04/09/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Why I Regret What I Taught My Children About Religion

As we headed home from the dinner party on Saturday night, our bellies were full, our spirits mellow after four small cups of wine. From my perspective, at least, it had been a perfect spring day, one full of signs of life and renewal , appropriate for the spirit and the sentiment of the holiday.

But then, my twelve year-old daughter's question from the back seat: "Who is Enu, and why do we want him to die?"

And just like that, all the doubts I'd been harboring for almost thirteen years about raising children without religion reared their ugly heads.

Sure, we'd had moments before, like the time my younger daughter walked into a church in Panama, screamed, covered her eyes, and asked, "Why is that guy hanging there on the wall with blood coming out of him?"

Or a few years ago, when both girls had unearthed their aunt's first Communion dress in their grandmother's attic, gasped, and begged to have one just like it - pronto! - even if meant that they had to forgo any knowledge of Pharoahs and Israelites and embrace the image of the guy hanging on the wall.

Or this past Friday, when the older one had asked, "Can we make cupcakes to bring to Ms. Gordon's house tonight?"


Here's the thing: My daughters' four questions (no, not THOSE four questions, but their questions about Enu and First Communions and Christ on the Cross and CUPCAKES FOR PASSOVER, for Christ's sake) have led me to ask myself some fairly deep questions about the choices I've made in neglecting, not to inculcate them, but merely to expose them to a life of faith. They are neither wicked nor wise, and they certainly are not silent. But are they simple? And, if so, is their unworldliness thanks to my poor parenting choices?

I was raised a cultural Jew, not an observant one, in a Southern state where comments like the one made by Gregory Williamson in third grade ("I wish all your people had died in concentration camps") prompted neither plagues nor diversity pow wows, where my grandmother's noodle kugel (egg noodles baked with Smucker's grape jelly - a childhood fantasy) was the only version available, not on the block, but in the entire state (or so it seemed). When my grandmother insisted, we celebrated Jewish holidays at her house, but seders at my African-American nanny's church (where we talked a lot about slavery and freedom, concepts my Southern girl's conscience needed to work through) were a lot more compelling - at least to my eight year-old mind.

As for my husband, his story was different in kind, if not in intensity, or lack thereof. Born in the United States to Northern Irish Catholics, his point of pride lay in the fact, not that he knew the Apostles' Creed by heart (admission: As I've been writing this, he's been struggling to remember the words to any Catholic prayer, but he got as far as "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord . . ." and then got stuck), but that he was NOT. A. PROTESTANT. (No offense meant to Protestants, but you have to remember that his parents lived through the Troubles, so not-a-Protestant was not only his religious identity, but his raison d'etre). He never saw his grandparents on Easter, he says (duh, they were in Belfast), so his memories of Easter celebrations were decidedly American and quite definitely areligious, being, as they were, centered around food. He liked the chocolate bunnies, he says, but he doesn't remember any sort of symbolism in the Easter feast. If his family felt like a roast or a ham, he remembers, they'd have that, but they were equally as likely to feel like Stouffer's lasagna.

When we married in 1996, no one (save my grandmother, who swore until the day she died that there was SOME chance that my adopted-at-birth husband might be Jewish) saw any issue. After all, we thought, religious observance had never been a centerpiece of either of our lives. We were married in a non-denominational church with a cross (not a crucifix, as I'd learn a cross with a Jesus on it was called) on the wall, under a homemade chuppah, with Steve's Northern Irish priest cousin and a rabbi who had no congregation but who made a living marrying couples like us presiding. And it all felt right and good - especially with my grandmother's noodle kugel at the reception.

Even when the kids came along a few years later, we didn't see any issue with keeping things secular. They could choose religion when they were older, if they so desired, or at least that was the story we told ourselves. But even when they did desire - OK, it was more about the frilly white dress than the First Communion, but they were seven! - we never did anything to reinforce or encourage their interest. We were secular humanists, we rationalized. We taught them to be good and kind and principled. We just didn't ground our parenting in liturgy or scripture.

And, although I know this comment is going to get me flamed, I have very rarely regretted our choices to let our children's inner compasses guide them, rather than imposing upon our girls (who indeed have seemed pretty darn guided) an external higher power.

Still, although I'll stick to my conviction that kids don't need God to be good, after my daughters' inability to sing "Dayenu," after their failure to recognize Christ on the cross, after their complete amazement over the fact that, no, you can't take cupcakes to a Passover seder, I'm starting to think that they might need religious identity, or perhaps just plain exposure, to be, well, educated young ladies.

Educated about they come from, about how their great-grandparents lived and ate and worshipped. Educated about ceremony, about the role of ritual and the meaning (literal or symbolic?) of scripture. Educated about just what they are rejecting, or, even, perhaps, after learning more, embracing.

Educated about noodle kugel, with or without grape jelly.

I'm not sure whether this is an American thing, or a world citizen thing, or a tolerance thing. But I am sure that it's just not right that my kids go forth in this world without having experienced the kind of celebration at the center of religious observance that is so much a part of most people's life experience. I am sure that I have a parental responsibility to teach them - not about halacha (God knows I don't have much to convey) but about why it is central to others' lives. I am sure that they can benefit from a having a historical perspective about religious intolerance and from fostering religious inclusion - and that they can only do that in a considered way if they actually know something about religion.

At the Reconstructionist seder we attended Saturday night, our host's seven year-old daughter sang the four questions (yes, THOSE four questions). Her Hebrew was perfect, her voice high and pure. My daughter? She was tapping her thumbs, ghosting texts under the table for lack of a cell phone, hoping against hope that the reading part of the evening (her name for the Haggadah) would be over soon and the brisket on the table.

She didn't have to identify as Jewish, just like she didn't have to join in the Good Friday parade in the next town over or celebrate that "Christ is risen." But had she been able to sing along, then debate the best kind of haroset with the other kids at the seder table - well . . . dayenu. *

*Hebrew word meaning, "It would have been enough."