Judaism the American Way?

Interfaith Holiday Card

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.

White Poinsettias and Blue Foil

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.

Hanukkah Is Not The Jewish Christmas

One of my friends got me thinking with his post on Facebook:

Contemplating the irony of Hanukkah, which largely serves as a substitute for Christmas here in the US, being a holiday about resisting assimilation. Thoughts?

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.

My Jewish December

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?

Hanukkah Can Be Hard!

Here are some of the challenges I hear from interfaith couples about Hanukkah:

  1. Lighting the menorah is too complicated. Do you agree that it is easier said than done to light the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiah)? You have to put the candles in from right to left but light them left to right. In order for this ritual to have meaning, one has to know why this is done so that we can explain it to our children and our guests. (It’s about lighting the current night’s candle first.)
  2. Blessings for lighting the candles are tricky. The first night there are three blessings to sing and they are all in Hebrew. The other seven nights there are two blessings to sing, and we have to remember the tune! Luckily, we have a guide to the blessings in Hebrew, English, and transliteration (Hebrew written with English letters) to help, and a video too.
  3. Even playing dreidel can be hard! The letters on the dreidel are in Hebrew. They each stand for a Hebrew word that is part of a Hebrew sentence, which, unless understood in context, might make little sense — nes gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there.” Which miracle? Where? And if you are lucky enough to play dreidel in Israel, the letters form an acronym to say that “a great miracle happened HERE!” Learn more about the dreidel game with our video.
  4. Grating potatoes after a long day at work and with young children running around may seem overwhelming (at least it does to me). Luckily, many stores make delicious frozen latkes, which makes at least one Hanukkah tradition easier.
  5. To give presents or not to give presents? How big should the presents be? This isn’t a Jewish Christmas! What is Jewish about giving presents on Hanukkah? Actually, there is precedence for this!
  6. What do we do with decorative lights? Can lights be strung outside the home? Is it okay if the lights are only white? It’s beautiful to have lights at this time of darkness… right!? There are many right answers.
  7. It’s hard to keep the momentum going for 8 nights. It’s fun, exciting and new for 2, 3, 4 nights… but how do we keep Hanukkah special and memorable for ourselves and our children each night? Try creating a family-focused celebration with different theme nights!
  8. The greater meaning of the holiday isn’t clear. The story of Hanukkah is confusing with different versions told over time. One part of Hanukkah is a historical military conquest, other parts are religious, and there’s a tie-in to the holiday of Sukkot. It is not easy to succinctly tell children the Hanukkah story. There are many aspects of the story that have to be explained, such as what the Great Temple in Jerusalem was. And, if telling the story isn’t difficult enough, making sense of it as assimilated Jews in American society can be tricky (because this figures into the Maccabean revolt — they were fighting against assimilation, for the right to retain their religious identity and freedom). Not to mention that it is only if one understands the Hebrew root of the word hanukkah (h/n/k – dedication, consecration) that one begins to really understand the depth of the meaning of the holiday and to contemplate what we are most dedicated to. Why do you think the Modern Hebrew word for education (hinukh comes from the same root as the word for Hanukkah? How does a sense of dedication play into education? Especially when thinking about Jewish education?

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!

Has This Product Solved The December Dilemma?

Let me set the scene. David Levy, Managing Editor of JewishBoston.com, declared:

If Manischewitz can market Chanukah gingerbread houses, I declare the “December Dilemma” officially solved.

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!

When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?

It’s interesting that so many in the Jewish community put an emphasis on Christmas. Specifically, whether or not interfaith families observe Christmas. And the assumption has been that if Christmas is observed, these families couldn’t be raising their kids in a Jewish home. And the focus of these Christmas celebrations has often been the tree.

Two local Jewish community studies (Boston’s from 2005 and New York’s from 2011 (released in 2012)) noted the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees. Both studies also noted the lack of data indicating what a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. Wouldn’t you know it? We’ve been asking just that question in our annual December holiday surveys!

To those of you who took our survey in September-October, thanks!

Read on for more about the results of our 9th annual December holidays survey, interfaith families, and the December dilemma:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Edmund Case, edc@interfaithfamily.com, (617) 581-6805

Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children

(Boston, MA) — 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 were confirmed in the ninth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily, an independent non-profit. The survey examines how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas.

Eighty-three percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 80% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity. As one family mentioned, “One day out of the year isn’t going to make or break their Jewish identity. It’s how you raise your kids as Jews the other 364 days that counts.”

“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas continues to be common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily. “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 at home this year, but also more Hanukkah celebrations in the synagogue.”

Some local Jewish community studies (Boston in 2005, New York in 2011) have reported on the frequency of interfaith families having Christmas trees, but acknowledged that the data does not indicate what having a Christmas tree means to interfaith families. The respondents to InterfaithFamily’s survey made hundreds of comments in response to open-ended questions that shed light on precisely that question:

  • Christmas does not have religious significance for many interfaith families who are raising their children as Jews.
  • They primarily are honoring the traditions of their parent and relatives who are not Jewish.
  • Children can understand clear explanations from their parents, such as Christmas is not their holiday.
  • Participating in Christmas celebrations can strengthen children’s Jewish identity by not letting them take it for granted.
  • Jewish identity should be based on positive reasons, not on what people avoid or do not do.
  • Interfaith families raising Jewish children still experience Jews being uncomfortable with their celebrating Christmas and do not appreciate being questioned, censured or shamed.

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’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 was 83%, the same as 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 (98%) celebrates Hanukkah at home, while a little more than half (56%) celebrate Christmas at home.

Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 10% attend Christmas religious services and only 3% tell the Christmas story. While slightly more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (63%) compared to last year (60%), and slightly more (49%) will put up a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (46%), 88% view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature.

Many families (73%) celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered on the extended family.

For more information, read the attached report “What We Learned from the Ninth Annual December Holidays Survey.” It also can be found online at: http://www.interfaithfamily.com/files/pdf/WhatWeLearnedfromthe2012DecemberHolidaysSurvey.pdf.

About InterfaithFamily
InterfaithFamily is the central web address for people in interfaith relationships interested in Jewish life, with over 640,000 annual unique visitors, growing at 35% a year, accessing both extensive helpful content and connections through a free Jewish clergy officiation referral service, its Network listings, and social networking functionality. Since 2010, InterfaithFamily has provided resources and trainings for clergy, synagogue staff, and religious school and preschool directors and teachers. Our surveys are an excellent source of information on what attracts interfaith families to Jewish organizations. Visit www.interfaithfamily.com/yourcommunity for more information on the InterfaithFamily/Your Community initiative.

###

EDITOR’S NOTE: InterfaithFamily 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 www.interfaithfamily.com/decemberholidays.