Music and the December Holidays

Psychology Today has an article on the December holidays, Deck the Halls for Chanukah, in their problem-solving section.

The author talks about growing up with a strong Jewish identity, but celebrating Christmas. (“Caroling in our New England town was a moving spiritual experience even for a young Jewish child.”)

With our yearly Hanukkah music video posts, we’re trying to help show that Christmas isn’t the only holiday with music. And it seems like that’s the point of this article too:

Singer-songwriter Julie Geller, for instance, in the video below, sings an updated version of one of my favorite traditional tunes, Al Hanisim, “On the Miracles…”

Julie’s song centers on the miracle that traditional rabbis have encouraged Jewish people to focus on in the Chanukah holiday. This central miracle of the holiday was that light from a small vessel of oil lasted for a full eight days and nights. Light stands for learning, for studying the Jewish wisdom tradition, for spiritual growth, and for joy that can penetrate even the deepist times of darkness.

At the same time, Chanukah celebrates also a military victory, a miraculous victory of a small band of Jewish citizens who stood up to the tyranical Greek-Assyrian armies that had invaded and were ruling over the country that now is called Israel. The Jewish resistance fighters were fighting for the right of Jews to sustain and celebrate their traditions and customs.

How appropriate at this time of year for all of us to treasure our cultural heritages. Given that so many Jews and Chrisitans have formed intermarried units, it’s all the more vital to remember the importance of Christian and Jewish traditions. Both celebrate joy, light, festivity, and celebration. Each religious tradition carries its history and conveys its moral lessons through its holiday activities.

Hanukkah Is Not The Jewish Christmas

One of my friends got me thinking with his post on Facebook:

Contemplating the irony of Hanukkah, which largely serves as a substitute for Christmas here in the US, being a holiday about resisting assimilation. Thoughts?

Responses ranged from saying this is an opportunity to educate others about Judaism, to valuing the freedom to practice our religion, to comments about solstice, to humorous quips.

I see the prominence of Hanukkah as our attempt to show that we haven’t assimilated — that we have a separate holiday. If we had fully assimilated, we would all be celebrating Christmas. Sure, we’ve adopted some practices from Christmas, such as the emphasis on gift giving, but Jews have been adopting (or influencing) parts of the cultures in which we’ve lived for thousands of years.

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. The holidays celebrate very different events, but I’m glad to live in a society where everyone has the freedom to celebrate how they see fit. Being in an interfaith marriage, I am especially thankful for this and value the opportunity to gather with family and friends to honor what is important to each of us. My husband and I celebrate Hanukkah at home and join his family for Christmas at my mother-in-law’s house.

I’m also glad to be part of a Jewish community that invites me to learn about the origins of Hanukkah and find the parts that are meaningful to me in today’s world. I would not have wanted to live under the dogmatic dictates of the Maccabees.

So would Hanukkah be a major holiday if it weren’t for Christmas? No. Are the two holidays equivalent? No. But I’m glad to live in a pluralistic society where both can exist.

Bringing Hanukkah to Camp

Hanukkah’s underway, and we’re all looking for ways to keep the holiday fresh for our friends, families, children… I mean, you’ve already made latkes and spun the dreidel. What more is there to do for the remaining 6 nights?

If your kids love summer camp, or if you did and want to share that joy with them, you might check out the Hanukkah booklet from our friends at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. With the tagline, “Eight nights of fun to heat up your winter… and make you dream about the really cool days of summer,” it’s packed with games and activities, like a word search, origami dreidels, easy ideas for creative and quick menorahs (see below) and a contest.

That’s right, a contest. Make sure to flip through to the last page for an opportunity to win some prizes. And follow OneHappyCamper.org/Winter to find a camp that’s the perfect fit for your family, and you could by eligible for $1000 off when you register for camp!

A happy Hanukkah indeed.

My Jewish December

This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman, the Nadiv Educator at The Davis Academy and URJ Camp Coleman. Nadiv is a program through the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVICHAI Foundation. The Davis Academy is a large Reform Jewish Day school in Atlanta, Georgia, with students in Kindergarten Prep through 8th Grade and URJ Camp Coleman is a Reform Jewish summer camp at Cleveland, GA. Sara Beth has worked at many Jewish summer camps and is excited to be doing experiential Jewish education at the Davis Academy during the year.

