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. Dennis

    Believe in myths...but too much myth.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  2. marjee123

    If you start to promote evangleist religion how about promoting them all. Or is CNN trying to jump on the religious cult band wagon and convert us all.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  3. blake

    Another CNN put down on religion. Please stop the godless, leftist rhetoric.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • cosmicsnoop

      Well the human race is not going to evolve until we get rid of religion. It's that simple.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  4. adam

    FREE ADVERTISEMENT. Marketing class 101. Way to promote your book, talk about kosher. This is not a kosher marketing idea, but it does work if you have couple KOSHER FRIENDS AT CNN to publish the article for you.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  5. jay

    In modern times being religious and making your kids religious are two separate projects in themselves. Being a Hindu, I always question and refine my beliefs and concept of God whenever new scientific research surfaces. It is an evolving story for me. In this situation, how can explain my kids to distinguish between popular mythology and real spirituality? A case in point: Particularly in USA I find that while adults are very tolerant, school going children are very intolerant. Every school going Indian vegetarian kid gets ridiculed at school. Indian moms in USA have a very hard time deciding what lunch to send to school that the kid can eat in comfort. This when I see Indian restaurants are full of locals gobbling and relishing Indian food! I found that this is a real and universal problem all over America.
    One of my struggles has been explaining to my kids "why vegetarianism" represents "showing mercy to all creatures by not hurting them whenever possible".

    April 15, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  6. ipmutt

    The last place on earth you should come to for input on faith. Right there with hollywood

    April 15, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  7. Educate by example

    I am not a religious person, either is my husband. We are a mixed marriage. He was raised Jewish, I was raised catholic. When are children were born we baptizd and did the baby naming for both religions. We only did it to appease our families. As the years went on we felt it was best to raise them to understand religion, but force them to belive in one or the other. Today we join our families for the major religious holidays. There is no formal religious education. I have read the bible to them...they responded with "what a weird story". My oldest daughter who is 8 couldn't believe that grown-ups believe its all true. Many people feel I am not giving my children a moral ground to walk on..but my children only see the person for who they are and how they behave, not for for they pray to. I teach them right from wrong by example not scaring them into believing in a book of stories that was written back in B.C.
    Nothing erks me more then to hear my NJ suburb families tell me how they can't wait to see their little girl get all dressed up in their communion dress, only to not continue with the religious education. One catholic mom even went as far as to tell me she has recently had an abortion because they couldnt finically have another child!! Or how the Jewish families keep kosher only in their house but pig out on their bacon cheese burger in their own backyard! I have more respect for the religious families who follow through with the education. If religion means something to you then do it the right way. For most it seems to be only a social status or a club.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Larry L

      Excellent comment. Imagine...

      April 15, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  8. nookster

    Many parents now days don't want thier children religiously programmed from birth like they were. These parents have many doubts about the validity of these religions and can't in good conscience let their children be indoctrinated with the same nonsense. Why would a parent want to let their child live a life filled with fear, guilt and ignorance? It's really a form of child abuse perpertuated by the parents own ignorance and fear.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  9. halfbakedlunatic

    'god' is an idiotic idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded. The quicker we put this tired little fairy tale to bed, the better off we will be.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Eric G

      Do you really think so? Try to think about your standard believer. Do you really think that the masses could handle that information?

      I do agree that religious belief is doing more harm than good to humanity in todays world, I am not sure that enough people have the intellectual ability to embrace the fact that their belief system is not based in reality.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:06 am |
    • northwoodsmaine-iac

      You sir....truely are half baked.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  10. 3rdEyeOpened

    What we have here is history repeating itself. Just as the birthright of Christianity was stolen by Constantine in ancient times in order to control the masses, The Euro/American elite has hijacked Judaism for the same purpose. This time they are controlling the masses via the Reserve Banks, Media, and Big Business. It was the Zionists who forever claim to this day that Jews are God's chosen, so that they could build self esteem and feel superior over the rest of us. The true Hebrews are those who are scattered throughout Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, And Egypt. And here lies the true reason Israel is hated by it's neighbors. Because it was hijacked by impostors who stole the faith and the land and claimed it as their own starting in 1947.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • jrvinnh

      Quietly and in private, I've had righteous Jews tell me the exact same things. They are not all the same.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • Dennis

      Who worships a god that doesn't deem them " the chosen"?

      Get back on your meds.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  11. CM

    Try being honest with them and telling them you know the whole myth is a crock and being kosher would be a hugely inconvenient waste of your time. but because you're too cowardly to say that publicly for fear of the social stigma from your peers and parents, you're going to force them into a lifetime of irrational guilt as well.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  12. Nurse

    Beautiful, introspective post that speaks from the heart. Thank you.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 15, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • NO

      Jesuschrist on a popsicle stick!
      Shut up!

      You keep posting the same thing over and over and over; you are loser!

      April 15, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  14. Welled

    See its not that all of the different semetic peoples feel left out. Some of them do. Some of them are really mischiveous. If you here satan howling in the middle of the night you might want to add another suspect. Some of them love calling themselves "jews" which again is slang and has nothing to do with Hebrews. Those were the ones that killed Jesus. On paper anyway. I could go on and on. If your not semetic. Once again Hebrews the ones i know pay not attention to it and scant attention to the other semetic people amoung them. Of course I am being kind. pay attention

    April 15, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  15. NewMexico720

    The Jewish religion is garbage. The Jews had Jesus murdered by the Romans. They treat women like the Taliban do and yet the men are the most immoral thugs around. Judaism is exactly like Catholicism. Nothing but a joke.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • daneste613

      your moronic brain is also a joke, but very unfortunate and uncalled for.

