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This time of year, I often find myself answering questions about the “December Dilemma.” As an intermarried-child-of-intermarriage, people want to know how I handle this tricky season, when Christmas and Hanukkah compete for our attention, and pine trees threaten to darken our doors. After all, I’ve been experiencing this for two generations myself. Haven’t I learned something in all that time?
I do have an answer, actually, but it’s a radical notion—that in fact, there’s no such thing as the December Dilemma. Or rather, that this is a problem we’ve created for ourselves, out of anxiety and insecurity.
If this is the case, the obvious solution to our problem is to release that anxiety and turn our attention to enjoying our own distinct holiday, to making Hanukkah a resonant, meaningful season. Just as we do with Passover or Sukkot. When we aren’t measuring ourselves against jingle bells and candy canes.
But how do we do that?
For years I tried to make Hanukkah appealing to my kids. Since they often spend Christmas with their Catholic grandparents, and receive copious gifts as a result, my instinct was to try to match that particular kind of childhood joy. I didn’t concoct a Jewish Santa, but I did spend money. I bought and wrapped loads of presents, filled bowls with gelt and dreidels. I bought twinkly lights shaped like stars of David. I wanted Hanukkah to outshine Christmas in my children’s memories.
You know what? It didn’t work. Not because the presents weren’t appreciated, but because that’s not the point of Hanukkah. That store-bought abundance* didn’t feel organic or authentic to anyone. Eight days is a long time to slog through that brassy sort of cheer, and also, only Santa is Santa. Pale comparisons are just that. No menorah will dim the presence of a tree in the corner, or the inundation our kids feel from the outside world—the endcap displays at Target, the aisles of red and green candy at the grocery store. Every year we all feel a little let down by Hanukkah. Don’t we?
So last year, I asked myself a question—why does this holiday matter? I asked myself what there was to love about Hanukkah. If it isn’t a runner-up week of gifts and gelt, what’s the actual point? I tried to remember what had mattered to me about Hanukkah, as a kid. What were my best Hanukkah memories?
When I did, I found that every single one was a memory of the dinner table or the kitchen. Of my dad grating his knuckles year after year, making latkes. Of my sisters and brothers teasing each other when we unwrapped boring gifts like dried fruit or clothes. Of the smoke alarm going off. Of drinking wine and idly spinning dreidels on a crumb-covered tablecloth, as we caught up with each other’s college-age lives.
You see, the beauty of Hanukkah is this—if we actually celebrate it, it affords us eight consecutive nights to slow down and focus on the little things, the personal, the mundane. Hanukkah forces us to look into each other’s eyes every night for a week, and connect. To wait until the candles have burned down to wash the dishes or check email.
This is a miracle, honestly, in today’s world. What other holiday accomplishes that sort of slowdown? There’s no pressure to perform Hanukkah. There’s no long synagogue service or requirement that you take time off school or work. You don’t have to dress up or make a fancy meal. You only have to spend an hour every night loving your family and friends fully. Being aware of them.
So last year, we did something radical at our house. We opted out of the December Dilemma. We didn’t spend money. We didn’t throw a party. We didn’t travel. We didn’t compete with Christmas at all, and the result was mindblowing. It was actually a little bit painful to register the shock in my kids’ faces when neither my husband nor I hurried away from dinner to make a phone call or wrap up a little work.
We skipped cub scouts and book club that week. We didn’t go the gym. If homework hadn’t been done by dinner, it wasn’t going to get done. For eight nights, we prioritized only each other, and it was moving to see how deeply that resonated with my kids—to see that they totally got it. We played dumb board games and ate popcorn. One night we watched a movie together, and I know it sounds cheesy, but I can’t remember a calmer, happier week in our household. The kids have been talking about it ever since. They can’t wait for this year.
Here’s the thing—you can only lose a battle you choose to fight. Christmas won’t stop being Christmas, whether you have a tree or not. Christmas won’t stop being an abundant overblown season of candy wrapped in tinsel. If the way we measure joy is in candy, Christmas wins every time.
But that’s only one kind of currency, and if we measure joy in calm pleasure, in togetherness, in slowness, in conversation and low-stress fun, Hanukkah resonates differently. It matters. It becomes real.
Think about light—there are fireworks in the world, and then there are fireplaces. Both are illuminating. But they meet different needs. If you measure the cheery glow of a fireplace against the bombastic blaze of fireworks, you’ll be disappointed. But if you stare deep into the hearth, accept it on its own terms, and warm your hands, you can’t help but see its distinct beauty. You can’t help but recognize how much you need it.
*the author would like to recognize that plenty of Christians struggle with this issue too, and that for many people, the real spirit of Christmas has nothing to do with the “holiday shopping season.”
We tend to ask our children the same questions over and over which are super hard to answer. Educators and parents ask, “What are you thankful for?” This questions is asked repeatedly around Thanksgiving time. Children say, “my parents, my home, food, friends and toys.”
Ask your child now. What did he or she say? A parent volunteer told me that when the librarian asked the kids this question, my 6-year-old said, “the solar system.” That was an unusual answer. I’m not sure where that one came from. Maybe there was a poster of outer-space or a book nearby that caught her eye?
