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. The Jackdaw

    Raising your children on the beleif in a fantasy is like feeding them immaginary food.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • GodPot

      I think it's more like the story of rock soup. They add their "Rock" or religion to everything and claim thats what helps the poor and feeds the hungry or houses the homeless, but it's really the other ingredients i.e. the kind hearted people reaching out to help that gives them the facade of helpfulness. Hopefully some day our children won't be taught a bogus recipe for life that is based around the lie of a rock that does nothing but take up space and chip teeth if you are not careful...

      April 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Very good point. It should also be pointed out that the church was built on a rock....

      April 16, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      Wasn't Alcatraz built upon a rock?

      April 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  2. CanUsee

    Ok Bill S. would agree with my Aunt who told my cousin ,who questioned the faith we were raised in, "Because we have programmed you from a young age" ... i was there she said programmed literally. So where's the freedom to think for our selves.... oh that's right in your eyes we don't have the right you speak of unless its the right to only think like you do.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • jimlahey420

      HAHA really? That is your example of having another religion's views forced on you? A little K with a circle around it on some specific foods? If you don't have any real examples, then you have no reason to comment. A real example is an Athiest being forced to take part in a religious-based funeral for a friend or family member, or how about all the Christmas music that EVERY store or public places BLASTS every November-January? Just a few little good examples.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  3. Circus

    The more important question is why 98% of Americans have to be subject to judiac laws and restrictions – to name a few: kosher labeling on food products (certification cost (which is not neglible) is passed to consumers), our children forced to stay home with school closures (3 days in September for NYC residents, where Jewish popn is only 13%), pollute the beauty of our cities with the Eruv lines which crisscross above us.
    I find this all very selfish. Perhaps it's time to assimilate or move to israel.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • jimlahey420

      HAHA really? That is your example of having another religion's views forced on you? A little K with a circle around it on some specific foods? If you don't have any real examples, then you have no reason to comment. A real example is an Athiest being forced to take part in a religious-based funeral for a friend or family member, or how about all the Christmas music that EVERY store or public places BLASTS every November-January? Just a few examples.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Phoenix

      Psssttt…Jesus was Jew and he was born in Israel. Guess that must have escaped your notice.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Ash

      are you serious? really.... are you really that ignorant? it is unfortunate that you think that way as we were all Jewish before Jesus came along right? Jesus was Jewish. Also how about we all leave as this land actually belongs to the natives and move back to Europe?

      April 16, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Su Lynn

      Are you kidding me????
      A. Buying Kosher Certified Food is a choice that you make!!!! So don't buy it & save $$$$.
      B. I guess your kids go to school for the Christmas Holidays. I know – let's send them all 365 days a year, maybe the can get better test scores.
      C. Yep, those overhead wires really stand out from all the other overhead wires!!!!
      The really sad part about this article is that every religion has certain rites & customs that are unique, and the writer might as well be christian or a naturalist. When you stop practicing the rites of your own beliefs, you lose the benefit of those beliefs.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Crazy

      I wonder what the Native Americans think about this. Yes ... someone said it right ... lets all move back to where every we came from and give the land back to the Native Americans.

      If you don't want to buy Kosher food .... please, please ... don't buy it!!!!

      If you want to send your kids to school year round then do so. Maybe you should home school them that way they don't have to even see Jewish people or any other people other than you and those who look and believe like you.

      This is the world .... we all live in it ... get used to it.

      April 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  4. jimlahey420

    I was raised without a specific religion. Father was Jewish, mother was Roman Catholic. They experienced the ridicule and stupid process of a multi-faith marriage when they got married due to the closed mindedness of religion. We had Christmas, but still went to friends and family around the times of Jewish holidays as well. Went to the aunt's at Easter, etc. Have been to Jewish weddings and funerals, same with catholic and everything in between. All this just helped me realize that all religion is GARBAGE and should be washed away from this world. And no, I don't care if "finding god" helped you through "xyz hardship" or "abc addiction". All that means is you aren't strong enough on your own, which is pretty weak.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • IsraelJudah

      You were raised in a very confused world with parents whose believes contradict each other's. I'm so sorry to read your story. Your story is an example of how assimilation destroys a Jewish linage. If you ever change your mind, look for the G-d of your ancestor's in Torah. I hope that at the end at least you have found peace. No man/woman can make it in this world alone without G-d. Sooner or later you will see this. Shalom.

