My father came from a family of Mexican Catholics; my mother, from a family of New York Jews. I grew up Unitarian Universalist with a knowledge that my religious legacy was as muddied as my genetic one. I have always been proud of my “mutt” status because I feel it gives me a connection to a wide range of experiences and stories. As I grew up and made my own choices, I did what many young people do: explored my spirituality apart from my parents’ and my childhood. In my journey, I always held to my identification as culturally Jewish. Regardless of my attendance at any place of worship or acceptance of doctrine in a particular faith, the Jews were my people. Their history was my history. So, when examining how I would expose my children to religion, I always knew Judaism would be a part of it. Fortunately for them, we have close friends who are raising their daughter in the Jewish faith and actively take part in observances of the high holy days. We have met for Hanukkah and Passover since all three kids were infants.
To some, Judaism is a mystery. Most have heard of Hanukkah (though there is always disagreement on how to spell it). Some may have passing knowledge of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) or Shabbat (the day of rest, beginning Friday at sundown). But that is generally the extent of non-Jews’ knowledge.
This year, Passover starts April 19 at sundown and goes through April 27 at sundown. Passover is both a history lesson and a celebration of freedom from oppression. In our modern times, Passover tells the story of the Jewish people and their exodus from Egypt. Even if you aren’t particularly religious, you have almost certainly heard the story. You’ve seen references in DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt or watched Charles Heston part the Red Sea. If you need a refresher from the Old Testament book of Exodus, here you go: The Pharaoh was afraid that the Jews in Egypt would soon outnumber his own people, so he forced them into slavery and ordered that every son born be drowned in the Nile. Moses’ mother, fearing for her infant son’s life, set him afloat on the Nile, where he ultimately was found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. When Moses grew up, he asked the Pharaoh to let the Jews leave. When the Pharaoh refused, God sent the ten plagues as punishment, culminating in the death of every household’s firstborn child. The Jews, however, were warned ahead of time to mark their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb as a symbol to the angel of death; and as a result, their homes were “passed over” and their children, spared. Pharaoh eventually let the Jews go, and they began their exodus across the desert for 40 years and ultimately found freedom in Israel.
This year, we will meet and have Passover Sedar with our friends and family. We will drink our four(ish) glasses of wine, and the children will hunt for the afikomen (a hidden piece of matzoh). I remember the year our friend read through The Haggadah (the story of the Exodus from Egypt) at lightening speed because our three toddlers had ants in their pants and refused to sit still for long. Two years ago our PJ Library subscription got us a copy of Sammie Spider’s First Passover, and my children finally had a basic understanding of what was going on during the dinner. As our children get older, we are able to talk more about the meaning behind these get-togethers. This year, they may even sit through the entire telling of the Passover story. I look forward to the day when my children will be able to join in asking the Four Questions. I am excited to see signs the kids are paying attention and to get questions after dinner: Mom, why did the Jews have to run away? Mom, why did the king want to hurt them? Mom, what was that language he was speaking?
As a parent, I welcome these questions. They allow me to teach my children about their own history and where they come from. They allow me to show them their own connections to people around them. And, because the issues of oppression and escape from tyranny are still so timely, they give me an opening to have deeper conversations about what the world my kids are growing up in looks like. We talk about matzoh and why it’s flat. And then we talk about why someone would have to run away from their home without even having enough time to let their bread rise. We talk about the Pharaoh’s fears that his people would be outnumbered by the Jews. And then we talk about why people are scared of other people who may be different. We talk about the Jews wandering the desert for so many years. And then we talk about the resilience people need to survive such harsh circumstances. We talk about immigrants: how their great-grandmother came from Mexico and how their great-grandfather came from Russia.
I don’t know what my children’s religious future looks like. I don’t know where their faith will take them. But I do know they will always know their own personal history includes these resilient people, who make morbid jokes like, “They tried to kill us—it didn’t work, so let’s eat!” My children are the end of a beautiful rainbow of men and women from such a wide range of backgrounds. I hope that I can show them this. I hope that when they meet someone who doesn’t appear to have anything in common with them, they will be able to find a connection and a commonality.
If you’re looking to expose your kids to more about Judaism, consider PJ Library. They offer free books mailed once a month to your home, plus they partner with local Jewish organizations for a variety of events throughout the year.