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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. WoWT

    As with most things – take what you believe from religion – from as many religions as you want, ignore the things that are wrong or do not make any sense. Spirituality is unique onto each person.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  2. Welled

    Then again you have to understand "finance" who owns all the assets even fractionally. The malls. Why sears stays open or macys when the mall is as dead as an oklahoma chicken during the week. No one really shops there the Christmas excuse seems to keep it alive or at least not appearing to hemorage cash with the rents that they pay that get taken out and added back in.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  3. MB

    Only if everyone was not so simple minded, and would respect all people for their own religion.
    I have my faith...why are you trying to convert me if you don't believe in faith?
    To each his own.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  4. TruthHurts

    Indoctrinating children (ie: brainwashing them and taking away any real choice they make for themselves) is horrible. Does God want sheep who never search and find him for themselves? I guess he does! Call it for what it absolutely is: brainwashing. Disgusting.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • NewMexico720

      Most kids today need to have their brains washed. They are so wicked and immoral that you can't even tell that they are human at times.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • NoMoreLabels

      @NewMexico: The majority of kids are brainwashed by religion; yet, it doesn't seem to make them any more 'moral', does it?

      April 15, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      @NewMexico720
      Brainwashing kids with religion in church or home is child abuse.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      You could call any academic education "brainwashing" for young kids, who are too young to learn complex stuff themselves. The difference is that "belief "or "faith" is for people who need an explanation for everthing, even when it can't be backed up with good evidence. Non-believers are satisfied that they don't understand some things and aren't willing to accept mythology for evidence. Parents, who teach their children to believe stuff instead of to form opinions that can be changed when evidence dictates, are child abusers.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  5. PiPi

    Jewish Americans should all move to Israel.... they got a country now and should move

    April 15, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Gloria

      Well PiPi, the earth was created for all mankind. It doesn't matter where any of us choose to live. The Jews just need to recognize that they were GODS chosen people at one time but now they are not.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  6. Brett

    Gotta love the cognitive dissonance. Your holy book says you're going to hell for all of this, BTW. How do you reconcile that with continuing to claim to be Jewish? Your holy book doesn't say you get to pick and choose what to follow. You just choose to be atheist when it comes to real life decisions (like the fact that you want to eat normal food), and you choose to be Jewish when it comes to community events. Why can't we get past this? Why can't you have potluck dinners with people just because? Why does it have to originate from Bronze Age mythology?

    The answer: Your parents told you so. From childhood. You're doing the same to your child. It's a continuous cycle of ignorance.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • NoMoreLabels

      Well said–Thank You!

      April 15, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  7. Sylvia

    No matter what happens to the Jews.... they never seem to learn their lesson!
    They get punished from God for not accepting Christ and responsible for his death

    April 15, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  8. Welled

    Look just about every hotel on the earth is financed. You have to know that they have to get a loan. Now I have never ever been in a hotel that did'nt have a bible in it. I don't know if it was a blanket agreement with Marriot or Motel 6 (you would think motel 6 would use a little more discretion). Someones got a lot of clout you gotta agree. I don't think its bullwinkle or "God". Cause every Hindu, Arab, Athiest hotel owner in America has bible in their hotel. It could be part of the loan agreement. Then again maybe it just comes with the construction package. Either way with all the differing hotel chains all having bibles in their hotels. One has to wonder. Now I'm not going to say it has anything to do with who wrote the book. Or who lends the cash. They are printers after all. I'm not even going to say since cash is the only legal means of trade. Or any of that ole hooey about the "Federal" reserve being privately owned which is a clever trick in itself. Or suggest they can buy anything or anyone they want or get anything done that may be benificial to them. Including making good citizens and drone workers out of the people well in debt to them.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • William Shelton

      I suppose you've never heard of the Gideons? Look it up before you continue with your conspiracy theories.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  9. joe

    Kids, we're Jewish. Everyone hates us. Now let's celebrate the holiday to commemorate how some group tried to destroy us.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • NewMexico720

      "... and how us Jews had Jesus executed by the Romans and how us Jews follow traditions and not truth"

      April 15, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Thomas

      Most importantly let's celebrate how our myths have become the foundation for the oppression of the Palestinians. Don't worry, someday you'll get to kick Palestinians off of their land to reclaim it in the name of lies and deceit.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  10. .

