In Response to an Anti-Interfaith Voice

This is a guest post by Kate Bigam.

The holiday season is rife with analyses of interfaith families that celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, but none have I found more offensive than Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s “Interfaith Mom Is Wrong About Chrismukkah” on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog. If you’re like me, you’ve already bristled at the title – and it’s only downhill from there.

Cohen’s piece rebuts one recently published on the Huffington Post by Susan Katz Miller called “8 Reasons My Interfaith Family Celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas.” In the original piece, Miller writes,

Having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the [December Dilemma] essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.

Sounds open-minded and welcoming – the perfect sort of interfaith family, right? Not so, says Cohen: Because Chanukah is a celebration of the Jews’ triumph over a majority that sought to oppress and assimilate them, Cohen writes, Jews who celebrate Christmas essentially degrade the miracle of Chanukah “by advocating for that same assimilation.”

In a bulleted response to Miller’s description of her family’s holiday traditions, Cohen uses language so patronizing and condescending (“Hate to sound so maternal,” “Um, okay,” etc.) that it becomes difficult to see her point through her disrespectful tone. Ultimately, her point seems to be that interfaith families that do not opt for 100 percent Judaism at all times are subjecting their children to a lifetime of confusion and lack of connection to the Jewish faith.

I was raised in a household that celebrated both Christmas and Chanukkah, though the former was “Daddy’s holiday.” My agnostic father never went to church or tried to instill in me any sort of Christian values or beliefs – but my mother, a proud Reform Jew, felt he should not have to give up his traditions. Today, I am a committed, active Jewish adult who has spent four years working for a major Jewish organization. I would hardly say I grew up to be confused, disinterested or (horror of all horrors, Ms. Cohen!) assimilated.

While I recognize the history of both Chanukah and Christmas (as well as the many stories of the Jews’ oppression under majority rule), I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism. When Christmas is over, I will return to my job as a Jewish professional, where I will continue to work to strengthen the future of the Jewish community. I’m even leading a Birthright trip in February! The idea that my childhood – being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father – somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child.

Anti-interfaith voices like Cohen’s – and yes, I believe this piece qualifies her as such – think children of interfaith families are so fragile and confused that they will never choose Judaism unless essentially forced to; that they should be raised in such a delicate, careful manner that they are not permitted any connection whatsoever to their non-Jewish parents’ heritage for fear they may choose that path over Judaism. Cohen could benefit from actual interaction with interfaith families in an attempt to understand their struggles and choices. And frankly, whether she feels Chrismukkah-celebrating families are wrong for their chosen traditions and celebrations is not the complete issue – her blatant disrespect of differing views is. I wish the Sisterhood blog would think twice before publishing pieces that display such intolerance toward other Jews’ religious and cultural choices.

While I disagree with the views espoused in Cohen’s post, I recognize that they represent the opinion of a large segment of Jews toward interfaith families. Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community – which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.

Still Watching Hanukkah

In the last Hanukkah blog post, I pointed out JWA’s request for progressive, Jewish holiday videos. And they’ve followed up, suggesting that the Fountainhead’s “Light Up The Night” might be the answer:

Our goal is to produce fun and meaningful music videos that put smiles on people’s faces and help them connect with their Jewishness in new ways. We also want to showcase the diverse, vibrant and highly-engaged Israeli-Jewish identity that is emerging in our generation of Israelis today.

 

The Jewish federation of Chicago (Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago) took a different approach in their video, asking you to show your “inner Maccabee” this year. Thankfully, they actually want you to do good deeds, be kind and practice tikkun olam, and not actually emulate the Maccabee’s religious fanaticism, violence or frequent parricides.

 

I want to like the premise of this one except… Hanukkah’s not actually a major holiday. The significance of Hanukkah for the Jews doesn’t compare to the religious significance of Christmas for Christians. (Minor holiday elevated to fill the dark nights of winter versus the birth of Christianity’s messiah? Not really on the same level…) Nonetheless, it has some amusing moments:

 

Looking for something for younger viewers? Shalom Sesame has a Hanukkah playlist on their YouTube channel, which includes “the Missing Menorah” (lots of holiday words, in Hebrew and English, plus a song):

 

Also for kids? Behrman House has published a Hanukkah story, Too Many Latkes, as an interactive iPad app! It’s full of fun features, and your little kids can press a button to have the app read the story out loud in the pre-recorded voice – or in yours! You can check out their video introduction to the app or head over to the app store to download it yourself. 

