Twenty five years ago, when I was the single mother of two little boys, we had one of those moments that turns into family legend. I was using a power drill to fix something, and the six-year-old (who loved tools) was trying to keep the four-year-old (who loved touching things) back behind the tape line I had set as a “sit here and watch” boundary. Aaron knew that if Jamie didn’t stay behind that line, I was going to put the tools away, and wait to do the work when they weren’t at home.
Finally, in desperation, he hauled his little brother back from the line one last time and said, “Jamie! You don’t want that stuff! It’s GIRL STUFF!” Jamie wasn’t fooled, though: that was Adult Stuff, and he wanted it.
To this day, we refer to power tools as “Girl Stuff” in our family.
Kids want to do the things they see their parents doing. They see those things as far more desirable than “kid stuff.” They’re smart; they see what we think is important, and those things are irresistible to them.
So when we are talking about raising Jewish children, the question I always want to ask parents is, what is important about Judaism to you? And what do you do about that? Because that is what your child sees (or will see.) That is a more powerful message than anything likely to happen in Hebrew school.
If you want your children to love Jewish learning, let them see you engaging in it. Find a group doing some kind of Jewish learning that interests you, and make it a priority. Read Jewish books in their presence. Read Jewish books to them. Cook Jewish food (if you don’t know how, that’s fine – let them see you learning how to cook Jewish food.) Watch Jewish films, listen to Jewish music, sing Jewish songs, go to synagogue or the JCC or wherever it is you want to be your child’s second Jewish home.
You don’t need to know Hebrew, but if they see you trying to learn Hebrew, they’ll be fascinated (especially if it threatens to become the language for adult discussion at home.) They will be thrilled when they find out that their sponge-like child brains will outstrip you in language learning. You may still be on “Alef-Bet” when they are chattering away with other kids at Hebrew school. That’s OK: every scrap of Hebrew you learn will serve you well.
Jewish culture is not magic. Unless you are living in Israel or certain Jewish neighborhoods in the US, your children will not catch it by osmosis. The dominant culture will simply wipe out Jewishness that isn’t heavily modeled and given precedence at home. The dominant culture is a secularized Christianity, with holidays at Christmas and Easter and parking meters that are free on Sunday. The culture will teach them about pop stars and TV and sports and Christmas shopping, but if you want them to be Jewish, they will need to get that at home.
The good news is that if your children are still little, there’s plenty you can do. First, think what it is about being Jewish that is important to you. Then prioritize it and act. If you feel that you don’t know enough to identify what is meaningful to you, take a Basic Judaism class. See what interests you, and pursue that interest. If your Hebrew is rusty, or you’ve never learned it, take a class. Indulge your interests, and everything else will follow.
I don’t know what liberal Judaism will look like in 50 years, because we are in a time of change. What I do know is that little children are interested in the things that they see their parents doing. They want to do those things too (preferably with you.) And from there, everything else can follow.