      April 16, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  5. Pipe-Dreamer

    A Revaeling Word!

    "Pre-determinations are indicative resolutes and not withstanding are the depths' resonations!" What once was will ever so be! What one sees outwardly is it not seen inwardly? Where is this place at where visions of Life become our body's end-game for visions? The "brain yards" of quraks and gluons and positrons and electrons and all likenesses that science does dictate about are all parts of the human body are they not? Again I do ask, "Where is this place at where visions of Life become our body's end-game for visions?" Are we but not a singularism of mini-nuclearized particles flailing about in random fundamentals of physics' practicalities? Let Go! Let God alone! He is so very busy keeping all things apart and parted from each other's particalized practicalities!

    April 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      It's okay, Pipe-Dreamer. Can you show us on this bunny exactly where gawd has been toughing you?

      April 16, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      Phosphorus,,,, ,,,, ,,,, ,.,

      Such beligerencies from a disgruntled "ambiguist" of wanton godliness only resorts to anonimities' clearung house! Your gestations are but slurpiness so don't forget the napkins when you tender to spit!

      April 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Phosphorus

      You seem frustrated...

      April 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  6. Phoenix

    This about sums up my faith:
    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    April 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • David

      Love is a choice and at the heart of a free will. We have a choice to love God or not. Evil is, to put it simply, the absence of God in one's heart. Thomas Aquinas uses the word deprivation. Einstein does something similar using physics as his metaphor.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Phoenix

      According to the Judeo Christian bible god has been carrying around a grudge against all of humanity for nearly 6000 yr or so because two people ate some fruit. Really he’s holding a grudge that long? Letting untold billions suffer because two people ate some fruit? If there is a god he should be FIRED!

      April 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  7. Shawn

    I will NEVER mutilate my childs penis the way Jews do in the name of religion and violate his body and rights as a human first of all. Second, I was raised in a very religious environment and turned away from that when I was 19, best thing I ever did for myself, but as for my children, I will not shield them from religion, but I will not teach it to them and force them to go to church or anything like that. I would also encourage them to learn more about different belief systems as I have done, but they wont be brought up with it like I was. I am not anti-religion, I think people should believe what they want as long as it doesn't violate human rights or get in politics or my life, I don"t have a problem.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • IsraelJudah

      I'm glad you have made a decision. Best to you and your family.

      April 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Circus

      Meditation would be more acceptable activity/term.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  9. Josie

    Funny my kids currently go to church with their grandparents. Their father and I went to a church growing up. Though we both left the Christian religion as adults. The kids are aware of the difference and our daughter will ask us questions. At the moment they are fine withi church and I wouldn't pull them out unless they really want it. Religion is what you take out of it. Period.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. 1Human

    Everyone can be as religious as they want in the privacy of their homes, and churches. Keep the nonsense where it belongs. Do not bring that cult, hocus-pocus into our schools, or society.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  11. JamesG

    The kid that faded into the background on the left is a demon child.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  12. venusiansky

    I was raised into faith at a young age. I questioned faith at a young age. I turned away from faith at a young age. I found science at a young age. I strongly beileved in science and concluded religion is a creation of man. I rediscovered religion as an adult. I found much good and understanding of religion. I understand why we have religion. I believe in the WORDS of a religion and that it is HELPFUL for people. I believe that it is needed. I believe there can also be harm in religion.

    I LEARNED BOTH and I chose to believe in science and man. I also feel these learnings help raise me to be a decent person. THAT IS JUST ME.

    Just an example of learning about both.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Pipe-Dreamer

      venusiansky,,,,,, ,,,,,, ,.

