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How Did I Become the Parent of a Jewish Kid?

The following is a transcript of Episode 4 of the Perfect Jewish Parents Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Josh: Hello and welcome to Perfect Jewish Parents, a new podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute about the joys and always of raising children Jewishly.

I’m Joshua Ladon, director of Education for the Shalom Hartman Institute. 

Masua: I’m Masua Sagiv, scholar-in-residence for the Shalom Hartman Institute 

Josh: In calling our podcast Perfect Jewish parents, we were purposefully being cheeky, playing with all of our assumptions about what means to be a Jewish parent, as well as all the hopes, dreams, and expectations we have for our children. But as we began to work on this project, we quickly realized that we wanted the podcast to be a place to talk about the range of experiences and questions that related to both parenting Jewishly and parenting Jewish kids.

Today I’m really excited to be talking with my sister-in-law, Annie Zean Dunbar, a doctoral candidate in social work at University of Denver. She goes by Zean and she did not grow up thinking she was gonna be a Jewish parent. In fact, she probably did not meet a Jew until she was well into adolescence, if not later.

You see, Zean was born in Liberia and immigrated to America as a refugee when she was nine. She met my brother when she was in college, they got married. She didn’t convert. And they send their two year old daughter to a preschool at a Conservative synagogue. 

Talking to Zean is an opportunity to think a little bit about what it means to become a parent of a Jewish child, to unpack that process when it’s not as evident as in other families. Jewish parents and Jewish families come in all shapes and sizes today.

Masua: You know, Donniel Hartman likes to point out that intermarriage is not a reflection of Jews choosing to leave the fold like the Kaddish scene in Fiddler on the Roof, but the broad acceptance of Jews by greater America. While each congregation or or institution might have assumptions about Jewish lineage, we also know that one can participate robustly in Jewish life in America, no matter their background. Taking seriously the challenges and possibilities of raising a Jewish child helps strengthen our Jewish community.

Josh: So in today’s episode, our conversation will explore what it looked like for Zean and my brother to figure out how they want to raise their child, the pleasures of their Jewish experiences and the role race figured in their decision.

We’re gonna talk about all these things and more with Zean in a minute.

Masua: Zean, it’s great to have you here. Why don’t you start with telling us a bit about yourself and about your family?

Zean: Sure. Yeah. So my name is Zean. I am Josh’s sister-in-law of many years, at this point we’ve been, Josh’s brother and I have been together for about 15 years, which is, you know, a lifetime in millennial years. We’re practically like septegenarians at this point. So I would consider myself an educator. I am a doctoral candidate, so I do research, I teach. I am also a parent, and that has been one of the most interesting and important new identities of my life. I also consider myself a Black woman, a feminist, a nerd, avid reader, I’m a cat mom, I guess, too.

Josh: Right. So you have one.

Zean: One human child and one fur baby, as the kids call them.

Josh: And how old is your little one?

Zean: Two.

Josh: If you were like to evaluate your parenting style and to compare it to a Jewish food, what do you think you would choose and what would it be?

Zean: Oo, that’s a good one. I’m kind of like sufganiyot as a parent, so,

Josh: Oh, that’s a good one. How come?

Masua: Hmm.

Josh: Jelly donuts for those,

Zean: I love donuts. Yeah, so like a little mushy, right? Like when you’re making dough, you have to be a little flexible, but then once you’re set, you’re kind of a solid shape, but you’re gooey on the inside. And I would say I’m fairly consistent in a lot of ways, but I’m still, a lot more flexible in some of the approaches to my parenting than I thought I would be when I was becoming a parent.

Josh: Meaning you had aspired to be maybe a little harder.

Zean: Maybe, yeah, a bit more strict, maybe a bit more rigid. And I think I’m not at all. I’m very much like, sure the kid can eat ice cream for dinner, but they can’t eat it in their room, cause I have weird thing about eating in your room. 

Masua: So when we think about Jewish parenting, each of us has different access points to what does it mean to be a Jewish parent, or what does it mean to raise a Jewish child. And I think this conversation is so interesting for us , because when you grow up into Judaism, when you are like Jewish from birth, then maybe you take for granted some things and maybe you are blind for other things. Can you share with us some of your thoughts or experiences or feelings about what does it mean, to raise a Jewish child?

Zean: That’s a wonderful question. So I think to start, one of the things that we had to talk about before we decided to have children was, how are we gonna raise them? And that was a conversation that had to be explicit because I didn’t grow up Jewish, right? I grew up Christian my family is still very religious. I am somewhat agnostic, we’ll say. But I think over the years of being in my relationship and being a part of my family, learning more about Judaism and getting to participate in rituals, it really solidified for me that A) I think that there’s something really beautiful and powerful about being connected to a faith community. 

