Why I teach my kids Jewish culture

There may not be any Hanukkah candles (or many other Jews!) in her small town, but Karen Green is still determined to pass her Jewish culture on to her daughters.

Jewish-At-Our-House-Nov-2014-article

The soup simmers on the stove, aromas of my childhood wafting through the kitchen. I ladle out portions, proud of the clear broth, tender vegetables and poached meat. My chicken soup is perfect.

“Who wants matzo balls in their soup?” I call out to my hungry children.

“What’s a matzo ball?” asks my six-year-old daughter, Cassidy.

And with that, my failure as a Jewish mother is complete.

Read more: Celebrating the holidays with interfaith families>

I’m pretty sure I learned how to be Jewish by osmosis. I had little in the way of a formal religious education, but my family and my neighbourhood imparted a secure cultural identity and sense of belonging. I wasn’t religious, but I was Jewish. We didn’t pray before meals, but conversation was spattered with Yiddish whenever English just wouldn’t do: How many times during my teenaged years did my mother look incredulously at my outfit and say, “You can’t leave the house in those shmattes!”

And the food. We may not have gone to synagogue on the High Holidays, but we sure did celebrate them with an appropriate feast. My family would gather to laugh, argue, gossip and eat. Brisket and lokshen kugel, kasha and tzimmes; oh, we ate. And every feast began with chicken soup and matzo balls. The matzo balls that my daughters can’t even recognize as a Jewish staple.

How had I strayed so far?

Before our first daughter, Mischa, now nine, was born, my husband and I discussed the religious upbringing we wanted our children to have. My husband, while non-practising, is Christian. We wanted our kids to respect and appreciate the traditions and values from both sides of the family, but I only felt comfortable teaching them what I knew.

So I provided our kids with the same religious schooling that I’d been given, which was basically none at all. Still, the cultural aspects of Judaism were always more important to me than the liturgical, and we could rely on our family and our neighbourhood to infuse those, right?

For a few years that worked, until grandparents died, old grudges fractured my family, and then, three years ago, we decided to move out of Toronto to a small rural community 300 kilometres away—far from my family, our neighbourhood and any Jewish culture Mischa and Cassidy could possibly glean through exposure. Our new town is bucolic, but it sure ain’t Jewish.

Read more: Why we go to synagogue, even though I’m athiest>

So I’ve had to take on the role of Jewish educator myself. My efforts are frantic, if not creative. No Hanukkah candles for the menorah available at our local stores? OK, birthday candles will do! No Haggadah to follow during the Passover Seder? That’s what the Internet is for! We’re supposed to say a prayer over the challah? Let’s just sing “Hava Nagila”!

In my determination to give my kids a Jewish life in a non-Jewish place, I’ve had to reassess what parts of Judaism are actually the most important to me. Yes, my Seder table may only have three Jews at it, but the rest of the chairs are filled with friends and family that love and accept us. I hope that my children already have the most important things that my upbringing gave me: a sense of belonging, an appreciation for family, and a set of traditions to always equate with a happy home.

“Mmm,” says Cassidy, as she bites into a matzo ball. “These are good. You should make them all the time!”

I grin, and take another sip of my kosher wine.

A version of this article appeared in our November 2014 issue with the headline “Jew…ish,” p. 34.

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