Someone once asked Pamela Anderson — the regular Playboy centerfold and “Baywatch” star — what she thought her two sons would be like when they grew up. She joked that in order to rebel against her, they would probably become accountants.
Though the quote seemed like a throwaway comment, it creeps back into my mind occasionally when I think about my own upbringing. It’s normal for kids to rebel against their parents or try to make a dramatic turn from the way that they grew up. My parents have an interfaith marriage (Dad’s Jewish, Mom’s Presbyterian) and never encouraged me to be involved with a particular religion. No bat mitzvah, nothing. And yet somehow I grew up eager to learn about world religions, embraced Judaism as my spiritual path and eventually worked as a religion reporter.
For many of my close friends, though, exactly the opposite happened. Having grown up in kosher homes, declining invitations to birthday parties that took place on Friday nights and spending years in boys-only or girls-only yeshivas, many of them now rebel against Judaism. Most of the people I know who eat bacon for breakfast and are highly critical of Israel are people who grew up in Jewish homes and think that religion was “forced on them.”
Yes, this is all anecdotal evidence. But it also made me wonder if the best way to raise a child who embraces Judaism is not to spend thousands on summer camps, day schools, bat mitzvah training and confirmation, but to back off and let that kid come to the faith on her own. If kids are going to rebel, don’t you want to trick them into rebelling in the least rebellious way possible?
I reached out to people who work in Jewish education to ask them about my early-education theory. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of blank stares and prolonged silences. After all, why would a person who makes his or her living teaching kids about Judaism want to say that his or her line of work didn’t really matter? It is like asking a reporter to say that newspapers are obsolete and that kids should never read books.
But Bethamie Horowitz, a professor of humanities and social sciences at New York University who researches Jewish identity formation, didn’t disregard my theory outright. “The story you’re telling is a complicated one to tell through qualitative studies,” she told me. In her study, “Connections and Journeys,” she interviewed Jewish adults about how their Jewish identities and relationships evolved throughout their lives. “If you get on with your family, as a general rule, and there’s a loving relationship with no great disruption, you will fall close to the apple tree,” she says, noting that it’s not always the case — sometimes, a major positive or negative life event can send someone off in another direction.
That fits in with the stories of people I knew who had become way more or way less religious than their parents. In one friend’s case, a parent’s sudden death sent her careening away from Judaism as she struggled with her grief. In another, a troubled childhood and a search for structure had sent someone straight into the arms of an organized, routine-driven Orthodox life.
Horowitz also pointed out that students are influenced by their schoolteachers as they develop their interests and identities. Teachers at Jewish schools have the extra charge of inculcating a love of Judaism in addition to teaching the course material. “A great teacher anywhere can make a difference, but bad ones get framed as a bad Jewish education,” she said.