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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. Welled

    See you can skirt the edges. Hebews don't have kosher. Not in what is known as Hebrew that can't be found. Its someone elses.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  2. OMG

    I feel bad for jewish kids..... they beat their d.ick out of them when they get born, suck their p.enis blood

    April 15, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  3. Shalom

    Jews will not enter kingdom of heaven anyway except Messianics.
    Period.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      You're a moron. Period.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  4. Welled

    Amazed at what your article provoked. On the one hand, massive anti-semitism. On the other hand, massive anti-religion. It's as if people knew what they wanted to say regardless of your article.

    See. See there anti semitism not anti hebrew. You have to pay attention. I'm a semite not a Hebrew there are about 9 different semitic people. Once again its tricky. But go to wikipedia and look up semitic. If it walks like a semite talks like a semite it ain't nessesarly a Hebrew.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  5. martog

    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      LOL, so true.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Gloria

      Martog before u call religion ridiculous, please learn how to spell it? Same goes for all of mankinds creator.... we just have to learn about him and recognize his power. That's all he asks. Oh and to learn about his kingdom, the most important thing in life.

      If any man here nows how to create another planet earth can he please respond to this message? Pleeeaase??

      April 15, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Flippy1124

      @Gloria – Absence of evidnece is not evidence of a god or gods.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • martog

      The best gloria can do to refute my post is comment on my spelling....
      Soon Mike will be along to comment on my post too. He has become obsessed with me and sworn to respond to everything I post. I think he is afaid that some facts might slip out and shatter his delusions. Much like Good Ole Gloria.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • Gloria

      Flippy: God's existence is everywhere. You are too blind to see it. It's okay, God forgives you. His existence is far too great for some to comprehend. He understands because he created you.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  6. 3rdEyeOpened

    The real definition of a Jew is someone who practices Judaism. A Jew is NOT a specific ethnicity or race. ANYONE can become a Jew. And this is the reason it is NOT practiced in her household. Because she's not a Hebrew. She's a product of Zionism (Eastern European converts from the great Exodus of 1947) which actually mocks the real Hebrew faith. So that is why Judaism isn't taught in their home. If you claim to be Jewish, yet you are non-religious, you are NOT Kosher and you are certainly NOT a product of Abraham. Now the revelation has been revealed on how you can tell who's really a Jew.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  7. Ridiculous jews

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

    April 15, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  8. Ridiculous jews

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sdjV9egTUc&w=640&h=390]

    April 15, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  9. Harlan Kilstein

    Amazed at what your article provoked. On the one hand, massive anti-semitism. On the other hand, massive anti-religion. It's as if people knew what they wanted to say regardless of your article.

    I actually loved your article and your desire to share with your children. It is in the inner dialogue where growth resides. I'd enjoy reading more in the future.

    Shalom.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Ridiculous jews

      Yepp.... and your people let the Roman persecute Jesus Christ and still deny him after 2000 years.
      And you spread your hatred against Christianity....

      April 15, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • martog

      Rediculous religion.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  10. Jason

    JESUS!

    April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  11. Welled

    Sure many people are "tree people" today that live in the trees. See it all started back in Germany. They were the orignal "tree people". Now you can't really grow food in the trees. They didn't know that but then again one ever really considered them all that bright to begin with. So if you live like tree people your gonna have to have delivery. Its just that simple.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  12. Mike

    @Martog:

    I've been reading your posts all throughout this list. You are clearly filled with hate since you attack others. The world can see it. Your arguments are flawed, you've offered nothing but your mere opinion, and your credibility is weak. I will be there to respond to you every time CNN posts a religion article.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • martog

      Ok Kettle. I am soooooo a scared. Please stalk me all you want.......

      April 15, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  13. Josef Bleaux

    Poor kids. Brainwashed practically from birth to believe that ancient mythology is real. They'll grow up living in a delusional fantasy world and then brainwash their kids who'll brainwash their kids, etc. etc. etc. That's how ignorant myths get passed on for generations. When will people wake up use logic and reason instead of blindly accepting ancient myths as reality?

    April 15, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  14. Miguel Caron

    Dear Ms. Snyder; Have you stopped and considered that you're not really Jewish? Have you stopped and considered that YOU as a person HAVE to conform to the dogma of your religion if you claim to be a true adherent? You are a lipstick service Jew, much like the majority of the Christians in America – you are only "religious" because you refuse to part ways with the archaic notion of a creator god. You and your children will be much happier as athiests.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Ed

      Agree. Religion is holding us back.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • kind of catholic

      This comment really made me think. For a long time when people asked me what religion I was, I would say, "I'm catholic, but I don't really go to church anymore." I was raised catholic, went to catholic school for 13 years, and come from a very strong catholic family. But, as I became older I found myself identifying with the religion less and less. I became angry at some of the beliefs regarding social issues. It took me a long time to go from "I'm catholic but don't go to church" to finally realizing that I'm not in fact catholic anymore. I'm not questioning the authors faith – that wouldn't be fair from one story. It's just something to think about.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • Jennifer

      She's not claiming to be religious, nor is she claiming anything about a "creator god." She's simply stating that she's Jewish, which (under Jewish law) she automatically is if she was born to a Jewish mother. Judaism is different from Christianity in that it's possible to be a "cultural" Jew, meaning that one identifies as Jewish due to heritage in much the same way as someone might identify as being French, Turkish, Italian, etc. Many people celebrate and enjoy Jewish traditions and identify themselves as Jewish, without necessarily having a specific set of religious beliefs.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  15. Carol

    Hi,
    I loved this. We live in a smaller Southern town and it's always been hard to stay Jewish. We have and now I am raising my kids here. We aren't very observant and they still consider themselves Jewish. We celebrate major holidays, etc. Still, my extended families are very Jewish. They either don't talk to us or pretty much just barely talk to us. It's sad. Everyone has a definition of what religion is, but in truth it's what it is to you that matters. You still have to be nice to your family, a good citizen, and like yourself. Thanks for sharing this article.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  16. NewMexico720

    People of all religion treat their religion like one big buffett. Pick what you want, and ignore what you dont like. And the funny part of this is that the holier than thou pastors, preists (pedophiles) reverends and other pathetic religious leaders, allow all of this to continue and to condone it. Religion is soon going to be destroyed by the governments of the this world.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  17. Blasphemy

    I have mixed feelings about the idea of being Kosher.

    First is that with out knowing the details of a Kosher diet I can imagine it is better than being reckless with your diet.

    Second is I wonder if an ancient code applies to our food supply and system of distribution today.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • NewMexico720

      Kosher Pickles. Mmmmmmm

      April 15, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  18. Passi

    Orthodox Jews are funny...... having 10+ kids each, living off welfare (despite being rich), trying to shovel their scam in our throats and act like animals

    April 15, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • UncleM

      Sounds a bit like evangelicals.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  19. Welled

    To the business owner home owner or commerial building owner or even hotel owner. If they can throw you out. You don't own it they do. Hang on for dear life untill then look at it this way your maintaining a really nice asset for them.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  20. Jew Yorker

    Judaism is all a fake religion and should be abolished. Stop shoveling your nonsense religion in our throats..... moving out of NY soon because of them

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

      So is Christianity.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • dylan koufax

      Can I offer to buy your plane ticket, moron? I'm sure you're gonna enhance the environment, in whatever unfortunate locale you darken next.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      All religions are ridiculous.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:44 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.