Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
This video was sent to me by its creators, Janelle and Matthew, an interfaith couple. It’s a song about compromise during the December holidays.
I liked it, thought it was cute and sweet. But the use of the word “proselytize,” with translation, made me squirm a little.
What do you think?
This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Moffic (my father-in-law, a Milwaukee psychiatrist). It was originally posted on his blog which deals with ethics.
How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.
The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.
However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.
My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.
As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.
In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.
I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.
Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.
Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.
Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.
Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.
Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.
As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.
An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.
So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.
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.
I recently spent an hour with religious school teachers in a Reform synagogue, talking about the children from interfaith homes in their classrooms. It amazed me just how emotional and personal even talking about interfaith families was for them. Everyone had a story to share about someone in his or her own family who intermarried or a story about what a child said in the classroom.
It was clear that at this time of year especially, children in Reform religious schools are talking about Hanukkah and Christmas. They are talking about the Christmas trees in their own homes; they are talking about going to their grandparents’ for Christmas; they are discussing how many presents they are going to get; they are trying to work out who they are, what they are experiencing and what it all means.
We grappled with what the “best” response should be when children share parts of their lives that involve family members who aren’t Jewish or experiences such as going to church. Should the teacher just say, “Thank you for sharing that but now we are focusing on learning about Judaism…” and just move on in the lesson? Should the teacher say, “Wow…our Jewish families are each different. Some of you have a parent who isn’t Jewish or wasn’t born Jewish, some of you have cousins and grandparents who aren’t Jewish… but there are lots of things that tie each of you together. Each of you is here because your parents hope you find meaning in Judaism.” Should the teacher stop the lesson and explain that each of us is made up of many traits, attributes, relationships and talents? Some of us are sisters or brothers. We are a daughter or son. We are neighbors and friends. Some of us are known by the sports we play, the art we create, our abilities in math. Some of us are known by our humor or our generosity. We are many things, but in amongst our traits is our Judaism and that is why we are here… to learn about that part of us.
The religious school teachers and I debated how to best approach a lesson with language that would be the most sensitive and inclusive to a child who has a parent who isn’t Jewish. Is it okay to make blanket statements such as, “Jewish homes have mezuzot,” when in fact some of the children (whether both parents are Jewish or not) have a Jewish home without a mezuzah? Or is it better to talk about some Jewish homes having this or that and explain the meaning behind the ritual or tradition followed by sending materials home so that parents can learn about the ideas as well and have a chance to discuss with their children whether that tradition feels right for their family?
Is it possible to be sensitive to every unique kind of family so that no child in the room could possibly feel alienated or marginalized? Some teachers wondered if they could say anything at all that wouldn’t rub one child or another the wrong way. I think that when a teacher speaks from his or her heart and soul about his or her own love of Jewish living, and when a teacher imagines that each child in his or her class is the current link in our chain of tradition that goes back thousands of years, and when a teacher gets to know the parents of the children in his or her class so that the teacher can be as understanding as possible of where that child is coming from so that the teacher can make the bridge from the class to the car ride home to the dinner table to the tuck-in time at night… that teacher has done everything he or she can do to fulfill the mandate to teach our children from the V’ahavta (the full version of the Shema which instructs us to, among other things, “teach our children diligently.”)
In the last Hanukkah blog post, I pointed out JWA’s request for progressive, Jewish holiday videos. And they’ve followed up, suggesting that the Fountainhead’s “Light Up The Night” might be the answer:
Our goal is to produce fun and meaningful music videos that put smiles on people’s faces and help them connect with their Jewishness in new ways. We also want to showcase the diverse, vibrant and highly-engaged Israeli-Jewish identity that is emerging in our generation of Israelis today.
The Jewish federation of Chicago (Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago) took a different approach in their video, asking you to show your “inner Maccabee” this year. Thankfully, they actually want you to do good deeds, be kind and practice tikkun olam, and not actually emulate the Maccabee’s religious fanaticism, violence or frequent parricides.