But back to the videos. When I first saw this one, I didn’t get why folks were hatin’ on it. But then I kept watching… There’s someone in blackface. (Not ok!) But on the other hand, it’s probably the most accessible in terms of language… But… I don’t know. What do you think?

 

Pella busts out some boy band a capella moves in their “Holiday Party” (to the tune of Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight”), which goes through not only Hanukkah, but all the Jewish holidays.

 

This one’s an older tune. I think I first heard  Eric “Smooth-E” Schwartz’s Jewish parody tunes in 2001; one of his Passover songs made the rounds for years, falsely attributed to many different people. Anyway, here’s his ode to Hanukkah gelt, “Chocolate Gelt.”

 

And let’s end with a video that came out oh, I don’t know, about three minutes ago. My buddy Naomi Less singing her new “8 Nights” song. She prefaces the video with

This winter 18 Jewish social entrepreneurs from several countries worldwide shared images about their personal meanings of Hanukkah – seeing a miracle inside of someone during the season

I admit that I recognize too many people in the video to not be biased in its favor…

 

If you’ve seen other Hanukkah videos you think we should share, post them in the comments or email them to me (benjaminm@interfaithfamily.com). Bonus gelt if they include interfaith families!

Our December Holiday Survey Results Are In!

Thanks to all of you who responded to our December holidays survey.

The results are in! Earlier this morning, we sent out the following press release – let us know what you think of the findings.

Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children

BOSTON – December 14, 2011 – 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 emerged from the eighth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily.com, an independent non-profit.

InterfaithFamily.com has surveyed how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas, annually the past eight 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.com’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 increased to 83%, from 76% 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 celebrates Hanukkah at home, while less than half 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 3% tell the Christmas story.  While more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (60%) compared to last year (53%), and slightly fewer (46%) will have a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (48%), ninety percent view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature.

Many families celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered around the extended family.

Eighty percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 77% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity.

“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas is now common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “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 on a variety of measures this year, but not of a religious nature.”

This year Christmas falls on the fifth day of Hanukkah. Despite this overlap, 62% said their holiday observances would not change. “We find it heartening,” Case said, “that many respondents noted they would bring their Hanukkah menorahs and light them at their Christian relatives’ homes.”

Other key findings on interfaith families raising Jewish children include:

  • Ninety-seven percent plan on celebrating Hanukkah at home, compared to 48 percent planning on celebrating Christmas there. Seventy-one percent plan on celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives.
  • Seventy-seven percent of the respondents participating in Christmas celebrations believe it will not affect their children’s Jewish identity.
  • Only 3 percent plan on telling the Christmas story at home while 48 percent plan on telling the Hanukkah story at home. Only 13 percent plan on attending religious services for Christmas.
  • Ninety-nine percent of respondents plan on lighting a menorah and 93 percent plan on giving gifts as part of their Hanukkah celebrations at home.
  • Forty-six percent plan on putting up a Christmas tree and 60 percent plan on giving gifts at home as part of Christmas.
  • The families are opposed to blending the two holidays. Eighty percent plan on keeping the holidays separate or mostly separate.
  • Six percent of the families will participate in Hanukkah celebrations in the office, versus 25 percent that plan to celebrate Christmas there.

For more information, read the full report online.

About InterfaithFamily.com
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them.

# # #

Editor’s Note
InterfaithFamily.com 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 http://www.interfaithfamily.com/decemberholidays.

# # #

Do check out that full report, and let us know your thoughts!

Watching Hanukkah

Some very different videos to start getting you ready for this holiday season.

