My daughter’s first-grade class hosted a Mother’s Day tea last week. Coffee, pastries, an adorable booklet titled “All About My Mother” written and illustrated by mine truly, and two poems about how I am the best mom ever. Pure fabulousness.
So what’s there to write about? Well, before I received all these treats, I sat on the floor, Adina in my lap, and listened to her pray — loudly, with a slight twinge of an Israeli accent just like that of her Morah (Teacher) Estee, whom Adina clearly adores.
Adina, along with my 10-year-old son, Caleb, attends a community day school in Denver, Colorado, that is committed to a pluralistic Jewish education. She thus starts each of her days with a few moments of tefillah (prayer). Together with her teachers and classmates she sings “Ma Tovu,” “How Good It Is”;”Asheri Yoshvei Betecha,” Happy Are Those Who Dwell in Your House”; and “Shema Yisroel,” “Listen O Israel.”
I want my children at this school. I am incredibly appreciative that I am able to send them to this school. My husband, Larry, and I send them there with the specific hope that they will establish a connection to Judaism’s rich intellectual and ethical heritage. And I knew that they would pray. To God. And it’s God that is my problem, the part of the whole Jewish day school gig with which I am not comfortable.
To be honest, I didn’t worry too much about God when it came to Caleb because right from the start, in kindergarten, he came home with questions, lots of questions. Like, “Mommy, I don’t get it, how could God create the world in six days when evolution took millions of years?” Now a fourth-grader, Caleb both sings the Hebrew songs he learns at school and reads astounding facts about the universe by Neil deGrasse Tyson with Larry while they stay up late discussing science.
Adina is a different story. Why or what or when, regardless of the question, she’s likely these days to offer “God” as the answer. Period.
I get it; she is 7. And my heart says it’s sweet and innocuous, or maybe even lovely, that this word “God” and the joy that she associates with it could be the foundation of an important sense of appreciation and wonder and connection to the larger world that she is just beginning to discover. My head, however, well, my head is concerned. Concerned that I might be doing both my son and daughter an injustice. Concerned that I may in fact be limiting their views of the world. Concerned that I am betraying my own sense and sensibilities and ignoring the knowledge that took 25 years away from my own Jewish day school experience to develop about what I believe is real and right and true.
My own experiences with Jewish day school prayer are divergent. On the one hand, there was my Orthodox Jewish high school where morning prayers meant an hour in a dank and dimly lit room, girls huddled behind a rickety wooden mechitzah (divider between men and women’s sections), whispering and gossiping and staring wistfully out the window while the boys occupied the main part of the room, stood on the bimah, read from the Torah, and prayed. That experience, empty and unfair, reflected what I deemed to be meaningless words contained in the prayer books of men.
There was a period of rebellion. Not the kind fueled by drugs or alcohol, which would have affected my all-important good grades, but of sneaking away on the Sabbath, in my boyfriend’s car, to explore D.C., listen to music, eat milk mixed with meat, and to have sex. After high school, I refused to follow my classmates to Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem, and I left home thinking I wanted nothing more to do with Judaism at all.
But in the end, after long periods of indifference interspersed with impassioned moments of reengagement, I thought, with the birth of my children, that I had embraced my fully realized adult relationship with my Judaism, with Jewish secularity.
Then I sat on the floor in a classroom and listened to mydaughter pray to God. And I put my arms around Adina and held her tightly to me. And I sang with her, loudly, “Adon Olam,” a song I’d heard in synagogue and school thousands of times throughout my childhood. I sang about God.
I do not believe in God. My Jewish identity is not powered by faith. I am not generally called to pray. Perhaps it’s because while I am irreverent when it comes to God, I am deeply awed by the privilege of belonging to the Jewish people. And it is the struggle of the secular Jew to come to terms with God’s role in the history and culture of her people that defines her. Perhaps a secular Jew is simply one who loves Judaism’s questions more than its answers.
So, for now, I just try to follow my heart. For Adina to have a chance to love Judaism like her mother, she must be able to speak its language and understand its vocabulary. For this I send her to Jewish day school. And as she invites me to join her there at Mother’s Day teas and the like, we will talk and I will ask her about the things for which she thanks God, I will ask her to talk to me about her prayers.