“It’s like that latke that wouldn’t stop screaming,” a Davis Academy Middle School student stated, when talking about media clips in their Beit Midrash presentation today.

The Davis Academy Beit Midrash (DABM) is a monthly experience for all Davis Middle Schoolers, where they take a day out of their Judaic Studies curriculum to engage in “Torah Lishmah” — learning for the sake of learning. In the DABM, learners engage with texts, both modern and ancient, while experiencing an educational methodology that addresses multiple intelligences.

This month’s DABM was focused on our students’ Jewish December. For our Reform Jewish Day school, questions about Chanukah and Christmas — and about Judaism and Christianity — can pepper class discussions in all grades. Many of our students come from interfaith households. Their observance of non-Jewish holidays covers the entire spectrum from zero knowledge to attending mass with their Christian family members. Some of our kids have Christmas trees or Chanukah bushes.

The students started the activity by watching a video of Hazzan Matthew Klein reading Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Set off by the loud and frustrated fried potato pancake, our learners were ready to talk! The discussion was heated and excited, as the kids were finally getting their chance to ask questions about Christmas. Why do we celebrate this — or that? Do we combine holidays? How are the holidays different? How do *I* feel about being a Jew during this time of year? Why can’t I have a tree? What does going to church with your family mean to you? Would you ever wear this sweater?

They also had a chance to voice their issues and beliefs. Students talked about their experiences visiting church, how they feel when they’re wished a “merry Christmas” around town at this time of year, and how nice it is for them to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish parent. They aired frustrations and asked for clarity. What is the whole presents thing all about, after all?

One student said, “I am not forced to celebrate Christmas with my dad. I choose to celebrate with him.” Her explanation gives great hope. Being an educator at a Reform Jewish Day school, we’re trying to teach informed choice based on study of Jewish laws and texts. How wonderful that our students, who are Jewish, show such respect to their non-Jewish parents, as it is written in the Torah.

Interested in the conversation? Check out the Prezi, put together for use at the Davis Academy today, as an introduction to the conversation. How would you respond?

Hanukkah Can Be Hard!

Here are some of the challenges I hear from interfaith couples about Hanukkah:

  1. Lighting the menorah is too complicated. Do you agree that it is easier said than done to light the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiah)? You have to put the candles in from right to left but light them left to right. In order for this ritual to have meaning, one has to know why this is done so that we can explain it to our children and our guests. (It’s about lighting the current night’s candle first.)
  2. Blessings for lighting the candles are tricky. The first night there are three blessings to sing and they are all in Hebrew. The other seven nights there are two blessings to sing, and we have to remember the tune! Luckily, we have a guide to the blessings in Hebrew, English, and transliteration (Hebrew written with English letters) to help, and a video too.
  3. Even playing dreidel can be hard! The letters on the dreidel are in Hebrew. They each stand for a Hebrew word that is part of a Hebrew sentence, which, unless understood in context, might make little sense — nes gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there.” Which miracle? Where? And if you are lucky enough to play dreidel in Israel, the letters form an acronym to say that “a great miracle happened HERE!” Learn more about the dreidel game with our video.
  4. Grating potatoes after a long day at work and with young children running around may seem overwhelming (at least it does to me). Luckily, many stores make delicious frozen latkes, which makes at least one Hanukkah tradition easier.
  5. To give presents or not to give presents? How big should the presents be? This isn’t a Jewish Christmas! What is Jewish about giving presents on Hanukkah? Actually, there is precedence for this!
  6. What do we do with decorative lights? Can lights be strung outside the home? Is it okay if the lights are only white? It’s beautiful to have lights at this time of darkness… right!? There are many right answers.
  7. It’s hard to keep the momentum going for 8 nights. It’s fun, exciting and new for 2, 3, 4 nights… but how do we keep Hanukkah special and memorable for ourselves and our children each night? Try creating a family-focused celebration with different theme nights!
  8. The greater meaning of the holiday isn’t clear. The story of Hanukkah is confusing with different versions told over time. One part of Hanukkah is a historical military conquest, other parts are religious, and there’s a tie-in to the holiday of Sukkot. It is not easy to succinctly tell children the Hanukkah story. There are many aspects of the story that have to be explained, such as what the Great Temple in Jerusalem was. And, if telling the story isn’t difficult enough, making sense of it as assimilated Jews in American society can be tricky (because this figures into the Maccabean revolt — they were fighting against assimilation, for the right to retain their religious identity and freedom). Not to mention that it is only if one understands the Hebrew root of the word hanukkah (h/n/k – dedication, consecration) that one begins to really understand the depth of the meaning of the holiday and to contemplate what we are most dedicated to. Why do you think the Modern Hebrew word for education (hinukh comes from the same root as the word for Hanukkah? How does a sense of dedication play into education? Especially when thinking about Jewish education?

