The Unexpected Way My Daughter with Autism Embraced Her Jewish Identity
One of the duties thrust upon us as Jewish parents is to live a Jewish life so that our children may also develop a Jewish identity.
I must admit that I am a failure at that most of the time.
See, I have an autistic daughter.
My husband and I are not very religious and truth be told, we are lazy about traditions.
My parents weren’t religious either but we did go to shul and light Shabbat candles and celebrate holidays together with our extended family. I went to religious school, to Young Judaea and BBYO and to summer camp and Jewish leadership conferences.
I went to Israel and fell in love with the country and our history and every time I went back, some little inner voice said to me, one day this is going to be your home.
When I turned 30, I sold my stuff, packed what was left into two suitcases (well four, plus three carry-ons and two boxes via El Al cargo) and moved to Israel.
While I still loved and admired Jewish tradition, I didn’t feel like I needed it anymore because in Israel, Jewish identity was all around me.
So I went from being hypocritically secular to just secular, and I haven’t really looked back.
For me, that’s fine, but I feel responsible to my daughter. I want her to develop a Jewish identity and I know I am not living up to my obligation. Now we live in the Netherlands where there aren’t Jewish activities that cater to special needs kids. The Jewish community that we belong to is a good one, but we struggled so much to find a way for our daughter to belong that we just more or less gave up on the Jewish piece. We pay our money, we go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Purim. We do the meals and little rituals at home, but not consistently. I’d like to say we light Shabbat candles every week, but we don’t.
Mostly we do the holidays, which means that my husband’s family comes over and I cook the foods I grew up eating: my grandmother’s kugel and kreplach, my mother’s brisket and charoset.
Often it is all we can do to get through the week, balancing two jobs and a daughter with special needs. The thought of taking our daughter, who is tired and over-stimulated after school and therapy, to shul, is just too much.
Blah, blah, blah those are my reasons, but I know they are also my choices. I am choosing not to do it.
And I know that my daughter won’t have the opportunities that other kids have, to spend summers at camp, to learn Hebrew songs, to sing the birkat hamazon (blessing after the meal) with a twist and laugh with her friends.
I worry that she is not going to have a Jewish identity and I know I am responsible for that. #Parentingfail
But then, as it is with many things about my daughter, she can sometimes be full of surprises.
Earlier today, she came into my room while I watched a CNN news video about Israel.
As usual, she asked me what I was watching. I told her I was watching the news (that usually sends her packing).
She started to walk off, but then she hesitated and asked if everything was OK in Israel. “Yes, things are OK,” I told her. Then she said, “I hope there is no more war there.” I told her there wasn’t and that Israeli kids were–right at this very moment–playing and having fun in Israel, just like her.
“I love Israel, it’s a Jewish country and the people who live there are Jewish, just like me,” she said.
This is a girl with an IQ of 61, who can’t tie her shoes, who can’t tell time or use the telephone, who can’t recite the four questions and who eats her Hillel sandwich with matzah, salt and apple sauce because the taste and texture of maror(bitter herbs) and charoset are absolutely intolerable for her.
And yet, even without all of the tradition and ritual, she just gets it: She’s a Jew. Israel is her country. Somewhere deep inside her, beyond school, beyond all the ritual the tradition and even my failures as a parent, she just knows.
G-d indeed works in mysterious ways.
DANA MEIJLER is a contributing writer to Kveller and Kiddish magazine.