Faith and Heritage: A Jewish Perspective

Today I’m thrilled to share this space with fellow blogger, writer and nonbeliever, Amy M. Miller. She shares her perspective on living without faith while trying to hold on to her heritage. Her bio follows. Thank you, Amy, for taking the time to guest post here!

First, let me thank Debbie for inviting me to share some thoughts on her insightful blog.  Debbie and I became members of the mutual fan club this summer and she will also write a guest post on my site.

I never thought I’d become a parent.  I didn’t feel comfortable around children, I wasn’t a naturally playful person.  In my younger days I considered myself more of a serious intellectual.  That’s right, I was a snob.  But one of the reasons I feared parenthood was my lack of faith.  I felt it was one thing not to believe in a higher power, but I had no idea how I would explain that to a child or children.  To make matters more difficult, I am Jewish.  For many Jews, this isn’t a problem.  They identify as cultural Jews, rather than religious Jews.  Anne Lamott refers to people like me as “bagely Jews.”  We enjoy a schmear and a kibitz with our culturally Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish friends, but you won’t find us at synagogue.  Well, maybe for the high holy holidays.

It’s a contradiction that many Jews live with, but I don’t know many Jews who worry over it like I do.

Soon after I met my husband in 1998 my attitude towards parenting began to mellow.  Insert biological clock cliché here.  I was teaching literacy skills to elementary-age children and they became cuter to me every day.  When we moved to D.C. in 2011, my husband and I would moon over babies on the Metro.  “We could make one of those,” we thought.  And we did.  Two, in fact.  Our kids are now 6 and 9.

But having a family and not knowing what to tell them about my belief system, or lack thereof, is a nagging harpy that harangues me on a regular basis.

Why, you may ask.

Because I want it all, just like Veruca Salt.  I want my kids to understand and appreciate that they are Jewish, but also view the world through critical lenses.  To say, hey, this is a beautiful tradition, a wonderful heritage, it makes me verklemf, but this whole creation of the world in seven days thing?  Horse hockey!

Here’s where I confess to you that I don’t take my kids to synagogue.  We live in the South and there just aren’t any progressive congregations within driving distance.  If we still lived in D.C. or moved to Portland, OR or Chicago, we’d have a seat at the table of Humanistic Judaism.  Not so much in Kentucky.  I struggle with this because I want my kids to participate in the traditions along with peers who are like them, I want them to cherish the Jewish value of justice and the Jewish practice of charity.  And I just can’t teach them these things very easily on my own.  I don’t have confidence that I can do it well, my husband is a Christian-born agnostic, and I really crave community.

I know I’m not the only cultural Jew/Muslim/Hindu/Christian/insert your identity here.  I take comfort finding like-minded parents who also struggle with how to explain a complicated heritage and non-belief system to children who every day become more assimilated, more homogenous.  Community is important to me, but unless we move away from our hometown, we are left with scattered friends in separate homes teaching their kids different things.

I guess what I’m saying is: how can I raise my kids to accept we are contradictions of faith and heritage, we’re not alone, and it’s okay?

Amy M. Miller is a freelance writer, graduate student, and adjunct professor, amywho lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and pet rat, Eleanor.  Her writing has appeared in local and national magazines, newspapers, online journals, and blogs, including Insider Louisville, The Paper, Under The Gum Tree, Skirt! Magazine, Underwired Magazine, and Offbeat Families.  You can read more of her ramblings on her blog ADDled at addledliving.com.