    Bigotry against Christians is encouraged and approved by CNN. What they don't know is most of us don't care what @nderson Kooper does with his cabana boy or what Richard Kwest ties onto his wing wang.

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

      And us atheists laugh when your pastors are found with gay escorts and meth.
      We don't care that you belive some zombie 2,000 years ago promised you an afterlife.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • windrider2

      Oh Bollocks! CNN's religious coverage is heavily tilted toward Christian viewpoints. And yes, there are more viewpoints within and about Christianity than just the one you have and favor. There are more than 400 distinctive Protestant denominations in addition to the mainstream Christian denominations. And no Christian church is a monolith, impervious to change as society's wisdom and understanding grow. CNN does a good job in covering the various factions of Christianity, as well as coverage of other faiths from interesting points of view. Not all of us favor an orthodox view of any religion, including Christianity. That you don't agree with these other viewpoints does not make coverage of them somehow reflective of an anti-Christian bias on the part of CNN

      April 15, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Paranoia

      What?

      April 15, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  11. Pete

    How about telling your children the truth–that nobody knows what happens after death, because nobody does know regardless of how charismatic they are, or how many sheep are following their snake oil shows. My pre-schooler comes home with this nonsense because somebody at her school apparently feels like she has to indoctrinate my children as well.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  12. Conrad Goldberg

    A famous rabbi, when asked to explain the Torah while standing on one foot said: "What is hateful unto you, do not do unto others. The rest is commentary." For me, this is Judiasm.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • HenryMiller

      That would also be a great summary of the Bill of Rights.

      Unfortunately, most people, if they practice it at all, practice the perverse corollary: "If it's not hateful to me, it's okay to force it on others."

      April 15, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  13. Margaret

    Not once does Snyder mention "God" or "relationship" and what could Judaism possibly be without them? Too many people in our society teach their children how to live but not how to die.
    Rest in peace and rise in glory, Paul.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Thomas

      You people are spending your entire lives fearing the final moment... how sad. Its like you are never alive, because you always seek a way to keep life going, or to trick yourselves into believing it will continue in another form after your body expires.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  14. 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 8:10 am |
    • Docboy

      Blind? Then you really don't get Christ. Judged? Maybe, but not rejected.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  15. Welled

    In my fathers house their are many mansions that right there is confusing. It might give you a clue to who has the means to print all those books.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  16. deb

    Sam-what do mean athiests finally leaving comments? They leave comments ALL the time. I choose to believe in God and apparently to athiests I am a moron, weak minded, etc. Fine. I love it when athiests claim they are the only ones that know anything....now there is some judgemental behavior!

    April 15, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • NewMexico720

      Dont pay any attention to the Atheists. They dont exist. Nothing exists according to them. Everything is not real and there is no proof of anything. Life is a figment of their imagination. However, they do make a good point in pointing out the hypocrisy of religions of today. No one can deny that. Religions will soon be destroyed.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Gloria

      I wonder why Athiest people say thank god or oh my god all the time. Since they don't belieive in anything, they should just sit in a corner facing the wall & stay there.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Paul

      Prior to being athiest, I too was a devout believer inChristianity. I do not think beleievers are morons any more than I think I'm a moron. What I do think is that this society does not want me to participate, e.g., posting in forums, running for office, having a blog section on CNN. I do not know why. It is partly because some are so weak in there faith they feel like they could realize they don't believe if they talk to atheists. Whatever it may be, there is no tolerance for varying religions without tolerance for athiesm.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Thomas

      I love it when Christians feel self-righteous in clear denial of Christs' commands to be humble.
      How's it going selling all of your possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor? Haven't done that yet? Guess you're not a real christian.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      How about when the christian in the next cube shouts "BLESS YOU" when somebody in my office area sneezes? It's very rude. Sometimes I yell "An antihistimine would work better!"

