When Ella entered the Kindergarten at our local Jewish day school, parents were invited to spend an evening in the classroom. Each teacher made a brief presentation about the curriculum, and then opened the floor to questions. After reading the daily schedule, one parent raised a tentative hand.
“Do the children really pray in school?” he asked. “Every day?”
Another hand popped up. “What should I do if my child wants to say prayers at home?”
“What do you tell them about God?” asked another.
“What should we tell them about God?” we all wondered.
Morah Chanah smiled. To her credit, she resisted the urge to ask us if we had read the school literature before enrolling our children. You know, the part about it being a Jewish school. Instead, she smiled warmly and handed us each a little booklet, entitled “Talking to Your Children About God,” by Rabbi Sandy Sasso. The not so subtle, but right-on-target message was clear. “I’m your child’s teacher. But you’re their parents. Shouldn’t you help shape your child’s view of God?”
I have approached almost every parenting issue with the seriousness of a Rhodes scholar. I’ve exhaustively researched baby carriers, sleep training, preschools, and of course, toxic and not-quite-so-toxic plastics. But I’ve given comparatively little thought to my job as my child’s spiritual teacher. So I was both alarmed by my new assignment, and thrilled to have an instruction manual recommended by my daughter’s teacher. “Hooray”, I thought, “Rabbi Sasso will tell me what to say!”
Rabbi Sasso’s advice? “Tell your child what you believe.” These instructions were about as helpful as the assembly manuals that accompanied the IKEA kitchen cabinets we installed last summer. (They have no words.) Theologically speaking, I’m fairly clear on what I don’t believe, but only have only a hazy notion of what I do kind-of-sort-of-think-I might believe (-ish). How on earth can I teach my children about God ?
Fortunately, the kind of divine intervention I don’t think I believe in graced me that very week. We received Bagels from Benny in the mail. In the story, a young boy (Benny), wants to thank God for creating the wheat for his grandfather’s delicious bagels. He decides to secretly place a bag of bagels in the Holy Ark each Friday. Each week, unbeknownst to Benny, a poor man finds the bagels and takes them home to eat, believing they are a gift from God. When the little boy discovers the truth, that God hasn’t been taking the bagels, he is crestfallen, until his grandfather explains to him that, in fact, there is no better gift to God than helping a person in need.
After reading the book for the first time, I felt like jumping up and down shouting “This is it! This is what I believe! This is what I want my children to believe!” God as a source of creation? I’m good with that. Giving thanks for our blessings? I’m definitely in favor of that one. Helping those in need as a way to serve God? Bagels from Benny just knocked it out of the ballpark. And unlike some of the other groovy kids’ God-books we’ve added to our library (Old Turtle comes to mind) this one is Jewish. And, it’s fantastic.
Now that Ella is in day school, I realize many people are going to contribute to her view of God and religion. I’m likely to agree strongly with some of the messages she hears, and feel very conflicted about others. But thanks to Morah Chanah’s advice, and books like Bagels From Benny, I’ll know that I’ve contributed to the conversation.
P.S. Here’s a link to listen to a great interview with Rabbi Sasso about discussing God and spirituality with your children.
The PJ Library® program sends Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis to families with children through age seven. Created by The Harold Grinspoon Foundation, The PJ Library is funded nationally in partnership with The Harold Grinspoon Foundation and local philanthropists/organizations. To learn more, go to www.pjlibrary.org