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26 responses to “Faith and Heritage: A Jewish Perspective

  1. Amy, your post really made me think about faith and parenting in the U.S. We live in the South as well and recently left the Catholic church. My husband and I used to joke that we wish that Catholicism had a designation like “secular Jew”. Despite that, we’ve never had to consider that our kids will lose something important by not being religious. On the contrary, Christianity hounds them in their public school, extra-curricular activities, and in the well-intentioned comments of their friends. You have an identity that is complicated to pin down outside the context of faith, but well worth preserving in your kids. I teach religion, and one thing I always tell my students is that Jewishness is a matter of having a shared history – it is not a race, a belief system, or a national identity. There is a rich history of Judaism in the U.S. that goes back to the amazing story of the first Jewish arrivals to New Amsterdam (Manhattan) in 1654. The other point I’d like to make is this one: you are certainly qualified to teach your kids about justice and charity. Your role-modeling these values will have a far greater impact on teaching your children about their heritage than arts and crafts projects or visits to museums. Best of luck to you!

    • Hi Patti,
      Thank you for your kind words. It is a complicated situation. I recently learned, after writing this post for Debbie, that my daughter may be interested in a bat mitzvah. I’m excited and not sure where the heck to begin. You are absolutely right about the rich Jewish American history. My grandmother’s family arrived before the Civil War and were traveling merchants. As a Catholic, I’m certain you also have a very rich history to preserve.
      Take care,
      Amy

  2. As a “secular Christian “atheist, who valued community and wanted to instill the cultural knowledge of the old and new testaments in my children…I found my local Unitarian Universalist congregation to be a perfect answer. My daughters not only had a community of respectful questioners, they were exposed to the richness of the wide variety of world religions without indoctrination.

    • Hi Sandy,
      I agree! I love Unitarian churches and have a dear friend who is a minister. I’ve toyed with joining her congregation. There is so much to love about it: they teach respect for all people, of all belief systems, they are huge advocates of social justice, and they have wonderful children’s programming. Oddly, sitting in their congregation, my biggest reservation was how “churchy” it felt. I felt out of place and missed the synagogue bimma, ark, and torahs. What I need is a Unitarian synagogue, I think.
      Thank you so much for your comments,
      Amy

  3. Hi Amy,

    Your post really resonated with me. I was raised in a Greek Orthodox family in Nashville. We rarely went to church as there was not much of a Greek community here, and I don’t believe my parents were that committed to their faith. For reasons still a mystery to me, they enrolled my sister and me in Catholic school. I am still fighting the damage that those 12 years did to me! My husband and I, non-believers, have a very pragmatic seven-year-old boy. We, too, struggle with celebrating religious holidays without sending a conflicting message to him. I go back and forth about it. Part of me believes that if you are not going to accept the full package of a particular religion, then it is not fair to just skim the “fun” parts from it. On the other hand, those “fun” parts are part of our heritage, and I hate not passing them along to my son.Thank you for such an honest post. It has given me much to consider.

    • Hello Suzanne,
      I never have considered celebrating Chanucka and Christmas as “skimming off the fun parts,” but do see your point. Every year that the High Holy Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur roll around, I feel terrible guilt about not acknowledging them so this year we ate apples (no honey because my kids are picky eaters) and said Happy New Year. It wasn’t much, but it helped me feel connected.
      I’m sorry your parents enrolled you in parochial school against your wishes. I wonder why they chose to do that given their Greek Orthodox heritage and waning belief system. What I love about Debbie’s blog (and her eventual book) is that it gives parents like us a place to mull things over together. I don’t think there is one right way to raise our kids except the way that feels most honest and meaningful.
      Take care,
      Amy

  4. Amy, thank you for your candor. You are an eloquent writer. While reading your post I had the same thoughts that Patti had. She wrote:

    “The other point I’d like to make is this one: you are certainly qualified to teach your kids about justice and charity. Your role-modeling these values will have a far greater impact on teaching your children about their heritage than arts and crafts projects or visits to museums.”

    I was raised a Christian, and for most of my life, I was devout. I am now an agnostic-humanist. I am a mother of one. She is a young woman now. But while I was raising her, she understood that I was a Christian, and she came to church with me and participated in youth groups. This was her choice from the time she was a wee one.

