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We tend to ask our children the same questions over and over which are super hard to answer. Educators and parents ask, â€śWhat are you thankful for?â€ť This questions is asked repeatedly around Thanksgiving time. Children say, â€śmy parents, my home, food, friends and toys.â€ť
Ask your child now. What did he or she say? A parent volunteer told me that when the librarian asked the kids this question, my 6-year-old said, â€śthe solar system.â€ť That was an unusual answer. Iâ€™m not sure where that one came from. Maybe there was a poster of outer-space or a book nearby that caught her eye?
There is nothing wrong with this question but it is very hard to tap into real feelings of gratitude, appreciation and thanks and then to be able to articulate those feelings. Sometimes I ask my kids what makes them happy and that seems easier for them to talk about. Gratitude has to be cultivated and modeled.
As we move into the Hanukkah and Christmas season, I asked my 6-year-old and 8-year-old what they know about these holidays. You would think that being children of two rabbis and living in a heavily Jewish suburb would sway or weight their answers some. Yet, they love their idea of Christmas even though they have had limited personal experience with it (much to their chagrin).
When I asked them what they think about when I say the word, â€śChristmasâ€ť they beamed with joy, lit up and said, â€śpresents!â€ť Now, my pastor friends and practicing Christians may be cringing. These are not the holy parts of this holiday. In addition, these are children who have lots of stuff. They are not lacking for presents. However, the idea of getting a gift is ever thrilling.
They donâ€™t have much first-hand experience with a religious and/or a cultural Christmas. (Hopefully their experiences will vary and multiply as they get older and they will come to value volunteering during the time of darkness and need for so many, and will be inclined to cherish the priceless and precious gifts of time and presence more than material things). Their ideas about Christmas fun come primarily from TV and Iâ€™m not sure where else.
Then I asked them to tell me about Hanukkah. They said lighting the menorah and presents are what come to mind. My children donâ€™t like latkes. Or matzah ball soup, lox or noodle kugel. I know, itâ€™s just wrong, but Iâ€™m being as honest as possible here. They do like Elf on the Shelf, Christmas cookies and the lights, beauty and magic of Christmas.
When I reminded them and gave hints, they were able to conjure up details about the miracle of the oil lasting and about the re-dedication of the Temple. They know the role of the shamash, or helper candle that lights the other ones. They know how to play dreidel and play it with zeal. They love games! They love getting together with friends and family over Hanukkah. They sing Hanukkah songs and enjoy going to synagogue where each family lights a menorah and it glows with warmth and love.
I donâ€™t think my children are more spoiled or more materialistic than others. They love life, and they love surprises and being playful. They love their friends, feel connected to their family and enjoy school and learning. They generally are into things.
Am I worried that my childrenâ€”who I hope will look to Judaism to give them order, meaning, sacred purpose, connectedness, hope, values, inspiration, pride, and so much moreâ€”love aspects of Christmas? No, not one bit. I do want them to be literate in tenets of Christianity too. I want them to know more about Jesus. They will learn history as they mature and will have context and gain perspective and understanding. I donâ€™t want them to feel threatened by Christianity and Christmas. I want them to be able to ask their own questions and take Christian theology and beliefs seriously. I want them to understand that there is religion and there is culture and there is secularism, and how each of these aspects inform a personâ€™s expression.Â I donâ€™t ever want Hanukkah and Christmas to compete.
I think that making a child raised with Judaism feel badly about liking Christmas is not a great approach. It wonâ€™t create closeness with Judaism.Â The main thing is to keep asking our children what they think and teaching our children as much as we can so that they can create well-rounded notions of these two holidays, central to our American psyche. Knowledge is good. Not being shamed for loving parts of another religionâ€™s holidays is good.
Letâ€™s stop asking rote questions and expecting rote answers. Your kids will tell you what they honestly know and think and it will open your eyes to their little developing souls.
