An Israeli tradition
On Friday, our daughter’s first grade class had their siddur (prayer book) party, which is considered a milestone for Orthodox Jewish children in Israel.
Our daughter’s school is unusual in Israel in that half the student body identifies as religious (Orthodox) and the other half identify as non-religious (i.e., secular), unlike the vast majority of Jewish schools in Israel, which are exclusively either secular, Orthodox, or ultra-Orthodox. I mention this because prayer book parties are considered the norm for first graders at Israel’s Jewish religious schools, not at secular schools… However, at our school, the non-religious children are full participants in this milestone.
I mention this because my greatest criticism of secular Jewish culture is that it more often than not produces adults who are largely ignorant of their Jewish religious heritage and traditions. This was brought home to me once again by the mother of a secular student who spoke to the schoolchildren at the ceremony. She related how she, who had attended Israeli secular schools throughout her childhood, first encountered the Jewish prayer book at twenty-six-years-old and cried upon realizing that she had no idea how to participate in Jewish prayer services.
It’s really a very sweet idea, this prayer book ceremony – every child receives a siddur with a lovely, personalized felt cover. And at our school, which is not religiously coercive (i.e. does not expect children to necessarily accept the tenets of traditional Jewish dogma), the message is beautiful: regardless of how one chooses to live their life, and regardless of what one may personally believe, the families of our community want our children to be familiar with the rudiments of Jewish tradition. We want our children to be able to navigate and feel connected to this most fundamental of Jewish books: the siddur.
Raising a Jewish child in Israel
I’ve written about this in the past, and I won’t belabor the point again, but suffice it to say that for Jews who put a priority on adhering to traditional Jewish religious restrictions (like eating food that has been certified as kosher) and consider it important to provide their children with a sound Jewish education, life in Israel has great appeal.
Whereas private Jewish day schools in the diaspora cost tens of thousands of dollars to attend, Israel’s Jewish-religious schools (which offer both full secular and religious curricula), are essentially free because they’re public schools, paid for by the government. In Israel, one need not be wealthy to give their children the gift of a Jewish education.
Growing up in the USA, as I did, I had more exposure to Jewish tradition than the secular Israeli woman who shared her personal story with our children on Friday, but not very much more. It wasn’t until I entered college that I first encountered the great depths and expanses of my religious heritage; and while I’ve spent years of my adult life immersed in Jewish text study, I remain less than comfortable swimming through the ritual and language of Jewish tradition. This discomfort of mine remains an open wound.
So, whether our daughter decides to lead a more religious or less religious life than ours is today, I don’t care too much. What I do care about is her feeling entirely at home in her identity as a Jew and being able to access ancient Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic. And that is precisely what her school is educating her towards.
(I wrote above that I would not belabor this point, but I still ended up writing several paragraphs.)
It is Shabbat in Israel at the time of this post going live, as I scheduled it in advance of sunset on Friday, which is when the Sabbath begins. (I avoid using electronics on Shabbat.)
I want to record my daughter’s special milestone here in my blog so that I could look back at this in the future. Of course, I haven’t really described the ceremony too much because the details, from my perspective, are side notes. The children sang songs, the teachers and parents gave brief speeches, we had a tasty buffet with various bourekas, vegetables, fruits, etc…
The important thing is that the children had a positive experience, and our daughter certainly did.
The reason I noted that this particular blog post is being published on Shabbat (Saturday morning) is that on Friday, after we returned home from the prayer book party, I promised to teach our child some prayers during our Day of Rest – at her request. She is already excited to explore the pages of her siddur… And that is something that makes her father glow with happiness.