Is there a connection between Easter eggs and the afikomen?

When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passover afikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze).  She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?

Matzah and eggsAs early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but it’s OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we can’t see or hear something doesn’t mean it’s gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I can’t see them—while panicky for me—are exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.

Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christ’s rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelites’ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isn’t hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.

But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didn’t enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.

The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means “that which comes after” or “dessert” in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kids’ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.

How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as “dessert” to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:

  1. The children grab the afikomen at some point when the leader isn’t looking and hold it hostage until the adults find it in the house and pay a ransom, or
  2. The adults have hidden it and the children have to find it in order to move the night along. It is now common practice that an adult hides enough pieces for every kid at the seder to find one and turn it in for a prize of a special coin, candy or gift. I use chocolate-covered matzah to make it more dessert-y. (Hint: put them in Ziploc bags so you don’t end up with a mess, which also allows you to hide them in tricky spots such as inside books, a piano or drawers with a corner sticking out for less savvy seekers.)

Either way, the ritual empowers children. It’s always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!

What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews don’t generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, There’s an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.

How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningful—or confusing—about them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.

And while you’re thinking about Passover and Easter, take our 2015 Passover/Easter Survey for a chance to win $500!

My Family’s Homemade Haggadah

Seder PlateLike all Jewish holidays at my house, Passover with my family is an entirely interfaith affair. There are Catholic adults and kids, Jewish adults and kids, Christian adults and kids and one 92-year-old Russian Orthodox (Christian) grandma.

But the emphasis is on the kids: Between by brothers and me, we have 10 children. My brothers’ are Catholic and Christian and mine are Jewish, and so, it’s important to me that the Passover seder is interesting and fun and meaningful for them.

For as long as I can remember, our family has used the Maxwell House Hagaddah. The old one…from 1932…which I love and have fond memories of. But I wanted something different, something more accessible for the under-18 crowd and for a group that is mostly not Jewish.

I never thought about creating my own until my friend and colleague, IFF COO Heather Martin, told me about the one she created for her family, and shared it with me. I was hooked. I wanted our own personalized haggadah with silly Passover songs sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame!” You see, while this may not constitute a very traditional haggadah, what’s important to me is creating a seder in which family members who are not Jewish feel comfortable and connected, and in which all of the kids participate and enjoy.

And so, using Haggadot.com and JewishBoston.com and some of Heather’s haggadah as a jumping-off point, we made our own. We cut and pasted and pulled bits and pieces from different sites, including a quiz for the older kids at the end.

It was a big hit—the seder was fun and silly (vital for the under 7 crowd) and accessible and interesting (important for everyone else). Most importantly, it was relevant to our family—it made sense for the people sitting around the table, who mostly weren’t Jewish but were there to celebrate Passover in a way that was meaningful. We left a lot out in order to create an abridged version that worked for my family, and I made sure to include the pieces that were most important for me to share the meaning of the holiday. Yours might look completely different, but you’re welcome to use this as a starting off point, or even to bring into your seder if you wish.

Here it is—take a look. Like it? Hate it? I’d love to hear what you think.

God and The Tooth Fairy

Tooth FairyMy 7-year-old lost another tooth last night. Since we have been through many of these over the last couple of years, the two of us agreed to put aside any pretention that it would end up under his pillow. He is a non-believer and finds the story of the tooth fairy to be the most ridiculous of all of the farces adults tell children. From an early age, he dismissed anything beyond his definition of “real” as utterly ridiculous. Since my partner and I have agreed to tell our kids the truth when they ask directly for it (lest they grow up not trusting us), we let him know from early on that his suspicions were correct about the incredulity of these tales. The one rule is that he isn’t allowed to go to school and burst someone else’s bubble.

My 9-year-old, on the other hand, has a more complicated relationship with reality. For years, he has regaled us with stories rivaled only by Dr. Seuss’ I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Tales would begin in our sphere of reality but end in a fantastical world. We were never quite sure if he knew where the line was between fiction and non-fiction, and only now that he is older does he sometimes fess up to knowing the difference.