When I was growing up, my parents threw the most elegant Hanukkah parties. My mom is a decorator at her core and relished the opportunity to throw a party with pizazz.Â There was fancy juice for the kids, our best dresses and most of all, a gorgeously decorated house.Â Down the bannister streamed a garland she would createâ€”some years a deep green theme with flowers or elegant dreidels, other years covered in white like the snow we would never see in Southern California.Â The entire house became transformed by whatever festive theme she had chosen for that year.
Year after year, relatives, friends and our synagogueâ€™s rabbi criticized her elaborate decorations as too Christmassy.Â Not one to shrink away from a challenge, she quickly quipped that Christmas had not cornered the market on decorations.
But then one year, there were angels.Â She streamed them up and down the bannister. This time, her critics were livid. They claimed that this was now, officially, a Christmas party. My mother retorted that angels were ours.Â They originate in our Torahâ€”they visited our patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, ascended and descended Jacobâ€™s ladder, and there were the angels Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel. Cherubim were even pictured above the holy ark in the Temple in Jerusalem.Â [More on Jewish angels can be found here.]
She argued that many seasonal symbols like poinsettias, snow and even her angels, had been co-opted by American-style Christmas.Â She didnâ€™t see why Jews should be deprived of them.Â There was nothing left that was â€śkosherâ€ť for Hanukkah decorating if she obeyed the ever-growing list of off-limits symbols and colors.Â Yes, there were paper menorahs and the like.Â But she hated the kitschy Jewish stuff most people hung and waited for the one holiday when she could get away with more of a flare.
What were her skeptics, many of whom werenâ€™t so traditionally Jewish themselves, worried about? I think her flare set off a knee-jerk reaction.Â Maybe for them, Christmas was an annual symbol of how our tiny Jewish minority is threatened by a dominant Christian cultureâ€”and my mom was blurring that line.Â Maybe attending this Hanukkah party represented their need to be in a distinctly Jewish place during the onslaught of the Christmas commercial season. Perhaps her decorations were encroaching on their Jewish particularism.
Of course, Hanukkah only rose to its prominent position in Jewish American life because of Christmas. Anywhere else in the world, Hanukkah is the most minor of Jewish holidays.Â But here in the United States, we felt it needed to combat the red and green tinsel, and we lifted up from the complicated story of Hanukkah a simple message of religious tolerance.
My mom wanted in on the fun. It is a little sad to be part of a society in which the majority is participating in something magical while we merely peer in at it from outside as a matter of principle. We are confused as a group about what to do with Christmas as it morphs from a religious holiday into an American cultural festival. And now that our families are more diverse, that confusion is only exacerbated.Â A treeâ€”which seems like it should be just that and no moreâ€”often holds a lot of history for Jews.Â Participating in Christmas can serve as a symbol that we have given up trying to be unique.Â At worst, it can feel like Jews have caved to the majority: the very majority that many times throughout history tried to obliterate us. Yet for someone who grew up with Christmas, the prospect of giving it up means sacrificing a powerful sense of comfort, love, memories and family.
What I advocate most for interfaith couples is that they listen to each other as they describe their needs at the holidays.Â I often hear people talking past each other about what they can or cannot tolerate. But they rarely dig deeply enough into the particulars of why they need what they need at this time of year.
Even for families who have it all figured out, emotions at this time of year can set off new discussions and tensions.Â It is one of the few times of the year when extended family enter the picture and have needs and expectations of their own.Â Whatever your Decembers are like, this is a great time to open up about what the season felt like for you as a child and what emotionsâ€”positive, negative or neutralâ€”they bring up as adults.Â No matter what you choose as your own family traditions, getting that clarity about what you expect and need will help make the season what you want it to be.
