Lighting the Way to My Son’s Jewish Identity

When my son turned three, he seemed to understand holidays and celebrations in a more conscious way. He started talking about Christmas. He pointed out every Christmas tree and told me about Frosty the snowman. My husband is half-Jewish, and we celebrate Christmas with my in-laws as well as lighting the menorah and playing dreidel for Hanukkah.

I realized, watching my son, that Judaism will always be in his heritage — but if it’s not in our house, our community, our rituals, and our conversations, it won’t be woven into his life.

This has made me reflect on my own Jewish identity. What do I miss about being surrounded by Jewish community? What does being Jewish mean to me? What does practicing Judaism look like in my day-to-day life? On holidays? I want to find communal spaces where the focus is less on how many prayers I can recite in Hebrew and more about how we can connect to ourselves and to our community.

I was raised what I call “Conservadox.” Our synagogue had a female cantor, I had a Bat Mitzvah, and I was a Torah reader. Services were almost exclusively in Hebrew, we never skipped any prayers, and there were strict dress codes. Through college, I still went to services on High Holidays, but I wasn’t really active in the Jewish community on campus. I still lit a menorah on Hanukkah and burned yahrzeit candles when my mom reminded me. My internal Jewish identity was so strong that I didn't feel a need to maintain it in an active way. In other words, I took my community for granted.

One way that I’ve always felt connected to my community is through the lighting of candles. Over the years, I’ve lit candles for Shabbat, Chanukah, a yahrzeit, or simply after a long, stressful day. When I light a candle, I am more calm. I feel more present, grounded, and centered. I love lowering the lights and letting my eyes adjust to the softer glow. I’m realizing this is connected to a lifetime of candlelight marking a sacred moment.

Early on in my motherhood experience, when my son would have a meltdown (or, more often, I would have a meltdown) I would take a shower by candlelight. I would turn on the water, light a candle, and turn off all of the lights. Both of us calmed down. We’d watch the candlelight, use the soap that smells really good, and actually feel the warm water. I know there is science to support how this helps recalibrate the nervous system, and I know it helped us both. There are times now when my son asks for a candle shower because he knows it helps us reset. He knows it is soothing. He knows it is special. 

With the recent surge of overt anti-Semitism, I feel both an urge to hide and a stronger urge to live my Jewish life out loud. I am proud to be Jewish. I love that many prayers are so ingrained in my memory I don’t even remember that I know them. I love that I can draw from a variety of cultural references to shape my view of the world and to advocate for the rights of all people. I want this for my son.

Maybe I should leave well enough alone and let him assimilate further, as each generation seems to do. But he would miss out on so much. The history, the culture, the social justice, the empathy, the education, the encouragement to think critically and ask questions, the brisket, pickles, and farfel. I mean, how could I rob him of the joy of a latke fresh out of the fryer topped with cold applesauce mixed with sour cream? (I know that may be a contentious statement, but I stand by it.) 

My son will decorate Christmas cookies and taste candy canes at school and learn plenty about Christianity in our secular world… because in the U.S., “secular” really means “Christian.” But I want my son to know who he is in a deep and visceral way. If I am not proactive about it — if I am not intentionally bringing Judaism into our home and our lives — it simply won’t be there. 

What I am learning in adulthood, through parenthood, is that I don’t have to return to the Judaism I grew up with. I can take what I’ve learned, what I now know, and what is important to me and my blended family, to create our own rituals and our own Jewish identity. 

For me, in my house, I’ll return to the ritual of lighting candles. 

As I pull out my great grandmother’s candlesticks, my son chooses which candles we will use. Only one of the candlesticks is actually shiny, as cleaning bronze is a lot more labor intensive than I originally thought. It’s a visual representation of generations old and new, at least that’s what I tell myself. 

I melt the bottom of the candles into the holder as my son eagerly climbs onto the dining chair, leaning over the table. As I light the candles we talk about fire safety and then things grow calm, quiet. I wave my hands over the candles and bring them to my face and my son copies me. I smile as I recite the Shabbat prayer and hear his sweet voice echoing my words.

Maybe we will light Shabbat candles each week, maybe talk about Shabbat specifically, or maybe this will be a simple ritual we use to end the work week and the school week and to begin the weekend. Most importantly, it will mark a stretch of time that we get to spend together. And doing that, to me, is sacred.  

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Lighting Shabbat Candles, My Jewish Learning

Yahrzeit: Remembering on the Anniversary of a Death, My Jewish Learning

How to Light the Hanukkah Menorah, My Jewish Learning

Lighting the Way to My Son’s Jewish Identity
Alissa Alter
Alissa Alter

Alissa Alter (she/her) is also known as "The Amy Poehler of Vaginas" for her unfiltered and unapologetic work to destigmatize the female body and experience. An author, host of the podcast Myth of Motherhood, former Broadway performer, Pilates Instructor, mother, truth-teller — learn more at and

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