By: Dovid Teitelbaum
These words may seem like they came from some book about someone’s personal journey to Yiddishkeit, but that’s not where I heard them. I heard them from my own daughter, and they were said with such sincerity and innocence that they made a strong impact on me. To be fair, she was only four years old at the time, but they’re still not what you’d expect to hear from your own child. To understand how and why my daughter would say such things, you will need to hear our story and the lesson I took away from it.
It happened on Chol Hamoed Pesach in Six Flags: Great Adventures. It was a beautiful spring day, and with it being Chol Hamoed, the park was full to capacity. It was a day on which you didn’t want to lose sight of your child for even a second, and yet, somehow, our 4 year old daughter managed to disappear into the crowd.
Not knowing if she had been found or was still lost in the crowd, we approached a security guard who radioed the Lost and Found booth, but they had no child matching the description of a Jewish four-year-old girl. I decided to head over to the Lost and Found myself. The woman who ran the Lost and Found was having a hard day. The place was mobbed with kids who had somehow separated from their families. Many of the Chasiddish kids didn’t speak any English, and some even refused to drink the water she offered them because it was “nisht kosher l’Pesach”. I looked around and found my daughter amongst the crowd, but when I pointed my child out to the lady, she retorted, “She can’t be your child because she isn’t Jewish, you know?” We told her she was mistaken, and our daughter was definitely Jewish. “Then you better let her know that”, she quipped, “’cause when I asked her, she said she ain’t!”
After discharge we asked our daughter why she told the lady she wasn’t Jewish. “Well, you never told me I was Jewish!” she said. We were quite shocked! Our daughter was well educated in every possible Jewish ritual. She knew how to dip the apple in the honey and how to shake her paper lulav. She loved to say Shema and wash negel vasser. Yet somehow, none of these things told her she was Jewish. After speaking to others I learned that it’s not so uncommon. But this got me thinking… Is it just four-year-olds, or do we as grown ups sometimes forget that we are Jewish? Hear me out.
We live in Brooklyn and our neighborhood couldn’t be more Jewish. My daughter’s life is surrounded with Jews. She goes to a Jewish school, she plays with Jewish children, she goes shopping with her mother in the Jewish supermarket. So, did my daughter really not know she was Jewish? But maybe that was it. Maybe because she never saw herself as unique or different she never even contemplated being Jewish. When you grow up doing the same things as everyone around you, you don’t ask questions: you just… follow along. As strange as some of our customs may be, they are not strange when everyone around you is following them.
I know from my own travels that I feel more Jewish when I find myself in non-Jewish environments. I feel conspicuous, like the outside world is pointing at me and saying, “You see that Jewish family…” I’m sure most of it is in my head, but it impacts my behavior. It also brings up questions as to why we are Jewish. Our kids see that they are different than the rest and they want to know why.
We are lucky to live in a Jewish community where we all share the same values, a place where we don’t need to worry when our kids are playing at a friend’s house. I, too, enjoy walking through the kosher supermarket and seeing so many varieties of kosher products available. But when I once needed kosher products in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and my kids watched as we searched through Walmart to find a few select kosher products, they learned what it means to be Jewish. They learned that they can’t just buy any product in the store. I think both experiences are important.
There was a time in America when religious parents told their kids that they were Jewish and how important it was for them to stay Jewish. It didn’t last though, the outside pressure was too great, and many assimilated. I guess knowing that you’re Jewish is not enough, either. We, on the other hand, feel so comfortable in our religious environments that we can live like religious Jews without thinking about being Jewish. I don’t want my kids growing up thinking Judaism is just about clothing and culture. I want them to understand that Judaism is something internal and there may be times that they will need to stand alone as Jews.
I’m happy to report that just this past week my daughter, now age seven, was so excited to tell me how happy she was to be Jewish. When I asked her why, she exclaimed, “Because I get to stay up late every Shabbos and Yom Tov!”
It’s a start.