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This year InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted our first annual Promukkah: Prom-themed Hannukah party in our Ponce City Market office! The evening was a blast with rockin’ dance music spun by Russell Gotchalk of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, delicious nosh, a corsage/boutonniere making station and a very popular photobooth.
Highlights include dancing the hora as we celebrated the recent marriage of Baca Holohan and Kai Murga, some incredibly creative outfits with lights, wigs and glowing shoes, as well as enormous jelly filled doughnuts.
We celebrated the festival of lights with members of the greater Atlanta community including our co-sponsors: Moishe House-Inman Park, SOJOURN, the Sixth Point, Limmud Atlanta + Southeast, AAspire, Bechol Lashon, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and Honeymoon Israel. Plans for next year’s gathering have already begun!
I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.
Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
It was just over a year ago that my partner, Mercy, and I were dreaming and praying as we co-created a vision board for the year 2015. Vision boards are one of my favorite ways to create sacred art; a display of what I want to manifest in my life in the coming year. After journaling and sharing our wishes with each other, Mercy and I glued pictures, colors, words and shapes that represented our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. This process allowed me to surrender my wants over to the universe and open myself to the organic unfolding of my life.
My job and her schooling were coming to a close, and I was getting anxious about what would happen next. At the time, I was working as the interim Hillel Director at Vassar College and Mercy was completing her graduate program; we were gearing up for our next adventure together. There were so many unknowns—where would we get work? Could we both find jobs in the same city? What if only one of us found a job? Would we be able to find fulfilling work that paid a decent salary? How do we know if we should apply for jobs that we find to be less exciting? It was a very stressful time for both of us.
The combined images on our board served as a constant reminder of our dreaming process and kept us focused on our hopes for our next jobs. We wanted to live in a warm climate, walking distance to nature, with farmer’s markets and bike paths. We wanted jobs that were spiritually fulfilling, close to home and that offered good health insurance. Affordable housing was important, and a progressive queer community was a must.
After months of searching, interviewing, traveling, rejection letters, job offers, tears and a ton of prayers, our visions finally came to life!
We moved into a tiny apartment in Virginia Highland, GA, this summer, just a block and a half from the entrance to the Beltline and a short walk to Piedmont Park. We have found spiritually nourishing communities, beautiful hiking trails and delight in the Tiny Doors Project.
And, most important, I found the job of my dreams!! I love the work that I do at IFF. It’s one of those jobs where it doesn’t feel like work, and every day is full of exciting adventures and creative opportunities.
I am blessed to serve as a resource and guide for folks in interfaith families and relationships as the Director of IFF/Atlanta. I am honored to support and empower them as they make Jewish choices, meeting them where they are at in their lives and decision-making processes. Officiating at lifecycle events has been truly life affirming. As I work with Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and inclusive, I have found some incredibly supportive community partners!
And, I am thrilled to announce that we have just signed the lease to our new office space in Ponce City Market!! What a gift to have found a space that is a 10-minute walk from my home in the center of town.
While our office itself is quite small, just large enough for four comfy chairs and an end table, it is perfect for intimate conversations with couples, meetings with my fabulous project manager, Laurel Snyder, and catching up on emails. But, the best part is that we have access to so many incredibly funky spaces and conference rooms. There’s a meditation room, complete with pillow rocks (yes, big pillows that look like rocks) and a cozy space for intimate yoga classes and grounding meditation sessions. We are also looking forward to taking advantage of the indoor picnic table area—a perfect spot for catered meals, book groups and conversations. Lastly, we are already planning Love and Religion workshops and movie nights in the hidden party lounge. With a big, long couch, silky pillows and a popcorn machine, it feels like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle!!
To celebrate, we are hosting a fabulous Hannukat Habayit: a festive Housewarming Party, on Sunday, January 10, from 2-4pm. The entire community is invited (get more info here) to help us bless and toast our new home at Ponce City Market, and hang our mezuzah from Modern Tribe! We will be enjoying live music by the Pussy Willows, provided by the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, and will serve refreshments from the award-winning chefs of the Ponce City Market.
