Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Here’s How My Kids Learn Religion

One day during the winter, our neighborhood was a post-snowstorm disaster. Meaning, snow happened, people shoveled, more snow happened, plows came and spewed street snow and slush back up onto sidewalks and driveway aprons, and then more snow happened. Finally, it got really cold and everything froze. As my fourteen-year-old son and I drove down our block on our way to secure rations, we saw a neighbor trying to get her little sedan out of the driveway. Her very tall college-aged son was behind the car pushing, but the wheels squealed and the car rocked and she went nowhere.

I stopped a few yards away and asked my son if he wanted to go help them. He jumped out and ran to the back of her car, and his weight, added to the college kid’s, was just enough to move the car up and over the frozen slush heap. She drove out onto the street, pulled up next to my car and yelled through open windows, “Thank you so much for the push. I’m trying to get my son to his girlfriend’s house and we’re so late!”

Then off she went.

My own son climbed back into the car and said, “That felt great.” He didn’t mean the pushing part; he meant the helping part,

“That’s called a mitzvah,” I told him, proud to relay some small bit of Jewish tradition.

“Pushing a car out of a driveway?” he said.

“No, being of service to someone. Doing a good deed. In Jewish law, you are commanded to help others when the opportunity arises,” I explained. Then, because I had his attention, and because I had just learned all this recently and hadn’t had time to forget it yet, I went on, “I think there are different levels of mitzvot [plural]. I’m not positive, but I think the highest level of mitzvah you can perform is to introduce someone to the person they will ultimately marry.”

He thought about that for a second and then asked, “What level of mitzvah is pushing someone’s car out from the snow?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, “but the mitzvah level of that act might be raised if that kid ends up marrying the girlfriend he’s going to visit.”

“Is that all Jews care about?” he asked, “Getting married?”

If I were a different mother, I might have used the opportunity to ask why he’d think that’s all Jews care about. And if I were a different Jew, I might have launched into a few of the beliefs – both spiritual and practical – that define what it means to be Jewish. But the sum total of my Jewish education comes from attending two dozen or so bar mitzvah services, the Holocaust discussions in my mostly-Jewish book group, and the various Yiddish phrases I’ve been taught by my (usually Catholic) friends.

So I just said, “That, and food.”

Sometimes I regret raising my children without any formal religious training. But as we drove to the grocery store, I noticed my son’s nose pressed up against the passenger side window. “Are you looking for more stuck cars?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said, in a voice that was quiet and small.

I often notice that same smallness in my own voice. It happens right after I feel like my heart has grown.


  1. i started taking mackenzie to church last year. she likes the social aspect of it. i am not sure if it's so much about learning religion, but experiencing spirituality (aka mitzvah?) that comes from opportunities that arise. for instance, she actually found it FUN to help set up for a pot-luck dinner this weekend. i still find church a perfect place to daydream.

  2. One of the things I learned in the workshop I took over the past three weeks that I have not been able to get out of my head is this: it's not what we bleive - it's that we believe. Meaning we are creatures who are designed to believe in something greater than ourselves - and we are drawn to participae in that belief. There is something comforting that we all share that. And in some weird way it makes that big spiritual mystery more of a reality.

    Now, about those dishtowels . . .

  3. At the risk of sounding hopelessly pedantic, let me just throw in a few other aspects of Judaism that you may know but also may not: The "goal" of Judaism is "tikkun olam", a Hebrew term that means "repairing the universe". Contrary to popular misconception, the accepted idea of Jewish theologians (and most other religions, by the way) is not that God created a perfect world and everything and everybody in it and in the Bible is perfect. To the contrary, it is that creation went terribly wrong, that the universe was splintered into a million shards, (sefirotm in Hebrew) like a broken mirror, and everything and each of us is one of those broken shards. Our "job" on earth is to put the universe back together, to in essence, make God whole again. (Compare this with the traditional Christian goal of going to heaven, where everything will be perfect. The Jewish goal is to make heaven here on earth. Not attainable, but something to strive for.) So, when your son helped the people whose car was stuck in in the snow, he was participating in the process of repairing the universe, in however small a way. I think it's a very beautiful worldview and one too often overlooked by those who decry Judaism in relatiosnship to Israel's questionable actions or some anecdotal experience they've had with a paricular Jew.

  4. That word is "sefirot", no "m"...typo, y'know