The other night, my husband was watching arguably his favorite show, Shark Tank. He shouted from the other room (literally, the only other room in our wee Boston apartment), â€śLindsey, come see this!â€ť I thought maybe I knew someone on the show. Turned out, in a way, I did. It was a holiday episode featuring some interfaith holiday items, ones Iâ€™m familiar with. Pitching his company was Neal Hoffman of Mensch on a Benchâ€”itâ€™s a Hanukkah plush toy that looks like an old rabbi modeled after the Christmas Elf on a Shelf (sound a little scary? One of the Sharks, Barbara Corcoran, pointed out as much, and was ready to give The Mensch a makeover). After Hoffman explained his own interfaith background and made a deal with Sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, we caught up with someone from Season 5 who made a deal with his Star of David â€śHanukkah Tree Topper.â€ť
I loved that Shark Tank was doing an interfaith episode before Hanukkah, and here at IFF, we donâ€™t tell people theyâ€™re doing religion â€śwrongâ€ť or which way is the right way. Whatever way you want to connect with Judaism is great! But we also havenâ€™t been advertising what seem to me to be Christmas items for Jews. Personally, I can see how an interfaith family might end up with all kinds of Jewish items from around their home on their Christmas tree, but something about purchasing a Jewish symbol as a tree topper might cross the line for some people and, truth: makes me cringe a bit. Same with an Elf on the Shelf for Hanukkah. That said, lots of people love itâ€”and I do mean it when I say that you should enjoy any way you like to celebrate the holidays!
Regardless of what any of us think, this episode of Shark Tank drove home the fact that Jewish and interfaith merchandise for the holidays could quickly find their place in our local Target, CVS, maybe even the Christmas Tree Shops. So I may as well weigh in now, and say that if more toys and decorations are being created for Hanukkah, Iâ€™d like to see some that are uniquely related to Hanukkah.
Instead of blending Christmas and Hanukkah into one holiday, why not respect them each for what they are, and come up with some fun new ways to celebrate Hanukkah for families of all kinds? Is there a candy menorah? Maybe one that doubles as a musical instrument? Musical candles that play the blessings? An app for kids thatâ€™s actually fun and entertaining? Some plush singing Maccabees? If any of you entrepreneurs out there capitalize on any of these ideas, just send the royalty checks my way. Thanks.
What did you think of the Shark Tank episode and interfaith holiday merchandise? If you missed it, you can catch the Battle Over Mensch on a Bench here.
When I was very small, my family used to light our Hanukkah menorah alongside our decorated Christmas tree. Christmas was never a religious holiday for us but we decorated and listened to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and my mother filled stockings with our names on them with precious goodies.Â I was one of those obnoxious kids who bragged about getting Christmas presents AND Hanukkah presents! But when our family decided to join a synagogue we decided to formally end Christmas in our home. For my younger sister and I, this meant no more tree, no more decorations around our house, no more snowy Snoopy musical figurine spinning slowly, singing carols and certainly no more bragging rights. But we were young and we adaptedâ€¦for the most part. But a few traditions were harder to let go of than others.
My sister happened to be very attached to the shiny twinkly lights of Christmas and one year, she badgered my parents as the holiday season began about hanging Christmas lights. But they had made a choice for our family and stuck with it: We were Jewish, so no Christmas. But could there be a compromise? As it turns out, there was, in the form of a string of Hanukkah lights.
My sister happily draped these lights all over her room and even came up with the cleverest of names. They were her â€śIsrael-lights.â€ť Interfaith pun extraordinaire.
My mom always loved to seek out all the fun little trinkets to stuff into our stockings and so she continued to do so, every year, without fail. When each of us were first born, she had gone to a craft fair and bought us beautiful hand knit stockings and had sewn our names on them herself. One year we were in Switzerland on vacation over Christmas. My sister and I were convinced that the stockings must have stayed home, but lo and behold, Christmas morning, they magically appeared, full of Swiss treats. I also assumed that once I began studying to be a rabbi, perhaps my stocking days would be over, but I should have known to never underestimate my mom. My first year of rabbinical school I was living in Jerusalem and my parents came to visit me at the end of the first semester in December and what was packed in my momâ€™s suitcase? You guessed it! My stocking, filled with treats from home. Iâ€™m pretty sure I am the only rabbi out there who gets a Christmas stocking every year (though if thatâ€™s not the case, by all means let me know in the comments!).