    A few years back, my daughter and I were having lunch and she got a serious look on her face and then said:

    “Momma, I want to thank you”

    “Thank me for what”, I asked

    “I want to thank you for giving me a voice and allowing me to make my own decisions about religion and a higher power — for allowing me to choose my own path without judgement.”

    “I also want to thank you for making me aware that compassion and empathy many people exhibit is due to being human, not because of a belief system or culture.”

    Which brings me to your question:

    “I guess what I’m saying is: how can I raise my kids to accept we are contradictions of faith and heritage, we’re not alone, and it’s okay?”

    I wouldn’t over-think it. Continue to be an example because while doing so, they will know that they are not alone, and that it’s okay. As Patti pointed out, you are far more influential in their lives than ‘your’ heritage will ever be.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

    Victoria

    • Victoria,
      Wow! What a wonderful response both to what I wrote and your daughter’s to you. You have a very special child who can recognize and appreciate the choices you gave her. I only hope my children will respond similarly to the options we give them. My husband and I have never told them they can’t go to church or synagogue. We offer and they’ve considered it. We’ve gone a few times for special occasions. Usually, I end up feeling funny and don’t return for a while. But we’ll keep offering and perhaps one day I’ll visit the cantor whom I like and talk to him about our family. Perhaps he’ll welcome us no matter what we believe or don’t. We’ll just keep making it up as we go.
      Take care,
      Amy

      • Amy,
        What a thoughtful response. After I wrote that post I cringed because I was concerned that it came across as minimizing your love for your heritage. I think Derrick said what I was trying to articulate when he wrote:

        “Thus, you can build your own derivative traditions based on what you know. This is how cultures expand, grow, and live. Without it, cultures would die over time. Thus, reinvent to your heart’s content and include your kids in all of it. Make it your own.”

        What I really admire about you, Amy, is your mindfulness as a parent. You want your children to have a voice, and to have a choice, and you are careful not to ‘mold them into your own image’. When I was a kid, I did not have options when it came to religion or traditions. And like so many people involved in religion, my parents were cherry pickers. That wouldn’t have been so bad had they only plucked the yummy, sweet ripened cherries, lol.

        You appear to be picking those sweet cherries, and I think that’s a good thing. I have no doubt that your children will grow up to be productive, happy citizens of this planet.

        Here’s to sweet cherries. 🙂

  5. I have no answers to your problem but I want to thank you for this column. It led me down some very interesting Google searches in regard to race and culture. I’m white. I don’t have any culture:) When I left Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was excited to start celebrating holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas with my kids as a winter holiday (I knew it has nothing to do with Christ’s birth, aware of its pagan origins, etc.) But to be honest, I have found that such traditions are more burdensome than enjoyable because I don’t like to cook. Anyway, my experience with my daughter, who is now almost 30, leads me to believe that kids can handle this sort of stuff much better than we give them credit for.

    • Hi Trishia,
      I love that you now have the freedom to choose which holidays to celebrate rather than being told you cannot celebrate anything. Thank you for your insightful comments about children being able to handle the religious and/or cultural questions we present to them. I think my 9 year old and I can have some honest discussions if she is willing to open that door with me.
      Take care,
      Amy

  6. @Amy First, wonderful post with lots of interesting tidbits.

    I was raised in a German catholic household. I was steeped in German christmas traditions. The language was spoken all around me. Mass, of course, was said in Latin. There was a very serious side note of theology to the season. As a result, I have deep love of the holiday season that has nothing to do with religion.

    Mostly, it’s about food. When I migrated to my quasi-adoptive family, they, too, shared in many of the German elements of christmas. Only one is religious to any extent. The rest of us are atheist/agnostic. Our principle goal is not religious: it’s family, culture, and tradition.

    You are in the same boat. Teach your children everything you know about your and their Jewish heritage. Include the sayings, the songs, the food, and the traditions you love. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know them 100%: share it with your kids. Celebrate the culture and not necessarily the theology.

