When Do You Start Doing the Jewish Thing With Your Kid?

“We’ll start doing Shabbat in a few years when he’s old enough to remember,” my husband insists.

But, what about us? What about our joy? Is Judaism merely the obligatory passing on of tradition, or is it a lifestyle choice? Saying we’ll “do the Jewish thing” when my son is old enough to know what it is we’re doing implies that we’re going through the motions because we, the Jews, have always done it this way.

The irony is that our generation was raised on the “always done it this way” axiom. This is probably why most of our friends bow to us to handle “the Jewish thing” at their Birthright Shabbat dinners. My husband the Israeli and I bless the bread and the wine in Hebrew because, to our parents at least, there was a purpose in pursuing Judaism beyond family obligation. Don’t I want to convey that same spirit to my own children? That they aren’t just Jews because they were born into the tribe, but because they’ve been divinely purposed with a set of lifestyle choices rich with meaning?

A few years ago I attended the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. As Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky commemorated the fight to save Soviet Jewry, girls not that much younger than I busily tapped away on their smartphones. Obnoxious little twits with perfectly manicured nails and designer business suits saw the Jewish world as nothing more than a way to set themselves up for, what exactly? A career? A husband? Both?

As Sharansky and Wiesel exited the stage I saw the opportunity to approach their entourage. Turning to the girls behind me I whispered, “Why don’t you go talk to them? It’s you they want to see.”

A pair of dark brown eyes shot me an angry look. “I can talk to them if I want.” I got the feeling she gave the same tone to her mother when she was told to stop texting during Seder.

Rolling my eyes, I ran for Wiesel and Sharansky before they left the room. “Thank you,” I shouted to both of them who looked my way. They met my gratitude with grateful looks of their own. For a split second the three of us knew we were on the same page.

Perhaps that girl was part of a MASA delegation, or dating a guy in the Jewish Agency, or cousins with Sharansky’s nephew’s best friend. Who knows that they weren’t family of some sort or another? I never questioned her ability to reach Sharansky if she wanted to chat. It was her attitude that was disgusting. To sneer so openly at the opportunity to thank survivors of such gross persecution, let alone speak with them personally, remains unfathomable to me. As unfathomable as never traveling to Israel, singing “God Bless America” at Passover (a story for another day), or referring to Kiddush as “the Jewish thing”.

That is the difference between what we do and who we are. Thanks to America’s Church and State culture we spend far too much time defining Judaism as something we do instead of an expression of who we are. That girl viewed a chat with Wiesel and Sharansky as something she could do. To me, acknowledging them was as normal as greeting a family member, albeit a distant relative who you’ve only seen once or twice in your life. The same can be said for Shabbat and for all of Jewish tradition. I want to light candles and bless my son on Shabbat because this is who I am, not because it is what I’m obligating him to be.


About the Author
Susan L.M. Goldberg is a mother, writer and passionate Zionist with a Master’s degree in media studies. With her Israeli-American husband she stands at the crossroads of Israeli and Jewish American culture, politics and religious practice.
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