      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 1:29 pm |
    • venusiansky

      Pipe-dreamer- diversity of the mind of man is a permanent fixture on Earth. It is why the world is what it is today, both good and bad. If we all thought the same, we would be terrible. If we all thought differently, we would be terrible. If we all thought the same, we would be good. If we all thought differently, we would be good. What about the beings of lesser intelligence amongst us? Do ants have gods? Maybe us humans are the only ones to come up with god for helpful reasons. Are ants good towards each other and bad towards others? Yes and Yes. They obviously have thought to some degree, but I don't know if they build shrines and temples and worship gods. Maybe if they had religion, ants would be different. Maybe red ants would no longer fight black ants. Maybe red ants believe in a god and black ants do not, so they fight.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  13. Mike

    Isn't this admission an obvious concession that religion is simply irrelevant?

    April 16, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  14. beekeeper6

    The purpose of faith is ABSOLUTELY to pretend, that is the definition.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  15. Bill S

    I remember having this same kind of discussion with members of my old church... 30 years ago. They were rationalizing why they did not want a Sunday School... why they did not want "too much" church interfering with their kid's lives.

    It was a UCC congregational church – you know, the church that is all but died out. Using "don't church kids too much" is a great way to kill religion... at least, from our Earthly side.

    Congratulations, Mom – you children won't be too religious... so maybe they won't know God too much.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • J. Scott

      Right, so the alternative is to indoctrinate children at the earliest age possible. Do not let them question the religion being taught them, remind them there's a hell for those who question the lord. Fear is the best way to ensure conformity. We can't have religion die out like the UCC did by trying to be rational. Then your children will know God, mom.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  16. J. Scott

    The funny thing is by the time a child is 5 he can easily point out the holes in any religion. Parents then need to gloss over those holes or make up lies about how the world works in order to keep the child religious. If you're not kosher just be realistic and say you've chosen not to follow certain religious restrictions that have no bearing on reality. State that religious rituals were decided upon by men thousands of years ago and that whether you follow all of the rituals or not will ultimately make no difference in how the world treats you. The best thing any parent can do is teach the the positive things that virtually all religions teach or just use Aesop's Fables, which is probably the clearest way to learn values. Then children can make an informed decision on whether, and to what extent, they want to accept a religion as they get older. The fact is, children will worship the Cookie Monster if they are told they must pray daily to the Cookie Monster. So, teach them everything and let them decide.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  17. CJ

    The less religion the better. Very clear to anybody who studies our human past, has traveled outside the US and cares about all humans.

    Keep it to yourself if you need it. But the less the better, simple as that.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Timodeus

      "The less religion the better." Don't just assume a people less religious will be affluent or magnanimous toward their fellow man. Some of history's greatest mass murders were atheists, the 20th century can attest to that. More secular societies are a relatively new phenomenon. Religious killers have been around for thousands of years, men are men, their hearts remain the same. Scientific mass murders are just as bad or worse in the last 200 years.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Beth

      I do think organized religion has caused a huge % of the worlds problems. However, religion-less countries such as China where religion was actually banned didn't seem to stop these problems from happening. In fact, in atheist Maoist china probably over 100,000,000 people died at the hands of others and due to starvation due to actions by Mao, etc. during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. If we do not have religion we will make an 'ism' out of something else like communism, naziism, etc.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  18. Elimin8r

    The less religion the better. Let logic prevail! It is no more than Santa for grown ups.

    April 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  19. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Why is that, wisdom is foreign to me yet?

    April 16, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  20. Rainer Braendlein

    Bigotry, the monster, which tortures mankind

    All false religions are bigoted. The members of false religions, at least those of them, which take seriously their religion, love only members of their own religion or people, which they want to convert.

    This nasty behaviour you find among Catholics, Muslims, Anabaptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, false Protestants, etc..

    The problem is that the false religions see Grace as their PROPERTY. As soon as you have joined their religion you participate in infinite Grace, which dispenses you from correct behaviour in daily life.

