The first time my 4-year-old daughter declared her Jewish faith, she was in the middle of her swimming lesson last fall. Her teacher, a kind blond woman with a giant floral back tattoo, was asking her about the looming holidays as they bobbed around the indoor pool.
“So, do you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or something else?” she asked.
“Hanukkah,” my daughter answered while floating on her back. “I’m Jewish.”
I watched this exchange with wide eyes. We were Christmas people, and had been her whole life. My daughter hailed from a mix of evangelical Southern Baptists, WASPy New Englanders, and superstitious Roman Catholics. She was many things, but Jewish was not one of them.
But she was enrolled in a Jewish preschool, a warm, cozy place filled with songs, a sensory playground, and shabbat celebrations every Friday. The second we walked in for a tour it felt like the perfect place for her. My husband and I skew agnostic, but had no problem with her learning about religion. “It will be songs and stuff,” I reasoned. “She won’t even know what’s going on.”
I underestimated her ability to understand those songs she was singing, to absorb the words, tastes, and traditions woven into her day-to-day. Somewhere in between making tiny child-sized challah bread, decorating her kippah, and singing the HaMotzi before lunch every day, my child decided that not only was she Jewish, but her family was as well.
After swim class I tried to gently explain the complexities of religion. “We can light the candles,” I said, as we positioned not one – but two – menorahs on our dining room table. (She made one at school, and then begged us to buy one in the temple store, too.) “But we aren’t actually Jewish.”
“Yes, we are,” she insisted.
“We’re not,” I said firmly. “We’d have to do a lot of learning and take classes to become Jewish. If it’s something you want to do we can discuss it more as you get older. We can definitely celebrate these traditions, but we can’t just become Jewish.”
“We’re Jewish!” she shouted, stomping off to her bedroom past the glowing lights of our massive, Costco-bought Christmas tree. I dropped the subject and opened the Amazon app on my phone, searching for kids books about Hanukkah that I clearly needed to read as well.
The next night we gathered around the table, my husband clutching the giant lighter normally reserved for the fireplace. “Light the shamash!” our daughter shouted, the only expert among us.
“Should we go around and say what we’re grateful for?” I asked, anxious to ensure we were doing things right.
“That’s Thanksgiving,” replied my husband, with a heaping dose of side-eye in my direction. Instead we played with dreidels and listened to my daughter’s favorite Hanukkah song by Bare Naked Ladies. It wasn’t a proper Jewish celebration but it was ours, and one we repeated for the next seven nights.
Weeks later, while volunteering in the kitchen of her preschool, I detailed our daughter’s infatuation with Judaism to Jen, the hip, young cook who was quietly rolling out homemade matzo balls for school lunch. I loved the rituals of the kosher kitchen – the different sinks for washing hands, food and dishes, and the dairy-only equipment I used to prep mac and cheese. She smiled as I recounted our awkward attempt at celebrating a holiday we knew next-to-nothing about. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, turning her attention to the vegetable stock on the stove. “It means she has faith.”
I’d neglected to think about what it truly meant for her to love and cherish these traditions. I never thought it possible someone so young could even have faith. I had doubted her heart, and its openness to the world around her.
For years I’d chased faith in yoga classes, meditation workshops, and late night Googling of Unitarian churches nearby. But still, it was an elusive temptress. Watching my mother die quickly of pancreatic cancer in my 20s had caused me to question if it was ever something I’d ever come to understand, much less experience. But somehow my daughter had gotten there without me.
Now Hanukkah is here once again. “It’s a celebration of one small miracle,” my daughter says while we doodle together one afternoon in the kitchen. She is counting down the days until she get to eat handfuls of gelt and play with her dreidel. Such small, simple acts brings her so much joy. I experience the same pure happiness when I’m with her — walking around the block searching for puddles, or chatting in the darkness as bedtime lingers. I catch a glimpse of my own faith in these moments with my daughter.
Soon our two menorahs will live again on our dining room table. I’ve got the candles ready. Maybe we’ll even share what we’re grateful for this year. If we do, I know what I’ll say: That my daughter’s embrace of Judaism has shown me that maybe faith really is a simple thing. Perhaps it is as easy as finding joy in each other and celebrating the simple, everyday moments that light up even our darkest times.
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