Let’s start with the basics. How do you spell the name of this holiday in English? And what’s the deal with latkes? From the senior citizens at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, some of the more pressing questions of the season:

A mashup of top hits from decades past (a different era for each night of Hanukkah?), rewritten to explain the history, story and rituals of Hanukkah:

Then, Sarah Silverman‘s take on the December dilemma. Warning: her lyrics are, unsurprisingly, explicit. So I’m going to let you click over to it yourself.

Of course, there’s our favorite video, Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah:

“It's time to light the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah!” might be my favorite line.

And if you’re more a gastronomical celebrant than religious enthusiast, you might enjoy the Potato Tabernacle Choir’s performance of Cheryl Wheeler’s Potato Song:

 

(Wondering why there are so few videos here? Check out what our friends at the Jewish Women’s Archive had to say about the lack of progressive Jewish viral videos.)

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Christmas time in our family is spent with my in-laws. Church for a 4:30 p.m. mass on Christmas Eve and then back to my in-laws’ house for an extended family, buffet-style, Christmas dinner, complete with Portuguese-style cocktail weenies and finger sandwiches. We eat around the Christmas tree while the kids (5 of them – all boys!) run around downstairs. For the past couple of years, Santa has visited after dinner, ringing the doorbell and coming inside with gifts for the kids. They seem to love this and are in awe of the large man in a red suit. While I never grew up with Santa, and I don’t have the nostalgic feeling that comes from a visit from him, it is neat watching the kids get all excited. And it’s fun to look forward to their reactions.

This year, however, I’m worried.

About a month ago, my six-year-old said, out of the clear blue, “I think Cousin Johnny is Santa.”

Shocked and stunned, I had no idea how to respond. “Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Well, he’s never around when Santa comes to the door.” Again, I am shocked. I can ask my son 100 times to put his dirty clothes in the laundry room and not drop them on the floor, and he is incapable of doing this. But he’s perceptive enough to realize that Cousin Johnny is not in the room when Santa comes and remembers it 11 months later!

I’m not worried that by answering this I’m going to ruin Christmas for my son. I’m worried that my response is going to be repeated to my nephews and end up ruining Christmas for them. I never had to answer questions about Santa or the Easter Bunny before! I can’t check in with my mom and see how she responded. What do I do?! 

I ended up mumbling something under my breath and changing the topic. This worked for the time being, but I needed to nip this one in the bud before I single-handedly ruined Christmas for my extended family.

As soon as possible, I consulted the expert, my sister-in-law. After all, her kids were the ones who would be potentially scarred for life (depending on my answer). She helped me out by telling me how she responded when her kids got confused when they saw Santa standing in front of the grocery store ringing a bell after they had just taken pictures with him at the mall. “I tell them Santa has a lot of helpers around Christmas in order to get everything done. But, he’s always watching to see if you’ve been naughty or nice.”

The threat of the omnipresent Santa looking down on the kids aside, I think the “helping Santa out” response may work. For now, I’m hoping that the question doesn’t come up again. And, if it does, maybe I can quickly shove a cocktail weenie in my son’s mouth as Santa comes in the door this year…

Take a Break

It’s that busy time of the year (is there ever not a busy time of the year?). Hanukkah’s over but we’re still celebrating the December holidays with friends and family, colleagues and communities. You need a break, we need a break, time for a hodgepodge of links. Happy reading!

Take a break…

 

And now back to the holidays…

Until the next hodge podge…

And on the Shabbat of Hanukkah…

Because there are still six more nights to fill… Hanukkah hodgepodge: part deux!

From the folks at Jewcy, Ten Songs We Wish Were For Hanukkah: songs about fire, donuts, potatoes, candles and gelt.

Today we posted a historic essay about Hanukkah in the new United States. If you want more American history, the 92nd Street Y has a post about the 19th Century trend of formal Hanukkah balls.

It’s not history, but in keeping with the Americana I have going here, check out Country-Fried Mama’s post about Hanukkah Traditions from the Deep South. I particularly enjoyed learning about the visiting “Hanukkah Man.”

Jewish Women’s Archive has a blog post about Hanukkah songs written by Jewish women. But even better? Their new Hanukkah video that tells the story of Judith and Hanukkah, and celebrates contemporary women who share her name

For something a little different, Cake Wrecks shared a bunch of disastrous Hanukkah cakes, including the one seen in the video below. (I don’t know about you, but I won’t be making that for my Hanukkah party this weekend!)