    I don’t have kids of my own, but every year at the holidays my niece and nephew get excited because Uncle Dric (as they call me) is coming, and he is the maker of the cookies. I make most of the traditional German cookies we have during the holidays. I’ve researched the recipes, both within the family history and from a purely historical perspective. I even resurrected one from my own childhood that has now become a permanent part of the collection. I share this knowledge with them. My nephew, as a result, has expressed an interest in being the future maker of the cookies.

    Thus, you can build your own derivative traditions based on what you know. This is how cultures expand, grow, and live. Without it, cultures would die over time. Thus, reinvent to your heart’s content and include your kids in all of it. Make it your own. After all, isn’t that what culture is supposed to be about?

    • Derrick, Maker of the Cookies,
      Thank you for a thoughtful response. You’re on the right track with your cultural celebrations with the nieces and nephews. I agree completely.

      We do make quite a show of Chanucka in our house and try to throw a blow-out party every year for which I cook traditional noodle kugels and my agnostic/Christian-born husband makes the best damned potato latkes in the world. Friends from all faiths are invited and my kids love teaching other kids how to play dreidel. So, we’re doing it.

      Maybe I just need to let go of the guilt.

      Thanks again,
      Amy

  7. Great comments from everyone.

    Derrick-can you make extra cookies and ship them to Texas?

    I have to agree with Suzanne–people have always excerpted the parts of religion that suit them. There are Catholics who are supporters of abortion and birth control. There are Methodists who only go to church on Christmas and Easter. There are Hindus who eat meat.

    My son was in town this weekend for a tennis tournament, so I was ale to spend a couple of days with him for the first time since he left. It is interesting seeing life through his freshman eyes. You forget as you get older. He told me that, in the room next to his, there is a Muslim and an atheist. (How did the school come up with that roomie arrangement after the extensive personality test that required kids to take?) He said, “Mom, kids just don’t really care. There are a lot of kids who don’t believe, even if they were raised in church.” He told me they read the Bible and say how it doesn’t make sense. But he told me that no matter what they believe, the kids get along.

    Once our children are up and out on their own, they’ll come up with their own beliefs anyway. They’ll talk to friends and be swayed a little. They’ll refine what they belief. I think this generation of kids (or maybe I just hope) isn’t nearly as obsessed with religion as earlier generations.

    So, I think what you wrote here, is perfectly fine to say to kids:

    “To say, hey, this is a beautiful tradition, a wonderful heritage, it makes me verklemf, but this whole creation of the world in seven days thing? Horse hockey!”

    Traditions are very important to keep. And your kids will respect you for your honesty and skepticism.

    • Thanks, Debbie. It’s probably easier for you to talk to your teenage son now that he can form his own ideas. I struggle because I don’t want to impose my beliefs on my kids and the ages of 6 and 9, that’s hard because they look for direction from me. I’d love to hear more about how you spoke to your kids when they were little about your beliefs and values. That’s why I plan to read your book.

      Thanks again for welcoming me on your blog.

      Amy

      • Thanks, Amy. I’m glad you wrote this post. By the way, I make kugel, too, and my sons LOVE it! 🙂

        I thought the Catholics were the ones with the guilt. I guess it is all faiths. I did get the sense that you felt guilty about not celebrating the holy days–not that you were skimming the good ones off the top.

        I’ll tell you here, now, anything you want. I made a lot of mistakes. My biggest thing was just giving my kids the freedom to learn and choose. They asked me tons of questions. Most of the time, I had to tell them, “I don’t know the answer. What do you think? What makes sense?” Questions regarding god were usually answered in that way. Questions about religion, I could usually provide them with more information, especially since I had studied the history of religion in school. I actually loved those times because it was a learning period for my kids and me. And I loved to see them forming their own ideas. We watched a lot of those “Through the Wormhole” videos.

        If they grow up to believe, I will not be disappointed. But, I doubt they will ever follow a man-made religion.