And I think that one of the things that’s been really wonderful is that I’ve felt so welcomed to participate. And I know that people don’t always feel that way when they’re entering a new community or a faith practice. When we decided we were gonna have kids, I was pretty excited about the idea raising them Jewish because it’s a really important part of my partner’s life and the way that he was raised and the community that we have surrounded ourselves with.

It’s funny because although David doesn’t necessarily go to Temple, a lot of his friends have, and are Jewish. And so he’s sort of been the one to organize all the people for all of like the major holidays. All of our friends, for all of the weddings that he’s officiated or been a part of, he’s like the go-to Jewish person for things. So he will do the blessings, or some sort of thing, for our friends who are Jewish. And I think knowing that that’s a big part of his identity, culturally, the ways that we relate familiarly, it made it a lot easier to then be like, okay, yes. It feels good to raise my kid, in a Jewish community. 

And I was pretty explicit too about, starting to do Shabbat as a part of our family practice, right, so we do Shabbos every Friday and it’s like wonderful and it’s a great way to bring people together. I didn’t grow up singing the songs, and saying the prayers, but I do feel connected to this day of rest, being together this very beautiful connection to David’s ancestry, right? Because it’s the same songs that his father sang and his grandparents.

Josh: Maybe his grandparents and maybe not his father, but, um,

Zean: Well, I mean, maybe Ed sang them, but you know, like Ed will sometimes sing the songs. And I think that for me, having our child learn the same blessings and sing them with us, right? And demand juice? It’s very beautiful. 

Josh: Right.

Masua: Did you know, actually, very interesting. Do you think that the decision to bring kids, is some kind of a turning point or a point where you have to decide something that maybe was not necessarily or more vague beforehand?

Zean: I think I was so ambivalent about having children for a long time that when I was like, we’re gonna have kids, I was just all in for all of it. It may be in my family, it might feel like I’m rejecting the way that I was raised, but it’s about connecting the reality that my child is different than me. And so maybe the ways that I was raised is not the way that I want to raise her. 

And I think that raising her as a Jewish child is important, you know, she’s half Black. And so, in a lot of ways her racial and ethnic identity are always going to be the thing people see first. And I want her to feel that she has a connection to and is deeply entrenched in her identity as a Jewish person.

Josh: There’s like so many places that I want to go. On one hand you’re talking about Judaism as a set of rituals. You’re also talking about it as, there’s some sort of faith thing, but you’ve also said well, the faith feels like, what you mean by faith is not a deep belief in God, but some sort of set of practices, cultural rituals also that, it’s about community. 

There’s a people element of being attached to these people. And it makes me think about, what it means to do Jewish, in homes. When you were like, oh, well I pushed us to do a set of rituals around Friday night dinner. But on Friday afternoon when I call my brother, cause we’re both oftentimes the cooks in the home, he’s like, oh, what are you making? And I tell him, and I’m like, what are you making? And he’s

Masua: That’s your own ritual. 

Josh: Yeah, yeah. That’s my own ritual. But he’s like, oh, I’m making Brussels sprouts with pancetta. Like, we’re not talking the same language of Judaism necessarily, or we’re speaking the same language with very different flavor profiles, to continue the metaphor.

And it’s interesting to think about what it means to raise a Jewish child in this moment as, there’s lots of different ways and even the ways that my kids enact Judaism. You’re constantly thinking about like, on one hand I’m trying to give things over. And you’re constantly sort of wrestling with when do I want to pressure them to take on this thing? Or how do I infuse this space with what I think of as Jewish? And also how do I let them have their own experience. I guess it feels to me like that’s part of the wrestling.

Masua: No, and also what to embrace and what not. It’s maybe a bit funny, but your description really resonated with me because when we are here, we didn’t know a lot of the songs either. I mean, the songs, wherever we go to the community and we go to the school and there are songs that are very entrenched in the American Jewish experience that we have no familiarity with, but now they are part of our identity as well.

Because we embrace them and I think as you said, in a sense they embrace us back. They, they took us in.

Josh: I’ll also say, I’m glad to hear that you feel welcomed. You captured two categories, which is you are a Black woman and you’re not Jewish. And so like that for American Jewish community, I think used to be much more difficult. I’m hopeful. But you send your kid to a Conservative preschool in which even 20 years ago, I think, wouldn’t have been a place where you would’ve found a home. So I, I’m struck by that. 

I’m wondering, what does it mean to come from, you were born in Africa. You have the immigrant experience, you have the Black American experience. What does it mean to have those identities, with your daughter and doing stuff that’s Jewish and also all this other stuff. 

