When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews." What does it mean to raise a Jewish child?
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
After a month of publishing almost exclusively “December Dilemma”-driven content, I promised myself that there would be no more. But then a friend sent me this essay on Salon.com, where Christopher Noxon explains the unique solution he and his Jewish wife found for their holiday hangups: Irving the Snowchicken.
Noxon relates how they came to hatch Irving:
Eventually, we arrived at our bottom lines. No matter how superficial or secular the holiday had become, she argued, it was still Christ’s birthday, and my beloved just couldn’t be party to that. No tree, no mistletoe, no Santa. I took stock and realized … none of that mattered to me, either. I didn’t care about the trimmings — they were mostly tacky and meaningless anyway. What mattered to me, as both a grown-up and a parent, was the make-believe. When I boiled it down, all I wanted was someone magical to break into our house and leave us cool stuff.
Every year, they and their three children devise more additions to their homespun tradition:
We now have a songbook of Winter Wonderday classics that includes a recording of “Born to Be Wild” with all-poultry vocals. While burning our wish lists, we now raise our voices in a song that includes a line written by 7-year-old Charlie: “Santa is fired from the job/ He gives presents like a slob.” We’ve also begun the custom of leaving out a tray of food near the pant-festooned mantle — Irving, the kids discovered, favors sunflower seeds and fruit juice. And we now go to great lengths to build a nest for Irving, the construction of which begins with a Winter Wonderhike to collect twigs and leaves, which we then stuff inside a ring of chicken wire (and which is mysteriously littered the next day with soft white feathers that look very much like they were clumsily extracted from an expensive pillow).
In recent years we’ve spent the evening with bowls of candy, frosting and cookie pieces, building entire encampments of Snowy North gingerbread chicken coops. And we’ve found that no Winter Wondereve is complete without a feast at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, where we delight in the combination of maple-soaked fried dough and the sacrificial body of our host.
From the Jewish perspective, their solution is brilliant. While we’ve shown that families can celebrate Christmas and still be unambiguously Jewish, there is no chance that a family that elevates Irving the Snowchicken will be confused religiously. There’s no religious content to Irving; he’s just a mythical figure who brings gifts, like the tooth fairy.
The most obvious argument against Irving is that the particularity of the Noxon family’s celebration isolates them from sharing in the communal spirit that is essential to most religious traditions. That’s true, but they were specifically searching for a non-religious answer to what was essentially a cultural conflict. Moreover, I’m not sure how Irving differs from other unique family traditions, like an annual summer migration to a house in Maine or a family game of capture-the-flag after Thanksgiving. Since most families’ celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah are primarily about family togetherness and gift-giving (same as Winter Wonderday), the difference between Winter Wonderday and other unique family traditions is more of degree than of kind.
In a darkened room at the San Diego Convention Center last week, nearly 1,000 people clapped, sang and danced to evening prayers, with the words projected on two large screens against a bucolic backdrop of mountain vistas and rolling streams.
Featuring a five-piece band, a small vocal ensemble and a charismatic, storytelling leader, the weekday evening service could have been held at any of the growing number of mega-churches in America.
It’s the first week of December which means only one thing: TV shows and newspapers are flooded with stories on the “December dilemma.”
Yesterday morning, the Today Show had a segment featuring Jewish-Christian couples and advice from Rev. Sherri Hauser, of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi Irwin Kula, best known for his recent book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. One of the couples was Mark and Helena McMahon, who we know well from her great work as manager of the Interfaith Connection at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, an outreach program for interfaith couples. Interestingly, the segment made no mention of that fact. Among the few nuggets of wisdom: “Relationships and faith are living things, so expect them to change” (Hauser) and “Conflict is always an invitation to growing” (Kula).
In today’s New York Times, I was quoted in Julie Scelfo’s A Holiday Medley, Off Key. The article looks at the push-and-pull of holiday celebrations in interfaith couples, paying particular attention to ways in which the holidays can become a competition between partners. Continue reading →
Interestingly, though, our recent 2007 December Holidays Survey showed that 63 percent of conversionary families plan on participating in Christmas celebrations in some way, although only six percent plan on celebrating in their own home. Half plan to celebrate at the home of relatives. While many converts may miss having Christmas at home, they often continue to celebrate at the home of relatives.
