September marks the start of school and, shortly after, Temple Sinai Religious School. The end of Summer’s “lazy” months brings a hectic period of chauffeuring our children to and from secular activities like travel hockey, baseball, and school clubs, along with religious school, Chug Ivrit and now bar mitzvah preparation.
I won’t deny that we endure complaints from our 12 and 10 year-old sons about studying Hebrew or attending class at Sinai. Going to religious school, observing high holidays and family traditions, honoring the concept of tzedakah, becoming a bar mitzvah—those are actions that we as parents have experienced and that we now “require” of our children. But how do children really claim their own identities in the face of the principles that parents impose? How do they identify as Jews? What does it take to own that identity, and, hopefully, embrace it?
These difficult, often painful, times in our country have pushed us to focus on the concept of identity. Who is American and who is not? Who belongs here and who does not? I suspect that this tension prompts almost all of us to reflect on our own identities and how we fit into the reckoning that our country is experiencing.
My husband, Andrew, and I often share our family stories with our boys, in effort to foster an appreciation of our Jewish heritage: Your mother’s grandfather and his brother fled Kiev nearly a century ago—first to Paris before settling in Chicago. His parents were later shot and killed at Babi Yar. Your father’s grandmother, a nurse who grew up in Kitzingen, Germany, left for Palestine in the early 1930’s after seeing Nazis beat up Jewish doctors. Your grandmother came here as a little girl on a boat, watching the Statue of Liberty appear on the horizon.
Last December, we stood inside a rebuilt synagogue in Kitzingen. Andrew’s great grandfather was a leader there before the Nazis burned it to the ground on Kristallnacht. This, we thought, will resonate with the boys—surely they will feel the history and weight of their Jewish identity. Instead, as we posed for a photo in front of the doors, one son punched the other in a trivial dispute.
We can’t force an identity on our children simply through sharing family history or even by visiting the old country. We can create opportunities, have conversations, answer tough questions and allow them to explore. They must come to define and embrace who they are as individuals through their own experiences in the world. Together we process the daily reports of otherness, separation, exclusion, and hatred. We remind them that we, as Jews, have experienced this before. They ask us questions; they reflect; they interpret the events of the day.
This summer, as I made my annual purge of schoolwork brought home from the past year, I found several autobiographical assignments from each son. It struck me their work included a Star of David, a description of our family Seder, and even a mix-tape with a song entitled “Going to Temple.”
As the great Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell. Children will listen.”