I want to like the premise of this one except… Hanukkah’s not actually a major holiday. The significance of Hanukkah for the Jews doesn’t compare to the religious significance of Christmas for Christians. (Minor holiday elevated to fill the dark nights of winter versus the birth of Christianity’s messiah? Not really on the same level…) Nonetheless, it has some amusing moments:
Looking for something for younger viewers? Shalom Sesame has a Hanukkah playlist on their YouTube channel, which includes “the Missing Menorah” (lots of holiday words, in Hebrew and English, plus a song):
Also for kids? Behrman House has published a Hanukkah story, Too Many Latkes, as an interactive iPad app! It’s full of fun features, and your little kids can press a button to have the app read the story out loud in the pre-recorded voice – or in yours! You can check out their video introduction to the app or head over to the app store to download it yourself.
But back to the videos. When I first saw this one, I didn’t get why folks were hatin’ on it. But then I kept watching… There’s someone in blackface. (Not ok!) But on the other hand, it’s probably the most accessible in terms of language… But… I don’t know. What do you think?
Pella busts out some boy band a capella moves in their “Holiday Party” (to the tune of Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight”), which goes through not only Hanukkah, but all the Jewish holidays.
This one’s an older tune. I think I first heard Eric “Smooth-E” Schwartz’s Jewish parody tunes in 2001; one of his Passover songs made the rounds for years, falsely attributed to many different people. Anyway, here’s his ode to Hanukkah gelt, “Chocolate Gelt.”
And let’s end with a video that came out oh, I don’t know, about three minutes ago. My buddy Naomi Less singing her new “8 Nights” song. She prefaces the video with
This winter 18 Jewish social entrepreneurs from several countries worldwide shared images about their personal meanings of Hanukkah – seeing a miracle inside of someone during the season
I admit that I recognize too many people in the video to not be biased in its favor…
If you’ve seen other Hanukkah videos you think we should share, post them in the comments or email them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Bonus gelt if they include interfaith families!
Thanks to all of you who responded to our December holidays survey.
The results are in! Earlier this morning, we sent out the following press release – let us know what you think of the findings.
Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children
Do check out that full report, and let us know your thoughts!
Some very different videos to start getting you ready for this holiday season.
Let’s start with the basics. How do you spell the name of this holiday in English? And what’s the deal with latkes? From the senior citizens at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, some of the more pressing questions of the season:
A mashup of top hits from decades past (a different era for each night of Hanukkah?), rewritten to explain the history, story and rituals of Hanukkah:
Of course, there’s our favorite video, Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah:
“It's time to light the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah!” might be my favorite line.
And if you’re more a gastronomical celebrant than religious enthusiast, you might enjoy the Potato Tabernacle Choir’s performance of Cheryl Wheeler’s Potato Song:
(Wondering why there are so few videos here? Check out what our friends at the Jewish Women’s Archive had to say about the lack of progressive Jewish viral videos.)
Christmas time in our family is spent with my in-laws. Church for a 4:30 p.m. mass on Christmas Eve and then back to my in-laws’ house for an extended family, buffet-style, Christmas dinner, complete with Portuguese-style cocktail weenies and finger sandwiches. We eat around the Christmas tree while the kids (5 of them – all boys!) run around downstairs. For the past couple of years, Santa has visited after dinner, ringing the doorbell and coming inside with gifts for the kids. They seem to love this and are in awe of the large man in a red suit. While I never grew up with Santa, and I don’t have the nostalgic feeling that comes from a visit from him, it is neat watching the kids get all excited. And it’s fun to look forward to their reactions.
This year, however, I’m worried.
About a month ago, my six-year-old said, out of the clear blue, “I think Cousin Johnny is Santa.”
Shocked and stunned, I had no idea how to respond. “Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Well, he’s never around when Santa comes to the door.” Again, I am shocked. I can ask my son 100 times to put his dirty clothes in the laundry room and not drop them on the floor, and he is incapable of doing this. But he’s perceptive enough to realize that Cousin Johnny is not in the room when Santa comes and remembers it 11 months later!
I’m not worried that by answering this I’m going to ruin Christmas for my son. I’m worried that my response is going to be repeated to my nephews and end up ruining Christmas for them. I never had to answer questions about Santa or the Easter Bunny before! I can’t check in with my mom and see how she responded. What do I do?!
