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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Angels vs. Demons

I had no idea that the existential struggle of good vs. evil began at age five.

Sure… I overheard, and sometimes participated in typical kid conversations about all sorts of interesting moral issues. Some examples include:

-Good genies vs. bad genies (depends on the color of the rug they are flying on, evidently);

-Superfriends vs. the Hall of Doom (had to correct the cartoon induced misunderstanding that ugly = evil);

-Good banana trees vs. bad bees (who set up nests in the flowers of said trees in our yard – setting up an interesting conversation about whether there is good and. bad in nature);

And the ever popular:

- Why do we have so much money and other people don’t?

On these issues, I had plenty to say. And I thought that by talking freely about these things I was/am providing the kids with a good ethical foundation for their lives.

So I was completely unprepared when Jaden and Rowan began to articulate their views about God and religion.

See, I am an atheist Jew. I don’t believe in God. But I believe in Jewish culture.

In order for me to stay connected to my Jewish culture I decided long ago that I need to participate in the important religious ceremonies and perhaps even say and repeat words that I don’t necessarily believe it, but that keep me spiritually connected to my ancestors and my heritage.

And yes, I realize that this is an oxymoron of sorts. But it represents 41 years of negotiation between my upbringing and my inner-self and I am frankly quite comfortable with it – for me.

But the problem is the kids. What to teach the kids?

I firmly believe that they need some sort of progressive Jewish education – similar to what I had. During/after that they can then decide for themselves whether or not they believe or in God and all the other various associated moral and ethical issues. And if it turns out Rowan is really at heart a Zoroastrian, so be it.

So then the second problem… we don’t live in a place where I can give that to them. If we were back in the US it would be easy. I would shell out big bucks for Sunday and Hebrew School and they would get properly indoctrinated and I wouldn’t have to do a thing other than hold a Sedar or two and save up for the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. But here they are just about the only Jewish kids they know, and I have been remiss in teaching them because, well… , I don’t really believe any of the religious part. Up until recently, Jaden’s and Rowan’s religious education consisted of the cartoon movies Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the Prince of Egypt, and lighting candles and eating latkes at Chanukah. (Well… not only… but you get the drift.)

Rowan started the search for answers when, after watching the Prince of Egypt just before Passover this year, she asked me why God would do such a horrible thing as to kill all the first born of Egypt? After all, she said, Moses and God were trying to get Pharaoh to stop doing bad things, so why did they do a bad thing themselves? Why would God kill babies?

At first I was beaming from ear to ear, since she stumbled upon the ultimate existential question of all Western religious thought. And at such an early age! But then I panicked. In order to answer this question I had to talk about God. And this talk about God led to lots more questions about God… like: Where is God? Is God a boy or a girl? Is God good or bad? Does God know I’m here?

I tried to do my best answering these questions without telling her that I didn’t believe any of it, but it was very hard for me. I felt like I was lying to my daughter. I couched my answers in statements like “Well we are Jewish, and Jews believe that…” But it wasn’t good. It didn’t feel right, not right at all.

It was not long after that I realized that most of what I was saying wasn’t quite getting through in any case. I overheard Rowan having a conversation about God on the swing set at school, insisting that God lives in Egypt and nowhere else.

(What the F? She’s having conversations about God at school???? I’m thinking I need her to spend more time with our Danish and Dutch friends who also come from atheist stock.)

A few weeks after that, Jaden and Rowan came home from a play-date with their lovely Kenyan friend talking about Jesus and, well, the apocalypse. This very sweet boy lives with his grandparents here in Dar and the family seems very involved with a born-again Christian church. Clearly, someone had been telling stories… and after this event… I heard lots of tales about things that are completely abhorrent to my personal beliefs. For Christ’s sake, the crows were evidently going to be punished by God for killing smaller birds. And God, as it turns out, was watching our every move to see if we were good or evil and rewarding or punishing us accordingly.

And this, my friends, was a big wake up call.

I tried the handy, “Well, we are Jews, and Jews believe…”

But this time it didn’t work. My noncommittal generalized responses couldn’t cut through the (evidently) very passionate beliefs pitched by their friend. Jaden insisted to me that I was wrong and his friend knows better. It was actually the first time that I couldn’t get them to believe me over someone else. It was sobering.