Zean: That’s a great question. I think that because I’ve had to negotiate and navigate a lot of things as an immigrant, it makes it a lot more playful. You know, there’s a lot of angst, right? That comes with moving to a new country and adopting a new set of customs and, you know, making peace with your ideas of what your homeland was.

I didn’t really have a lot of that, in that I moved to the States when I was a child, right? And so I grew up here. However, I still have a lot of family back home, and that sort of shapes the ways that I feel like I relate to my family or not. Because I’m someone who’s in that in between space and makes it a little bit less stressful or painful or awkward because I just do whatever I want. 

You know, I think I gave up a long time ago trying to fit in anywhere, and it makes it a little bit easier to fit in everywhere, because you can sort of just decide who you are. And I was saying this to someone earlier, but, I think growing up with, I like to call them, my group of misfit immigrant toys. Like my friends and I, you know, we were all from all over. And so I think it just made life feel more robust, right? Like they’re people from everywhere and we all come together and sometimes you like people for who they are and sometimes you don’t and, like, your identities aren’t like the end all be all right.

And so I think when it came to parenting, it made it a little bit easier to then say, yeah, why not try this? I’m also a pandemic parent, right? So there’s a whole nother level of negotiations of like, how do you send your kid into the world safely, period, right, when there are people who are making decisions about their lives and their safety that are very different than your own? 

But I knew that I wanted her to go to a place that she would be welcomed and the synagogue that we chose is really nice. We had a great conversation with the director there, we got to meet the teachers and everyone was so kind. I’ve worked in childcare for a long time and you can get a vibe for people. Like, if you’re being uptight about kids yelling, then I don’t know why you’re there, but, you know, um,

Josh: We, had, I love our kids preschool, but at one point they were like, your son is very loud. Do you think you could ask him to be quieter? And I was like, what? Do you think I haven’t? Like, that’s why I send him to you, so he’s not loud around me, but he’s loud in your school.

Zean: Exactly. And so there’s, you know, there’s just this feeling of like, if we’re gonna send her somewhere, we want her to be safe. We want her to feel like she has a place here and it was the synagogue and it continues to be. And I think it’s really beautiful that she gets to learn about all of these things that I couldn’t provide for her. Right? And my partner could, but between our jobs and hobbies and just like trying to get her to take naps, I don’t know if we could do some of, the educative and developmental work of teaching her about what does it mean to be Jewish and American, outside of the home.

Masua: I have a friend who once told me, that once you cross the ocean, you don’t feel at home in any of those places anymore. And this really resonates with me because I am in constant, homeness and missing, the other place. But, for me, what I found out, is that my family became the anchor in all of these transitions, which were a blessing, complete blessing because, you know, we get to experience both cultures, as you said, embrace a lot of these new things. We have our community and we have our different institutions, but the family is really an anchor that withstands these transitions.

Josh: Do you think like your daughter navigating her Blackness and inheriting from you a set of traditions or experiences around being Black, about being an African immigrant? Is there something about the fact that it’s color and it’s not tradition, that then is, a different rubric that you have in terms of your hopes and dreams about her experiencing, like, do you not have to worry about, or you do have to worry about it, but you don’t have to worry about it? Cause, you can’t get rid of it type of thing? 

Where it’s like, if you’re coming from two different traditions that are not embodied in the same way, so to speak, even though I think Judaism is very embodied, but there are Jews that look all sizes and hues. 

Zean: Yeah, I think that, our home is one of the safest places where she gets to be herself and like figures out what that means at every stage of her life and outside of that, right, where are the places where she gets to navigate her identities? And hopefully that’s in one of the community spaces and institutions that she’s a part of. You know, people are always gonna identify her as a non-white person. I don’t have to say anything. Like, she can just exist in the world and people are always gonna be like, not white, right? Even though, like her dad’s white. And you know, we talked about, this challenge of, people are always gonna identify us as being in relationship, but not necessarily her and her dad.

And so having this anchor, in a Jewish identity, in a space where she gets to express that, and grow into it, and negotiate what that means as she becomes her own person is really important to me because that is a way that her and her dad have this, beautiful lifelong connection. But it’s also not just their lives, it’s a cultural connection, right, a religious connection. I think that that’s a really important thing for me to offer as an option.

Especially if you’re a non-religious person, people tend to be like, we don’t want our kids to grow up religious, and why not ? Like, you know, I mean institutions are going to institution, right? Like no institution is perfect. But I think there are plenty of people and plenty of ways to have a religious belief, practice your religious belief and do that in a way that feels good. And giving my kid the ability to do that is something, I think is so important.