  8. I don’t have any real advice b/c I don’t yet have kids but you give me hope b/c I too have always been “not a kid person.” Yet the older I get the more I want kids even though part of me still doesn’t like children. It’s such a contradiction but it’s nice to know that someday I will probably be “normal” & be able to become a good parent too. And then I’ll join in this same type of struggle. (I am not Jewish though people frequently ask me if I am, but I do want to raise my kids w/ a lot of the Christian ideals I grew up learning, just not the strict adherence to the literal view of the Bible, etc since I as an adult I have become agnostic).

    • You are normal now, did you know that? Not everyone has that pull-at-your-gut urge to have children. And sometimes it changes from moment to moment. Now that my kids are going through intense sibling rivalry, I have a lot of “I don’t want to have kids” moments!

      Know that you are not alone. Debbie’s blog is such a wonderful forum for parents who question and want to raise children with good values and without dogma. Keep joining the conversation.

      Amy

  9. I honestly have little to relate to. In here the traditions are just about the same as in the US but the entire concept of needing to belong to a church is something we don’t have. The majority are still members of national church a’la Church of England but that has as much meaning in everyday life that it makes little difference whether one were an unbeliever. Only some 3 percent of Finns attend services even semi-regularly.
    That does not mean that I do not appreciate the traditions, far from it. It is just that we have had to create our own set – borrow stuff we like and omit those that have religious elements. Remember and cherish what we are and discard that we are not.

    • I often wonder if my neuroses are American-made. I’ve met many people from Europe and even Israel, who feel comfortable with their cultural heritage and identity, but do not see a contradiction with this and their lack of religious belief system. I can only suggest that perhaps the problem lies with the predicament of assimilation into a generalized American culture. I want my kids to know that they are unique because of their heritage and that that heritage connects them to a larger community. Right now, that feels like empty words when I can’t produce evidence of a community, at least in my hometown where I live.

      I do agree with your parting comment, however: “Remember and cherish what we are and discard that [which] we are not.”

      Amy

  10. I wanted to mention that Amy is running a post that I wrote on her blog today. The essay is about getting published.
    Thank you, Amy! Check it out here: http://www.addledliving.com/

  11. Wonderful piece, Amy.

    I enjoy reading Gilad Atzmon’s take on Judaism — http://www.gilad.co.uk/writings/gilad-atzmon-jews-judaism-jewishness.html

    I wrote this about myself at the Mondoweiss website — http://mondoweiss.net/profile/lancethruster

    I grew up with the conventional wisdom believing that the Israelis were the “white hats” and that the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims were the “black hats.” After 9/11, I wanted to know more about the conflict in the ME. I came to the realization that the narrative was totally one-sided. I largely credit many outstanding Jewish voices (my close friend Bernie the Attorney for one) for opening my eyes. I see on a daily basis the efforts by Zionists and their stooges to dismiss truth-tellers in the most reprehensible manner, up to and including threats of violence. Truth needs no army of thugs to establish it; only lies need enforcers.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this. I am a single mom who was raised in a Christian cult. But on the flip side my mother has Jewish heritage and imparted to me a love for Jewish culture.
    My children have been raised Christian and their father is a very conservative Christian. Since I left that faith I’ve been at such a loss as to how to teach my children. I want them to be free to choose what they believe and hate that when with their Dad they have no choice.
    But I feel like I’m giving them a disadvantage by not being part of a community. I live in a small southern town where everyone believes in god and even if they don’t, they still go to church. It’s difficult to know how far to push my kids to think outside the box when it gets me labeled as being crazy.

    I’ve thought about taking them to a synagogue in a larger city just to see if we would “fit” in there. I just don’t know….

    • Hi rbg76 Thanks for taking the time to share your story. This was a guest post written by Amy Miller (www.addledliving.com).

      It is difficult to raising kids in such a religious culture. I was not a believer, but my kids did go to church some times. I told them what I believed but also told them that as they grew up, they would decide for themselves what they believe about god and if they wanted to be part of a religion.

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