I stuck the Prince of Egypt back in the DVD player so I could have a minute to think and attempt to begin the re-education process (even though perhaps it wasn’t an idea re-education).

Truth is I’m stumped. I feel like I’ve somehow missed the boat – and if I don’t swim out and climb on NOW the kids are going to develop worldviews that risk being fundamentally opposed to mine. I’m perfectly prepared for this to happen when they are emancipated adults (OK, after 13). But I’m not prepared to cede my influence at this point in their lives. I just have to come up with a way to do it that feels authentic to me.

Does this mean making Friday night Sabbath dinners? I don’t think so. That would interfere with our regular Yacht Club night – which is an important family ritual, too.

But I do know that I have to find a way to create more meaningful moral/ethical Jewish-oriented lessons out of our everyday lives even though this might mean exposing them more to the cruelty of the world I have protected them from for the past five years.

Because we are so isolated from the rest of our cultural community I am the only one who can do it. I hope I’m up to the task, kenahara.

Matzo ball soup from Passover


Blogger Heather said...

Hi Hally, I feel your "pain" and bewilderment on this subject. Unfortunately I don't have any answers.

I will tell you that it makes things slightly more difficult since I was raised Lutheran and attended Catholic schools K-12 and Adam is on your boat but actually doesn't see the need to raise our children anything.(Although between our two families, maybe our kids will get enough info to help them figure it out...but I am not a Jesus follower which does cause a few issues with my family...) That, of course, leaves the whole religious burden on me! And I do NOW view it as a burden!! What we have done is told Eli that there are many, many different religious views in this world and everyone thinks their view is right. We give him our honest answers to his questions but make sure to explain to him that "some people believe (this)" but I don't. Actually I don't think Adam has actually told him what he doesn't believe...hmmm. One day at a time..that's how we do it:)

Eli came home from kindergarten last year (at his public school) talking about Jesus...he learned about him in an assembly! School was definitely one place I didn't think I needed to worry about educating him on this front. UGH!!

Anyways, this is your blog so I'll stop writing! Good luck and let me know if you get some good ideas:)...Heather

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll plan a big Friday night dinner, candles and all for your first Shabbat home. Leave it to grandma to give Jewish culture like my grandma did for me. Cejwin where are you now!

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few months ago in the car....

Isaac: Why are some people Muslim?

Mom: Well, honey, I don't know, but we are all children of one God.
(followed immediately by)

I: Why are some people Christian?

Mom: (big breath, then) Well,some people believe God had a son...

I: (interrupting) Oh, but he did!

M: Really? Do you know his name?

I: Yes, it's Morton.


7:16 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

Wow, this is a toughie. I have enough trouble with this and we live in Israel, so my kids are not exactly the only Jewish kids around. Only catch is the atheism part, that one is decidedly not in the cultural norm. Yes, most of the country is secular, but even in the secular public schools they study the holidays, the Bible, etc. While in theory I have no problem with them learning the *cultural* aspect of their heritage, I do deeply resent that the same person who teaches them math and science, where there are hard cold "facts" is the one teaching them things like "Jews fast on Yom Kippur" or the creation story, such that the kids come home understanding that religion is also "fact", since it's taught as a subject in school.

We do a whole lot of talking about diversity and tolerance and how different people believe different things. Some people believe X, our family believes Y. Everyone gets to choose for themselves what they believe.

(And a few offhand comments about how observant Jews don't get to do things like watch tv or ride bikes on Saturdays never hurts either, when they get too curious ;-).)

Our latest challenge is trying to explain to my 8 year old that being American doesn't mean being Christian. To him, Israelis are Jewish (and the Arab population is Muslim or Christian), but he sees that nationality basically goes along with religion, therefore all Americans must be Christian. A bit odd for him to believe, considering that all of his relatives are American Jews, but there you have it...

9:38 PM  
Blogger suburban dyke said...

Ye gads! Oy vey! Whatever. Get a kids bible book and read them the stories. In addition, get myths and fairy tales, lots of them. This has worked a bit in our house. Most kids though are also very interested in God and our kids get Jesus nonsense spewed at them by Christians of all ilks at their school. Place Jesus in the context of Norse, Greek and other mythologies. Talk about Jewish mythology. Where are you ancestors from. Talk about that. Get Jewish folktales: ie Golem etc.