While skeptics may see this as a sign that even conversionary families are “infected” by the Christmas bug, even born-Jewish families are not immune to participating in Christmas. The survey also found that a third of born-Jewish families plan to participate in Christmas celebrations in some way, be it at the home of relatives or friends, at a work function or as part of a public activity. And for what it’s worth, 31 percent plan on watching It’s A Wonderful Life.
Jessica Ravitz of the St. Lake Tribune wrote an entertaining, insightful essay on the wonders and worries of being a child of an interfaith household late last month–and all in under 800 words.
When my Jewish parents split up, I was at an age when I would have sooner shoved tinsel in my mouth than throw it on a tree. It was before I could scream, “Merry Christmas!” With the arrival of my Protestant stepfather, I learned how.
I was no dummy. Even at 5, I knew Hanukkah didn’t hold a candle, let alone eight of them, to Christmas. I reveled in the holiday cheer, tried not to break too many ornaments and carefully hung my stocking. One look at the loot under our tree and I knew I’d hit the jackpot.
While celebrating both traditions–or at least the “biggie” holidays from both traditions–was a boon to her toychest, she received little spiritual nourishment. Her family “bypassed God altogether,” a typical modern liberal response to the problem of religion (and this holds for inmarried as well as intermarried families). That may have made for peace at home, but it meant she felt like an outsider in the Jewish community.
For the first time in the three-year history of doing our December holidays survey, JTA has done an entire story about the survey! Frankly, I can’t say enough about what a terrific piece of reporting Sue Fishkoff did. It presents the survey results in a balanced, nuanced, contextual light, and is clear about the survey’s limits and its strengths. Fishkoff was also careful to make clear that we don’t encourage interfaith families to have Christmas trees, but we do say that the simple existence of a Christmas tree in a house does not prevent children from being raised Jewish.
In addition, President and Publisher Ed Case was recently interviewed for “Your Morning” on CN8, the Comcast Network, and ”Busted Halo with Father Dave Dwyer” on Sirius Radio. We also got a nice shout-out from Miss Conduct in her column in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. (She called InterfaithFamily.com a “terrific site”–thanks, Miss C.!)
The Solomon Schechter Day School Association made no decision on whether to change their admission policies to allow the children of non-Jewish mothers, according to Sue Fishkoff’s update of last Thursday’s JTA story. Instead, Fishkoff says, the association’s board of directors “will continue the discussion” after the conference.
That’s not surprising; these kinds of decisions often take a lot of time and a lot of controversy. But it was nice to see that Rabbi Jerome Epstein continues to argue for a more welcoming attitude in the movement:
Speaking to conference delegates Monday in Boca Raton, Epstein made an impassioned plea to Schechter school directors and rabbis to be more welcoming to children of non-Jewish mothers, suggesting that the system “make a special effort to enroll the children of intermarried Jews even if they are not halachically Jewish,” and then engage in concerted outreach efforts to encourage the children and their non-Jewish mother to convert “as part of their Jewish journey.”
The great majority of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews plan on participating in celebrations of both Christmas and Hanukkah.
Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on this trend, arguing that interfaith families can’t raise their children as Jews and celebrate Christmas, but the results of this survey suggest that they can. Continue reading →
What follows is the text–minus the tables–from our report on our 2006 December Holidays Survey, which specifically looked at the 342 respondents (out of a population of 759) who told us they were in an interfaith relationship, had children and were raising the children Jewish. Tomorrow we will post the Conclusions section of our report:
Almost all of the respondents expect to participate in Hanukkah celebrations and Christmas celebrations this year: 99 percent expect to participate in Hanukkah celebrations while 89 percent plan to participate in Christmas celebrations.
The great majority of these respondents plan on doing multiple activities relating to the celebration of Hanukkah in their own home. Ninety-nine percent plan to light the menorah and 63 percent plan on telling the Hanukkah story. Continue reading →
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