There is nothing wrong with this question but it is very hard to tap into real feelings of gratitude, appreciation and thanks and then to be able to articulate those feelings. Sometimes I ask my kids what makes them happy and that seems easier for them to talk about. Gratitude has to be cultivated and modeled.
As we move into the Hanukkah and Christmas season, I asked my 6-year-old and 8-year-old what they know about these holidays. You would think that being children of two rabbis and living in a heavily Jewish suburb would sway or weight their answers some. Yet, they love their idea of Christmas even though they have had limited personal experience with it (much to their chagrin).
When I asked them what they think about when I say the word, “Christmas” they beamed with joy, lit up and said, “presents!” Now, my pastor friends and practicing Christians may be cringing. These are not the holy parts of this holiday. In addition, these are children who have lots of stuff. They are not lacking for presents. However, the idea of getting a gift is ever thrilling.
They don’t have much first-hand experience with a religious and/or a cultural Christmas. (Hopefully their experiences will vary and multiply as they get older and they will come to value volunteering during the time of darkness and need for so many, and will be inclined to cherish the priceless and precious gifts of time and presence more than material things). Their ideas about Christmas fun come primarily from TV and I’m not sure where else.
Then I asked them to tell me about Hanukkah. They said lighting the menorah and presents are what come to mind. My children don’t like latkes. Or matzah ball soup, lox or noodle kugel. I know, it’s just wrong, but I’m being as honest as possible here. They do like Elf on the Shelf, Christmas cookies and the lights, beauty and magic of Christmas.
When I reminded them and gave hints, they were able to conjure up details about the miracle of the oil lasting and about the re-dedication of the Temple. They know the role of the shamash, or helper candle that lights the other ones. They know how to play dreidel and play it with zeal. They love games! They love getting together with friends and family over Hanukkah. They sing Hanukkah songs and enjoy going to synagogue where each family lights a menorah and it glows with warmth and love.
I don’t think my children are more spoiled or more materialistic than others. They love life, and they love surprises and being playful. They love their friends, feel connected to their family and enjoy school and learning. They generally are into things.
Am I worried that my children—who I hope will look to Judaism to give them order, meaning, sacred purpose, connectedness, hope, values, inspiration, pride, and so much more—love aspects of Christmas? No, not one bit. I do want them to be literate in tenets of Christianity too. I want them to know more about Jesus. They will learn history as they mature and will have context and gain perspective and understanding. I don’t want them to feel threatened by Christianity and Christmas. I want them to be able to ask their own questions and take Christian theology and beliefs seriously. I want them to understand that there is religion and there is culture and there is secularism, and how each of these aspects inform a person’s expression. I don’t ever want Hanukkah and Christmas to compete.
I think that making a child raised with Judaism feel badly about liking Christmas is not a great approach. It won’t create closeness with Judaism. The main thing is to keep asking our children what they think and teaching our children as much as we can so that they can create well-rounded notions of these two holidays, central to our American psyche. Knowledge is good. Not being shamed for loving parts of another religion’s holidays is good.
Let’s stop asking rote questions and expecting rote answers. Your kids will tell you what they honestly know and think and it will open your eyes to their little developing souls.
When I was growing up, my parents threw the most elegant Hanukkah parties. My mom is a decorator at her core and relished the opportunity to throw a party with pizazz. There was fancy juice for the kids, our best dresses and most of all, a gorgeously decorated house. Down the bannister streamed a garland she would create—some years a deep green theme with flowers or elegant dreidels, other years covered in white like the snow we would never see in Southern California. The entire house became transformed by whatever festive theme she had chosen for that year.
Year after year, relatives, friends and our synagogue’s rabbi criticized her elaborate decorations as too Christmassy. Not one to shrink away from a challenge, she quickly quipped that Christmas had not cornered the market on decorations.
But then one year, there were angels. She streamed them up and down the bannister. This time, her critics were livid. They claimed that this was now, officially, a Christmas party. My mother retorted that angels were ours. They originate in our Torah—they visited our patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, ascended and descended Jacob’s ladder, and there were the angels Michael, Rafael, Gabriel and Uriel. Cherubim were even pictured above the holy ark in the Temple in Jerusalem. [More on Jewish angels can be found here.]
She argued that many seasonal symbols like poinsettias, snow and even her angels, had been co-opted by American-style Christmas. She didn’t see why Jews should be deprived of them. There was nothing left that was “kosher” for Hanukkah decorating if she obeyed the ever-growing list of off-limits symbols and colors. Yes, there were paper menorahs and the like. But she hated the kitschy Jewish stuff most people hung and waited for the one holiday when she could get away with more of a flare.
What were her skeptics, many of whom weren’t so traditionally Jewish themselves, worried about? I think her flare set off a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe for them, Christmas was an annual symbol of how our tiny Jewish minority is threatened by a dominant Christian culture—and my mom was blurring that line. Maybe attending this Hanukkah party represented their need to be in a distinctly Jewish place during the onslaught of the Christmas commercial season. Perhaps her decorations were encroaching on their Jewish particularism.
