Ah, Jewish continuity. We want it. We need it. We have to have it. And yet, we have no idea how.
Well, 72-year-old social work professor and former Evangelical Christian Venn Bengston has a few tips for us. He spent the last 50 years studying families and faith, with a focus on how how religion is passed down generations.
In his new book “Families and Faith,” he presents his findings, which include a few good tips.
As Mark Oppenheimer reported in the Times, Bengston discovered that one of the most important things parents can do to transmit faith is to actually be religious. This means not just identifying with a particular faith or denomination, but actually following the rituals and customs. Yes, it is kind of a no brainer. But there is a catch.
You can’t just be a good teacher and observer of religious law, you must be a good teacher and observer who also has a good relationship with your kids.
The perhaps most interesting thing that Bengston found, well from Sisterhood point-of-view at least, is that while in non-Jewish families the most important relationship in determining religious transmission is how close kids are with dad, with Jewish families it is how close they are with mom. His findings show that 90% of Jews with good relationships with their moms identify as Jewish, compared to only 60% who weren’t so close with their moms.
Oppenheimer suggests that this difference might be due to the fact that Jews believe that religion is inherited from the mother. That sounds right.
Though I also suspect it has something to do with the fact that Judaism is such a home-based religion. Even for the most loyal and regular synagogue goers among us, there is still a considerable portion of the practice of our faith that occurs at the dining room table — which historically has been exclusively mom’s domain and still largely is. From the heralding of Shabbat with the prayer over the candles, to the ladling of the chicken soup to the purification of the house for Passover, the practice of Judaism is intricately woven with the domestic sphere, making mom’s Jewish practice such an intimate, nearly visceral, part of the Jewish experience.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
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