Angels vs. Demons
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