Start sharing more Jewish cultural heritage with them. Talk about the intellectual history and how important being Jewish is to you and your parents. Talk about how old the history is and mention how Judaism has always been handed down from parent to child. Play up the culture since playing up beliefs is not you.

If there are any Unitarians around, check them out. 1 there are often Jew-nitarians involved inat least in US and Jew-nitarians are concerned about preserving Jewish culture. Also, Unitarians may be able to refer you to local resources to buffer against Christianity's onslaught. Not necessary to get involved or join but most Unitarians are not believers in any deity and they often try to buffer their kids against what they consider ignorance. This does not help promote Judaism but it does help stop the stuff being thrown at J and R.

3:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the same challenge but you are up to the task. I talk about god but also avoid talking about kid because I am not really a believer. it feels contradictory to me too. but oh well, i grew up with the same contradictions.
i should send you some books.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting! Our kids come up with questions too, but they haven't been influenced (yet) by friends. I emphazise to the kids that there any many religions and that I respect them all, as long as they obey the law.
- Who is God?
- Some people believe that God is an old man blablabla. Other people believe that God is everywhere.
- What do you believe?
- I believe God is something big and good. I don't believe it's a man. I think one cannot see it, but it is there. It everywhere. It's also in yourself.
That definately was enough for then: no more questions.

On two occasions I have spent some time telling them why I believe moslims are o.k. people - it's my horror that they will become xenophobs like many of our home country's citizens.

They see moslims going to the mosque on Friday, they know I really like the call of the muezzin (we always open our car windows to hear it better) but that I am happy that there is no mosque next door. They know why some moslim women cover their faces.
- But WHY do they wear veils?
- Because they believe God expects them to do that. They believe their faces should only be seen by their family and female friends.
- But why?
- They believe that is a good thing to do. They believe it would be bad to show their faces.
- Why are you not wearing a veil?
- Because I believe it's okay to show my face.

They know I respect the veil thing, but that I have no respect if moslim women are not allowed to go to school.
- Do we also know moslims, mommy?
- Of course.
- Who then?
I name hem all their friends who are moslims.
- You can tell from the looks if someone is a moslim or not. You also have friends who are christian of jewish.
- Who?
I name them their friends, and add that one of the things I really like about their school is that everyone is respected, whatever they believe, as long as the obey the rules and regulations.

They know Friday is the holy day of the moslims, Saturday the holy day of the jews and Sunday of the christians, and that people believe different things.
- We do NOT believe in God, do we mommy?
- Well, yes we do, but we don't believe we have to go to church.
- Why not?
- Because we believe that God is everywhere, not only in church. And we don't believe some of the things they say in churches.
- I want to go to the church.
- We will go to a church one day.
- The nanny asks if I will come with her to the church...

I read the kiddies bible for them. I emphasize it contains beautiful stories and it's important for them to know them. I tell them that some stories have really happened (David really existed) but that some stories cannot be true (how can we have animals if there were only two animals of each species left after the deluge? What does a lion eat? Impalas? How many impalas were there after the deluge? Two. How many extra impalas were taken onto the arc to feed the lions during the forty days of floating? etc). By the way even the kids (three and five) found out quickly that the God of the children's Bible is not always a nice person.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous karla said...

OK, as a once agnostic raised Christian, who flirted with Judaism, and then decided I was simply a Monotheist...and finally ended up Muslim, I feel your pain. I really recommend seeing if there's a Unitarian-Universalist church anywhere near by. They seem to be the most welcoming to all... pagans, atheists, you name it. Heck, I've even shown up in hijab and felt welcome. If you google UU kids, you'll find a bunch of stuff.

I also agree with presenting the stories along with Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Expose them to Buddhist stories, like "Old Turtle" and the "Three Questions." Look for Rukhsana Khan's "Muslim Child". See when you're in the States if you can pick up the books "Jewish Everyday" or "The Kids Fun Book of Jewish Time". When your kids are older, the book "The Book of Jewish Values" is great.

When they're older, encourage critical thinking... or ask, "Why would a loving God do that?" or "Why do you think somebody would say God would do that?" What could they gain from that?

Here's an interesting article on an atheist who sends her kids to a Jewish school. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jan/06/faith-schools-jewish-education-atheism

Good luck Hally. You're a cool, intelligent Mom. You'll figure it out together with your kids.

7:26 AM  

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