      April 15, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Deborah

      You need to learn a lot, really a lot before you give your mindless opinion. Your comment shows a lot of ignorance concerning historical facts. I suggest that for your better understanding you start watching the history channel 2 or buy yourself a few books concerning the matter and educate yourself.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  16. North Star

    Bravo to Laurel. I commend her efforts to raise a morally calibrated and thoughtful child. Bravo for embracing the responsibilities of the sacred calling of motherhood. As to those who disbelieve or mock religion, I read something recently that I'd like to share – not out of a spirit of contention and argument, but in one of genuine concern and interest for those who have not been taught by their own mothers or fathers (as I have most thoroughly been blessed):

    President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “The earth is spherical. If all the four billion people in the world think it flat, they are in error. That is an absolute truth, and all the arguing in the world will not change it.

    “We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit. These truths are ‘independent’ in their spiritual sphere and are to be discovered spiritually, though they may be confirmed by experience and intellect. (See D&C 93:30 .) The great prophet Jacob said that ‘the Spirit speaketh the truth. . . . Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.’ ( Jacob 4:13 .) We need to be taught in order to understand life and who we really are.

    “The Gods organized and gave life to man and placed him on the earth. This is absolute. It cannot be disproved. A million brilliant minds might conjecture otherwise, but it is still true. And having done all this for his Father’s children, the Christ mapped out a plan of life for man—a positive and absolute program whereby man might achieve, accomplish, and overcome and perfect himself. Again, these vital truths are not matters of opinion. If they were, then your opinion would be just as good as mine, or better. But I give you these things, not as my opinion—I give them to you as divine truths which are absolute.

    “Some day you will see and feel and understand and perhaps even berate yourself for the long delay and waste of time. It is not a matter of if. It is a matter of when .

    “Experience in one field does not automatically create expertise in another field. Expertise in religion comes from personal righteousness and from revelation. The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: ‘All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it.’ ( D&C 93:30 .) A geologist who has discovered truths about the structure of the earth may be oblivious to the truths God has given us about the eternal nature of the family.

    “If I can only make clear this one thing, it will give us a basis on which to build. Man cannot discover God or his ways by mere mental processes. One must be governed by the laws which control the realm into which he is delving. To become a plumber, one must study the laws which govern plumbing. He must know stresses and strains, temperatures at which pipes will freeze, laws which govern steam, hot water, expansion, contraction, and so forth. One might know much about plumbing and be a complete failure in training children or getting along with men. One might be the best of bookkeepers and yet not know anything of electricity. One might know much about buying and selling groceries and be absolutely ignorant of bridge building.

    “One might be a great authority on the hydrogen bomb and yet know nothing of banking. One might be a noted theologian and yet be wholly untrained in watchmaking. One might be the author of the law of relativity and yet know nothing of the Creator who originated every law. I repeat, these are not matters of opinion. They are absolute truths. These truths are available to every soul.

    “Any intelligent man may learn what he wants to learn. He may acquire knowledge in any field, though it requires much thought and effort. It takes more than a decade to get a high school diploma; it takes an additional four years for most people to get a college degree; it takes nearly a quarter-century to become a great physician. Why, oh, why do people think they can fathom the most complex spiritual depths without the necessary experimental and laboratory work accompanied by compliance with the laws that govern it? Absurd it is, but you will frequently find popular personalities, who seem never to have lived a single law of God, discoursing in interviews on religion. How ridiculous for such persons to attempt to outline for the world a way of life!”

    April 15, 2012 at 8:44 am |
    • esoteric1

      Your quotes and use of religious diatribe is really quite forced. Just a bit of literary info..."Spirit" is an adjective much more than it is a noun. I wish people who are engulfed in religion would stop using the word "spirit" as if it was say "science"...it is not by any means "a thing to study".

      April 15, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • CM

      I feel really sorry for you for thinking that posting some long-winded ramblings from a preacher would sway people that opt for reason. You got 2 sentences in before his sermon lost all credibility:

      "We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit"

      No, I learned them in science class and we got that knowledge by observation and questioning, not blind acceptance of what we were told by "authorities."

      April 15, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Josef Bleaux

      How utterly stupid.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  17. El Flaco

    Most of us just inherit our religions from our parents and never think about it. For most of us, religion is a purely social activity. We gather with others who accept the same beliefs in a shared experience, hearing the ancient books of nonsense read, discussing them, and enjoying being with each other. Most of us have no spiritual experience at all.

    The need for a 'spiritual' experience is programmed into us by mindless, unplanned evolution. Some of us have a strong need for the 'spiritual' experience. If you have such a need, pick a religion that provides it.

    It doesn't really matter which religion you choose as long as you pick on that gives you the experiences you want.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Imagine No Religion

      Well stated. Your points are excellent evidence that jesus, god, christianity, islam, judaism, catholicism, ad nauseum, are nothing more than man-made fabrications of imaginary friends for adults.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |
  18. NYC

    Everything is Anti-Semitic for Jews.... yet they are the most racist people in this world

    April 15, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Deborah

      If they were so, they would not create or invent what brings them the most nobel prizes.

      April 15, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  19. Welled

    Some of the semites will play with you like a seal with a beach ball. If you let them and don't try to find out whats going on

    April 15, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  20. Vicky

    Most Jews are Atheists anyway..... look at David Silverman as an example.

    April 15, 2012 at 8:41 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.