I could argue that this particular family tradition says more about my incredible mother than anything else, but itâ€™s also just a practical reminder that families and traditions are ever evolving and adapting.
My family made it work because my very smart parents stuck to their guns but also allowed for our family to make these sort of meaningful compromises. I donâ€™t really remember that much about our transition from a house with a Christmas tree to a house without, but I do remember vividly the Israel-lights and I am still very excited each year to get my stocking. There is no one right way to celebrate holidays or life eventsâ€”just find a way that feels authentic to the choices you have made in your familyâ€™s life. I remember the holiday seasons of my childhood with joy and fondness rather than strife because I was taught that we could always find a way to celebrate who we were and who we had become.
Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partnerâ€™s parents who arenâ€™t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know itâ€™s not â€śourâ€ť holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didnâ€™t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values Iâ€™m trying to instill.
I also didnâ€™t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. Iâ€™m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.
So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?
The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of givingâ€”not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning â€śjusticeâ€ť and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.
I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.
Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organizationâ€™s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.
Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.
â€śLetâ€™s send out holiday cards!â€ť I said to Wendy and Robin, my co-workers at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. We have so many people whoâ€™ve supported our work in the past yearâ€”our Advisory Council, donors, class and workshop alumni and othersâ€”that Wendy and Robin agreed that it would be a great idea to send each of them a card thanking them for their support and wishing them a happy holiday season. It would be a nice thing to do. AND EASY! Or so we thoughtâ€¦
Just picking a graphic for the front of the cardâ€”not to mention the language for the insideâ€”was anything but easy.
Should we have a picture of a Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) on the front? Considering that many of the recipients of the card would be interfaith couples, that seemed insensitive. Only acknowledging the holiday that was from one partnerâ€™s religious tradition didnâ€™t feel like the right thing to do.
We all agreed that weâ€™re not into the â€śChristmakkuhâ€ť mash-up of Christmas and Hanukkah. An image of a reindeer with antlers that look like a Hanukkiyah or Santa playing dreidel wasnâ€™t the way we wanted to go.
We also knew that we didnâ€™t want to go the route of last yearâ€™s (admittedly creative) half Hanukkah-half Christmas card (you can read Rabbi Ari Mofficâ€™s comments on it here).
Aside from a bifurcated card not feeling quite right, we didnâ€™t want to send the message that we think every Jewish person in an interfaith relationship has a Christian partner. What about Jewish-Hindu, Jewish-Buddhist, Jewish-Muslim, etc., couples?
So we decided to stay away from images directly associated with any particular faith traditionâ€”Jewish or otherwiseâ€”whether those symbols were â€śreligiousâ€ť or â€śsecular.â€ť No Jewish stars; no Hanukkiyah; no latkes; no dreidels; and no Hanukkah gelt. No nativity scenes; no Christmas trees or ornaments; no Santa Claus; and no reindeer.
IT WOULD BE EASY! Or so we thoughtâ€¦
What about a snowman? Snowmen arenâ€™t associated with any religious tradition, are they? But for some reason, when I think of pictures of snowmen, Christmas cards come to my mind. So I veto-ed the snowman.
What about snowflakes, theyâ€™re neutral, right? But I couldnâ€™t help thinking of all of the Christmas cards Iâ€™d seen over the years with snowflakes on them.
So, whether or not I was being rational, snowmen and snowflakes were now removed the discussion. Surely NOW IT WOULD BE EASY. Or so we thoughtâ€¦
Robin then suggested that we find a picture of candles. After all, for many of us the winter holidays are a time to celebrate light amidst the darkness. Candles are used in lots of religious traditions, and non-religious ones as well. So why did I suddenly feel like candlesâ€”which are lighted every night of Hanukkahâ€”reminded me of a Christmas card? Embarrassed to critique yet another seemingly-neutral idea as â€śtoo Christmas card-yâ€ť I suggested: â€śHow about blue candles?â€ť (Blue and white being â€śJewish colors.â€ť) And â€śHow about nine candles?â€ť (Since there are nine candles in a Hanukkiyah.)