Yet, all hope is not lost. There are ways to fill in the missing pieces for steps 1-8 to make Hanukkah “doable” and meaningful! Check out all of the resources on our December Holidays Resource Page to learn about all of these aspects and more. Let us know if these challenges resonate for you and how you overcome them. Here’s to a happy Hanukkah!

Watching Hanukkah 2012

You’re right. Hanukkah is almost here and, unlike in years past, I haven’t thrown many videos your way. Sorry about that. Here are some of the news ones making the rounds:

Hanukkah Lovin’ Michelle Citrin is back with a new holiday tune of love and latkes. (And it features my super awesome red Hanukkah dreidel cardigan — I’m wearing it today!)

Eight Nights is a Hanukkah parody mashup of “Some Nights” by Fun, “Die Young” by Ke$ha, “Live While We’re Young” by One Direction. (Stand Four is former members of the Maccabeats, now with their own group.)

Shine is the new, original song from the Maccabeats, released today.

Fire Is in the Air comes from the Bible Raps team, connecting lighting the Hanukkah candles to fire to Torah.

Happy Hanukkah is new from Matisyahu (though not as catchy as his last Hanukkah song, Miracle).

Nice King Hanukkah Song is Jonathan Mann’s addition, part of his “make a new song every day” ongoing project. (This was the contribution for day #1428.)

Let’s Celebrate from Alexandra Kelly, who wrote this because growing up Jewish surrounded by Christmas, she felt Hanukkah songs were lacking.

But it’s not all music…

Puppet News: Hanukkah Edition interviews folks in Times Square about Hanukkah.

Rube Goldberg Machine from Technion (university in Tel Aviv), lighting the menorah with a robot.

In the Kitchen: Chanukah Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup with Dill, teaming up with the chef/owner of the New England Soup Factory, JewishBoston.com shares a great soup to serve with latkes.

Dreidel: Understanding the Game is our new Hanukkah video, explaining the symbolism of the dreidel game and what the letters mean.

Y-Love Speaks Out for LGBT Inclusion in Jewish Community, using the light of Hanukkah as his launching point. (Turn on the closed captioning (the “cc” button at the bottom right of the video) if you want English subtitles as the video is in Yiddish.)

And, with a nod to our friends and family who celebrate Christmas, a video for you.

All I Want For Christmas Is YouAs a friend said, “It’s the second-best collaboration between Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, classroom instruments, and a solo female artist singing a well-known pop song!”

Has This Product Solved The December Dilemma?

Let me set the scene. David Levy, Managing Editor of JewishBoston.com, declared:

If Manischewitz can market Chanukah gingerbread houses, I declare the “December Dilemma” officially solved.

What do you think? Will this kit, complete with white and blue icing and decorations, solve your gingerbread house needs? Would you make one with your family? Would your in-laws approve?

Just between you and me, I kinda love it. And maybe wanted to buy it a few months back when I first saw it in stores. And, because I’m a bit of a Jewish nerd, I love that the kit includes a mezuzah to affix to the vanilla cookie home’s doorway.

And, for the next day or so, JoyOfKosher.com is giving away a kit to one lucky winner. Enter now!

Trees Are Sensitive

For years now, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been offering “December Dilemma” programs. The programs are centered on figuring out what to do as an interfaith family about the Christmas tree and all that comes with it in a Jewish home with children being raised with Judaism.

One might wonder why a Jewish family would have to figure out whether to have a tree in the home or not, because for some, the answer is clearly not. Yet we all know Jewish families that do enjoy decorating a tree and bringing Christmas symbols into the home.

Everyone has an opinion about this. Does this confuse children? Does this commercialize and secularize Christmas? Religion and identity are fluid and there are more grays than blacks and whites when it comes to emotions. For a parent who isn’t Jewish or even for a parent who has converted to Judaism, even if they are living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children, holidays may bring up feelings that still resonate. Should a parent helping to foster a Jewish family tell children that Christmas is a holiday that some in the family celebrate and keep Christmas separate from the home entirely — perhaps celebrating it at the grandparents’ Christian home instead?

