Raising Children To Embrace Judaism: Authors Discuss Their Own Ambivalent Experiences


The struggle to raise an emotionally healthy child in a home where one parent is more religiously observant than the other was the subtext of a lively and revealing Jewish Week Forum last night with authors Judith Shulevitz (“The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time”) and Dani Shapiro (“Devotion: A Memoir”) at Cong. B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side.

More than 250 people attended the program.

The authors, who had met before but did not know each other well, read brief excerpts from their new and highly praised books, and spoke candidly with moderator Sandee Brawarsky, book critic of The Jewish Week and editor of its monthly supplement, Text/Context. They talked about growing up in homes where parental conflict over religion played out in raising children – namely, themselves.

As different as their backgrounds were on the surface – Shapiro grew up Orthodox in Manhattan while Shulevitz was raised less observant, primarily in Puerto Rico – they each described the tense awareness of parental discord over religion. (Shulevitz’s mother, who became a Conservative rabbi as an adult, was in attendance.)

Both women noted that they fled ritual observance from their teen years until at least their 30s, and are now blessed with supportive, though less observant spouses.

Shulevitz’s book is a contemplative and thorough look at the Sabbath and how Jews and Christians observe it, and she writes about her own striving for more ritual structure in her busy life. She said she tries to shut off her cell phone and other technology on Shabbat, whose essence, she has come to believe, is living in “the here and now,” with an emphasis on community.

She noted how difficult it is “to live with rules,” especially in our “increasingly libertarian society.”

Shapiro, who is also a novelist, was prompted to write her memoir after experiencing what she called a “spiritual crisis,” waking up at 3 a.m. night after night, worrying about the meaning of life, though hers, with a loving husband and son, seemed ideal.

Her book describes her encounters with her Judaism, as well as the teachings of Buddhism and the meditation of yoga, in an effort to find inner peace. She said she came to realize that the practice of Judaism did not have to be “all or nothing,” and both authors described the satisfaction of struggling with existential questions and trying to raise children not afraid to discuss and question their beliefs.

Shulevitz said she has found that young people who feel that Judaism and its observance is a burden, and makes them feel lonely, tend to give it up as adults, while those who enjoy the sense of connection through family and community adhere to its practice.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.