For One Teen, Getting a Jewish Education Was a Form of Rebellion

Lilit Marcus' Quest Back to Her Roots — On Her Own Terms

New Jew: Lilit Marcus says her parents’ hands-off approach allowed her to explore Judaism on her own terms.
Thinkstock
New Jew: Lilit Marcus says her parents’ hands-off approach allowed her to explore Judaism on her own terms.

By Lilit Marcus

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.

Lilit Marcus
Courtesy of the author
Lilit Marcus

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.