Working as the director for InterfaithFamily/Atlanta has been beyond my wildest dreams. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in a dynamic and diverse city. Living and exploring in Atlanta has been a true gift.
As 2015 draws to a close, Mercy and I are preparing to create our 2016 vision board. In preparation, we created a blessings jar—a spiritual “thank you” container, acknowledging the Divine for the many gifts we have received. On colorful slips of paper, we are reflecting upon 2015 and sharing our deep gratitude for: our adorable apartment, our incredibly awesome jobs, our spiritual teachers, health insurance, bike paths, healthy colons, colorful dreidel spandex, etc.
Next week, during the winter solstice, we will, once again, journal and share our wishes with each other and then glue pictures, colors, words and shapes that represent our hopes and dreams for the coming year onto a big white board. I’m curious to see what 2016 brings.
In rabbinical school, I learned what you might call the “real” story of Hanukkah. I also learned about the “real” story of Purim – there is more beyond the Disney version which includes a violent ending to the Book of Esther, which I never knew about as a child. I also learned about other gruesome stories in the Torah like the punishment for those who built the Golden Calf (they had to drink an elixir made from the ground-up golden calf and subsequently died) as well as consequences such as being swallowed alive by the earth for other disobedience.
What I mean when I say that I learned the “real” story of Hanukkah is that I became acquainted with the historical and rabbinic ambivalence toward the holiday. For starters, unlike all other Jewish holidays (with the exception of modern day Israeli holidays instituted after the creation of the state of Israel), the story and holiday of Hanukkah is not in the Hebrew Bible. It’s part of another genre of literature called the Apocrypha. Secondly, the holiday was established by the Maccabees to commemorate a military victory in which their small Jewish army defeated the huge Greek army. This war was forged by the Maccabees against both the Jews who had become too assimilated into Greek culture and against the Greeks themselves who had forbidden the Jews certain practices of Judaism.
The Maccabees were quite zealous in their religious fervor and it makes me wonder if they would have found my family, my community and me too assimilated as well. Though many of our holidays are also a celebration of our survival, the Maccabees’ establishment of the holiday in honor of their military victory was a distinctly Greek practice. The Rabbis of the Talmud were troubled by much of this and they even asked, “Mai Hanukkah” which, loosely translated from the Aramaic, means, “What the heck is Hanukkah?”
In the Talmud, the rabbis go on to tell the story of the destruction of the Temple, the re-dedication of the Temple and the lighting of the menorah with one tiny cruse of oil that was supposed to last only one night, but lasted eight nights. For the rabbis, that was the miracle of Hanukkah. The Talmud does not mention the military victory.
Ever since my rabbinical studies of Hanukkah, I’ve also wondered culturally about how Greek Jews feel about the Hanukkah story. (I also wonder how the Greeks feel about getting a bad rap in this story.) As a former Hillel staff member and Hillel rabbi, I also thought about the Greek Jews on campus, meaning the Jewish students who were members of Jewish fraternities and sororities. How did they feel about the Maccabees’ fight against the Jews who were too Hellenized — the Jews who were too Greek?
Jews of all communities and cultures learn to preserve their heritage but are also influenced by the area of the world in which they live. Jews from just about every Sephardic country have their own foods, recipes, and songs that most of us who grow up Ashkenazi don’t know about. I love learning about different kinds of Jewish cultural practices, which to me, are not about assimilation, but about embracing the creativity and the survival of the Jewish people.
Being the eager student ready to share what I had just learned about the “real” story of Hanukkah in rabbinical school, I told it all to my family at Hanukkah. I thought they would find it all as fascinating as I had. But sadly, they were not intrigued or excited by the ambivalence in our tradition to the different versions of the stories. My grandma was actually upset. “So the story of the Maccabees isn’t real? It’s not what Hanukkah is really about?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “it’s only one part of the story. It’s not the whole story but it is one part of it.” So she asked me what I thought the real miracle was. I told her that I thought the real miracle was when everyone in our family was lighting Hanukkah candles – even when we weren’t together, even if we were far apart – that at one time of year – we each lit the candles, and saw our own hope, joy and memories reflected in the light of the candles.