Our elder child recently came up with a way to distinguish his penchant for fantasy from his brother’s realism. Some people, he explains, are “myth blind” and some are not. Some are able to see past everyday reality while others just can’t—it is part of their nature. Both kids seem satisfied with the terminology, and quite out of character, they don’t seem to preference one above the other.

This conversation in our home is juicy enough that the kids reintroduce it periodically, adding on layers and meanings. Recently, this category was stretched to include one’s proclivity to believing in God. The “myth blind” child sees himself as an atheist, and easily links not believing in the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, or Santa with not believing there is such a thing as God. The one who is not “myth blind” remains intrigued by theology and asks lots of questions about God. They have also surmised that one of their parents seems to be myth blind while the other is not. This observation is astute, and we don’t mind being included in this categorization.

As the “not myth-blind” parent, I have to confess that I like the sound of this category. It goes beyond the usual definition of a believer being one who is somehow able to suspend reality, as if the rational mind is just waiting to pounce, bringing us back to our senses. One who is not myth blind sees another layer of reality and is not terrified by it. To be not “myth blind” does not necessarily mean you believe, he explains. It simply implies that you are open to the idea. Furthermore, his use of the word “myth” acknowledges that whether or not the story is “True” is inconsequential. It is, in fact, more important than “True”: it is real, it is powerful.

There is a Jewish mystical concept that while we are living in the “real” world every day, there is another layer of reality beneath it or beyond it. Sometimes we get a peek, usually just a fleeting moment, when we see that there is something more real beyond the particulars of our daily lives. Our material world is dressed in the colors, human structures,and natural world we see around us. But there are moments in our lives when a veil of sorts is lifted and we see that there is something else, something deeper. This can happen during meditation when everything “real” can seem to disappear for a moment, or when the body is being supported by a yoga mat at the end of a practice and feels like it is suspended and weightless. Or when you’re watching your kids grow and it seems like no time has passed, and simultaneously that eons have elapsed, crunching and expanding time in ways our minds can’t understand. It can happen when we gaze at the stars and feel the concept of space and time changing as we try to picture what “everything” really entails. I think that not being myth blind is about being able to lift the veil for a moment, experiencing another way of seeing the universe.

I don’t need my kids to believe in the tooth fairy. I don’t think I did, even as I carefully placed my teeth in a special white tooth-sized pillow someone gave me. I commend my 7-year-old for being confident and bold enough to come to his own conclusions and challenge what he hears around him. But someday both kids will learn that most of us would place ourselves somewhere between these poles rather than identifying wholly with one category or the other, seeing the nuance and challenge of complex philosophical ideas. For now, it’s an interesting way to start to make sense of their stories in relation to who they are becoming. I do hope that as they grow up they will be critical, but also that they might feel comfortable stretching their minds and being open to mystery.

Chicago Synagogues Are Showing Their Support

Super heroesI love synagogues, in theory and many in reality. I have blogged before about my enduring connections with the congregation where I grew up, even though I haven’t lived in that community for over twenty years. I have written about just stopping in to congregations and hanging out there. Most recently, I wrote about my experience in my parent’s new congregation. I don’t think liberal Judaism can survive in America without synagogues. I am all for new and different models for congregations, like Mishkan Chicago. There are several congregations in Chicago with alternative dues structures and different religious school models like Sukkat Shalom.

I believe liberal Jews in America need a structure by which we can educate our children, join together for holidays and share in social justice pursuits. We need programs and classes that add meaning to our lives and help us infuse Judaism into the busy rhythm of our days. True, there are individuals who hire Jewish teachers to educate their children and to teach Hebrew and there are people who create individual and personalized life cycle ceremonies like bar and bat mitzvah outside the realm of an “organized” community. These people are often labeled as “unaffiliated” as if they are hurting the Jewish pursuit in America. I think that however people find Judaism and pass it on is important and should not be marginalized or demeaned. However, for many people who want their children to be raised with Judaism, joining a synagogue would be the easiest and most effective way to fulfill that holy objective (which is a pursuit that takes a lifetime, which is why leaving after bar/bat mitzvah is so problematic for continuity).

