When my mother and father were young parents, as my husband and I are now, they didn't always go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and they ate, instead of fasted, on Yom Kippur. As kids, my sisters and I instructed my parents in lighting candles and chanting blessings, and, by example, persuaded them to fast. At some point, we started cutting up apples and honey to mark the New Year traditionally, and made a festive dinner on Rosh Hashanah eve. My parents didn't go to work, and the holidays didn't feel like any other day at home anymore. But I always felt unsure about our celebrations. Since my parents didn't guide us, it felt like we were making things up as we went along.
My four sisters and I, now in our 20s, took the lead because our parents didn't know much about ritual particulars. That sounds backward--aren't parents supposed to worry about passing on tradition to their children?--but our reverse system worked. Our generation's discovery of tradition sparked a rekindling of interest on our parents' parts.
These days, my mother gives divrei Torah--Biblical interpretations--at synagogue, and my father is eager to discuss the latest gleanings from his Bible study group. Even my adamantly secular grandmother has warmed to holiday celebrations.
My parents grew up without a Jewish education because of my grandparents' ambivalence about their ethnic roots. My grandparents distanced themselves from traditional Judaism, which they saw as narrow and parochial. Americanization was the identity they chose. My grandfather told stories about the virtues of playing hooky from bar mitzvah classes and the thrill of eating bacon.
Like tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants, my grandparents' families streamed into this country from Eastern Europe in the last years of the 19th century, fleeing economic deprivation and religious persecution. Once here, they did whatever was necessary to take advantage of American educational and economic opportunity, shedding their Jewish identity quickly and without remorse, as they disembarked from their trans-Atlantic voyages.
And so it goes with many American Jews. It is a testament to my grandparents' success in assimilating and Amercanizing that their children and grandchildren--college-educated, economically comfortable, socially accepted, and by and large ignorant of their religious tradition--want to reconnect with their Jewish heritage, without fear of missing out on America's bounty.
What got into my sisters and me? Exploring faith and observance gave us a sense of accomplishment and possibility because no one made us do it. Now I wonder how to give my children (one 8-month-old so far, siblings hoped for) a more traditional religious grounding than I got at home, without diminishing the joy of self-discovery.
I'm not arguing that parents should wait for kids to ask before offering them some Jewish education. My parents joined a Conservative synagogue when I was a toddler because of its nursery school and liked the congregation enough to enroll my sisters and me in its seven-hour-a-week Hebrew school. When we got older, they talked with us about Jewish history and Zionism. As my father reminds me, he and my mother identified more strongly as Jews than their own parents by traveling to Israel and becoming active synagogue members. Without the steps my parents took, I can't imagine how I would have become a practicing Jew, let alone majored in religious studies in college, spent summers and then a year in Israel, or taught bar and bat mitzvah preparation.
So when parents say they don't want to "force" Judaism on their children by educating them, I think they've found a convenient excuse for doing nothing. More to the point, depending entirely on a child's initiative is a lot to expend when it comes to something as straightforward as soccer lessons, much less navigating the labyrinth of Jewish learning. It takes work, not always something kids volunteer for. But if you don't do the work, you get shut out.
I wanted my family to be hooked, too, and I wanted them to stand before the congregation with me at my bat mitzvah. They were game. My parents didn't worry that I was becoming "too" religious--though missing tennis lessons for Shabbat services wasn't encouraged--because I wasn't so much striking out on a new path as taking their own values a step further. My mother and grandmother learned prayers that I transcribed into English for them. My father agreed to chant from the Torah--even though he didn't know the Hebrew alphabet. We studied together for months. On the day of my bat mitzvah, we each read from the Torah for the first time. In the years that followed, it was my parents who made sure that on Friday nights we always lit Shabbat candles and ate a traditional chicken dinner as a family.
Now my husband and I have our own family's Jewishness to think about; after three generations of my family progressively becoming more religious, we need to figure out how to raise the newest generation. Since Paul, my husband, comes from an even less observant background than I do, the issue is a hard one for us. Paul is most comfortable relying on our families' secular immigrant history to teach core Jewish values to our kids. I'd like to spend time in Israel as a family and find a synagogue in which we can all actively participate.
The lesson my parents taught me is that the wisest course for Paul and me lies in following our kids' lead. My hope is that focusing on what excites them will draw in my husband too and also challenge me to make our observance more than a go-through-the-motions obligation.
Here's what I imagine: It's Friday evening, and our kids are helping Paul and me braid challah dough for Shabbat dinner. When we gather to light candles, the kids pick the songs we sing and help lead the blessings. At dinner, we take turns talking about something good that's happened to each of us during the past week. As the kids get older, we pick up the week's reading from the Torah so they become familiar with the stories of Genesis and Exodus.
I also hope we'll find a synagogue that recognizes kids as a point of entry for parents like Paul. Instead of leaving unversed members to mumble through the Shabbat morning prayers, for example, some congregations jointly schedule Hebrew school for kids and "learners' minyans," or adult services designed for beginners.
Our baby son, Elijah, has already helped break religious ground for us. My husband, at first uncertain about the idea of a bris (ritual circumcision), ended up embracing the ritual by inviting as many friends as could crowd into our apartment. His mother and brother participated by carrying the baby into the room. They handed him to my mother, who had volunteered to hold Eli during the circumcision.
As the mohel worked, my mother's face and neck muscles tightened. I teased her afterward about becoming unexpectedly fainthearted. No, she said. She'd been nervous because she had never been to a bris before.