As my kids get older, I feel a greater sense of urgency about teaching them to be Jewish. And as Rosh Hashana approached this year, I fretted over how I was going to impart the deep meaning of the days of awe to them at home.
My problem is — and always has been — that I have little desire to bring them to shul. I can be ambivalent about organized religion because it has, at worst, been used as a shield for sometimes ugly and hypocritical behavior.
I went to Hebrew school, and it certainly helped me gain a knowledge of and appreciation for Jewish traditions. But when I think back on it, what I remember most clearly about it is that my class was so unruly we couldn’t keep a teacher for more than a couple months at a time. My last memory of going to temple was for my opa’s funeral in my early 20s. The rabbi kept getting his name wrong, and at one point my oma leaned over to me and whispered, “This is a farce.” Still, post funeral, sitting shiva is one of the most profound and comforting collective expressions of grief that I know.
And yet I feel deeply connected to Judaism in a way that’s not always easy to explain. It is in my bones. My husband isn’t Jewish, though after we were married he told me he was willing to convert if I wanted him to. I didn’t, but perhaps I would have if I didn’t have the comfort of knowing my children would be Jewish because I, their mother, am. Though I was bat mitzvah’d, my parents always made it clear that they weren’t big proponents of organized religion either. But being Jewish was still woven into the fabric of my upbringing with rituals, family history and core values.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of rollicking Passover seders that involved a deliberately truncated Haggadah reading and a lot of delicious food. Growing up, I saw my oma and opa, both Holocaust survivors, every week. Though they barely spoke of their persecution until the very end of their lives, I can’t remember not knowing about what happened to them and their families.
These are all things I want to give to my children: a sense of togetherness and education, of a tradition that has stretched across time and continents despite a very concerted effort to snuff it out.
I was thinking about all of this on Monday as I was slicing apples with my 6-year-old. We have set out apples and honey for Rosh Hashana in previous years with our friend Emilie, who is more observant than we are and has helped me figure out how best to maintain some Jewish customs at home. I watched my youngest daughter arranging the apples artfully on the plate, and we talked about why we eat them — because we want a sweet new year. All felt like it was going according to plan.
Then, at dinner, we said the prayer over the apples and I started in on a Very Important Maternal Lecture about reflecting on the past year. I explained that Yom Kippur was coming soon, and what the concept of atonement meant. I also told them about tikkun olam — the idea that it’s important for us to repair the world around us. I asked both my girls what they thought they could do to help our community be a better place. My 9-year-old, who is very concerned with the plight of the world’s bees, talked about composting and repainting a mural at her school.
My little one, who helped cut the apples and was enjoying the sweet treat, thought for a minute, and then she said, “I think our community is great.” She’s a very sunny kid in general, and I also wonder if living a good chunk of your young life under pandemic conditions makes you more grateful for basic normalcy. Still, I had to laugh that she pondered her surroundings and thought: Life is good, 10 out of 10, no notes.
It also reminded me that their relationship with Judaism, like mine, will perpetually evolve. Every holiday won’t be freighted with the pressure to impart the wisdom I hope to pass down to them, and just observing traditions can be part of the life lessons I wish them to care about. Even if they can’t fully express their spiritual virtues at the time, I do believe many of the small things I do will lodge in their brains.
The day after the apples and honey, my older daughter asked if we could bake a cake using the same recipe my aunt had made at a recent family gathering. She knew that the recipe had come from my oma, and that connection was powerful to her because we talk about Oma and Opa all the time. All I can do is give my girls tools to make their own meanings. Even though I will continue to feel uncertain about the best way to approach their Jewish education, I am comforted that it’s making an impression.
I gave my 3-year-old an old oven mitt to play with like a hand puppet. She immediately fell in love with it and we named it Brownie. Now I use it to encourage her to do things on her own, like brushing her teeth without my help. Brownie says: “I don’t have teeth, can you show me what it’s like to brush your teeth?”
— Kari Foster, Manor, Tex.
If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, find us on Instagram @NYTparenting and use the hashtag #tinyvictories; email us; or enter your Tiny Victory at the bottom of this page. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style. Your name, location and comments may be published, but your contact information will not. By submitting to us, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us.
The post Teaching My Kids How to Be Jewish, One Plate of Apples at a Time appeared first on New York Times.