For many years, interfaith families in congregations felt or still feel that extended family and parents who are not Jewish are not fully embraced. Some express that their cultural and religious lives have to be dormant or invisible inside the realm of synagogue. Children in interfaith homes report that religious school teachers or other members of the congregation make off-handed comments which make them feel less than fully Jewish or different or other. When people feel close to clergy members who can’t officiate at their life cycle events, it can deeply sting. So even though the majority of American Jews are partnered with someone who is not Jewish and congregations are by and large welcoming and want interfaith families to be part of the community, it can take some convincing to encourage interfaith couples and families to try again, so to speak, when a negative experience has already occurred.

We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago have created a new offering (which I explained in this previous blog post) to encourage interfaith families to take a chance with a synagogue for their family because we feel that being part of a community is so intrinsic to our ability to live and pass on Judaism. We have asked congregations to designate an interfaith family that is active at their synagogue to be listed as a “connector” on their Temple’s profile on our website. You can email this person to ask them to share their honest experience at the synagogue. They can tell you about how the parent who isn’t Jewish feels there. They can tell you about the vibe at the religious school and how the diversity of the community is celebrated.

As well, each of these congregations has a link back to InterfaithFamily on their temple’s website as a show of support for the interfaith families in the community and as a sign that they want to be supportive with resources to help pave the way to exploring Judaism however they can.

The following is a list of synagogues that we endearingly call our Super Orgs!

Anshe Emet Synaogue

Bayit

Beth Chaverim Humanistic Jewish Community

Beth Tikvah Congregation

Center for Jewish Genetics

Congregation Kneseth Israel

Congregation Or Chadash

Congregation Or Shalom

Congregation Solel

Congregation Sukkat Shalom

Emanuel Congregation

Ezra Habonim Niles Township

JCC Chicago

JUF Right Start

KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation

Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Makom Shalom

Mishkan Chicago

North Shore Congregation Israel

PJ Library Chicago

Shir Hadash

Temple Beth-El

Temple Chai

Temple Jeremiah

Finding Common Ground When You Have Different Backgrounds

Ice cream

Often couples come from different backgrounds and it can be difficult to find common ground. But usually, if people have similar value systems, couples can work out compromises in their relationship. There are a variety of differences that affect a relationship. These differences make life interesting but sometimes differences cause conflict (and hopefully resolution). My family often says “That’s why there are so many different flavors of ice cream!” Here is an overview about some of the types of differences couples may face.

Religious Differences: In my large family, each of us siblings observe our religion in a different way. Many people remark that they can’t believe we were raised in the same house. As each of us has gotten married, we have evolved so that we have similar practices to our spouses. In fact, now that our society moves around so much more than people did 50 years ago, it makes sense that altering one’s religious practices to suit our spouse is the norm, not the exception. Indeed, the proximity to one’s parents may affect the level of practice. For example, if you are hundreds of miles from your parents but around the corner from your in-laws, your household’s religious practices are likely to evolve toward the practice of your in-laws. Sharing holidays with extended family is going to change your practices as well.

I remember my brother saying that his decisions should not be affected by the decisions of his brother-in-law. The reality is that once the in-laws moved to the same city, celebrations were modified. He adjusted and the family holidays look a bit different. I think my brother’s anticipation of what potential modifications might be was much scarier than the reality. I once told my kids I didn’t just marry Daddy, I married his whole family: his mom, his sister, his dad. If you have any concerns about your future in-laws, think carefully. Especially if kids are in the picture, any differences are magnified.

