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No Like Secular

We didn’t mean to end up at a Jewish daycare. Originally, we’d enrolled our then four-month-old at the ritzy, organic place, where infants fell asleep in a darkened room to the sound of whale song. But then two things happened. The first was that our son’s teacher had a nervous breakdown, which she described to us with relish: “What about the children?” she’d apparently cried as they were loading her into the ambulance. “My babies!” The second was that she asked us to stop holding him so much at home. “We’re working on the self-play,” she said. Because if you give it a fancy sounding term that evokes masturbation, then it’s not just your child lying ignored in some corner. So we switched to the daycare at our local JCC. At the time, I hadn’t stopped to consider what it meant to send my child to a Jewish school. I just wanted a place where the teachers didn’t mind cuddling him. But then the challahs started coming home every Friday, along with notes reminding us that no, the JCC did not celebrate Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s. Instead of bringing us paper ornaments and Easter eggs, our son brought home paintings of frogs at Passover and little flags at Simchat Torah. And while the daycare did shut down for Christmas, the literature they handed out referred to this period euphemistically as “the last week in December.” Still, it wasn’t until I found myself tearing up at the sight of all the children parading around in their Purim costumes that it really sunk in that the Jewish part mattered. When my family first moved to Michigan from Israel, a girl in my fifth-grade class asked me, “Do you believe in the son of God?” What I heard, however, was “sun of God.” “Of course we don’t believe in the sun,” I told her, indignant. Sheesh. We weren’t pagans. The thing is, of course, that you can’t grow up in the U.S. without knowing all about Jesus. After a while, my family grew resigned to the Christianity all around us, adopting defensive strategies like turning out the lights whenever Christmas carolers were making the rounds and rolling our eyes indulgently when grocery store cashiers asked us if dreidels were a kind of cracker. But that was then, when I was secure in my Israeli-ness, before I married a lapsed Catholic and had children who most likely will never know what it’s like to be part of a cultural or religious majority. My son is two now, and learning to talk. He comes home from daycare singing, “Good morning! Boker tov!” He goes around pretending his toys are miniature shofars. Tonight he will go trick or treating for the first time without any idea of what Halloween might mean, because, you know, they don’t mention it at daycare. Lately, he’s been screaming the HaMotzi blessing at the top of his lungs. “Come on,” I told him once in an effort to shut him up. “We’re supposed to be secular.” He made a face. “No,” he said. “No like secular, Mommy.” And much to my surprise, it turns out, neither do I.

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