I ended up mumbling something under my breath and changing the topic. This worked for the time being, but I needed to nip this one in the bud before I single-handedly ruined Christmas for my extended family.
As soon as possible, I consulted the expert, my sister-in-law. After all, her kids were the ones who would be potentially scarred for life (depending on my answer). She helped me out by telling me how she responded when her kids got confused when they saw Santa standing in front of the grocery store ringing a bell after they had just taken pictures with him at the mall. “I tell them Santa has a lot of helpers around Christmas in order to get everything done. But, he’s always watching to see if you’ve been naughty or nice.”
The threat of the omnipresent Santa looking down on the kids aside, I think the “helping Santa out” response may work. For now, I’m hoping that the question doesn’t come up again. And, if it does, maybe I can quickly shove a cocktail weenie in my son’s mouth as Santa comes in the door this year…
Let’s just call this a random hodgepodge. A bunch of stuff came across my desk (or over the series of tubes that make up the internet) this week that were too interesting not to share:
Step aside Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mevinsky, here comes Lauren Bush and David Lauren! Yup, the grandaughter of former President George H. W. Bush, and niece of former President George W. Bush, is marrying David Lauren, son of the famous Jewish fashion designer Ralph Lauren. The Jewish press has run plenty of headlines proclaiming that she’ll become “Lauren Lauren” but, really, let’s hope she keeps her birth-name.
Remember that General Assembly that Ed’s mentioned a few times? Well, our friends at Keshet were there too. And they made a great video while they were there:
After seeing one of our tweets, Rachel Barenblat wrote a blog post expanding on her reply to our tweet, “Having a Christmas tree doesn’t make you “less Jewish” – or does it?” And it isn’t just about conifers. And in response to that blog post, MiriyaB posted her thoughts as well.
The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey today that showed that Americans are divided over what greetings businesses should use during the December holidays. This time of year, do you prefer a generic “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”?
If you’re visiting a church this Christmas for the first time, the Old First Reformed UCC church of Philadelphia has some helpful hints.
And our friends at JewishBoston.com suggested that this is the “most” Jewish of Christmas songs:
I was on the radio yesterday! KNPR’s “State of Nevada,” a show on the NPR station in southern Nevada, did a program that you can listen to: “Chrismukkah, anyone? How Interfaith Families Celebrate the Holidays.”
I enjoyed doing the program because it was an opportunity for dialogue with Ron Gompertz, who is not the creator of the Chrismukkah idea, but has created a website and a line of greeting cards around it. Back in 2004, I wrote an article for InterfaithFamily.com, “Chrismukkah” Is a Bad Idea. A year later, I invited Ron Gompertz to writeImagine! It’s Chrismukkah Time Again! And I responded with, I Still Say “Chrismukkah” Is a Bad Idea.
After doing the program, I have to say, I still think “Chrismukkah” is a bad idea. Basically, for interfaith couples who are raising their children as Jews, mushing Hanukkah and Christmas into one hybrid holiday blurs and eliminates the meaning and integrity of each holiday, and risks confusing children. In our recent December Holiday Survey, 89% of these respondents said they planned on keeping their holiday celebrations separate, or mostly separate.
But InterfaithFamily.com doesn’t pass judgment or tell people that what they are doing is wrong. Ron Gompertz and his wife, who is not Jewish, are active members of a synagogue community in Bozeman, Montana, and they are raising their daughter as a Jew. Ron is a very thoughtful person and I’m not worried that his daughter will be confused. But if any interfaith couple asked for advice, our advice at InterfaithFamily.com would be – keep the holidays distinct.
The program also included Karen Boyer, the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada, who was raised Jewish by a Jewish mother and a father who was not Jewish, now also practices Buddhism, and was married to a Muslim from West Africa, and Imam Aslam Abdullah, the director of the Islamic Society of Nevada. Dr. Abdullah’s description of his response to interfaith marriage among Muslims and others sounded similar in many ways to our approach – especially in his expression of hope and invitation to such couples to raise their children with one religious identity.