A few nights ago, my seven-year-old daughter wrote a letter. To Jesus.
“Dear Jesus,” it began. “How are you? Are you from Thailand? I have more questions. Please write back. Love, Tess.”
More questions, indeed. I have screwed my children up in countless ways, believe me. I have compared them to other, better behaved children (there’s one in particular, a neighboring boy who never talks back. Oh, he’s a delight); I have bribed and negotiated, and Lordy, I have caved when I should have held firm. But when I first saw this letter to Thai Jesus, I thought, this may be my biggest screw-up yet.
Tess is an interesting kid. She has an active imagination, and I have encouraged it. For years, I participated in ongoing and multi-faceted conversations with her imaginary friend, M-Pillow. I have baked birthday cakes (cakes! twice!) for her stuffed monkey, Monkey (note to self: don’t forget January 31st). The Tooth Fairy not only deposits the requisite quarters under the pillow, but she leaves letters, too, in which she vividly describes the internecine strife among the lesser fairies in the tooth castle they live in under the sea. As a family, we enjoy this kind of thing.
And herein, I suppose, lies the problem. My husband (who is not Jewish) and I are raising our daughters Jewish, but we’re kind of doing a bad job of it. Okay, we’re doing a willfully bad job of it. Emphasizing culture and history over spirituality, we both freely admit we don’t believe in God. The girls go to religious school, and we encourage them to respectfully question what they learn. We celebrate the Jewish holidays with my parents, but we also celebrate Christmas, when we can, with my husband’s mother in Ireland. Sometimes we hang blue and white ornaments that we bought at Walgreens on our droopy flowering houseplant and call it our Christmas hibiscus. (Whew, it feels good to finally climb out of the shame spiral about that one.) The fact is, being Jewish matters to me a lot. But so does honoring my husband’s culture and country, which is all the more potent and poignant for him because he doesn’t live there anymore. The only answer to this predicament, in our family, is to embrace it, to admit that we are in uncharted territory, and to be creative.
I don’t know if we’re doing this right. I get the argument that this mishmash befuddles kids (I mean, obviously), but I also believe that our free-wheeling approach has the great potential to make our daughters empathetic and compassionate, to open their minds to the panoply of human experience. At the very least, I’m certain that it gives them a most intimate view of the real world that starts right in their own house, where not everyone shares their views or background, but love and respect prevail. Maybe, by complicating their identity, we’re showing them that identity is a complicated notion.
And on the other hand, we’re clearly confusing the bejesus out of at least one of them. What can I say? We’re a work in progress.
Lauren Fox is the author of the novels Still Life with Husband, Friends Like Us, and Days of Awe. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Parenting, Psychology Today, The Rumpus, and Salon.
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