Jewish Identity

by Bryan Friedman in Daddy's Corner, Judaism

Some of my earliest memories of childhood are from my days on the playground at preschool with my then best friend, Jordan. I can still see Jordan and myself trudging through the sandbox and going down the slide, followed by an uncomfortable jaunt on the awkward metal tricycles that we rode in circles on what I remember as a blacktop. I have vague memories of other aspects of preschool too – I think at some point we actually had naptime on cots and I’m pretty sure we sang songs outside under a big tree with a woman playing the guitar. (I distinctly remember the Jewish classics “Bim Bom” and “My Bagel Lies Over The Ocean”.)


It is this exact same preschool that Madelyn will be starting at next week (with a brand new state of the art jungle gym on that neat rubbery surface and minus a few safety-questionable tricycles). Understandably, it has me reflecting on my early days there because even though this is the start to Madelyn’s 20+ year career in the education system, it is also the beginning of something else that I hope will become as important to her as it has for Alison and me – her Jewish identity. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that her baby naming was really the start of that, and certainly in some ways it was, but while I’m fairly confident she won’t remember that occassion too well (she was less than a year old), I’m hoping she’ll remember her preschool days as fondly as I do.


Of course, despite learning the Hamotzi and how to say “Shabbat Shalom,” my time at Temple preschool was a short-lived Jewish experience that ended when it was time for Kindergarten. My parents, though raised Jewish, weren’t overly religious, and while we celebrated Chanukah and Passover, we also celebrated Christmas and Easter (for a few years). So even though my Jewish identity started with the temple preschool, it wasn’t until I was in third grade when I explicitly asked my parents if I could go to Hebrew school and have a Bar Mitzvah. I had attended a conservative temple’s Friday night services with a friend, and I don’t know if it was the sprinkled sugar cookies during the Oneg or what, but there was just something about it that intrigued me and had me wanting more. When I went to my parents about this, their reaction was positive, despite my dad’s self-described bad experience with his own Bar Mitzvah. I think they realized much better than me at the time that the conservative temple was probably not the place for us, so they did some legwork for me, researching two reform congregations in the area – one of them where I had attended preschool years earlier.


We ended up, however, joining the other one and leaving my preschool temple behind. My parents really connected with the Director of this congregation, and in all honesty, I think part of the decision was also driven by cost, given that this alternative was less expensive (something I understand all too well in my current reality). I started in the middle of third grade, needing private tutoring in Hebrew until I caught up with the rest of the class. It was only one day a week, but it wasn’t long before I was caught up and then some. By fifth grade, kids and teachers alike started poking fun at me, calling me Rabbi Friedman because I took to things so well and actually really liked and embraced Hebrew school. Before long, my whole family got very involved – my sister started classes, my mom became a 2nd grade teacher there, and my dad played guitar at services. I had my Bar Mitzvah, went on to Confirmation class, and then continued as a teacher’s assistant for that same teacher who I started with in 3rd grade. Even when I went off to college, I would come home for High Holy Days services and watch my dad blow the Shofar. When I met Alison, I found out she had gone there too and my dad had even played guitar at her Bat Mitzvah. We had the same rabbi for our Mitzvahs and he officiated at our wedding too. This congregation and everything I had built with it completely defined my Jewish identity.


And then it went away. Suddenly. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I think the Director/Owner had just decided that she was burned out after all those years of running the show, and the whole thing just disbanded. It was very quietly devastating for me. I felt lost for a short time. It was like everything we had built together had meant nothing. I selfishly felt abandoned.

When Alison got pregnant, we knew we wanted to join a congregation so we would have a Jewish home for our family. We were not planning to force feed the Torah down our kids’ throats, but we did want to build a foundation of Judaism that we grew up with and allow them to grow and choose how they wanted to celebrate – to define their own Jewish identity. We checked out the Friday night services and did some research on a reform temple in the area – the one I went to preschool at. We loved the musical atmosphere of the services and the warm feeling of community that the temple congregation, staff, and clergy brought. So we decided to join, and Alison and Madelyn began attending Mommy-and-Me classes and Tot Shabbats there. Madelyn got her Hebrew name, and we attended services whenever we could. I felt my Jewish identity shifting and changing from what it was in the past to something new and different, and I liked it. Whereas before I looked at Judaism with much more youthful eyes, now I viewed it from the eyes of a father and a husband – a family man. It’s been three years and Alison and I are really starting to get involved, joining some committees and starting to carve out our own place in the temple.



All of this is to say that Madelyn’s latest milestone has made me realize that I’ve been on an endless journey of discovery of my own Jewish identity since I started preschool, just as she’s about to do. In fact, she’s a part of helping me define it even still, and she’s just beginning her journey as I did (and as her mom did too with help from Jewish summer camp in her case). I’m very excited to watch Madelyn make her own discoveries about religion and her heritage, even if it’s only “Bim Bom” and the Hamotzi for now. I know she’s starting off right because when I ask what she did at the temple, she always right away mentions one of her favorite things – “chaaaallaaaah”. Plus, she’s already made a name for herself at services by dancing to some of the more upbeat prayers. Next week, she will continue the Friedman preschool legacy that started thirty years ago, and my Jewish identity couldn’t be prouder.