Robin actually found a beautiful picture that had nine blue candles and they werenâ€™t in a Hanukkiyah, just nine small blue candles all with shining flames. We all agreed that the image didnâ€™t look â€śtoo Jewishâ€ť or â€śtoo Christianâ€ť (or â€śtoo anything elseâ€ť) but yet it had a nice winter holiday feel. We had it!Â Or so we thoughtâ€¦ Turns out that image wasnâ€™t available for reproduction.
Finally, after I rejected a few more images that just didnâ€™t â€śfeel rightâ€ť for various reasons, Wendy came up with a card that we all agreed upon.
I liked it! It didnâ€™t seem to represent just one religious tradition. I was pretty sure that nobody receiving it would feel excluded by the image (because in the end, we left the image off) or the language. EASY! Or was it? Now Iâ€™m left wondering, by making it so â€śneutralâ€ťâ€¦by being so careful to try to ensure that nobody who received it would feel left outâ€¦by being so sensitive to not â€śexcludeâ€ť anyone, were we â€śincludingâ€ť anyone?
Hopefully, everyone who receives our card in the mail will recognize that our intentions are good and that we are grateful to them and want them to have a happy holiday seasonâ€”no matter what holidays they do, or do not, celebrate.
Iâ€™d love to hear from all of you. For those of you in interfaith families, do you send holiday cards? Are they for a particular holiday, more than one holiday, or just general holiday greetings? Please share what you do as well as the thought process behind it.
The last week of November was Celebration Central for my husband and me. We flew to Paris for a cousin’s 80th birthday, celebrated one day before a personal trio: Thanksgiving, the second night of Hanukkah and my husband’s birthday.
For Shabbat-Hanukkah (the Sabbath that occurs during Hanukkah), we made the 3/4 hour trek via Paris Metro to a suburban neighborhood to visit the cityâ€™s only liberal synagogue, Kehilat Gesher, the â€śAmerican synagogue of Paris.â€ť We found many jewels hidden away in this unmarked Jewish haven on Rue Leon Cogniet.
It can be uncomfortable to attend services in an unfamiliar house of worship, regardless of oneâ€™s religious upbringing, affiliation, or knowledge base. I am especially tentative in these situations, yet my desire to celebrate Shabbat Hanukkah in Paris and my curiosity moved me to make the effort to join the community for one evening.
The Kehilat Gesher congregation is a highly diverse group of regulars and visitors, all gathered together to experience liberal Judaism in Paris. Rabbi Tom Cohen conducts a trilingual Shabbat service that is inclusive, warm and rich with the joy of the occasion. His enthusiasm for welcoming Shabbat into our hearts was overflowing and we effortlessly settled in for the experience of a lifetime.
The Kehilat Gesher Siddur (prayer book) is quadrilingual. Each page has the prayers written in Hebrew, French, English, and the most fascinating transliteration using French accents! Rabbi Cohen has been leading services there since 1993 and is a master at making sure that the service is accessible to all. We took turns doing the readings in the language of our choice. We heard myriad accents in multiple languages: Hebrew with French, English with Russian, French with Hebrew, and some that I did not recognize.
After the service, we gathered for the blessings over the wine and bread and shared a special treat of traditional Hanukkah sufganiyot (fried foods) in the form of yummy jelly doughnuts. We had many warm and welcoming conversations with members and Rabbi Cohen made an extra effort to introduce himself and to genuinely engage with us about who we are and why we decided to attend services at Kehilat Gesher.
