Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Baking Baby Jesus in a Cake

“Mommy, am I Jewish?”

I was awoken by these words from my son Vince not quite a month ago now.  He was standing in the doorway to our bedroom in his pajamas, eyes half-opened, hair mussed.  I normally pride myself on rising before my children, especially on school days, but this particular Thursday morning followed an evening of holiday merriment I had shared with about 40 other mothers from their elementary school – a borderline religious experience in its own right.

I opened and closed my eyes, trying to wake up, my mind began to reel:

Holy shit. 

Here it is.  This is it.  This is what I get for introducing no formal religious education to my children whatsoever throughout their entire lives.  

Why didn’t we just baptize them Catholic or Episcopalian like our parents wanted?  Jeff and I don’t have to have strong religious beliefs.  Don’t we have an obligation to at least expose them to some religion while they’re growing up?  Then they can make a choice as adults, just as we did. 

But we agreed we’d feel like hypocrites walking into any church on a Sunday morning and pretending.  So disrespectful.  

Ugh!  We knew this day would come.  What do I say?  What can I say?  What will Vince even understand? 

Why the hell didn’t he ask Jeff? 

I laid there a beat longer, searching the white ceiling for answers. 

“No, honey.  You’re not Jewish.”  I finally answered. 

“Ethan’s Jewish.”  He was quick to reply.

“I know.”  I told him. 

Fortunately, I knew both Ethan and his mother.  I met them this past September after school started.  She is a very lovely woman – bright smile, warm, engaging, and very together.  She walks her boys to school every day.  I see her well-quaffed ponytail bouncing back and forth behind her boys on their bikes on the way to school some mornings.  She never has stale mascara on her eyelashes at drop off either.  She has two very polite young sons.  In fact, my boys just received a hand-written thank you in the mail in Ethan's hand for his birthday presents.  The more I think about it, the more I am realizing how perfectly buttoned-up this Miss Manners Mom is...  

Anyway, the big question of faith came in the middle of December so we were in the middle of Hanukkah.  Of course Ethan was talking about his family’s faith with his buddies at recess just as I’m sure Vince was talking about his faith: that even though he was naughty sometimes, his parents would still pretend to mail his wish list to a pretend man who lives in a pretend place called the North Pole and Vince would surely be the proud owner of a new, over-priced dirt bike come the morning of December 25th.

I was now officially awake.  I tried to jog my memory in preparation for Vince’s next curiosity which I was confident would come in the form of one of two questions:

1. Why aren’t I Jewish?
2. What is Jewish? (my money was on this one)

I remembered walking into their class to volunteer earlier that week and the class was copying a couple paragraphs from the projector about Hanukkah onto their papers.
What did that projector say?

I drew a blank. 

All I could think of was that damn Adam Sandler song:

Hanukkah is the festival of lights,
Instead of one day of presents,
We have eight crazy nights. 

I’ll go with that.  If he tries to scratch the surface on what it means to be Jewish, I’ll say something about lights and celebrating and the eight days and the Menorah.  If I get in too deep, I can just start singing the Dreidel song…

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel,
I made it out of clay…

while I walk downstairs to make breakfast. 

I felt ready for Vince’s next question.

“Mommy, where’s your iPad?”

“I think it’s charging on my desk.” 

Phew.  Star Wars Angry Birds saves the day.

This conversation has been haunting me for weeks now.  I have to help them begin to learn about religion.  I told myself I would go to the library and see if I could find some books on religion over the break. 

No, not the Bible or the Torah or the Koran.  There has to be some book, or maybe a series of books that sort of dumbs down the nuts and bolts of these various beliefs for the elementary set.  I just want to give my sons some perspective.  Some understanding of what their classmates are talking about when they talk about being Muslim or Christian or Hindu or whatever religion.  I want them to be aware and be respectful. 

Two weeks came and went and we never made it to the library.  To date, the only quasi-religious lesson they have received from their parents beyond their brief stint at a Christian pre-school at the age of 3 remains:

“Don’t say ‘Oh my God’.  God is very important to a lot of people and they may find it offensive.” 

School started back up yesterday after the two week Winter Break.  Not surprisingly, I didn’t realize that just the day before (Sunday, January 6), actually marked another religious celebration for some Christian denominations.  A celebration called the Feast of the Epiphany or King’s Day.  Fun Mom had told me that her family was going to celebrate at her mother-in-law’s home Sunday evening.  Given my current, mild obsession with my children’s lack of religion, I was excited to see Fun Mom standing outside our second graders’ classroom door with her Kindergarten son in her arms before pick-up.  I wanted the scoop on this new dimension of Christianity that I apparently missed out on growing up in my Catholic-Episcopalian hybrid home.

“So, Fun Mom, how was last night?”  I asked as I walked up.

“It was great.  The kids loved it.”

Manners Mom was standing nearby so Fun Mom invited her into the conversation by giving her a brief background on what we were talking about.

“So last night…well, my mother in-law hosts this celebration for the Twelfth Day and the kids put their shoes out and she fills them with little gifts and we honor the three wise men and she makes this cake with a Baby Jesus inside and whoever gets the Baby Jesus gets to wear the crown.”  She said it all so enthusiastically, as only Fun Mom can.  And she placed her hand on her Kindergartener’s head indicating that it was he who almost ate Baby Jesus in honor of King’s Day.

“So Baby Jesus was in your piece?” I looked at him, smiling with wide eyes and nodding but feeling just this side of clinically insane as I allowed the seven words to escape my lips.  

So Baby Jesus was in your piece?

He gave me a quick nod and smile and buried his face in Fun Mom’s neck.

I wondered what Manners Mom was thinking but I didn't dare meet eyes with her for fear I'd completely lose it.

The bell rang and the kids began to pour out of the class.  Vince was at my side in no time and soon Nick was, too, both asking if they could stay and play for a while.

We walked down the breezeway and toward the kickball field.  Well, they ran ahead and I walked slowly behind.  My mind was set completely adrift by this whole cake thing.  I was trying to imagine the execution. 

Where do you get the baby?  Is it blessed?  Is it really, literally, a little plastic baby like I am imagining in my mind?  It can’t be.  Like from a doll house?  It can’t be.  And they call it Jesus?  No way.  Do they sell them in bulk in Baby Jesus value packs? How big are they?  What if somebody choked on Baby Jesus?  And died?  Then Baby Jesus would have killed someone... possibly a child.

Fortunately, I was soon deep in conversation with Hot Mom whose sons were also playing on the field and the whole episode was filed in the back of my mind until after homework and dinner and piano practice and reading and brushing and flossing and rinsing and bed time.

Jeff and I had closed our books and turned out the light.  Maybe five full minutes had passed as I was lying there in the dark reviewing my day.

How could anybody, of any faith, at any time, ever decide that miniaturizing their God and baking him in a cake is even remotely copasetic on any level?  And I'm not even a religious person!

I bellowed out loud at the utter ridiculousness of it all.  My laughter scared Jeff who was apparently moments from dream land.

“Jesus Christ, honey!  What’s wrong with you?  I was almost asleep!”

“I’m sorry.  Something funny happened at school today.”

“Tell me about it tomorrow.”

"Fine.  Killjoy."

I can't decide if this last episode will serve to accelerate or postpone my desire to introduce more organized  religion in my children's lives.

P.S. This shit is real.  A quick Google search yielded the below article posted just yesterday regarding the King’s Cake.

Yes, that is Baby Jesus's ass hanging out of that cake.
You best get to genuflecting.