I had a conversation last year with a friend about rearing children in an Orthodox Jewish environment. For the most part, she grew up in a kashrut and Shabbat observant home (though the family traveled extensively and their home was made on several different continents). I, on the other hand, had little Judaism and no kashrut or Shabbat observance in my childhood home. Yet despite our very different backgrounds, we both wondered the same thing: Are our children growing up in an overly sheltered environment?
On the one hand, we are both delighted with the education our children get in religious schools here in Israel. Their Torah background will be much stronger than ours, and at the same time they will get a firm foundation in secular academic subjects. Their Jewish identity is being built on a curriculum of history, Zionism, and Jewish learning. They live in the land of their biblical ancestors, and are privileged to be able to walk—quite literally—in the footsteps of our faith’s earliest adherents. For Jews in the modern world, this is hard to beat.
And yet. While our community turns out individuals who serve in the army and the professions alongside Jews more and less religious, we sometimes have the sense that as children especially, they are very sheltered. They know the complete range of objects deemed muktza (not to be used on Shabbat) by age 7. Where we live, they never even see a cheeseburger, much less find themselves tempted to eat one. They reach their teen years and are shocked to learn how little the "civilized" world did to save Jews in Europe during World War II. When asked by a teacher what they would think of a Jewish man who does not wear a kippah, they consider him "a bad Jew." And when I mentioned at dinner recently how my mother had cooked ham when I was a girl, Peach blurted out "Yuck! You ate pig?!"
Some of this can be chalked up to the black-and-white ways in which children view the world around them. But my globe-trotting friend and I wondered if there was any way to expose our children to the other kinds of life that are out there. What would really happen to us if we were to travel to Tel Aviv for a Shabbat and take the kids out for a seafood dinner (thus violating the laws of kashrut and desecrating the Sabbath in one go)? How would we respond if our children as young adults did such a thing on their own? Without an American Sunday to spend traveling the country or going on outings with our children, wouldn’t it be nice to be like the secular Jews who do that on Shabbat? (I have long maintained that Israel is the best place to live, both for religious and for secular Jews. The religious Jews have a nice quiet day to relax, daven, eat, and sleep, and the secular Jews have the rest of the country to themselves to sightsee, eat out, and play without ever seeing a religious Jew.)
The Cap’n used to say that he didn’t miss not keeping kosher. He claimed never to have liked cheese on his burgers, or seafood, or anything else that wasn’t kosher. That wasn’t the case for me at all. I missed tandoori tikka kebabs with yogurt raitas, and dairy pumpkin pie with a big dollop of whipped cream on top after my Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve learned to live without those things, but I still remember them fondly. And in more general terms, I remember being part of secular American society, celebrating Christmas, traveling when and where I liked, and not belonging to a religion whose members are reviled and slaughtered for sport in the four corners of the world.
Our experience differs dramatically from that of our children, but I keep coming back to the fact that both for us and for them, Judaism in general, and specifically our mode of Jewish practice, is a choice. I don’t believe lightning will strike us if we abandon the mitzvot. But having chosen to keep them as the Cap’n and I have, we can see that while we have given up certain liberties in our lives, we get much more back in the end. We belong now to our third wonderful community that cares for and supports one another in good and bad times, and we enjoy a wide range of company, from other couples with young children to grandparent-age friends. As for kashrut and Shabbat, I have never believed in Judaism as a culinary religion. I rarely (if ever) make shnitzel, kugel, tzimmes or cholent, preferring ethnic food, whole grains, and lots of vegetables to the traditional Shabbat fare. And Shabbat, while often seen by outsiders as limiting one’s freedom, actually imposes discipline on a hard-working people to take a day a week and rest, recharge, and enjoy one’s fellow humans.
This is not meant to fan any flames of Orthodox-bashing fervor, or to say that the Orthodox educate their children poorly. We have met less religious Jews in the past who value organic food over kosher food, and consider it more important to educate their children in a multicultural context than in a Jewish environment. As parents, their children’s education is their choice entirely. But we think their methods may result in children with less established Jewish identities. For us as parents, and as individuals who had to forge our own Jewish identities as adults, we prefer to give our children a firm Jewish identity first. We are candid with our children about our non-religious backgrounds, and try to instill in them a sense that while non-Jews are not our co-religionists, they are fellow travelers on this earth. We believe that with their own Judaism intact, including the ethical and behavioral standards that come with it, our children will be more than equipped to cope with how the wider world lives.
The title of this post comes from a comment made by another friend recently who was bemoaning the difficulty of traveling the world as a kashrut-observant Jew. I can commiserate with her (though I’m glad I did the bulk of my traveling before keeping kosher), but also remember that in the next life, as in this one and all the others, we have a choice. If we can just walk away from it all now, why don’t we? Perhaps the answer to that question can provide the mitzvah-observant Jew with a little chizuk (encouragement or strength) when needed.