Friday, August 07, 2020

I thought kids could be raised on a compromising, cultural Judaism. I was wrong. 

Editor’s note: This article was written from the perspective of a member of a “Dati Lite” shomer Shabbat community in Israel. Considerable social media discussion centered on its relevance for some Modern Orthodox communities in America, including some in our coverage area. We invite your comments and letters.  

The message from my local shul committee has been waiting on my phone for a few hours now. “How are you?” it reads, “Would you like to give a shiur during Shavuot? This year’s theme is water, and you can take it in whatever direction you choose.”

I used to respond to such a request with an automatic “yes.” A former seminary student would have no problem writing that sort of lecture. A peek or two at the Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam, a nice anecdote from an Agnon story, and you’ll have a source sheet for a brilliant lecture you’ll never forget.


Instead, I was assaulted by panic, which quickly turned into shame. I didn’t know how to tell them that… well… I forgot how to study Torah. I abandoned that muscle. And suddenly, realizing I might have to use it again, I felt it spasm.

In truth, the spasm started earlier, on Friday evening in the yishuv, when I heard Shabbos zemiros bursting from one of the houses on my street. It was a rare event. I assume that my neighbors were having a Really Really Orthodox family over if they allowed themselves to just…sing zemiros in the middle of the night. Because in our friend group, zemiros aren’t really a part of the Shabbos table anymore.

Where have the zemiros gone? I asked myself. We eat together, make Kiddush together, Shabbos is still Shabbos. But the tunes have slowly dissipated over the years, replaced by witty conversation or political debate. They went from being a natural ritual we simply couldn’t go without, to some bothersome task we couldn’t wait to get rid of. Why should we stop the fun just to sing D’ror Yikra? That sort of thought could get you officially labeled a party pooper.

When my son wanted to enroll in a religious high school, they announced there’d be a Judaism exam. “Say,” I wondered suddenly on our way to his test. “Do you even know Al HaMichya by heart?” Of course he didn’t. After all, the perfectly Orthodox-lite family he grew up in doesn’t force the kids to bentch anymore.

And last Shabbos, when the boys refused to go to shul and I found myself begging them to go with forced moderation (“I don’t want to force you, but maybe just go anyway, for me?”) it hit me at full force: I failed at educating my children. All these years I told myself one could raise children on a cultural religiosity. That if we just send them to a co-ed school and don’t pressure them on Jewish issues, we could turn them into the perfect progressive religious Jews. Ones who know Torah but have their doubts about it, who know Halacha but don’t necessarily abide by it.

I wonder if my kids will remain religious. I used to think it wouldn’t bother me, but as the years go by, the thought is starting to hurt. I remember when one day I found out my cousin, who stopped being religious many years ago, suddenly went back to putting on tefillin every day. “My boy’s celebrating his bar mitzvah soon,” he explained. “I used to know how to lein, I thought I could teach him, but I forgot it all. I suddenly asked myself, ‘What am I leaving behind for him? What sort of heritage?’”

“What am I going to leave my children?” That’s the alarm clock that started ringing in my life. The religious post-trauma that manages me, that makes me afraid to be angry at my daughter for drawing on Shabbos, lest I be seen in her eyes as some stiff from the ulpana, succeeded in making me tear away from the walls of my home the one ingredient that every Orthodox-lite Jew wants as a part of their life: the Yiddishkeit.

Slowly, gradually, I feel the Torah being forgotten. How whole prayers I used to know by heart are dimming in my mind. How rituals that charmed me during childhood have turned into nothing but a warped memory. I thought I could instill in my children the ability to be religious in theory. To know the brachot but not say them. To go to shul but not to daven passionately. I failed.

And now, I have only to admit: if my kids stay religious, it’ll be because of their grandfather, who insists they make Kiddush. Because of their grandmother, who won’t buy them ice cream that doesn’t have a kashrut certification. Because of the insistent educators we were too scared to be ourselves.

All of our lives we tried to run away from being those parents who push their kids into going to shul and get angry when they play outside instead of davening; and now, all we want is for them to know something of these prayers, even a little bit.

I was born on Shavuot. There’s no small irony in that fact. The girl born on the day the Torah was received ran away from it like her life depended on it—and now gets it back like a slap to the face. And suddenly I can understand my father, who insisted we sit next to the table and sing zemiros, no exceptions. He understood what I’m beginning to understand now: that you can’t introduce a way of life without repetitive and deliberate assimilation. You can’t raise the next generation on episodic folklore. Annoying as it sounds, there’s no way to instill substantial religiosity in your children without a pinch of forcefulness or requiring a certain sacrifice. We wanted to raise a generation of sophisticated religious Jews who didn’t carry halachic trauma. Without noticing, we got a generation of know-nothings.

By Racheli Malek-Buda/
(reprinted with permission) 



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