“A boy at school today told me that I wasn’t going to go to heaven because I don’t believe in Jesus.” We were lying down last night, just before she drifted off to sleep, when my nine year old rolled over and told me that. I was… stumped. I had no idea how to respond. I grew up Catholic, in a completely homogeneous environment. That wasn’t a schoolyard taunt that I had ever heard before. I didn’t have any childhood experience to look back on, any quick responses that she could fire off to respond. So I paused, perhaps for too long, and then realized what she was saying. I reassured her that it wasn’t true. God doesn’t care what you believe, he cares that you are a good person. But then I was stuck.
Because I didn’t know what to say to her. We’re Jewish, we don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. Should I tell her that the kid is just wrong, that nobody has a monopoly on deciding what happens after you die. Do I tell her that he’s a jerk for saying that, when he’s just echoing what he’s being taught? That’s a tenet of that faith, I believe. You kind of have to believe in it in order to get to heaven. So, in his mind, he’s not wrong, he’s perhaps legitimately concerned that my girl is doomed to never get into heaven because she’s Jewish. How do I explain in such a way to make her understand, and not make her feel victimized and angry? Because that was Marc’s first reaction. His suggestion of what she could have said would not have gone over well at school, and I don’t think Jessie would actually kick the kid and swear at him, which was what he was recommending. Sam suggested that she call him an evil, gutless rat (but I think he just liked saying “evil gutless rat”) – which had the advantage of being not being classic obscenities but still… not quite the response I was going for.
In the end, I told her that if it came up again, she could just quietly respond that he was entitled to his own religious beliefs and so was she. And to please respect her beliefs and not say things like that to her. I think, in some ways, she’s more prepared to handle religious differences than other kids her age, precisely because of her background. While having a mother who didn’t grow up as Jewish may mean that I don’t call her by Yiddish endearments, don’t ever voluntarily feed her lox and cream cheese on her bagels, and stumble over the songs at the Tot Shabbat services, it also means that she has a really clear idea that different people believe different things, and that’s perfectly okay. She knows that her Grammy and Aunties and cousins on my side are just as good, just as likely to get into heaven, as she is. There are no bonus points for being Jewish or Christian or not belonging to any particular religion. Simply that different people believe different things, follow different traditions, and that’s okay. She doesn’t have to believe in Jesus, and believing in Jesus doesn’t make the little boy on the playground inherently different or better or worse than her.