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…