What made the experience so memorable was the recognition thatÂ even far away from home I can find a friendly connection at a liberal synagogue. As I sat in that small uncomfortable seat, listening to the opening song, a slightly non-traditional rendition of â€śShabbat Shalom,â€ť I truly understood that I was part of something unique and special. The amazing part was that nobody seemed to care if we were Jewish, or intermarried or, in our case, intra-faith (Reform and Orthodox).
At Kehilat Gesher Paris they say Shabbat Shalom with an international accent!
A recent blog has stirred up some disapproving comments on our Facebook page. This couple split their holiday card in half with the husband on the Christmas side and the wife on the Hanukkah side. The wife says, â€śWe do it ALL.â€ť They â€śbakeâ€ť latkes. This is interesting considering the â€śtraditionalâ€ť way to make latkes is to fry them in oil to remember the miracle of the oil narrative. However, so many families today eat latkes with all kind of variations (baking is certainly healthier).Â She also says that she hopes her children will gravitate toward Judaism but that she is not â€śpushingâ€ť it.
It would be easy to read this and say, â€śGoodbye liberal American Judaismâ€”itâ€™s been nice knowing you.â€ťÂ This kind of flippant observation of Judaism and commercializing the minor holiday of Hanukkah to become like Christmas marks doomsday for an authentic Judaism to survive. However, I read this and think, â€śWowâ€¦many people are living and creating a new Jewish expression.â€ť This is â€śminhag Americaâ€ť (American tradition). I am referring to Isaac Mayer Wiseâ€™s first American Jewish prayer book when I use that expression.
It is possible that they teach their children to be mensches (and perhaps use the word), that they give tzedakah and care about social justice because of and based in their Jewish identity. It is possible that they turn to Jewish expression at important life cycle events like weddings, birth and death (and want their children turning 13 to mark that occasion Jewishly as well).
Is this good enough? Is this Jewish enough? Will this lead to future generations of Jews? Do we want these families in our synagogues or not? What would get a family like this to join a synagogue? What is the litmus test for when a family crosses a boundary that makes them not â€śreallyâ€ť Jewish?
I say, letâ€™s build communities where we are not judgmental of whether the children are doing it ALL. A community that says that everyone in the family can participate in a totally open, accessible Judaism. A community where we celebrate the holidays with great food, timeless narratives of eternal truths, and live kindness and giving with audacity. A community that says that the Jewish way of wrestling with God and arguing for the sake of heaven nourishes our souls and is good for our spirits.
This is it. That time of year that many intermarried Jews dread: Christmas tree time. Especially if you go as far as getting a tree and stringing it up on the roof of your car and driving to your house as quickly as possible (maybe even ducking as you drive by your shul, so the rabbi doesnâ€™t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: â€śWhat will the others think?â€ť
Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in oneâ€™s head? Often our values are shaped by our parents and our teachers and our peers. My elementary school upbringing consisted of attending an Orthodox Hebrew Day School and the message growing up was clear: If a Jew has a Christmas tree in his house, he has gone â€śtoo far.â€ť If you bring a tree into your house, you might as well put a swastika on top for you have betrayed the Jewish people.
My mother would mourn for the Jewish people if she saw it, and fear I would have lost focus on my roots. Oy, assimilation-1, Jews-0. My environmentalist friends would moan the betrayal of the earth, to drag a tree into oneâ€™s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Donâ€™t get me started on the gifts. The commercialism of Christmas is horrendous and the wrapping paper and packaging is tantamount criminal. The spoiling of kids with gift after gift. The plastic. The cookies. The elevated levels of acidity in oneâ€™s blood sugar as one holiday party bleeds into another. The drinks. The decadence.
But of course, I went to Hebrew School. My brother and sister and I would watch all of the holiday Christmas specials and feel like outsiders. We loved the cartoons and the stories of spreading cheer and goodness and charity. Charity and community service that we were taught to do regularly were emphasized on one special day for the majority of Americans, and we were on the fringe and couldnâ€™t (or didn’t know how to) really participate at all.
