When I was thinking about writing about engaging children in our traditions I was thinking about how my family do Christmas, and the ways we attempt to encourage children to understand the values behind our traditions. However, here in the UK it is pretty hard for children not to be drawn into Christmas!
Instead of yet another article about Christmas, I asked my friend whose Jewish faith and identity are not shared by the mainstream culture if she would write about this for us. I have seen the ways that she considers, explains and engages her toddler in her traditions and it helps me to reflect on how we can communicate our values to children who are not yet ready for their complexities. I hope this helps you to think about how you communicate what is valuable for you to your children too.
Jewish tradition states that before giving Jews the Torah, God asked for guarantors. The Jewish people offered up their ancestors, and then their prophets, but God rejected both. Finally they said, “Our children,” and God said, “For their sake, I will give you the Torah.” Judaism focuses again and again the sacredness of passing down Judaism l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
Unfortunately, as every parent knows, the significance of a gift is entirely unrelated to a toddler’s interest in it. I also live in an area with a very small Jewish population, so I knew most of my daughter’s Jewish education would come from us as her parents rather than outside sources. Our synagogue’s toddler group is one I set up; her nursery is planning to mark Jewish holidays based on advice I’ve given them.
For me it is important that she sees Judaism as something to enjoy, rather than a chore – so I’ve thought about what she likes and made Judaism fit in.
On Friday nights we always welcome the Sabbath with candle lighting and special prayers. I know the prayers are still too complicated for her, especially since they’re not in English, but I encourage her to use the motions we do, tell her what we’re saying in toddler language, and found a Sabbath song that was simple enough for her to join in (“Shabbat Shalom, hey!” repeated over and over). I try to take a similar approach to other Jewish holidays, though as they’re only once a year she may not remember much about them yet.
I bring Eve along to services when I go, and have always found rabbis and the other congregants welcoming of her presence. Even though I usually spend the time distracting her, she’s being exposed to customs that way, which is important to me. I try to engage her in the service when I can, such as by dancing around with her as we sing the prayers, and have worn her in a sling when reading from the Torah (a special honour). I bought her some Jewish stuffed toys, like a Torah, hoping she’d want to play with this when she saw the adults using one, but she hasn’t shown much interest yet. Instead, she tends to colour when she gets bored (we found some Jewish colouring book pages to use). Rather than staying for the whole thing, we creep out partway through to play with the other Jewish toddler. I still try to keep a Jewish theme playing together – after going to a baby rhyme time at my local children’s centre, I had the idea of creating a Jewish version of this for her to enjoy. I set some Jewish themes to nursery rhymes (“If you’re Jewish and you know it, clap your hands”) and came up with actions to go along with English translations of prayers. I also made a “touchy-feely” book about the holiday of Passover, and we’ve found other toys such as a seder plate puzzle.
However, for me that is only one part of the puzzle. I was lucky enough to come across a charity that sends free Jewish books to Jewish children every month until they turn 8. (If you or your children are Jewish, I cannot recommend PJ Library highly enough.) I was excited to receive our first book – which Jewish holiday would it be about? But it wasn’t about a holiday. In fact, the first three books weren’t about holidays. They were, I realised, about Jewish values – there is a deep sense of gratitude running through them, and of responsibility for making the world a better place. When I think about my religion it is easy to think about the big events, the external symbols of my faith. But really, being religious is about how I live my life. So I try to nurture her innate sense of wonder and appreciation and desire to do good. I try to also find wonder in spotting another bus or train or digger. I try to model appreciation for the little things in love, and care for the world around us. I try to assume she means well even when she does something I find frustrating – because usually she does. I was given the Torah for her sake, and I let her teach me it.Rebecca, mother of 2 year old girl
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