    Let us take the Islam as an example:

    Sura Al-Fatiha (Sura 1):

    1 In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
    2 Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
    3 The Beneficent, the Merciful.
    4 Master of the Day of Judgment,
    5 Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.
    6 Show us the straight path,
    7 The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

    The first Sura sounds even Christian (Allah is called merciful), but let us consider that this is not the only Sura of the Koran.

    The whole context of the Koran makes it clear that the first Sura is related only to Muslim believers. Allah is merciful and gracious only towards Muslims or people, which want to convert to Islam.

    This bigotry could be endured, if Islam would mean love and righteousness in daily life (a true Christian shall be full of love and righteousness to everybody independent from belief, color, nationality, status, etc. in daily life). Regretably a good Muslim is yet a Muslim, which keeps the 5 pillars of Islam, independent from practical love and righteousness:

    – Faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad;
    – Establishment of the daily prayers;
    – Concern for and almsgiving to the needy;
    – Self-purification through fasting; and
    – The pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are able.

    The 5 pillars of Islam have not much to do with rightousness, excepted almsgiving (whereby, I would like to know, if a Muslim would give alms to a poor Christian, or if he would regard his poverty as a curse of Allah?).

    The mean trick of all these is that you become a participant of grace yet by keeping the 5 pillars, independent from your daily behaviour. You may think like this (if you are a Muslim): I have tried to convert my workmate to Islam, but he refuses. He is now under the wrath of Allah, who will throw him into hell finally. Why should I love this nasty disbeliever, which is not loved by Allah? Why should I give him any good hints and advices? Why should I talk with him? Why should I be concerned about his security? Why should I help him, if he is in need? Allah doesn't love this infidel individual, hence I am allowed to hate him too.

    The same att-itude have got Catholics, Anabaptist, Mormons, etc..

    They keep certain rituals of their believe and by that they are participants of infinite Grace, which allows them to treat their infidel fellow human beings, which they regard as disbelievers, very ill. They feel not obliged to show love and rightousness to their fellow human beings.

    How works a true Christian, in contrast:

    A Christian knows that at Judgement Day he will get judget according to his works. Only if he has lived a life of love and rightousness he will finally enter heaven. A Christian loves everybody, independent form belief, color, nationality, status, etc.. He loves people, even if they are no Christians and even if they don't want to become Christians. A true Christian doesn't regard God's Grace as his property, but shares it with his fellow human beings. The Christian sees always himself as that one, who is required by God to behave correctly. A Christian oversees the sins of his fellow human beings and behaves friendly and kindly despite their sins (of course, if people harm one another, the Christian has to intervene and to stop the wrongdoer).

    Yet a true Christians will hold on to the truth and confess it to everybody:

    The gospel: God, the Father, delivered God, the Son, for our sins and raised him from the dead for our justification.

    The man, who believes that and gets baptized (or remembers his infant baptism), will receive the power of the Holy Spirit to love his fellow human beings and to behave righteous

    April 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • CJ

      Sorry, everyone stopped reading at 'Bigotry...'

      April 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • jim86

      No CJ I stop reading at Rainer Braendlein.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Not surprised

      Written clearly by a Protestant. You may have a general understanding of Islam and the Catholic Church, but your knowledge can easily be found on sites like Wikipedia. Perhaps if you studied religious history you would see that Judiasm, Catholicism, and Islam were all founded by "true" prophets of God. Whereas your Protestant religion was a man-made amalgamation of political revolt and dangerously watered down theology. Check your Bible, its missing a few books. You are correct that several members of all religions do not properly represent the theology, however that does not make these religions inherently bad. SO the next time your sitting in a circle listening to some bad version of 60's folk music and beating your drum stop for a minute and ask yourself where did this all come from, certainly not from centuries of passing down religious traditions and "correct" teachings originally given to us by God. God's laws are absolute whether you like them or not, they are not up for negotiation. Instead they should be taught in a charitable way but firmly as to not lose their original intent. As far as I can see your brand of religion is doing none of that...

      April 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • your god is irreducibly complex

      "All false religions are bigoted". I guess this means that all religions are bigoted, since they are all false.

      April 16, 2012 at 1:28 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.