In this open age when Christmas seems everywhere and we celebrate holidays with a multi-cultural mindset, it might seemed outdated, unnecessary, or irrelevant to need December Dilemma programs. Families do a mix of things already — from Buddhist meditation and finding spirituality in nature, to sending holiday greeting cards blending the names of the holidays into one fun, festive, family-centered, gift-giving, giving-back, time of warmth, lights and togetherness.

When a local reporter asked me to put her in touch with interfaith families in the area who could share their approach to the holidays, I thought I would have many emails to share with her. I asked all the participants in any workshop or class we have offered if anyone had time and interest in talking with a reporter. I posted a question to Facebook about what families in the area are doing around Christmas and Hanukkah. And I posted it as a discussion question on the Chicagoland homepage. Nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. Fascinating!

I could be wrong, but it seems that families are hesitant to so publically admit, declare, or share that in fact they are a Jewish family who “does” Christmas. We live such open and public lives and share all kinds of personal information daily… yet there is something about this tree that is still so emotional.

Are parents worried about being judged? Are parents worried that they have to defend their choices and prove their Jewishness more at this time? I look forward to hearing from you to help explain whether you still feel scrutinized and judged for the decisions you make around the holidays. Is this one time of year that still brings sadness, a sense of loss, or conflict because no matter what is decided as a family, one partner still feels that it is not exactly what they feel comfortable with or hoped for? Are December Dilemma programs still valuable if the stigma of attending can be overcome?

Hanukkah for the Whole Family

It’s that time of year: Hanukkah is nearly here and you’re looking for new ways to share the holiday with your family.

With the help of some friends, we’ve got you covered.

Games
Boston area parent Emily Sper is back with an expanded Hanukkah offering. Her Hanukkah Coloring & Activity Book, includes a basic history of the Hanukkah story, relevant Hebrew terms (and a handy pronunciation key on the back cover!), games and activities (don’t miss the checkers game with a dreidel twist), and more. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of both Ashkenazi customs (descending from eastern Europe) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese descent) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) — it’s not just latkes but jelly doughnuts too, and there’s a coloring page for a Moroccan menorah. Some activities are geared at older kids, but there’s at least something for everyone, ages 4 or 5 and up.

If colouring isn’t your speed, or you’d like to give a Hanukkah spin to games your kids likely already know, Emily’s Hanukkah Card Games are for you. $10 gets you three card decks (one each for go fish, crazy 8s, and rummy) plus a small handbook that contains a glossary and an explanation:

Playing cards on Hanukkah is an old Jewish custom. Some decks had Judah instead of jacks, Hannah and/or Judith instead of queens, and Mattathias instead of kings. Other decks had the 31 kings of Canaan (Joshua 12).

Who knew playing card games was part of the Hanukkah tradition?! The decks come with concise explanations of the Hanukkah story and customs, Hebrew names for the numbers so you can learn to count while you play, and each suit depicts a different Hanukkah icon (dreidels, candles, etc., instead of spades, hearts, etc.). A nice and easy gift for kids and families — you can play some cards after enjoying some latkes (potato pancakes).

Crafts
Over on JewishBoston.com, they reviewed Kiwi Crate’s Handmade Hanukkah. What is it?

“A monthly subscription program designed around fun themes and filled with all of the materials and inspiration for hands-on projects. We know that getting creative with your kids can sometimes be overwhelming (where to start? what to buy?), but this program takes care of the guesswork for you and even includes activity cards that tell you the messiness level, grownup involvement necessary and things to think about to engage parents and kids in conversation.”

Kali, JewishBoston.com’s Community Manager, was clearly excited and impressed by this product — and your family likely will be too.

Food
When we think of Hanukkah foods, many of us think of latkes or sufganiyot (doughnuts), but if you’re looking for more options for your family, check out Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah, by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler. More than just a cookbook, the Hanukkah story is included, along with trivia, instructions and blessings for lighting the Hanukkah candles, ideas for Hanukkah decorations and crafts, and party etiquette.