Geographic Differences: Being from different parts of the country can be another area where a couple needs to find compromise. East Coast, West Coast, Northeast, Deep South—finding common ground can be challenging in this area as well. As a Southerner, I have lived in the Northeast most of my adult life. Yet, during a recent cold snap, I mentioned that I wished I lived in the South. A friend commented, “Shouldn’t you be used to the cold by now?” I responded, “I guess the novelty has worn off.” Celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in a snowy climate when you are used to never wearing a coat can be an adjustment. Similar adjustments include city vs. suburbs vs. rural living. My husband loves the city and I would be quite happy living in a rural environment. Suburb is the obvious compromise but not all issues can be resolved as easily.

Nationality Differences: For one couple in my extended family, the parents were from Europe and the daughter was born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was a child but always called herself an Israeli. Her parents always referred to themselves as European. She married an American but always made comments referring to her Israeli pride. I think that this difference was a point of contention for the woman and her husband. Attitudes, manners, celebrations were always an issue for them. Both partners were Jewish but the nationality differences were a struggle for them. Ultimately, the couple divorced for a variety of reasons but nationality differences definitely caused some of their disagreement.

Cultural Differences: Some families have a sit-down dinner every night. Other families never eat together because the parents are always working. Some families believe that there should be a stay-at-home parent while other families prefer a live-in caretaker. Differences of opinion regarding parochial school or public school or even boarding school can exist in the same family. Some issues such as school can be worked out with relative ease but other issues can be a huge hurdle in a relationship. Do both partners intend to work? Do you believe in daycare or nannies or neither? Differences in attitudes can rise up. If one parent stays home for a while, will there be resentment? If one parent travels for work, will there be resentment?

Financial Differences: Some people like to spend money, others like to save it.  If one partner wants to travel to the Caribbean every winter but the financial situation does not allow for that, there should be some discussion. Does one partner want to eat out four nights a week at a sit-down restaurant? Do you agree on savings? Financial issues can be a major point of contention after several years of marriage. It is important to discuss what you and your partner expect regarding savings and debt. Don’t be afraid to disagree, but do have these discussions.

While you are dating, “what if” scenarios are helpful (but not binding because circumstances always change). It is good to discuss these issues to assess whether you and your partner can compromise. As they say, “Vive La Différence!” but keep your eyes open. You should be thinking like a team. If you find that you are feeling “alone” in your thinking, it might be good to seek counseling. Entering a marriage with confidence is paramount.

Our Rainbow Connection

When I see a rainbow, Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection” comes to mind every time: “The lovers, the dreamers, and me…”

RainbowOn our family’s winter vacation we spotted an amazing rainbow running down the side of a mountain. It was truly breathtaking and left us oohing and aaahing. We were the lovers and the dreamers in that instant. I didn’t think to say either the Shehecheyanu or the prayer to be said upon seeing a rainbow: We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers, is faithful to, and fulfills Your covenant with and promise to creation. We just gaped with open mouth in wonder at the beauty of creation. No words had to be said in that instant. We all felt our connection with each other and the One.

However, upon reflecting on that sighting, it would have been cool to mark the moment with Judaism by calling upon ancient words that are ever-new. So, I say them now to myself as my house hums with the noise from my dog’s collar and the peace of sleeping children.

What about the rainbow being a symbol of our covenant with God? God shows Noah the rainbow in the clouds as a sign of God’s covenant with humankind that never again will there be a flood to destroy them (Genesis 9:8-17). After Katrina, we can only wonder what a flood covering the earth must have been like.

The covenant was made again at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the 10 Commandments. It is thought and taught in Judaism that every soul was present—even those who were yet to be—at that most awesome moment in our shared history and “memory.” So, what about people who aren’t Jewish and are members of our families and our congregations? Were they there too? Is this their covenant too? Is the rainbow their symbol as well as those born to Jewish parents or brought up with Judaism?

I believe that when someone joins a Jew in the overwhelming, sometimes arduous, joyful and profound task of living with Judaism, their soul gets wrapped up in the tapestry of Jewish tradition that is 4,000 years strong. It is strong because it has always been diverse and ever renewing. The rainbow is the sign of continual creation and we are partners with God is this task. This is the core of the meaning of life, for me.

