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Parting the Red Sea with My Dad and My Atheist Daughter

With Passover around the corner, my thoughts turn to how to make the story of the Exodus come alive for my kids. But it's not so simple. My almost-7-year-old daughter is an atheist.
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With Passover around the corner, my thoughts are turning to how to make the story of the Exodus come alive for my kids. Typically, one might use clever stories or dramatic reconstructions with masks and props. But it's not so simple in our house. This is because my almost-7-year-old daughter is a self-declared atheist.

My daughter conceives of God as a social construction. She believes that the concept began in ancient times as a rumour, which then took on a life of its own. I enjoy engaging her in discussions about her utterly reasonable convictions. And she knows I read and think a lot about the topic. "Mom, is that another book on Jewish theology?" she teased the other day, glancing at a large tome lying unclaimed on the sofa. (It wasn't, but she knows I try to keep up.)

But in relaying the many fantastical elements of the Passover story, I don't want the description of God raining reptiles down on the Egyptians, or parting the Red Sea for the Israelites, to fall on deaf ears. "It's just a made up story," she said today when I mentioned the bit about the waters splitting. "And besides," she added, "there's no such thing as God."

So I'm turning to inspiration from a most unlikely source: memories of a trip I took with my dad to Universal Studios when I was 9. As it happens, one of the highlights of the Hollywood studio tour is connected to the story of the Exodus. With creaky mechanical walls creating a truck-width gap in the lake, riders on the tour tram get to drive right through. They see what Charlton Heston and fellow cast members witnessed as they filmed the famous Red Sea scene in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic The Ten Commandments.

These tourists are there to discover the special effects behind the films. But they also know that glimpsing the tricks of the trade won't diminish their experience of the magic of motion pictures. If anything, doing so will enhance it. Just like tending one's own garden can inculcate a sublime appreciation for the taste of a fresh carrot, unraveling some of life's mysteries can make one thirsty to grasp more.

There's another reason why I draw inspiration from that memory of my daughter-father trip to California. I think about what happens when parents take their kids seriously. There is a short animated video circulating online by David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of The Social Animal. In it, Brooks explains that to help your children achieve their potential, threats and bribes are not the way to go. What kids need most is authentic parental connection. Pull your daughter aside and share something about your personal world. Through that seemingly small act, you will help bolster a healthy sense of self, one that can propel her toward a mindful pursuit of her life goals.

My dad, a psychiatrist-psychotherapist, would frequently share a bit of his own intellectual or creative life with me. His interests sometimes became mine. Simon & Garfunkel and Neil Diamond were my childhood soundtrack. Before I discovered the Brat Pack, I embraced cinematic stars like Al Jolson and Maximillian Schell. I was familiar with every program at my summer camp before I even arrived, thanks to my dad's sharing his own Camp Massad memories with me for years prior. And I knew more about Sigmund Freud than most kids my age. Sometimes I took the information in socially awkward directions, like challenging my fourth-grade classmates to define clinical terms like "narcissistic rage." But usually it meant that I was inspired to think critically about issues, preparing to put my own stamp on the world.

In her atheist ways, my daughter is already engaging with the biggest ideas there are. Why are we here, and how did we get here? Attending synagogue and religious school, she hears a lot about God. Though she doesn't believe in Him, she sometimes spontaneously breaks into the ballad version of Adon Olam, Debbie Friedman's Havdalah prayer or the Shema. And I enthusiastically chime in.

My daughter wants to be part of the conversation, and I want to be there as her partner in dialogue. Letting our kids in on the secrets of what we most care about sets the stage for helping them engage in our most important collective, foundational narratives. Whether we believe these stories to be literal occurrences, divinely inspired actions or humanly created tales, they are the lifeblood of the Jewish conversation. Seems that this year, the Four Questions recited at the seder will just be four of many. It won't be long before I have many questions for her, too.

This column first appeared in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

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