In this hybrid world, where cultural distinctions and boundaries are increasingly blurred, Joe, who’s Jewish, and I, raised Methodist (but self-defined as agnostic, on a good day), are currently navigating the tricky questions that inevitably arise during religious holidays while raising a child.
Which is why, in the span of one week, Lily happily clapped along (in her high chair) with verse after verse of “Dayenu” during the Grekin family’s seder; and spotted a basket full of flip-flops (she’s kind of “into” shoes), markers, chocolate, and a stuffed bunny before finding fruit-snack-filled plastic eggs around our house.
She had a blast with all of it, of course. But Joe and I know that combining these traditions will likely get thornier as Lily grows older.
Joe isn’t religious – obviously, or else he wouldn’t have married a shiksa – but his Jewish education and identity is important to him, and consequently, we decided to raise Lily Jewish, while also recognizing, in at least a modest, secular way, the holidays that I grew up with.
But what precisely does it mean to raise a child Jewish? Do we join a temple at some point and drag her to religious classes – which Joe hated himself as a kid, but now sees as providing an important foundation? Do we give her the option to instead read Jewish stories and histories with Joe and learn about her heritage that way? Do we, years down the road, enroll her in Hebrew classes in preparation for a bat mitzvah, or let her decide whether this is something she wants for herself as she gets older?
We’ve procrastinated on all this a bit, since the decisions aren’t immediately pressing, and Lily’s only a toddler. But with each passing holiday, it becomes more and more apparent that we have to make some choices.
For while I usually fast with Joe on Yom Kippur – fasting is Joe’s version of hell, so I try to keep him company and support him during those 24 hours – I haven’t ever, not once, tossed out the bread in the house and subsisted on matzoh, meat and salad for Passover’s eight days. Though also hard, Passover’s restrictions didn’t seem to me as brutal as Yom Kippur’s call for no food or water of any kind.
And since Lily is such a picky eater, who has a daily meal of mac and cheese (pasta’s a no-go for Passover, too), we didn’t even consider trying to hold her to these restrictions. But when we do, won’t I have to follow suit? Shouldn’t we all make this gesture as a family? Or do I simply play that role at home while eating whatever I want while at work?
The cookie-loving, baked-goods-addict in me screams, “The latter! The latter!” But I think I would feel pretty guilty about asking my daughter to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself.
Which also leads to the question of religious services. I certainly don’t want to go to any. And in a way, remembering how I dreaded them as a kid makes me hesitant to take Lily. But will she feel truly Jewish if she doesn’t get any institutional instruction or training, or interact with other Jewish kids and families? She’ll be part of family holiday traditions, but is that enough?
Joe was already less-than-happy that Lily was hearing Easter stories and doing Easter-oriented art projects at daycare. When we filled out the initial paperwork, we noted that we were raising her Jewish, yet there was no phone call or note checking in with us about how we felt about Easter-themed activities. (Our daycare center was also closed on Good Friday. Who on earth has Good Friday off?!)
Initially, I thought it might be a good thing that they were picking up my slack regarding Easter, since I’d done absolutely nothing (I got her basket and various items for it the night before Easter at the CVS down the block). And when I took Lily to a nearby mall to play and see puppies at the pet store on Good Friday, she stood fascinated, for several minutes, watching the Easter Bunny pose for photos with a long line-up of dressed-up kids.
So regarding the daycare issue, I told Joe, “I’m sure it’s all the secular bunnies-and-chicks-and-eggs stuff, not ‘Christ is risen’ stuff.” He still grumbled, and I understand why. When your own background matches that of the majority, you don’t notice these little day-to-day things because they’re part of your familiar culture. But when you’re part of a family that has a different set of beliefs and holidays, you start to see exactly how pervasive Christian culture is, and how there’s just no avoiding it.
Christmas, and Santa in particular, is looming over all this, of course. We decided that since, for the forseeable future, we’d always be down at my father’s house in North Carolina for the holiday, our family would have a low-key version of Christmas there for Lily. (Who wants to ship a ton of stuff down there that we’d have to haul back on a plane, paying tons of money to do so?) But do we feed her the Santa story?
As a child, I sniffed out the truth about five minutes after hearing the tale: one guy, visiting every house in one night? All the gifts in one sleigh? Reindeer that could fly? Please. None of it added up. And yes, I was indeed the least-fun kid of all time. But still, what if Lily would enjoy believing this magical, fanciful tale for a few years? I should give her that chance, shouldn’t I?
Though people often bemoan how secular religious holidays have become – you know, those people who yell at you to “put the Christ back in Christmas!” – I’m personally glad, because in a mixed family, forging a new path for your child is challenging enough. At least this way, I can put up our pagan Christmas tree alongside the light-up menorah in the window, and hide Easter eggs while Joe’s munching on matzoh crackers and hummus (which is probably officially verboten for Passover, too, he admits). We’ve got a lot of choices ahead, but I have faith (ironically) that we’ll find our way through it all because neither of us is particularly rigid about these things.
But I’ve probably got to start paying a little more attention to my end. This was probably the last year, for example, that Joe and I could stand in a North Carolina grocery store aisle on Christmas Eve trying to scrabble together a gift for Lily consisting of pens, colored pencils, and drawing pads.
I think I realized this when, at Passover, she heard the word “cake” and high-tailed it back into the dining area while repeating the word, thus making sure she didn’t miss a bite.
She’s growing more and more aware of everything around her each day, which means we have to start paying more attention, too.