From Hanukkah to Christmas… and Back

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.

But while the Jewish community saw her as an outsider, to the non-Jewish world, she was a “representative Jew,” being called in front of class at middle school to “explain our holidays and what we believed”–even though she knew scarcely more than the typical non-Jewish student. Without knowledge of her religious background, she clung to concrete traditions: Passover seders in New York with the extended Jewish family, honey-baked ham on Christmas with her step-father’s grandparents.

Then, when her mother and step-father split up, all of a sudden she is a Jewish child again. But how do you abruptly sacrifice Christmas and Easter?

She only begins to feel part of the Jewish community as an adult following a 2-year stint in Israel. “It didn’t matter if I attended synagogue, ate bacon, donated to Jewish organizations, could read from the Torah or believed in anything,” she says. “I counted.”

This is a fascinating development. It demonstrates the essential role that community plays in Jewish identity. Belief without engagement with other Jews is not only psychologically unfulfilling, it’s not really Judaism. Judaism is simultaneously a religion and a community. Neither functions effectively without the other and one could even argue, given the success of the largely secular American Jewish community, that the community element is more important than the religious element.

It also shows that feeling Jewish is not as simple as self-identification. It takes work. In Ravitz’s case, the work was moving to Israel. In others’ cases, it may mean joining a synagogue, or gathering with like-minded Jews, or attending Jewish cultural events regularly. If Judaism were a class, attendance and participation would be just as important as knowing the subject matter.

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9 thoughts on “From Hanukkah to Christmas… and Back

  1. The problem I have with this article is that it does not take
    faith in God seriously, and one’s relationship with God. It mainly
    approaches Judaism from a cultural perspective and assumes
    that what is true for the author is true for everyone.

  2. Jessica is not a product of an intermarried family because both of her birth parents were Jewish. Her stepfather brought his Christian cultural influences which she delighted in because now she didn’t have to feel like a minority anymore.
    Jessica found her Jewish identity in Israel because both her parents were Jewish. This wouldn’t have happened if one of her parent’s was a Gentile. Children of intermarried couples grow up confused and tormented. Intermarriage is a disaster for the Jewish community.

  3. Responding to this previous comment: “Children of intermarried couples grow up confused and tormented.”

    Perhaps you meant to say “SOME children…….”

    My 2 children are proud to be Jews, & were so even before I converted after 15 yrs of marriage. My son , by his own choice, wore his kippah to public school, reveled in taking matzah in for school lunches during Passover & proudly stood on top of Masada this summer to become a bar mitzvah. My daughter beams with pride as I present a Hanukah program in her classroom & joyfully attends Hebrew school & sings in the choir

    Confused & tormented? Hardly. Proud of being Jews? ABSOLUTELY!

    Please don’t paint intermarriage with such a broad brush.

  4. Well, Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr. “anti-intermarriage”, I do respect how you make very clear just where you stand.

    May I suggest that the real “disaster” of intermarriage in the Jewish community often stems from the unilateral, rigid exclusion of children of non-Jewish mothers, even if the children are religiously Jewish.

    I’ve lived over a decade of having to deal with prejudiced, narrowminded, and disrespectful comments, in the same judgmental tone you are using, that my child, who has a Jewish father and a Christian mother, isn’t Jewish. Despite believing in Judaism, attending Hebrew school, and having no sense of Christian religious identity, he is still considered not Jewish by many.

    Despite all the negativity and attacks on me and him, I’m actively supporting and participating in raising my son as a Jew. In other words, despite people like YOU, and how badly I have been treated by people like you, I’m still raising him as a Jew. My fervent hope is that he will grow up to be a man who is proud of his religion, and respectful and tolerant of others.

    Do you at all see the irony that despite your attitude and negativity, and how you summarily dismiss children of interfaith marriages, I’m still committed to raising him in YOUR religion?

    You’re welcome.

  5. Dear Friends:

    As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, I don’t think the article truly represents most adult children of intermarriage — Jessica has two biological Jewish parents.

    The Half-Jewish Network welcomes the stepchildren of interfaith couples, but we rarely hear from them — the vast majority of our members are biological children and grandchildren of intermarriage.

    Now, as to how adult children of intermarriage feel, and how they turn out as adults — the responses to this article show two opposite poles, neither quite accurate — born Jews reflexively claiming we’re not Jews, and that we are all screwed up — and members of interfaith couples stating that their young children are all just fine, totally OK with being Jews, etc.

    The reality is very different from what both groups claim. I would respectfully suggest that both the anti-intermarriage Jews and the members of interfaith couples visit my group’s website at:

    http://www.half-jewish.net

    and see what our issues and needs and feelings as adults are. Many adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage post on our message board. The reality is far more complex than the posters on this thread suspect.

    Cordially,
    Robin Margolis
    http://www.half-jewish.net

  6. Intermmariage for most of thesec families is a disaster for the Jewish peolpe. Most of the off spring come to despise anything Jewish. Yes there are some familes where the non Jewish Partner embaraces judaism more than the Jewish partner and perhaps converts to judaism. Yet this is the minority and most intermarried familes are confused and become anti Jewish. The blogger anti Intermarriage is correct in his assesment

  7. Holly, I completely understand your frustration and anger. Here you have made a major compromise, agreeing to raise your child with a belief system and tradition that is not your own, and you feel that you are being rebuked. I hope, however, that you might be able to take a moment to see it from the perspective of the religious Jewish community on this point of matrilineal descent. Without getting into the debate of whether it is or is not just, the halacha (Jewish Law) is that the children of Jewish women are Jewish, and the children of non-Jewish women are not Jewish. While it can be frustrating to hear that one (or one’s child) is not Jewish despite identifying as such, Judaism is a religion of laws and is based not only on belief, but on practice. If a child is born to a non-Jewish mother, in order to become Jewish, he or she must undergo a conversion, no matter how strongly he/she identifies with the religion. Just as one cannot become a Catholic without baptism, no matter how fervently one identifies with Catholicism and celebrates the holidays, one cannot become Jewish without a Jewish conversion.

    You might say that Reform Judaism accepts children of non-Jewish mothers as Jewish, however, that is a departure of Reform Judaism from Jewish Law and you should not blame the rest of the Jewish community for continuing to follow (and believe in) Jewish law, simply because Reform Judaism has departed from it.

    That being said, while people may not recognize your children as Jews under Jewish law, that is no reason or justification to act rudely or insultingly toward you or your family.

  8. Zody-

    i think you are slightly confused in your comments. intermarried couples do not despise Judaism and do not intentionally become anti-Jewish. what they despise is the nasty attitudes they receive from people such as yourself and “anti-intermarriage”. if you have a problem with someone whose husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/domestic partner is not Jewish, then keep it to yourself. don’t go gossiping around the shul about it. the more insular the community is, the better the chances of losing even more potential members. and if you ask me, that’s an even greater disaster. we need to retain intermarried Jews, not drive them away.

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