As we enter a new year, let us remember our rainbow connection.

Three Terms I Hope Not to Hear in the New Year

As the new year approaches, I’ve been thinking back over the past year—particularly about certain terms I’ve heard used in 2014 that bother me. Following are three terms I hope to hear less of in 2015.

NON-JEW: While “non-Jew” is an easy short-hand term and it’s clear what it means, this term can be offensive. Most people prefer to be described in the positive as what they ARE, rather than in the negative as what they’re NOT. For example, I identify as a “female,” not a “non-male;” and in my family I’m a “wife and mother,” not a “non-husband and non-father.” At InterfaithFamily, we’re concerned that when people in the Jewish community talk about “non-Jews” in interfaith relationships, it sends the message—even if it’s interpreted subconsciously—that the person who isn’t Jewish is somehow “less than” by defining that person with an emphasis on his or her “outsider” status.

Granted, not using the term “non-Jew” can sometimes cause us to have to do some linguistic gymnastics, but I think it’s better to sound a little wordy and awkward than to potentially offend someone. So far, I don’t know of an ideal term to describe someone who isn’t Jewish. One suggestion I’ve heard is PDF (“person of a different faith”), but that term has its own limitations in that the partner who isn’t Jewish may not identify as part of another religious group, or may be an atheist of agnostic who doesn’t have a “faith.” Do you have any suggestions?

And for the record, I’d love to never again hear terms like shiksa and goy. These terms, which simply mean, respectively, “a woman who is not Jewish” and “people who are not Jewish,” are too often used by Jews in a pejorative manner.

TeenHALF-JEW: I used to really dislike this term no matter what the context in which it was used. But now I’ve come to see a difference between using it to define oneself and using it to define someone else. Before I worked for InterfaithFamily, if I were teaching a religious school class at a synagogue and a boy with one Jewish parent told me that he was “half-Jewish” I would probably have said something like:  “You’re fully Jewish. Just because one of your parents isn’t Jewish doesn’t make you ‘half-Jewish.’” (If the boy were older, I may even have joked: “which half, left or right?”) But as my colleague Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, pointed out to me when I came to work here, people have the right to self-identify, and if someone identifies as “half-Jewish” it’s not my place to tell him otherwise.

While I may have a tendency to want the boy in my religious school class to feel “whole” and to know that he is “authentically” Jewish even if one of his parents isn’t Jewish, identity is complex. There are many things that a child (or, for that matter, an adult) could mean when he says that he’s “half-Jewish.” Perhaps that’s his way of saying that he loves and identifies strongly with his parent who is not Jewish and that parent’s family. It’s not my place to tell him that the way he self-identifies is wrong.

Yet while I now wouldn’t “correct” someone who identifies herself as “half-Jewish” because of her right to identify as she chooses, I do find it offensive when people label others as “half-Jewish.”  In my—admittedly liberal—understanding of Judaism, a person with a Jewish parent is Jewish, regardless of the gender of her Jewish parent. (I recognize that this view, which is consistent with the views of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, is inconsistent with traditional Halacha (Jewish law), and is not accepted by the Conservative Movement and Orthodox Jews, who require that a child’s mother must be Jewish in order for the child to be Jewish without being converted.) And such a person is as “fully Jewish” as any person with two Jewish parents. Labelling someone a “half-Jew” can be very hurtful to them (see, for example, Zach Cohen’s blog “Don’t Call Me a Half-Jew”) and risks alienating children in interfaith families from their Jewish roots.

Which brings me to the third term I don’t like…

PATRILINEAL JEW: Traditional Jewish law requires that a person’s mother be Jewish in order for him to be Jewish without converting. But for years now the Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanist Movements have recognized “patrilineal descent” (i.e. a child with one Jewish parent, regardless of the parent’s gender, is Jewish so long as certain other criteria are met). CLICK HERE for an explanation of “Who is a Jew?”

