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Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’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 it’s not “our” holiday.
But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’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 I’m trying to instill.
I also didn’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. I’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 giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” 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 organization’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.
“Let’s send out holiday cards!” I said to Wendy and Robin, my co-workers at InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia. We have so many people who’ve supported our work in the past year—our Advisory Council, donors, class and workshop alumni and others—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 thought…
Just picking a graphic for the front of the card—not to mention the language for the inside—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 partner’s religious tradition didn’t feel like the right thing to do.
We all agreed that we’re not into the “Christmakkuh” mash-up of Christmas and Hanukkah. An image of a reindeer with antlers that look like a Hanukkiyah or Santa playing dreidel wasn’t the way we wanted to go.
We also knew that we didn’t want to go the route of last year’s (admittedly creative) half Hanukkah-half Christmas card (you can read Rabbi Ari Moffic’s comments on it here).
Aside from a bifurcated card not feeling quite right, we didn’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 tradition—Jewish or otherwise—whether those symbols were “religious” or “secular.” 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 thought…
What about a snowman? Snowmen aren’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, they’re neutral, right? But I couldn’t help thinking of all of the Christmas cards I’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 thought…
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 candles—which are lighted every night of Hanukkah—reminded me of a Christmas card? Embarrassed to critique yet another seemingly-neutral idea as “too Christmas card-y” I suggested: “How about blue candles?” (Blue and white being “Jewish colors.”) And “How about nine candles?” (Since there are nine candles in a Hanukkiyah.)
Robin actually found a beautiful picture that had nine blue candles and they weren’t in a Hanukkiyah, just nine small blue candles all with shining flames. We all agreed that the image didn’t look “too Jewish” or “too Christian” (or “too anything else”) but yet it had a nice winter holiday feel. We had it! Or so we thought… Turns out that image wasn’t available for reproduction.
Finally, after I rejected a few more images that just didn’t “feel right” for various reasons, Wendy came up with a card that we all agreed upon.
I liked it! It didn’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 I’m left wondering, by making it so “neutral”…by being so careful to try to ensure that nobody who received it would feel left out…by being so sensitive to not “exclude” anyone, were we “including” 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 season—no matter what holidays they do, or do not, celebrate.
I’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 city’s only liberal synagogue, Kehilat Gesher, the “American synagogue of Paris.” 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 one’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 that 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 “Shabbat Shalom,” 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, “We do it ALL.” They “bake” latkes. This is interesting considering the “traditional” 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). She also says that she hopes her children will gravitate toward Judaism but that she is not “pushing” it.
It would be easy to read this and say, “Goodbye liberal American Judaism—it’s been nice knowing you.” 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, “Wow…many people are living and creating a new Jewish expression.” This is “minhag America” (American tradition). I am referring to Isaac Mayer Wise’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 “really” Jewish?
I say, let’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 doesn’t see). It used to feel so wrong, so shameful: “What will the others think?”
Where do our values come from? How do these questioning voices appear in one’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 “too far.” 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 one’s house for one week of the year. How horrifying! Don’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 one’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 couldn’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. It’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 wife’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 on… But there is just one thing—just one thing—from her past tradition that she wants to keep and it shouldn’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 shouldn’t be too much to ask. So I go along for the sake of Shalom Bayit (peace in the house). I assure you that it’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) – 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 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 “December dilemma,” 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 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 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 children’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 children’s Jewish identity.”
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 InterfaithFamily’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 “What We Learned from the Tenth Annual December Holidays Survey.” 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.
EDITOR’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.
I know, it’s only January, so why am I talking about Hanukkah? And, worse, why are others also talking about it? Because while Hanukkah has come close to overlapping with Thanksgiving before (even in our lifetimes; we shared articles when it last nearly happened in 2002, Using Thanksgiving Leftovers the Next Day for Hanukkah and Not Your Typical Jewish Family), it will actually overlap this year! Hanukkah 2013 will be a unique calendar anomaly. Brace yourself for Thanksgivukkah!
Never before has Hanukkah started on [American] Thanksgiving. (I’d like to pause and mention that it has never and will never overlap with Canadian Thanksgiving, though Sukkot frequently does. And that at least makes sense: both are harvest festivals.) Well, “the last time it would have happened is 1861. However, Thanksgiving was only formally established by President Lincoln in 1863. So, it has never happened before.” Cool, eh?
Why’s that? It all has to do with the Hebrew calendar, which uses a 19-year cycle, and the fact that Thanksgiving, set as the fourth Thursday in November, will repeat its date every 7 years.
Further, my buddy Josh explains:
Again I say: cool, eh?
But wait, there’s more! If you’re really curious about how the Hebrew calendar works, how it drifts (when compared to our Gregorian calendar), how this affects other Jewish holidays in 2013, where President Roosevelt fits in (and he does), the difference between “applesauce years” and “sour cream years,” and so much more, I encourage you to join Mah Rabu in geeking out over all of this on his blog. (Make sure to check out the comments (he’ll answer them!) both on his blog and on Jewschool, where he’s crossposted.)
Still not convinced? Mizrahi even made charts to demonstrate the calendar phenomenon. Impressive! (Visit his site for larger versions.)
It is not lost on me that all of the Hanukkah 2013 posts on this blog will be in the wrong blog category, “December Holidays.”
This is a guest post by Ruth Nemzoff who, in addition to being on InterfaithFamily’s Advisory Board, is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.
Last week I walked into the lobby of my apartment and found it filled with white poinsettias wrapped in blue foil. “How lovely,” thought I, “and how brilliant of the management to include and please both those who celebrate Hanukkah (the blue and white colors) and those who celebrate Christmas (the poinsettias) while not offending the Buddhists and Muslims in the building. A creative idea indeed!”
Later that same day, walking down the street, I overheard two women chatting: “…and it has gotten so politically correct at school that we can’t even wrap the presents in red and green.” I suppose some of their friends who were celebrating Hanukkah might have had similar complaints. Each one of us has a choice. We can enjoy these solutions or we can complain about every minor change or unmet expectation.
It occurred to me that every special occasion, religious or not, gives us that choice. We can pick and poke and complain about this detail or that. We can mock the host and hostess for some minor deviation from our dream and raise it to an egregious error. Or we can decide to admire the attempts to blend the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar.
At weddings, the arenas for supercilious disparagement are enormous. The dresses, the colors, the flowers, the food, the band, the music, the wine — or lack thereof. As Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Let’s make a resolution this holiday season to try to applaud those who try. Give the bride credit who includes her in-laws and siblings in the ceremony, even if she does so with customs different from yours, and give the groom credit as he honors both his traditions and those of his bride. None of us will get everything we want at the wedding, but appreciating what we do get just might help us reach the real prize: families who can get along, who manage to enjoy the joys that life brings, and who support each other when the troubles come.
So lighten up, this holiday season, if I might use a tired pun. Treasure what good will any group has to offer. And, as you attend those holiday weddings, think good thoughts not critical ones. Religion is meant to make us better people not rude ones. It’s a lot more fun and definitely in the spirit of the season no matter your beliefs.
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.”)
One of my friends got me thinking with his post on Facebook:
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.