Learning from Our 5-Year-Old

By Tanya H. Keith


For many people, the day their first child is born is one that marks the most dramatic shift in their entire lives. Suddenly there are three where there were two just moments before, and your head swirls with how little you know about helping this tiny helpless person navigate her way through the world.

This day came for me in October of 2002. Our daughter Aviva was born, and our lives changed in the most wonderful ways. Only parents know how overwhelming the flood of feelings is when you first hold your child and she locks your gaze with trusting eyes, and you seem to share a moment of “now what?”

When you’re a parent in an interfaith relationship, there is another layer of questions. My parents were intermarried, so I had seen from the child’s perspective all that’s involved in interfaith parenting. But it’s different when you’re in the hot seat, responsible for making the right call on so many things that you have so little control over.

Will Grandma and Grandpa respect our wishes? How will we answer all her questions? What if she doesn’t like not having a Christmas tree? How long do I have until someone hurls an ugly anti-Semitic remark at her? What will I say to her when they do? Will our Jewish community treat her like any other Jewish child?

The truth is, that first day is really the only day you have time to worry about all these things. Soon you are in your house by yourselves and thoughts of who will cook dinner and when you might get to shower quickly push December dilemma and potentially meddling grandparents to the far corners of your tired mind.

Now, four-and-a-half years later, I’m sitting at my computer with a month or so left in my pregnancy with our son, reflecting on interfaith parenting for the first time since October 2002. Like most aspects of parenting, the interfaith element has not been what I had expected. We’ve been so blessed to have wonderful and respectful grandparents and extended family. Aviva has a lovely collection of dreidels that her non-Jewish grandmother started for her. Her Christian aunties have supplied us with great Jewish toys from their home in Chicago. We’ve survived our first year of Sunday school at temple without incident. So far, our concerns have not been realized.

Not that Aviva hasn’t given us a few challenges, just not the ones we planned for. We did not anticipate that we would have a 4-year-old who would demand that we go to Shabbat (Sabbath) services as often as she does. She loves to sing and dance with her friends on Friday night, in spite of the kids’ service only coming once a month. On other Fridays, she happily sits through the adult service with us.

Forget about missing Sunday school! As a retailer, Sunday mornings had been pretty precious family time for me. But once Aviva learned that there was a school with all her temple friends, crafts, snack, and singing, it was all over. Thank goodness she gets the summer off so I have three months of those family Sundays again.

Sunday school has brought awareness for Aviva about how Jewish men should act. For example, my husband has practiced only Judaism since we met, but we’re all very clear on “Mommy and Aviva are Jewish, Daddy isn’t.” So now, when we go to Shabbat services, she picks up an announcement sheet, a prayer book, and a yarmulke that she lovingly plunks on Dad’s head. She’s not very subtle, but she makes up for it with charm and wit.

The best part of watching Aviva grow up in a Jewish world in a way that I never got a chance to is seeing how empowered she is to share her Judaism, employing her irresistible charm. Our family doesn’t celebrate Christmas in our house, but we decided that it’s fine to celebrate with grandparents and aunts at their house. It took a few years for me to get comfortable, but I learned in 2005 that Aviva’s Jewish identity could survive every December.

That year, we decided to let Aviva go full-throttle into Christmas by not only spending Christmas day at my in-laws, but letting her sleep over for Christmas Eve. My in-laws have a pretty secular Christmas that’s mostly family togetherness and hardly a mention of the religious aspect of the holiday, so I thought that with deep breathing I could handle having her experience an even more intense Christmas. I had several talks with her about how she was helping her grandparents celebrate and how it was a mitzvah (commanded good deed) to join their celebration. I was very nervous about her coming home and throwing a fit about not having Christmas at our house, but I decided we could see how one year went.

Aviva had a 24-hour, fabulous, sugar-filled fun-fest. She was practically high on all the attention, gifts, food, and tradition. She baked cookies, put the last few ornaments on the tree, read The Night Before Christmas, and left cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. She was the only child with two grandparents and two aunties, so the entire world of Christmas revolved around her. I figured she would need at least a week of detoxing from all the attention

Then, as we got ready to leave, Grandma walked us to the door to say goodnight and wished Aviva a “Merry Christmas.” Aviva whipped around with her typical hand-on-hip sassy style and replied, “Grandma, we don’t celebrate Christmas, we’re Jewish!”

The whole room was dumbfounded and a little shocked. I managed to stifle my laughter, and started to tell her to be a little more grateful for all the fun she’d had, but in the end, I could only hug her and smile. She thanked her grandparents for the fun she’d had, and they accepted her thanks and her bold new Jewish identity with more graciousness than we probably deserved.

I may be worried about how to plan a bris, or come up with another Hebrew name, or figure out my new role as a parent of a Jewish boy, but I don’t worry about the details any more. I have Aviva here to show me the way. Her Jewish pride is strong enough to guide us, as she likes to say “all the way through the world and back.”


About Tanya H. Keith

Tanya H. Keith lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband Doug Jotzke and their menagerie of cats and a hedgehog. All are eagerly awaiting the October birth of their first child. She is the event coordinator for Des Moines' soccer stadium, a soccer referee, a marathon runner, and occasionally a freelance interior designer. As the Outreach Chairperson of Temple B'Nai Jeshurun, it is her top priority for all Jewish families (interfaith, by choice, or otherwise) to feel comfortable in the Des Moines community and wherever she is.