Nobody ever refers to someone whose mother is Jewish and whose father isn’t Jewish as a “matrilineal Jew”—such a person is simply a “Jew.” Similarly, those of us who accept patrilineal descent shouldn’t refer to someone whose father is Jewish (or who is being raised by two fathers, for that matter) as a “patrilineal Jew.” The modifier “patrilineal” is unnecessary, and implies that having a Jewish father, as opposed to a Jewish mother, somehow puts one into a different, less authentic, category of Jewishness.

My hope for 2015 is that we can all spend more time focusing on our own religious and spiritual lives…and a LOT less time worrying about defining everyone else’s.

Are there terms that you’d like to leave behind in 2014? I’d love to hear what they are.

Israel-Lights & Christmas Stockings

Hanukkah lights

When I was very small, my family used to light our Hanukkah menorah alongside our decorated Christmas tree. Christmas was never a religious holiday for us but we decorated and listened to Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and my mother filled stockings with our names on them with precious goodies.  I was one of those obnoxious kids who bragged about getting Christmas presents AND Hanukkah presents! But when our family decided to join a synagogue we decided to formally end Christmas in our home. For my younger sister and I, this meant no more tree, no more decorations around our house, no more snowy Snoopy musical figurine spinning slowly, singing carols and certainly no more bragging rights. But we were young and we adapted…for the most part. But a few traditions were harder to let go of than others.

My sister happened to be very attached to the shiny twinkly lights of Christmas and one year, she badgered my parents as the holiday season began about hanging Christmas lights. But they had made a choice for our family and stuck with it: We were Jewish, so no Christmas. But could there be a compromise? As it turns out, there was, in the form of a string of Hanukkah lights.

My sister happily draped these lights all over her room and even came up with the cleverest of names. They were her “Israel-lights.” Interfaith pun extraordinaire.

Jillian's Christmas StockingMy mom always loved to seek out all the fun little trinkets to stuff into our stockings and so she continued to do so, every year, without fail. When each of us were first born, she had gone to a craft fair and bought us beautiful hand knit stockings and had sewn our names on them herself. One year we were in Switzerland on vacation over Christmas. My sister and I were convinced that the stockings must have stayed home, but lo and behold, Christmas morning, they magically appeared, full of Swiss treats. I also assumed that once I began studying to be a rabbi, perhaps my stocking days would be over, but I should have known to never underestimate my mom. My first year of rabbinical school I was living in Jerusalem and my parents came to visit me at the end of the first semester in December and what was packed in my mom’s suitcase? You guessed it! My stocking, filled with treats from home. I’m pretty sure I am the only rabbi out there who gets a Christmas stocking every year (though if that’s not the case, by all means let me know in the comments!).

I could argue that this particular family tradition says more about my incredible mother than anything else, but it’s also just a practical reminder that families and traditions are ever evolving and adapting.

My family made it work because my very smart parents stuck to their guns but also allowed for our family to make these sort of meaningful compromises. I don’t really remember that much about our transition from a house with a Christmas tree to a house without, but I do remember vividly the Israel-lights and I am still very excited each year to get my stocking. There is no one right way to celebrate holidays or life events—just find a way that feels authentic to the choices you have made in your family’s life. I remember the holiday seasons of my childhood with joy and fondness rather than strife because I was taught that we could always find a way to celebrate who we were and who we had become.

A Hanukkah Giving Ritual Takes the Competition Out of The Season

Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.

But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.

I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.

So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?

Hanukkah menorah and tzedakah box

Our kid-friendly menorah and tzedakah box

The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.

I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.

Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.

Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.

For more tzedakah Hanukkah ideas, check out these ideas from the URJ. And for more Hanukkah resources for families, go here.

The Real Menshes on Benches

I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.

One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.

My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.

Dickinson Park

Rabbi Ari and her kids at Dickinson Square Park

My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.

On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.

During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.

After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.