Opinion | Teaching My Kids How to Be Jewish, One Plate of Apples at a Time

The older my children get, the more urgent I feel to teach them to be Jewish. And as Rosh Hashanah this year approached, I worried about how to convey the deep meaning of the days of reverence to them at home.

My problem is – and always has been – that I have little desire to take her to school. I can be ambivalent about organized religion because, at its worst, it has been used as a shield for sometimes ugly and hypocritical behavior.

I went to Hebrew school and it certainly helped me learn about and appreciate Jewish traditions. But when I think back on it, what I remember most clearly is that my class was so recalcitrant that we couldn’t keep a teacher for more than a few months at a time. My last memory of going to the temple in my early 20s was at my grandfather’s funeral. The rabbi kept understanding himself by his name, and at one point my grandma leaned over and whispered, “This is a farce.” Still, after the funeral, the sitting of Shiva is one of the deepest and most comforting collective expressions of grief I have experienced know.

And yet I feel deeply connected to Judaism in a way that is not always easy to explain. It’s in my bones. My husband is not Jewish, but after we got married he told me he was willing to convert if I wanted to. I didn’t do it, but I might have if I hadn’t had the comfort of knowing that my children would be Jewish because I, their mother, am. Although I had a bat mitzvah, my parents always made it clear that they weren’t big supporters of organized religion either. But being Jewish was still woven into the fabric of my upbringing with rituals, family history, and core values.

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Some of my fondest childhood memories are of hilarious Passover seders that included an intentionally shortened Haggadah reading and lots of delicious food. Growing up, I saw my grandma and grandpa, both Holocaust survivors, every week. Although they hardly spoke about their persecution until the end of their lives, I don’t remember not knowing what happened to them and their families.

Those are all things I want to instill in my children: a sense of togetherness and an education, a tradition that has stretched across time and continents despite very concerted efforts to erase it.

I thought of all of this on Monday as I was chopping apples with my 6 year old. We have been putting out apples and honey for Rosh Hashana for the past several years with our friend Emilie, who is more observant than us and has helped me figure out how best to keep some Jewish customs alive at home. I watched my youngest daughter artfully arrange the apples on the plate and we chatted about why we eat them – because we want a sweet New Year. Everyone had the feeling that everything was going according to plan.

Then, over dinner, we said the prayer over the apples and I started a very important motherly lecture about reflecting on the past year. I explained that Yom Kippur was coming soon and what the concept of atonement meant. I told them about it too Tikkun Olam – the idea that it is important for us to fix the world around us. I asked my two girls what they thought they could do to help our community become a better place. My 9 year old, who is very concerned about the plight of the world’s bees, spoke about composting and repainting a mural at her school.

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My little one, who helped cut the apples and savored the sweet treat, thought for a moment and then said, “I think our community is great.” She’s a very sunny kid in general, and I also wonder if she’s more appreciative of the basic normality when you live a good part of your young life in pandemic conditions. Still, I had to laugh that she was reflecting on her surroundings and thinking life is good, 10 out of 10, no grades.

It also reminded me that, like mine, her relationship with Judaism will continue to evolve. Each vacation will not be burdened with the pressure of instilling in them the wisdom I hope to pass on to them, and just observing traditions can be part of the life lessons to be interested in. Even if they cannot fully express their spiritual virtues at this point, I believe many of the little things I do will stick in their brains.

The day after the apples and honey, my older daughter asked if we could make a cake using the same recipe my aunt made at a recent family gathering. She knew the recipe came from my grandma and that connection was strong for her because we talk about grandma and grandpa all the time. All I can do is give my girls tools to create their own meanings. While I remain unsure of how best to approach her Jewish upbringing, I take comfort in her impact.

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Parenting can be an ordeal. Let’s celebrate the small victories.

I gave my 3 year old an old oven mitt to play with like a hand puppet. She fell in love with him immediately and we named him Brownie. Now I use it to encourage her to do things on her own like brush her teeth without my help. Brownie says, “I don’t have any teeth, can you show me what it’s like to brush your teeth?”
– Kari Foster, Mansion, Texas.

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