The Bintel Brief

Help! Our 6-Year-Old Son Is More Observant Than We Are

By Ayelet Waldman

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Dear Ayelet,

My husband and I send our 6-year-old son to a private, Jewish school that is significantly more traditionally observant than we are. It is important to us that our son have a good Jewish foundation, and he loves the school he attends. However, now he’s coming home wanting to do things that we are not interested in doing — like saying blessings over every snack and meal that we eat.

How do we tell our son that this is not something we do (or plan to do) in our house, without dampening his excitement for Judaism or confusing him?


Dear Puzzled,

When I was a kid my father once told me that he’d sit shiva for me if I ever became frum. Was he serious? I doubt it. He’s such a deeply committed atheist that he probably wouldn’t sit shiva for me if I died. But the sentiment is clear. My father is from a generation of Jews that was (and still is) deeply suspicious of religious practice. The idea of having to deal with a child’s keeping kosher or refusing to drive on Shabbos made his blood boil. So I recognize your pain (although it sounds like you suffer from a significantly less dogmatic version of it than he). Those of us who like our religious practice in moderation can get a little impatient with other people’s piousness. Witness my near-annual fury at having to eat a kosher, antibiotic-stuffed Thanksgiving turkey “allegedly” slaughtered, plucked and packed by child laborers thousands of miles away— please don’t get me started on the Rubashkins — rather than a fresh, organic, free-range bird, hand-raised on a bucolic farm 10 miles from my house.

But the way I look at it is this: Those of us without strong religious beliefs have to defer to those who have them (unless, of course, those beliefs hurt others). My sister-in-law is a cantor who is committed to the rules of kashrut. My devotion to all things organic, while bordering on the pious (and, if truth be told, the sanctimonious), doesn’t rise to the same level.

Your child feels, for the moment, like he wants to engage in these religious practices, and after all, you made this bed by sending him to a school that taught him to value them. That’s not to say that you yourself have to pray before every snack. You just have to give him the space to do so.

Little kids are notorious for developing manias. You should hear my kindergartner on the subject of Dr. Who. But these manias almost always pass. And until they do, you might even consider closing your eyes and taking 10 seconds of silence before each meal to contemplate the bounty before you, and the pleasure you take in your boy. Who knows, you might be the one who insists that the practice continue long after he loses interest.

Ayelet Waldman is the author of the novels “Daughter’s Keeper” and “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.” She also penned seven installments of the “Mommy-Track Mystery” series. Her non-fiction book “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace” will be published in May by Doubleday. Her Web site is

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norm Mon. Feb 9, 2009

Class Mom: You are right to be concerned. Ayelet is simply wrong. All of us have first hand knowlege of good smart jewish kids who have become obsessed with religious myths which have been reinvented by 20th and 21st century cult leaders. If you don't do something you'll find your child will start to exclude you from his life because you aren't kosher enough or frum enough. Even worse he may feel that Hashem (meaning you and your husband) will provide and he can become a full time torah scholar (ie lazy bum). I'm proud of my Jewish heritage and the brilliant scientists, polticians and professionals in our midst but I'm becoming mre and more worried about the increasing numbers of Jewish relgious extremeists even 400 years after Spinoza was excommunicated. Your father was a smart man-either do something about your son or prepare to sh it shiva.

Mike Mon. Feb 9, 2009

Ayelet, you should order an organic free range kosher turkey from Wise next year, available at natural food stores and by mail from Costco. And then you should google KOL Foods to find out how to set up a cooperative for organic local kosher poultry in your area.

Jake Thu. Feb 12, 2009

Times have changed and the father who would sit shiva when a son or grandson turned religious, very likely is the grandfather of someone who does not know what the word "shiva" means. In today's world, can no longer count on our children remaining Jewish in name and identity but not in practice. Studies and simple logic dicate that if you want a Jewish child with any kind of Jewish identity, then you need to educate him to a point beyond your own point of comfortable Judaism. This is not to make him a religious zealot but to make sure that he makes it in this open flexible and beliefs phobic world that we live in. Good luck!

AFeinstein Thu. Feb 12, 2009

There is nothing wrong with learning and growing with your child, especially if he is happy doing so. Rather than closing the door on his Jewish growth, don't plan on "not doing any of these things"- give them a real try- you might be surprised. Jews for millenia have made blessings on food and observed things that have transformed the mundane and sometimes painful moments in life into something special and life expanding. Don't close off your child's growth with your own feelings about religion. Jewish sources talk about how in the coming generations, things will be reversed- Jews will return to their heritage and children will be hungry to learn the traditions of their ancestors, things that their parents never taught them.

Papa Robert Tue. Feb 10, 2009

An interesting dilemma. We are sending our daughter to a lovely Chabad pre-school for the year, but that will be her only year with them. I figure she is four so it won't do too much harm and the Rebbetzin is very kind and she is meeting lots of nice Jewish kids etc. I have a brother who went meshuggeneh frum in his mid 20s and my parents (liberal agnostic reform shul members) went ballistic for years while having to attend glatt kosher events to see their delightful, but frum grandchildren. In our family that worked best if you wanted to be a rebel, being a leftist student radical like me was pretty expected. For us celebrating shabat and going to a Conservative shul once or twice a month is about right. We want our daughters to have a good Jewish education, but for it to include the Bund and the secular Jewish world too. In the end it is what happens at home that really counts IMO and I don't want my kids to feel I am a proto Yid. Another brother sent his kids to a Jewish Day school but was told to remove them when it became apparent that the kids were confused by the conflicting practices at home and school. IMO you can't have your kid educated in a traditional way and not be somewhat observant at home without confusing everyone.

Aliza Hausman Thu. Feb 12, 2009

I was pleasantly surprised by your response. Altogether, I find the whole thing very amusing. I am a convert, a first generation American. Did my Dominican Catholic parents ever imagine they would come to America and their daughter would grow up to be a religious Jew? This is something so incredibly foreign to them. Yet, my family has been very accepting. The worst part of being a Jew is seeing how divided the Jewish world is. People don't just believe in their own way, they have really ugly ideas about the people that are following others. No matter what you do, as my story proves, your child will find his/her own way in life.

hannah zabitz Thu. Feb 12, 2009

Why are you eating turkeys from Rubushkins? Turkeys from Empire in Mifflintown, PA are delicious!

Sharon Sun. Feb 15, 2009

We are a "conservative" family in Israel, who sent our children to modern orthodox schools. Our daughter became orthodox about 3 years ago. She does not drive on shabbos, eats only kosher food (we only bring kosher food into the house and have always had separate dishes), prays all the daily prayers and blessings.... Today she is almost 17. She volunteers on an ambulance as a first aid assistant, she dresses modestly, speaks softly, does not touch boys, does not drink or smoke, and spends her free time either on charity, bnei akiva or the ambulance. In today's world, I think we call that MAJOR LUCK for ME as the parent of a beautiful vivacious 17 year old girl. You should all have such problems. Of course I now make sure shabbos food is prepared in advance and if I choose to watch tv saturday afternoon, i do it in my room and not in the living room. As for my son, he is not religious... and he too does not drink or smoke. he spends his time with music. A better education for the two of them could not have been found anywhere if you ask me... and I pay a small price for such wonderful good kids.

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