Wherever you are; wherever your loved ones are; from whatever culture or background; I hope that your Hanukkah was a chance for you to come together.
It’s the time of year when the days are short, the nights are dark, and the joyful music and decorations abound. Wherever we go we hear celebratory music and greetings of “merry” and “happy.” I usually love this time of the year with its crisp air, sweet smells, and joyful song. But this year I am having trouble getting into that spirit.
This year I’m scared.
This year I want to be joyful and I want to spread the cheer and I want to celebrate—but I’m sad. These few months have been rough for my community, my people, my country and my Israel. Every day for the past few months I’ve seen stories of terror in Israel. People are walking up to strangers, pulling knives out of pockets and purses and stabbing them. Others are driving cars onto sidewalks into crowds, killing and injuring several people at a time.
In San Bernadino, a town not far from where I live, a town where my grandparents are buried, where my friends live and work, two people entered a regional center and murdered 14 human beings who were gathered to celebrate the winter holidays.
In the Jewish Journal last week a man published an article publicly humiliating a local Rabbi for his transgender identification, calling this rabbi and his congregation an embarrassment to Judaism, desecrating our Torah by bullying someone in its name.
And today, a public figure stated that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.
I see all of this in the newspaper, on the news and in my Facebook feed. And then when I recycle the paper, turn off the TV, and put away my phone, I see my two toddlers. They know nothing of these horrific and saddening acts. They see that I’m upset so they come to sit in my lap.
All my kids know is love.
In their 17 months they have received nothing but love from everyone they meet. They don’t yet know the desperation and hate that drives someone to stab a stranger or murder a group of people. They don’t know the fear that leads someone to bully and humiliate another. And they don’t yet know why a public figure stating that he would disallow an entire religious community from entering a country would be triggering and scary.
All they know is love. And I want to keep it that way for as long as possible. I want this time of year to be magical and special and joyful for my kids, and for myself too. So we spent the afternoon decorating the house for Hanukkah. And we took a walk to see the neighbor’s decorations, saying “hi” to everyone on our way. And when we put them to bed we gave them extra kisses and extra cuddles and read one extra story. Because the more love we give them, the more love they will give others, and some days it feels like that’s all we can do.
So I’m scared and sad, but I’m also hopeful. I light the candles of my hanukkiah and sing joyful songs with my family. I wish people a “merry” and “happy” holiday on the street and in the store. I sign petitions and write letters to my representatives on issues I think are important. And I give love. It’s a scary world, but the story of Hanukkah teaches us that hope can win over fear. That light and love can win over darkness.
Hanukkah is a holiday full of fun and meaningful traditions, like eating foods made with oil such as latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts); playing the dreidel game; and of course lighting the hanukkiah (the nine branched candelabrum, commonly called a “Menorah” in English). And of course there are the traditional songs – like Ma’oz Tsur (“Rock of Ages”), “I Have a Little Dreidel” and “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah.”
In modern times, there have been some great Hanukkah songs, some for children (though still loved by adults), such as Debbie Friedman’s “The Latke Song” and others for a wider audience, like Matisyahu’s “Miracles.”
Hanukkah music rose to a whole new – and much funnier – level on December 3, 1994, when Adam Sandler performed “The Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update. The original song was followed up by “Part II” (1999), “Part 3” (2002) and a new updated version this year. In all four songs, Sandler sings about celebrities who he claims (often, though not always correctly) are “Jewish,” “not Jewish,” or “half-Jewish.” To learn more about all four of Sandler’s songs check out the Wikipedia entry on “The Chanukah Song” which includes a listing of the celebrities mentioned in the songs, the truth about whether they are or aren’t Jewish and links to covers and spoofs. Here’s the latest version.
Starting around 2010, a new kind of Hanukkah song became popular: The Pop Song Haunkkah Parody. Even though it’s been a few years after the first really popular parodies started circulating around the internet, I still remember most of the words to each of the parody songs – though I couldn’t even remember who sang the song originally, let alone the words to the original song. So, in keeping with the number eight for the eight nights of Hanukkah, here are my eight favorite Hanukkah Pop Song Parodies (in chronological order):
1. The Fountainhead’s “I Gotta Feeling Hanukkah,” the 2010 parody of The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” The Fountainheads are a group of young Israeli singers, dancers and musicians who are all graduates and students of the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership.