“And of course HHHHanukah will be blue…”

If you’ve used our video to learn how to light the menorah, but are looking for an app for your iPhone/iPad/iPod to learn the blessings (and maybe practice your Hebrew along the way), Berman House’s iHanukkah app might be for you.

How often do you hear fiddle and bass Hanukkah music? Not nearly often enough. I’ll leave you with this final ditty:

For the first night of Hanukkah…

So. Much. Hanukkah.

With the festival of lights starting this evening (are you ready to light the menorah? Check out our new video for candle lighting instructions, below, if you’re unsure or just want a refresher), this week I’m bringing you a Hanukkah hodgepodge.

Let’s start with the folks at BBYO/Panim, who have a great new resource. In Those Days, At This Time links the history of Hanukkah to the virtues of service and advocacy today – and tomorrow! Be sure to watch their video guide and start a conversation as you light the candles in your homes.

Hanukkah always bring out new music, and this year there’s plenty to choose from:
[list]
[*] – Matisyahu turns pop singer with “Miracle,” his new Hanukkah song;[/*]
[*] – the a cappella group from Yeshiva University, the Maccabeats, has reworked “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz to bring us Candlelight;[/*]
[*] – from Chana Rothman, Naomi Less, and Sara Aroeste comes “A New Light,” recorded in Hebrew, English, and Ladino (available streaming or as free download);[/*]
[*] – Fa La Freezing by My First Earthquake is a cute holiday song – with a bonus interfaith angle;[/*]
[*] – and Bible Raps brings us Light Is in the Air.[/*][/list]

And if you want to sing your own songs, Original Jewish has compiled a whole bunch of them, and offers up the songs for download in English, Hebrew, and transliteration.

Looking for a new spin on the Hanukkah story?  chanukah:s9ln24lm">G-dcast Spins Hanukkah in this retelling of the history of the holiday. Meanwhile, PunkTorah gives you the whole story in 62 seconds, below. (You can also check them out doing a live candle lighting tonight, Dec. 1st at 7pm EST, on OneShul.org.) Meanwhile, Storahtelling has Judy the Maccabee for the preschooler in all of us.

Jennie at ModernTribe has some fun Hanukkah swag (and you might recognize our favorite kosher pig amongst the gift ideas!).

For those of you who are creative DIYers, check out the Lifehacker DIY Holiday Contest. (My favorite entry thus far? The Peznorah!)

And, lastly, I leave you with this video, below, made by teens of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the A. J. Heschel School in New York, shared by Keshet, encouraging us all to make our communities more welcoming as we light the menorah tonight.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah Dark or Light

David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, The Hanukkah Story. He finds the story of the Hasmonean ascendancy which Hanukkah celebrates troubling and ambiguous. It’s a surprising position from Brooks, who identifies as a conservative. (That’s with a small c–I don’t know whether he’s also a Conservative Jew) though he also takes some social positions that other conservatives don’t. In any event, it’s a provocative piece.

Rabbi Howard Berman, Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism and a good friend of IFF, finds Brooks’ piece narrow and cynical. He considers Hanukkah especially significant to American Jews.  He writes:

David Brooks’ Op-Ed, “The Hanukkah Story,” is disturbing on many levels- beyond the scrooge-like pall it seems determined to cast on the celebration of a beloved holiday. One would hope that Mr. Brook’s academic and journalistic credentials would encompass an understanding of the complexities and nuance of history – which is never the literal, objective, factual account of actual events, but rather the way human experience has been interpreted – reflecting the political or philosophical agenda of both the original chronicle and the evolving national, cultural or religious traditions that emerge from those transforming developments. The Maccabean revolt of 165 BCE reflected the debates and passions of every revolution – the tensions between noble ideals and pragmatic action, as well as the timeless conflict of “traditionalists” and “reformers.” These dynamics have been at  work in the history of Christianity ( especially at the time of the split between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy in the 10th century and later, in the violent Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Reformation); certainly in Islam ( the endless Sunni-Shiite battles); and in the history of America ( especially in the passionate partisan controversies among the Founding Fathers and later, in the Civil War)… no less than they were in Hanukkah’s story of an oppressed people’s revolt against tyranny. One might ask whether Mr. Brooks would have written such an attack on our Nation’s founders for publication on July 4, charging that Independence Day’s meaning is diminished because patriots tarred, feathered and hanged Tory “traitors” who did not share their Revolutionary zeal. Or, if he would attack Christmas, since the subsequent unfolding of history that resulted from its original story was filled with such violence and oppression in the name of the babe in the manger.

