“Itzik, today you’re in charge of making the kids’ lunch. Kadima. Let’s go,” my wife Sarah called in Hebrew. It was early in the morning, but I knew I needed to concentrate. Packing my kids’ lunch had taken on just as much meaning as setting the table for our Rosh Hashanah dinner. Honey promises a sweet new year. A fish head reminds us to be the head and not the tail. With beans, we share our hope for more blessings.
What would my kids’ lunch mean to them?
It wasn’t my first time packing their lunch – but it was only my second time doing so in the U.S. We had recently flown from Israel to Boston for a month-long trip and enrolled our kids in a local camp. While almost everyone around them at home is Jewish, they were the only Jewish kids in their new environment. It was a new multicultural experience – beginning with what I put in their lunchbox.
On their first day of camp, I packed their American lunchbox with pita, hummus, and falafel. My grade: a big fat zero, or as we say, efes. Their lunch came back untouched. Their camp counselor even reported that my kids did not like the lunch I’d made for them – which was surprising because my kids live on those foods in Israel.
A few American parents had advised me to create a “bento” lunchbox. But, I had no idea what that was, and I didn’t have time to get creative. Growing up, my lunchbox was a paper bag that contained two things – pita with something mashed inside. Sometimes, if my Sephardi dad was feeling fancy, he would throw shakshuka in, too. He often reminded me, “In Afghanistan, your grandfather only got one egg a month, so remember to be grateful for this treat.”
Then again, my five-year-old son just wanted to meet friends, fit in, and eat the same food as everyone else – like “bacon and hot dogs.”
I’m sorry, what?
How could I keep my kids connected to their Jewish and Israeli culture while still making it possible for them to feel comfortable in American culture? I wanted my kids to be happy about going to camp, and that included being able to proudly share their food with friends.
It wasn’t my first time in the U.S. and it wasn’t my first time dealing with questions about Jewish identity. About a decade ago, I lived in California and worked for the Jewish Agency as an Israeli emissary at the University of California, Irvine Hillel. Soon after, I opened a firm that helped Jewish organizations with their branding.
But it was my first time living in the U.S. as a dad. Now I saw firsthand the challenges that many Jewish parents may feel as minorities in the U.S., while they try to maintain a Jewish identity within the American melting pot. I learned that the default mode for many Jewish children is: Whatever you do, don’t stand out. Make sure to fit in.
My wife grew up outside of Boston and remembers that feeling well. She attended a predominantly non-Jewish school and always needed to explain to teachers and classmates why she couldn’t come to school on Yom Kippur and other holidays. She felt like an outsider and was self-conscious about her differences. Though she just wanted to be like everyone else, her mother worked hard to make Judaism, Jewish culture, and Jewish holidays exciting for her and her siblings.
My mother-in-law and I have had many passionate debates about how to keep Judaism alive in the U.S. In the past, I claimed that Jewish identity was rapidly decreasing. Of all Jewish people currently married, 44% were intermarried, and 23% of children living with a Jewish adult were not being raised Jewish. I wondered, how could Judaism possibly survive outside of Israel?
But last Passover, I admitted to my mother-in-law that perhaps I was wrong. My brother-in-law, Ben, traveled to Israel and created the most effective Passover seder that I have ever experienced. He brought together 20 Americans and two Israelis for pre-seder discussions about Passover. We traveled to Jerusalem’s Old City, took on roles from the Passover story, and really felt like each one of us had left Egypt. I realized that no matter where you are in the world or how religious you are, when you feel like you’re a part of the Jewish story, your kids will want to be part of that story, too.
First we need to answer an important question for yourself: Why? Why should you keep the Jewish flame going? Why is it important to us?
As it says in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), “Know where you come from and know where you’re going.” We need to understand our history in order to continue on our life’s path.
We also need to fill our kids’ lunchbox with what they want to eat (not you) and what they actually need and not just what they want (candy). We need to give them a head’s up about what’s in their lunchbox and tell them a beautiful story about why you chose what you did. Make it possible for them to be a part of the story and let them help make their lunch.
The next time they open their lunchbox and see that other kids have food that they don’t have or can’t eat, they will still be happy with what they have in their lunchbox. They will know why they’re eating what they’re eating. They will be proud to eat their food and share it with their friends.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, let’s think about why we want to make Judaism a part of our family’s life. Let’s consider what we’re packing in our kids’ lunchbox to keep Judaism alive — even if it’s just a spoonful of hummus to remind them of their home in Israel.