2. The one that really brought Hanukkah song parodies into the big leagues was “Candlelight,” a 2012 parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” by The Maccabeats, Yeshiva University’s all-male a capella group.
3. “Eight Nights – Hanukkah Mashup,” a 2012 Hanukkah parody/mashup of three songs: “Some Nights” by Fun, “Die Young” by Ke$ha and “Live While We’re Young” by One Direction. StandFour is another all-male a capella group, composed of four former members of The Maccabeats.
4. The B-Boyz “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Dreidel),” a 2012 parody of The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” by three young brothers – Ben, Jake and Max Borenstein.
5. The Maccabeats again with “Burn” – their 2013 version of Ellie Goulding’s song. They didn’t change the words, but they made it into a Hanukkah video.
6. “Chanukah Lights,” The Jabberwocks of Brown University’s 2014 song, which is a play on Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” The Jabberwocks are Brown’s oldest, all-male a capella group.
7. Six13’s 2014 “Chanukah (Shake It Off)” parodying Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Six13 is an all-male Jewish a capella group from New York.
8. And the Maccabeats yet again, with 2014’s “All About that Neis,” a parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About the Bass.”
I can’t wait to hear and watch what these groups and others have in store for Hanukkah 2015. And I hope to see more women (of the six groups whose parodies I listed above only one, The Fountainheads, included women) and girls coming out with some awesome parodies.
What’s your favorite Hanukkah song or song parody? Please share a link so we can all enjoy.
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.
The other night, my husband was watching arguably his favorite show, Shark Tank. He shouted from the other room (literally, the only other room in our wee Boston apartment), “Lindsey, come see this!” I thought maybe I knew someone on the show. Turned out, in a way, I did. It was a holiday episode featuring some interfaith holiday items, ones I’m familiar with. Pitching his company was Neal Hoffman of Mensch on a Bench—it’s a Hanukkah plush toy that looks like an old rabbi modeled after the Christmas Elf on a Shelf (sound a little scary? One of the Sharks, Barbara Corcoran, pointed out as much, and was ready to give The Mensch a makeover). After Hoffman explained his own interfaith background and made a deal with Sharks Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec, we caught up with someone from Season 5 who made a deal with his Star of David “Hanukkah Tree Topper.”
I loved that Shark Tank was doing an interfaith episode before Hanukkah, and here at IFF, we don’t tell people they’re doing religion “wrong” or which way is the right way. Whatever way you want to connect with Judaism is great! But we also haven’t been advertising what seem to me to be Christmas items for Jews. Personally, I can see how an interfaith family might end up with all kinds of Jewish items from around their home on their Christmas tree, but something about purchasing a Jewish symbol as a tree topper might cross the line for some people and, truth: makes me cringe a bit. Same with an Elf on the Shelf for Hanukkah. That said, lots of people love it—and I do mean it when I say that you should enjoy any way you like to celebrate the holidays!
Regardless of what any of us think, this episode of Shark Tank drove home the fact that Jewish and interfaith merchandise for the holidays could quickly find their place in our local Target, CVS, maybe even the Christmas Tree Shops. So I may as well weigh in now, and say that if more toys and decorations are being created for Hanukkah, I’d like to see some that are uniquely related to Hanukkah.
Instead of blending Christmas and Hanukkah into one holiday, why not respect them each for what they are, and come up with some fun new ways to celebrate Hanukkah for families of all kinds? Is there a candy menorah? Maybe one that doubles as a musical instrument? Musical candles that play the blessings? An app for kids that’s actually fun and entertaining? Some plush singing Maccabees? If any of you entrepreneurs out there capitalize on any of these ideas, just send the royalty checks my way. Thanks.
What did you think of the Shark Tank episode and interfaith holiday merchandise? If you missed it, you can catch the Battle Over Mensch on a Bench here.