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Not Forgotten

Karen and Steve Meet Adam and Eve
“Mommy, if Adam and Eve were the first people, did they look like apes or humans?” My six year-old daughter asked this question after her Sunday School class read the story of Adam and Eve. She was confused because a few months before, on a trip to the zoo, we had talked about evolution as we watched the apes. In answer to this new question, I explained that some people believe humans came from apes and others believe the first people were Adam and Eve. But what do you believe?” my daughter persisted.

I didn’t know. I’m not even sure I believe in G-d. It scares me to say it in case I’m struck dead tomorrow and come to regret this confession. Aside from my fear of unfortunate consequences, and possibly because I’ve never faced a crisis, I’ve managed to avoid thinking too deeply about religion. The truth is, I’m a happy person leading a good life and have never felt compelled to become more religious.

My children are giving me new impetus to figure out what I believe. As they have gotten older they are asking more difficult questions, questions that I don’t know how to answer. The problem is, when you’re not sure what you believe, it’s hard to answer a child’s questions convincingly. I didn’t anticipate this problem.

Since both my husband and I are Jewish, I thought raising Jewish children would be a cinch. We didn’t have interfaith issues to negotiate, like “I’ll agree to the Christmas tree if you’ll come to temple on the high holidays, and wear a suit.” I figured that if we sent the kids to a Jewish preschool, joined a temple, and sent them to Sunday school, we could feel satisfied about a job well done. There were others, infinitely more qualified, to teach them about Judaism and answer their questions. I didn’t consider how strongly they would want to know where I stood.

I am what you call a cultural Jew. Both of my parents are Jewish, and we enjoyed a Jewish-lite lifestyle. My agnostic Jewish past spans several generations on my mother’s side. My father was a bit more religious; he would fast until lunchtime on Yom Kippur. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, it was easy to feel a strong sense of heritage just living amidst the large population of other Jews. I felt Jewish by virtue of proximity.

After I met my husband, a truly prize-winning NJB (Nice Jewish Boy), we married and moved to Richmond, VA, where we had three daughters. While on maternity leave after the birth of our second (colicky) daughter, I made the decision that it was time for our two-year-old to start preschool.

The preschool was Aleph Bet, which is part of Chabad of Virginia. Normally I would have felt out of place at a preschool associated with an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, but Aleph Bet welcomes any Jews, even the very Reform. “You don’t have to be Orthodox to go to the preschool,“ we reassured our families. As it turned out, we loved it so much that we sent all three girls there over the next six years.

I learned along with my children while they attended Aleph Bet. I became increasingly knowledgeable about the rules of keeping kosher since any snacks or birthday treats brought to preschool had to follow the Jewish dietary laws. My girls often asked me if we kept kosher and I explained we did not, and that not all Jews follow the laws of kashrut.

One day my four-year-old daughter was playing at her friend’s house (a friend from preschool). Before giving Sofia a snack, the little girl’s mother asked her if she kept kosher to ensure she didn’t mistakenly give her something she couldn’t eat. My daughter explained, “That’s OK. When I’m out of my house I’m allowed to eat kosher food.” When I heard this, I realized it was time to clarify a few things.

The shortcoming of my plan to raise Jewish children was becoming apparent. If I wanted to really answer their questions and raise them to feel a connection to Judaism, I would need to get more involved.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how to begin the process. Surely getting involved with religion required a belief in G-d, and my lack thereof must be an obstacle. My instructor at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School (basically Judaism 101), had words of wisdom on this topic. She said, “When a person practices the rituals of Judaism, a relationship with G-d will follow.” To make her point, my instructor told the story of a friend who confessed his fear that he might not feel deeply connected to his baby when it was born. She assured her friend that he would fall in love with his baby once it was born, and explained that through “doing” a relationship is formed. Some parents fall in love with their baby through the active rituals of caring for him; feeding him, changing his diaper, bathing, and soothing him. She suggested that it can work the same way with Judaism, “Just start ‘doing,’ then the feelings for G-d will develop.”

Even if I was unsure about G-d, perhaps I could start observing some traditions to see what happened. To try it out, my family has resumed doing our version of Shabbat on Friday nights (we had fallen off the wagon after our youngest finished pre-school). We light the candles, say some prayers, drink the grape juice, and eat the challah. We sing the songs my girls learned at preschool. My husband and I talk about the mitzvahs the girls have done that week. It’s quiet and peaceful and we all love it.

I still needed an answer to my daughter’s question about Adam and Eve versus evolution. Could the creation story co-exist with evolution? If we consider each day that G-d created the heavens, earth, creatures, and the rest is an undefined period of time, then could apes have evolved into humans during the millions of years the dinosaurs lived and died? Could other meanings in Genesis exist in layers below the surface?

This explanation resonated with me, and I felt invigorated. I had researched one of my children’s questions and found a viewpoint that made sense to me. This is what good parenting is all about, I thought. Armed with my newly acquired opinion, I couldn’t wait to follow up with my daughter.

I played the scene in my head. After my eloquent yet simple explanation, my daughter would thank me sweetly for sharing my wisdom. She would say, “You are the best Mommy in the world. I really needed to know what you thought, and now that I do I feel sure that I will be successful and happy for the rest of my life. Now let’s start planning my bat mitzvah!”

Here’s what really happened. “Julia, do you remember asking me whether Adam and Eve were apes or humans?” She stared blankly; could she have forgotten the question already? I forged ahead, “I’ve thought about it and I don’t think that the days written in the story are the same as our days. Maybe they are a day in G-d’s life, and a day in G-d’s life is more like a million years to us. My thoughts are that Adam and Eve were humans who existed after apes had already evolved into humans.” Before I could get any further, her younger sister interrupted with a different question, “Mommy, do you believe that G-d created the earth?” Oy, I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to her on that one.

-Karen Rubin

 
 
 
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Copyright 2007. Virginia Jewish Life Magazine.