Josh: What I hear you saying also is like, oh I had to do a lot of navigating, a lot of struggling and like the home is one place where I can create somewhat of a holding space, and to let her figure stuff out. And also like figuring stuff out means engaging in a world that’s not easy, not perfect, and I have to work things out that are hard sometimes. And you’re gonna have to navigate different paths, so to speak. And challenges.

Masua: I also hear this is really the story of the American Jewish community, in general because it’s the struggling with what are we, is this being part of a religion? Is this being part of a culture? Is this being part of a community or a people obviously, and I mean, for my kids, we are Orthodox, but it was much more natural for them to say, if someone celebrates whatever, Chanukkah, Purim, then they’re Jewish. But if they don’t celebrate, they’re not Jewish. Right?

Josh: Right. I mean, it feels like, in America, oftentimes, and I think broadly, the Jewish conception of what counts as being Jewish doesn’t work in rules that are outside the Jewish war. Meaning like, we have a set of definitions that are not exclusively faith. We’re not exclusively a set of activities or practices. There’s this inherited nature. It’s a porous boundary. What we’ve seen also both in America and in Israel, is you can join up and you can be part of the Jewish people. Some people convert, some people don’t. You’ve got Russian immigrants who never converted in Israel, but they go to the army and they serve. And so like, the whole construct of what counts as being a Jew, has a definition, it has a porous boundary, and it’s sort of wrestling between the sense of being an inherited people that can convert into or join into, and a set of activities. 

Josh: At the end of our episodes, Zean, we like to do an activity called on one foot parenting, when we turn the table on our guest, and ourselves, and ask a crazy question that our children ask us, usually at inopportune times. Theology

Masua: 8:30 PM, for example.

Josh: Yeah. Philosophy, God, politics, all the things. So we wanted to take a moment and ask that question right now. This came from a colleague at work. We asked them for some questions and one colleague sent a question that their child asked, which is where was I before I was born? 

Which is such a beautiful question. A hard question. So in like 10 seconds, if your child turned to you and said, where was I before I was born? How would you answer?

Zean: Oh. So I would say you were a hope not yet realized.

Josh: Oh, that’s so beautiful. 

Masua: That’s beautiful.

Josh: That’s so nice.

Masua, what would you say? 

Masua: You know, once my oldest cried her eyes out when she realized she wasn’t at our wedding and then she like, wasn’t I invited? So I usually answer, you were with God. But my sister just wrote me such a better response for that she told her kid that before she was in her tummy, she was in her heart.

Josh: Yeah. Nice. nice. So, I really love, there’s a rabbinic midrash, sort of story that the rabbis tell about when the child is in the womb. They’re in a yeshiva, they’re in a beit midrash, a house of study, and they learn all of the Torah. And then right as you’re about to be born, God comes in, puts God’s finger on your mouth, which is why you have the little sort of dipple on your lips and then you forget it all.

So I like saying you were learning Torah, even though it’s still after you were conceived or whatever, but I like saying, you were learning Torah and then you get to rediscover all the things you’ve learned before in this world.

Masua: That’s beautiful. 

Zean: That’s great. 

Josh: Yeah. I’ll say it’s a Midrash that I used to not like when I first heard it, cause I was like, oh, why is it that I learned the Torah and then I forgot it? Aren’t I doing something in the world? Aren’t I constructing Torah? Not just reconstructing or trying to re-remember, but I also think there’s something empowering in knowing you were learning Torah and now you’re continuing on that path.

Masua: My kids would probably cry on that answer as well, 

Josh: because, because they don’t want to study, 

Masua: but that’s, it’s a beautiful answer for adults.

Josh: Well, I basically use sarcasm and adult answers with my children, but that could be a different episode. Thank you everybody for joining us. This has been Perfect. Jewish parents. Thank you Zean..

Masua: Thank you so much. It was great meeting you.

Zean: It was so nice to meet you too. This has been really wonderful.

Masua: Thanks for listening to our show. 

Josh: Perfect Jewish Parents is a production of the Shalom Hartman Institute, where we tackle pressing Jewish issues facing Jewish communities, so we can think better, and do better.

Masua: You can check out our world-renowned faculty, free, live classes, and events at 

Josh: Our producers are Jan Lauren Greenfield and David Zvi Kalman. 

Masua: This epsiode was edited by our production manager, M Louis Gordon.

Josh: And our theme music is by Luke Allen. 

Masua: Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative. 

Josh: This is a new podcast, so help us get the word out. 

Masua: Hit subscribe, and also rate the show.

Josh: If you have ideas for an episode, parenting questions, or if your kids asked you a question you want us to answer, send us an email to [email protected].

Masua: Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time. 

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