More than just the standard fried foods, there are suggested menus and recipes for brunch, afternoon tea party, Shabbat dinner, winter picnic, open house, after-school snacks, pajama party, and Rosh Chodesh (new month) twilight supper — all Hanukkah themed! All recipes are clearly marked as meat, dairy, or parve (neither meat nor dairy), for families that keep kosher. Additionally, so that kids can help in the kitchen, the difficulty level is included with each recipe.

When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?

It’s interesting that so many in the Jewish community put an emphasis on Christmas. Specifically, whether or not interfaith families observe Christmas. And the assumption has been that if Christmas is observed, these families couldn’t be raising their kids in a Jewish home. And the focus of these Christmas celebrations has often been the tree.

Two local Jewish community studies (Boston’s from 2005 and New York’s from 2011 (released in 2012)) noted the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees. Both studies also noted the lack of data indicating what a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. Wouldn’t you know it? We’ve been asking just that question in our annual December holiday surveys!

To those of you who took our survey in September-October, thanks!

Read on for more about the results of our 9th annual December holidays survey, interfaith families, and the December dilemma:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Edmund Case, edc@interfaithfamily.com, (617) 581-6805

Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children

(Boston, MA) — Interfaith families raising their children Jewish are continuing at high and stable levels to participate in secular Christmas activities, to keep their Hanukkah and Christmas holiday celebrations separate, and to believe that their participation in Christmas celebrations does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity. These trends were confirmed in the ninth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, an independent non-profit. The survey examines how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas.

Eighty-three percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 80% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity. As one family mentioned, “One day out of the year isn’t going to make or break their Jewish identity. It’s how you raise your kids as Jews the other 364 days that counts.”

“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas continues to be common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily. “These families see their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity. We noted somewhat more Christmas celebrations at home this year, but also more Hanukkah celebrations in the synagogue.”

Some local Jewish community studies (Boston in 2005, New York in 2011) have reported on the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees, but acknowledged that the data does not indicate what having a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. The respondents to InterfaithFamily’s survey made hundreds of comments in response to open-ended questions that shed light on precisely that question:

  • Christmas does not have religious significance for many interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews.
  • They primarily are honoring the traditions of their parent and relatives who are not Jewish.
  • Children can understand clear explanations from their parents, such as Christmas is not their holiday.
  • Participating in Christmas celebrations can strengthen children’s Jewish identity by not letting them take it for granted.
  • Jewish identity should be based on positive reasons, not on what people avoid or do not do.
  • Interfaith families raising Jewish children still experience Jews being uncomfortable with their celebrating Christmas and do not appreciate being questioned, censured or shamed.

Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on interfaith families raising Jewish children participating in Christmas activities, arguing that interfaith families can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas. The results of InterfaithFamily’s surveys suggest that they in fact are doing so.

This year the percentage of interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Christmas celebrations was 83%, the same as last year. These families still make clear distinctions between the holidays and are giving clear priority to Hanukkah over Christmas, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday. The overwhelming majority (98%) celebrates Hanukkah at home, while a little more than half (56%) celebrate Christmas at home.

Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 10% attend Christmas religious services and only 3% tell the Christmas story. While slightly more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (63%) compared to last year (60%), and slightly more (49%) will put up a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (46%), 88% view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature.

Many families (73%) celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered on the extended family.

For more information, read the attached report “What We Learned from the Ninth Annual December Holidays Survey.” It also can be found online at: http://www.interfaithfamily.com/files/pdf/WhatWeLearnedfromthe2012DecemberHolidaysSurvey.pdf.

About InterfaithFamily
InterfaithFamily is the central web address for people in interfaith relationships interested in Jewish life, with over 640,000 annual unique visitors, growing at 35% a year, accessing both extensive helpful content and connections through a free Jewish clergy officiation referral service, its Network listings, and social networking functionality. Since 2010, InterfaithFamily has provided resources and trainings for clergy, synagogue staff, and religious school and preschool directors and teachers. Our surveys are an excellent source of information on what attracts interfaith families to Jewish organizations. Visit www.interfaithfamily.com/yourcommunity for more information on the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.

###

EDITOR’S NOTE: InterfaithFamily has developed a Resource Page for interfaith families dealing with the December holidays that includes resources such as “Handling the December Holidays: Ten Tips from InterfaithFamily.com” and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season. For more, visit www.interfaithfamily.com/decemberholidays.