The Other Three Rs: Respect, Reverence, and Reflection
by Wendy Kennar
Growing up, religion wasn’t a big part of our family. For us, religion was more about the food, the decorations, and the presents than any spiritual story.
As a child, my mom was raised an Orthodox Jew. My dad was raised a Baptist. They married and decided to mix their two religious practices together. Our white-flocked artificial Christmas tree adorned with blue ornaments (the Chanukah colors) stood nearby to our menorah. Our Christmas Eve dinner consisted of ham and potato latkes. We mish-mashed Easter and Passover (Eastover) and didn’t attend church or temple.
My mom explained that religion followed the mother. So because she was Jewish, I was Jewish. Well, Jewish with a disclaimer—I was Jewish, but not religious.
My mom took it a step further and told me that it didn’t matter what our religion was—God was still there for us. We didn’t have to go into any particular building to pray. If we felt we needed to, all we had to do was talk to God and God would be there listening.
She also taught me that all religions, no matter their holidays, food choices, or sacred text followed the same basic rules: be honest, be fair and kind, and treat others like you want to be treated. Don’t lie; don’t cheat.
Now I’m all grown-up and married to an African-American man who, as a child, regularly attended church. And we’re making our own mixed-up holiday traditions. He helps me light the menorah, although I can’t recite the prayer. Instead, we say, “Happy Chanukah” and kiss. Across the room, our fresh Christmas tree stands tall.
So while others may frown upon my untraditional religious upbringing, I’m okay with it. I do believe in faith and a higher power. I believe certain things are out of our control. And I firmly believe that there’s not a God out there who would condone killing another human being in the name of religion.
I grew up in a large city where diversity was the norm. As a public school teacher in the same large city, my class often looks like a mini-United Nations. It is because my students are so diverse, speaking different languages, practicing different religions, having family in all parts of the world, that often our academic lessons go off tangent and become life lessons as well.
For example, it was during a health lesson regarding food choices that the topic of Kosher foods came up. We first began by discussing food decisions we make—to have the hamburger or the sandwich, ice cream, or fruit. Certain decisions are undoubtedly easier to make than others. A student from last year’s class with a severe peanut allergy can very easily decide not to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for instance.
Two students this year can only eat Kosher foods, classmates asked what it means to be Kosher. I was astounded that my Jewish students, nine years of age, couldn’t answer. They knew Kosher foods generally had a “U” or a “K” in a circle on the package. Beyond that, they couldn’t explain what made a food Kosher. They started by saying that Kosher foods taste better. They don’t. They said Kosher foods look different. They don’t. A Kosher pretzel and a non-Kosher pretzel will look the same on their plate and taste the same in their mouth. Neither one of my Kosher students could explain to the class that Kosher foods are prepared a special way—that they are blessed by a Rabbi.
Our mini-health and religion lesson got me thinking about my students, several of whom attend religious school, weekly services, and adhere to certain food guidelines.
How much are they really learning about their own religions? Are these children any more informed or educated about their religions than I was at that age?
Six months pregnant with my first child, a child who will be racially and religiously mixed, I think … how lucky. How lucky that this little boy may grow up and learn and live without feeling the confines of any one label. He is neither only Caucasian nor only African-American. He’ll be a beautiful mix. He is neither only Jewish nor only Christian.
Instead, he’ll grow up seeing himself as a representative of the world. A little bit of his mommy and a little bit of his daddy and all that came before him. AI’ll follow in my mother’s footsteps, teaching my child about kindness, fairness, and honesty—traits of the world’s religions.