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.

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4 thoughts on “In Response to an Anti-Interfaith Voice

  1. Readers might also be interested to see [url=http://onbeingboth.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/interfaith-children-born-this-way/]Susan Katz Miller’s response to Debra Nussbaum Cohen on her own blog[/url]. Most notably, that Cohen referred to these holidays as “Christmukkah,” a mash-up of holidays that Miller’s family does not celebrate.

  2. It seems to me that people generally underestimate children.  It just doesn’t make sense that there should be so much “confusion”, and yet so many of us who came from pluralistic interfaith families turned out whole.  I’m convinced that this “confusion” is a myth.  Kids ask questions, even without encouragement.

  3. Great response, Kate. I tried to join the conversation yesterday with a comment of my own under Cohen’s post, but I lost it in the maddeningly clunky OpenID login process on the Sisterhood’s site.

    Anyway. I agree completely. I was raised in an interfaith household and wasn’t confused, but more importantly, Cohen’s post was intolerant, condescending, and disrespectful, and paints a scary picture for interfaith families in the Jewish community.

  4. i come from an in-married background and am in a relationship with a Jew (i have been in interfaith relationships as well), but i found this piece condescending and insensitive. Ms. Cohen’s language and attitude are appalling, and although she claims to know several intermarried families in which Christmas is celebrated outside the immediate home i doubt the validity of her statement. there are plenty worse things than having a Christmas tree in the house, but some people still can’t seem to realize that.

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