgions and customs. They can call themselves jews which is really slang. Or whatever they want. If they don't Identify themselves as Hebrews don't "assume" what you are reading is about the "Hebrews" you are thinkings about. That wikipedia semitic some of that is accurate. It leaves some semitic people out and includes some that aren't but it gives you an Idea. So a Larry King saying hes Jewish. Not calling himself Hebrew that puts them on the spot and upsets posers when you catch them at it.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • JustMe

      In Judaism, the child is automatically Jewish if the mother is. Even if she isn't practicing, the child is still Jewish.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 15, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  13. Wim

    "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?"
    As you sort of hint at later in your article, the importance of value family, finding nature inspiring and wanting to preserve the environment are general human values. They are not necessarily "[...] tenets [...] in every religion". I can think of religions where family members are cast out if they don't conform to the belief systems of their families, as well as religious groups that say preserving the environment isn't necessary because (paraphrasing) "Yahweh promised he wouldn't flood the place again."

    "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?" That you are seeing that, at bottom, most religions have just co-opted the values that any human group can come to without religion and that all the added on particular make-believe is, well, make-believe.

    "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." This made me smile. First of all, you seem to be equivocating. There is more than one religion and they can't all be true, so at least some "faith" is "dress-up" and "pretend" when it "infuse[s] life with greater meaning". The fact that you don't really buy into Judaism fully also implies that you see "dress-up" and "pretend" in that particular faith.
    I also don't get what you mean by "more real"? Reality is what it is. If a religion wants to "infuse meaning" by making up that a particular people is "chosen by some superbeing", or some doomsday prophet drove demons out of pigs and then his three-day rotting corpse got magically reanimated, or a power-hungry prophet flew off to heaven on a flying horse, how is that making reality "more real"?
    When people see a face in a rock formation on Mars because of pareidolia, you could argue that that is infusing reality with "greater meaning", but it would be plain wrong. Could you see how religions could be similar to that process?

    April 15, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Wim

      * demons INTO pigs, that should have been.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  14. NewMexico720

    Religion isn't supposed to be a convenience. You either believe in it or you dont. All this mumbo-jumbo about "teach this part and not that to my kids" is a bunch of bull. People want to be religious to feel good about themselves or in front of others but dont want to put the work that drives faith and endurance in a belief. For that reason, religion as a whole is going down the toilet. Its all a joke and a very deadly joke at that. Religions of the world are corrupt and hypocritical and nothing more than a commercial business that causes death and pain to the masses.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  15. mikey

    Ah, a theme in the article that hits home with not just Jews but folks of many faiths. We are brought up with a certain level of belief in a prescribed religion but as we live in a time of exploding understanding of science and amazing access to information we question some of the 'arcane' practices and try to sift thru the rest to personalize it. Growing up we have deep conversations with our friends about religion and question the commitment of our parents to a authority we are not sure is totally valid in today's society. We are talking about the 'me' generation bringing up kids. What do 'I' want the religion to be, let me (and my partner) figure it out and then pass it on to our kids. Ms. Snyder does toy with the point, why do we need religion in our life at all? Human's benefit from a big brain and we can ponder our lives beyond how do we live, reproduce and die! Religion has helped give that space form and bring communities together around these thoughts. How it helps or hurts the bigger picture from there is where it gets interesting.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  16. RUSSELL

    This piece said virtually nothing and was a thinly veiled advertisement for two books. Come on, CNN, don't you have any editors these days? This fine topic could have been treated in a meaningful way, and CNN should have insisted on same prior to allowing the post.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  17. FrankLW

    Laurel, if your mother is Jewish then, regardless of who you married, you and your children are as Jewish as the most devout rabbi. The dietary laws are are only one manifestation of Jewish life, though yes, they do get lots of attention because they actually affect everything eaten, even if already kosher.
    Before one can discuss the meaning of the dietary laws, it is far more important to understand Judaism's singular view of the reason for mankind's existence altogether. Only then can Judaism's profound infusion of the physical with the spiritual begin to make any sense at all regarding, say, its dietary laws.

    Judaism teaches that there is a single creator that constantly sustains all life and since "his" commandments are divine must be adhered to even more than one's individual, variable, and often self centered, moral codes. Beyond the observance of the 7 Noahide laws (basic universal laws devoid of the myths of various religions) Judaism does not make such demands on non-Jews – though any sincere and determined non-Jew can become Jewish – but it does do so for Jews. While deep lessons for acting humanely can be learned from eating kosher (not cooking a kid in its mother's milk or not eating higher life forms like whales or monkeys) the ultimate reason for observance must simply be that it is divine and thus immutable and enduring – but it is still up to each individual to maintain the links of the chain of this unparalleled tradition for it to endure for future generations, for Mose and his children and their own...

    April 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
  18. april

    holding true to traditions, won't get you to Heaven..... the only way of salvation is through believing on the Lord Jesus Christ and then you shall be saved. John 3:16-17..."For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him may be saved."

    April 15, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • NewMexico720

      That scripture doesn't use the word "believe". It says that "those exercising faith in him". The key word here is to "exercise" or "work" on faith in JC. Just believing is nothing if you do not have works to back it up.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • jon

      Christians like you are SUCH morons....You keep pushing Christ in everyone's face, pretending as if you are certain that you have the right answers.

      Well, I will "pray" for you to smarten up and see the "truth".

      April 15, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Gloria

      April: Faith without works is dead. NewMexico720 is correct. We have to "exercise faith" in Jesus Christ.

      April 15, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  19. Brandon

    “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”

    But that's the truth of it. It's the same for every religion. If you want to give your kids something special, don't indoctrinate them while they are too young to make up their own minds. Let them grow into adults and then choose their own beliefs.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  20. Curious

    A thought provoking article – at least for those who have struggled with the same. There are many reasons I wish to raise my children in a faith based home even though I do not agree with what I find to be some of the more 'outdated' tenets of my own religion. I don't believe there is any shame/guilt/hypocrisy in taking from your faith those parts which sustain you and leaving the rest. I can't think of any group I've affiliated myself with that I 100% agree with 'the party line'. There is always room for individual thought as that is how change is eventually effected.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:02 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.