And there I was 30 years later, a grown adult making decisions of my own. Itâ€™s true, if both people in a relationship are of the same religion, these kinds of things are rarely a problem. The best we could hope for would be to go out for Chinese food and play cards, which was the running joke of many of our childhoods, the thing that all American Jews do on that holiday.
But things have changed. These are different times. Would I choose to get a tree for my family like my friends from Baltimore? No. Not in a thousand years. Is it a ritual that I embrace and make my own filled with meaning? No, not that either. So what changed? For me, it is about respecting my wifeâ€™s background. Deb pointed it out like this: We have a very Jewish household. We light Shabbat candles, do Kiddush and blessings, make challah, send our kids to Hebrew school, sing Hebrew songs, have mezuzot on our doorways, give Tzedakah regularly, celebrate all the holidays, engage in Chevurah groups, the list goes on and onâ€¦ But there is just one thingâ€”just one thingâ€”from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldnâ€™t be too much to ask.
She never converted, and to her, Christmas had nothing to do with religion (I know, I know, that one is really tough for me), but was about hot chocolate and sleigh rides and getting cozy and thankful and making snowmen and caroling and decorations and parties with friends and family and creating magic for the children. Time to relax as a family.
Well when you put it that way, it shouldnâ€™t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that itâ€™s not easy. And I still have a hard time with it since I am a committed Jewish educator (who is coming out of the closet with the confession to having a tree over the years). But relationships are about giving to the other and not ruling with an iron fist. Would I recommend that Jews have Christmas trees in their houses? Do I buy into the commercialization and environmental waste associated with Christmas? Not at all on either count.
But do I love my wife? Yes! Is this tradition really important to her and her family? Yes! If I grin and bear it for one week of the year, will my kids continue to go to Hebrew School and have bar and bat mitzvahs and identify as Jews throughout their lives? Yes! So all that was stopping me was closing my mind to honoring what my life partner wants. And that was no longer acceptable to me.
I am not the only Jew who struggles with this. So I wrote this blog to allow people to open up and share with their partners what they care about. There is more than enough evidence that children who grow up in committed Jewish households survive the Christmas Tree thing just fine and live their lives as committed Jews.
If you want to hear more perspectives on how intermarried Jews approach the Christmas tree issue, check out this insightful packet with some meaningful questions.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jodi Bromberg, President of InterfaithFamily
(Boston, MA) â€“ 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 childrenâ€™s Jewish identity. These trends were confirmed in the tenth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, an independent non-profit with headquarters in Newton, Mass.
InterfaithFamily has surveyed how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the â€śDecember dilemma,â€ť the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas, annually for the past ten years. Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on interfaith families raising Jewish children participating in Christmas activities, arguing that interfaith families canâ€™t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas. The results of InterfaithFamilyâ€™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 86%, up slightly from 83% 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 (99%) celebrates Hanukkah at home, while a little more than half (59%) celebrate Christmas at home.
Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 13% attend Christmas religious services and only 4.7% tell the Christmas story in their own home. While slightly more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (67%) compared to last year (63%), and slightly more (56.5%) will put up a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (49%), 88% view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature, the same as last year.
Many families (73%) celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered around the extended family.
Eighty-three percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 73% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their childrenâ€™s Jewish identity.
“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 childrenâ€™s Jewish identity.â€ť
The Pew study released this year, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, reported that 71% of interfaith families (where one partner was Jewish and one was not) had a Christmas tree in their home in the prior year. Likewise, in past years, 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 InterfaithFamilyâ€™s survey made hundreds of comments in response to open-ended questions that shed light on precisely that question:
For more information, read the attached report â€śWhat We Learned from the Tenth Annual December Holidays Survey.â€ť It also can be found online here.
InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content at www.interfaithfamily.com; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative, providing coordinated comprehensive offerings in local communities, including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.
EDITORâ€™S NOTE: InterfaithFamily has developed a resource page for interfaith families around Christmas and Hanukkah that includes a Thanksgivukkah Guide, and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season which you can visit here.