The major point is that Hanukkah, like all religious holidays and traditions, has evolved over the centuries. It came to be understood – and celebrated – and loved – by subsequent generations of Jews, far more as an affirmation of faith in the face of oppression, and courage in the struggle for justice and freedom.  It is the later legend of the miracle of the oil that is remembered in popular perception -more than the military victory and the political complexities of the original events – emphasizing the spiritual themes of the festival, and reflecting Hanukkah’s even more ancient roots in winter solstice celebrations of light. In our time, Hanukkah has become a very universalistic affirmation of diversity – embodying in contemporary America a meaning that is arguably very different from the narrow interpretation Brook’s focuses upon. Today, the menorah shines as a symbol of Judaism’s confident engagement in our broader culture, rather than what may have been the Maccabee’s rejection of a tyrannically enforced imposition of alien religious values. I would invite David Brooks to shed his critical cynicism and embrace Hanukkah’s creative power as a vehicle for the celebration of Jewish identity and ideals, that also shares in the broader celebration of this season’s most  universal and inclusive themes.

The eighth night of Hanukkah is tonight! If you have a minute as you’re frying up that last batch of latkes, weigh in on Rabbi Berman’s guest post, Brooks’ original essay and the meaning the holiday. We would love to hear what you have to say.

Parenting Blogs and Hanukkah Presents

Our friend Kali Foxman is editing a new Combined Jewish Philanthropies parenting newsletter and wrote me for more ideas about Jewish parenting blogs. If you live in the Boston area and would like to get a listing of all Jewish family events, plus recipes and book recommendations, please go to CJP Family Connections and sign up!

Kali already had My Jewish Learning, which isn’t exactly a parenting blog, more like a clearing house for lots of great, accessible Jewish information for seekers at every level of knowledge. (We love MJL and have lots of links to them all over our site.) She also had Modern Jewish Mom, which has amazing Jewish parenting resources, and Jewish Everyday, by the fantastic Bible Belt Balabusta.

I added Homeshuling, which I’ve already promoted here because it’s great, Ima On (and off) the Bima, a parenting blog by a rabbi, and in a surprise pick, Metalia. Now the truth is that Metalia isn’t a Jewish parenting blog–it’s a blog by a modern Orthodox Jewish mom about pop culture and lip gloss–but she does occasional, really accessible introduction to Judaism posts that I like, and her children are very cute. (And even though I recently posted a review of a book on Spinoza, I happen to like blog posts about popular culture and lip gloss.)

I wanted to be sure to promote Susan Goldberg’s blog, Mama Non Grata, because without it I would never have found her to write the two lovely articles she wrote for IFF. The book she edited, And Baby Makes More Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families has been published in Canada, and you can read a sampler from it at the publisher’s website.

Hanukkah is still happening, and I think we’re not quite out of presents at our house yet. My child has become materialistic and wants more toys. The best thing he got was Superhero in a Box, if you are looking for a present. The best Jewish present he got was probably the Kippah from Uganda made by the Abayudaya Jews. (Yeah, I know, when are Jews in other countries going to buy “special kippot by the Ashkenazi–is that how you say it?–Jews of the United States. In North America! And they’re from there!” Etc. But it’s a very nice kippah–attractive and it doesn’t need hair clips. Little kids are often not big fans of the hair clips, you know?)

The video isn’t my usual style, but I just loved the sound. My friend Mimi DuPree is fussy about how female singers sound on Jewish liturgical music–well, this is the male singer sound I like–no nonsense, just nice harmony.