      April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Onslow

      Atheists rely on evidence and science; theists rely on primitive texts written decades after imagined events with no evidence whatsoever to support the stories. In fact, the texts contradict one another and have proven time and again to be wrong. Atheists are driven by reason; theists are driven by blind faith and fear of death. Theists are militant in the face of criticism based on facts and commit horrible atrocities on account of their religious beliefs. That's just sad in this modern society.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  17. NewMexico720

    Religion as a whole is all hypocrisy and wickedness. Atheists dont believe that houses are built by people. They believe in things happening magically. Religion and Atheism.... sad world we live in.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • NamVet67

      Are you saying that I, an atheist, don't belive that houses are built by people? I think my med school diploma says otherwise. In fact, they're building a house next door right now. It's churches I don't believe are built by people....hahahaha....this is about the dumbest thing I have ever read.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • NewMexico720

      @NamVet67... I think you smoke too much weed in the 60's. If you are unable to decipher the point I was making, your "med" ribbon is really not worth bragging about. Atheists dont believe in a Creator. Our home, the earth, came from nothing and our bodies magically appeared. Atheists are nothing more than Fairy followers.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Thomas

      You really don't understand atheists. Stop listening to the lies spread about them by others and go have yourself an honest conversation with a real atheist.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  18. joel palmer

    Why does CNN feel the need to provide a forum for Religion? As a news organization, should you not be committed to facts, the truth and evidence based reporting? NONE of these are found in any religion. It is no better than Witchcraft/sorcery/or belief in Zeus fer crissakes. Stop with this crap already

    April 15, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • to: Joel

      Agreed.
      Religion is stupid and CNN knows it will just cause issue, thats why they do it.

      The pit the un-informed religious people vs. the informed non-religious people.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      To CNN, the purpose of religion is to create controversy, so people will click on ads and watch commercials.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:12 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      Actually you don't need to click on an add for CNN to be paid. All you have to do is have the ad displayed. If you ad a coment, the page is refreshed from CNN, sometimes with a different ad. Even if it's the same ad, CNN gets paid. If you don't add a comment, the page is refreshed from your disc and CNN doesn't get paid. CNN knows there aren't any facts in religion, so the purpose of religion reporting is to get people to watch ads and tv commerdials. The comments are there only to ensure that you and I keep displaying fresh ads on the web page, which sends CNN more money than without the comments, maximizing their profits.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  19. GOD

    I am displeased to see so many non-believers posting here. I have contacts at CNN and thus have the means to find out who you are. Once I do... hey, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Go away. Do you hear me?

    April 15, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • god...no caps

      go back behind the curtain please...

      the bible does come in handy around my house when toilet paper is out.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • NewMexico720

      @god...no caps. Ok we get it. You wipe your mouth clean with the bible. Big deal.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • Paranoia

      Oh you so put the problem in sharp relief. If I was paranoid, I'd be checking the camera on my IPad just to make sure it wasn't turned on! "Freaky action at a distance" is no longer just the domain of physicists and gods? 'Course "freaky" would be in the George Orwell 1984 sense here.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Thomas

      Just remember, atheists don't have churches that can be burned down.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • NoMoreLabels

      ...and holy water is ineffective unless coupled with soap

      April 15, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Pope Benedict

      I have to stay in cheap hotels for business travel sometimes. When there's no toilet paper, there's usually a bible in the drawer, which can be used.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  20. joel palmer

    Why would anyone be proud of brain washing childfren and filling their minds with lies, myth, fantasy and out and arrant nonsense and telling them to "believe"? This is the worst form of child abuse because it never heals and is passed from generation to generation.
    Tell you what: Give a child NO "religious indoctrination" until they are seventeen years old; then try to put this crap over on them and see how far you get. Right, the Catholic Church knew that you had to brainwash them at an early age and by the time they're six years old, you have em for life. All religion is hogwash and dangerous

    April 15, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • NoMoreLabels

      I completely agree. If children are raised in a loving household surrounded by positive reinforcement and family values, they are perfectly happy. Allow them to grow in this environment and then allow them to choose if they want to adopt a religious belief system when they are mature enough to understand it.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:45 am |
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About this blog

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.