Of course, Hanukkah only rose to its prominent position in Jewish American life because of Christmas. Anywhere else in the world, Hanukkah is the most minor of Jewish holidays. But here in the United States, we felt it needed to combat the red and green tinsel, and we lifted up from the complicated story of Hanukkah a simple message of religious tolerance.
My mom wanted in on the fun. It is a little sad to be part of a society in which the majority is participating in something magical while we merely peer in at it from outside as a matter of principle. We are confused as a group about what to do with Christmas as it morphs from a religious holiday into an American cultural festival. And now that our families are more diverse, that confusion is only exacerbated. A tree—which seems like it should be just that and no more—often holds a lot of history for Jews. Participating in Christmas can serve as a symbol that we have given up trying to be unique. At worst, it can feel like Jews have caved to the majority: the very majority that many times throughout history tried to obliterate us. Yet for someone who grew up with Christmas, the prospect of giving it up means sacrificing a powerful sense of comfort, love, memories and family.
What I advocate most for interfaith couples is that they listen to each other as they describe their needs at the holidays. I often hear people talking past each other about what they can or cannot tolerate. But they rarely dig deeply enough into the particulars of why they need what they need at this time of year.
Even for families who have it all figured out, emotions at this time of year can set off new discussions and tensions. It is one of the few times of the year when extended family enter the picture and have needs and expectations of their own. Whatever your Decembers are like, this is a great time to open up about what the season felt like for you as a child and what emotions—positive, negative or neutral—they bring up as adults. No matter what you choose as your own family traditions, getting that clarity about what you expect and need will help make the season what you want it to be.
“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.
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 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.
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.
This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman, the Nadiv Educator at The Davis Academy and URJ Camp Coleman. Nadiv is a program through the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVICHAI Foundation. The Davis Academy is a large Reform Jewish Day school in Atlanta, Georgia, with students in Kindergarten Prep through 8th Grade and URJ Camp Coleman is a Reform Jewish summer camp at Cleveland, GA. Sara Beth has worked at many Jewish summer camps and is excited to be doing experiential Jewish education at the Davis Academy during the year.
“It’s like that latke that wouldn’t stop screaming,” a Davis Academy Middle School student stated, when talking about media clips in their Beit Midrash presentation today.
The Davis Academy Beit Midrash (DABM) is a monthly experience for all Davis Middle Schoolers, where they take a day out of their Judaic Studies curriculum to engage in “Torah Lishmah” — learning for the sake of learning. In the DABM, learners engage with texts, both modern and ancient, while experiencing an educational methodology that addresses multiple intelligences.
This month’s DABM was focused on our students’ Jewish December. For our Reform Jewish Day school, questions about Chanukah and Christmas — and about Judaism and Christianity — can pepper class discussions in all grades. Many of our students come from interfaith households. Their observance of non-Jewish holidays covers the entire spectrum from zero knowledge to attending mass with their Christian family members. Some of our kids have Christmas trees or Chanukah bushes.
The students started the activity by watching a video of Hazzan Matthew Klein reading Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Set off by the loud and frustrated fried potato pancake, our learners were ready to talk! The discussion was heated and excited, as the kids were finally getting their chance to ask questions about Christmas. Why do we celebrate this — or that? Do we combine holidays? How are the holidays different? How do *I* feel about being a Jew during this time of year? Why can’t I have a tree? What does going to church with your family mean to you? Would you ever wear this sweater?
They also had a chance to voice their issues and beliefs. Students talked about their experiences visiting church, how they feel when they’re wished a “merry Christmas” around town at this time of year, and how nice it is for them to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish parent. They aired frustrations and asked for clarity. What is the whole presents thing all about, after all?
One student said, “I am not forced to celebrate Christmas with my dad. I choose to celebrate with him.” Her explanation gives great hope. Being an educator at a Reform Jewish Day school, we’re trying to teach informed choice based on study of Jewish laws and texts. How wonderful that our students, who are Jewish, show such respect to their non-Jewish parents, as it is written in the Torah.
Interested in the conversation? Check out the Prezi, put together for use at the Davis Academy today, as an introduction to the conversation. How would you respond?
Here are some of the challenges I hear from interfaith couples about Hanukkah:
Yet, all hope is not lost. There are ways to fill in the missing pieces for steps 1-8 to make Hanukkah “doable” and meaningful! Check out all of the resources on our December Holidays Resource Page to learn about all of these aspects and more. Let us know if these challenges resonate for you and how you overcome them. Here’s to a happy Hanukkah!
Let me set the scene. David Levy, Managing Editor of JewishBoston.com, declared:
What do you think? Will this kit, complete with white and blue icing and decorations, solve your gingerbread house needs? Would you make one with your family? Would your in-laws approve?
Just between you and me, I kinda love it. And maybe wanted to buy it a few months back when I first saw it in stores. And, because I’m a bit of a Jewish nerd, I love that the kit includes a mezuzah to affix to the vanilla cookie home’s doorway.
And, for the next day or so, JoyOfKosher.com is giving away a kit to one lucky winner. Enter now!