Mazel tov, Mark and Priscilla

As our friend Jason Miller reported earlier today, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan were married yesterday.

A year and a half ago I expressed concern that the Jewish world was about to “blow it” again with a celebrity interfaith couple. At the time, a columnist had speculated that Zuckerberg was in love with Chan because she was not Jewish. I said that was ridiculous and offensive, and worried that we were going to see the same kinds of negative reactions to Zuckerberg’s relationship with Chan as we saw from Jewish leaders about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky.

Sure enough, Dr. Aliza Lavie, from Bar Ilan University in Israel, reportedly spoke out against Zuckerberg’s marriage and pronounced that “The children of another successful Jewish man will not be counted as Jews.” 

Dr. Lavie, we beg to differ. There are thousands and thousands of children of Jewish men who count themselves and Jews, and who are counted in significant parts of the Jewish community as Jews. It is tiresome but necessary to keep on repeating this to Israelis – and to many American Jews too who haven’t yet got the message.

We send a hearty mazel tov to Mark and Priscilla and we hope they will find welcome and support and encouragement whenever and however they may choose to engage in Jewish life and community.

You know it’s official when it’s on Facebook:

Shabbat Family Worship: Is it Possible?

We just finished an online class called Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. Participants came to their computers on their own time and read essays, watched videos, read narratives written by other interfaith families and discussed with each other the content and meaning of the eight sessions. The sessions were about major aspects of parenting, from bedtime to meals to raising ethical children, and the wisdom Judaism can provide about these areas.

An interesting discussion arose about Shabbat family worship. Parents said that Friday evening services were too late for young children. Tot Shabbat was fun for the children but didn’t fill the adults with spirituality or insight. Parents who were raised Christian said that they had warm memories of attending Church as a family on Sunday mornings: adults were able to participate in communal worship and children could join in or attend the nursery program. The whole family had an enriching experience that grounded their week and brought them together.

Why did this not exist within liberal Judaism, they wondered? It seemed as if Reform temples had essentially private bar or bat mitzvahs on Shabbat mornings, with no childcare for young children. Some Conservative synagogues had more options on Shabbat morning for the whole family, but parents who aren’t Jewish worried that they wouldn’t know enough Hebrew and would feel out of place somehow. I encouraged all of the participants to try both Reform and Conservative worship to see how they felt in reality, as assumptions and apprehensions may or may not come true. But the frustration was clear. Parents spoke about how their Jewish neighbors were taking the kids to soccer and swim lessons and anything other than Shabbat family worship.

I can relate to this frustration. I have worked at different Reform congregations around the country, and at least once a year it seems the senior staff would get together to talk about what to do with Shabbat! Were there ways to meet for earlier Friday evening family programs with dinner? If it was too early, parents who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. Every idea for Shabbat morning family worship would be put forth: musical services, services with crafts and projects at the end for the children, services ending with lunch, and other ideas to make the service more “attractive” or “appealing.” However, time and time again no matter how Shabbat morning got programmed, few families would attend. Even when rabbis preached about the need for this gift called Shabbat, the gift of time, of joy, of changing pace if only for an hour or two, of re-connecting… nobody seemed to bite.

Some rabbis explain this by saying that Judaism is a religion of the home, and it is not cultural to feel a pull to attend congregational worship. Families often do the Shabbat blessings over their own special dinner and have friends over. The kitchen table is referred to as the mikdash m’at (a miniature temple) in rabbinic writings because what goes on around the Shabbat table is worship. But that still does not answer our questions.

Perhaps this challenge can help bring positive changes to our Jewish communities. Maybe interfaith families will take the lead in bringing Shabbat family worship to liberal Jewish families who may not even realize what spending an hour or two on a Saturday morning together in song and peace would do for their family. Imagine if it became the cultural norm for families to come to synagogue from 9:30-11:00 on Saturday mornings in order to ground their week in hope, love and community. It will be exciting to see what ideas congregations can come up with for participatory, inclusive and engaging family worship with nursery options and learner’s services so that the whole family can come together in making meaningful memories.

A Sneak Peak at Our Online Parenting Class

InterfaithFamily/Chicago is currently offering an online/in-person hybrid class called How to Raise a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family. We have 21 families – raising young children – from all over Chicagoland participating.

The participants come to their computers in spare minutes to access the content of each week’s session. They can read essays and watch slide shows about the theme of the session, gain ideas for family projects, respond to discussion questions, write in their journals, watch videos, learn blessings, read narratives written by other interfaith families, and more.

The families in this class are diverse. Some have one partner who is Jewish and another who either was born into and practices another religion or was born into another religion but does not practice that religion now. For some families, both partners are questioning elements of the religion of their upbringing and thinking about what feels comfortable in terms of the religious observance of their new family.

Parents talk about understanding elements in Judaism and coming to feel at ease reciting prayers in Hebrew. Discussions have involved how young children perceive different prayers and how they process who they are religiously. We have discussed, online and in-person, which traditions have enduring meanings and which rituals are realistic to bring into the rhythm of the family’s life. For example, during the first session we grappled with the Shema prayer. We spoke online about wanting a peaceful and spiritual bedtime routine with our children and wondered if prayer is part of that experience. If it is, is the Shema that prayer or would it be something else? Do both parents say it, or just the Jewish partner?

This past Friday evening, we also met up in-person to connect comments written on a screen to actual faces. At the Board of Jewish Education in Northbrook, IL , we ushered in Shabbat together as a new community.

We were meeting for the first time, and some young children who had been in the car for an hour were understandably antsy, energetic, and curious, while others were apprehensive.

We started with three Shabbat blessings. We spoke about light in the face of the dreary evening weather and the light in our children’s eyes. We sipped wine and thought about which sweet moments we were looking forward to this Shabbat. We ate challah and thought about the goodness of being together.

In order for these parents to get to Northbrook, some of them left work early, ran to get children from daycares and nannies, faced traffic and stress. Yet they showed up. The message that we all felt is that Shabbat means honoring traditions, being with friends and loved ones, focusing on singing and playing, and stepping out of the norms of the week for a chance to experience time in a different way. This gift that is Shabbat is one we open in our own ways and with our own spirits.

The families also made placemats that said either Sabbath Peace or Shabbat Shalom. The children pasted on pictures of their homes and images of peace. They wrote the names of those they love all over their mats. They decorated their mats with their handprints and stamps. When they use their laminated mats at meals or on Shabbat, maybe they will look at the images and think about their role in bringing peace to their home, peace to their playdates, and peace to the playground… This eternal message of Shabbat will be realized in new ways by the children of this new generation.

Who Are the “Half-Jewish”?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Adam Chalom.

Who are the “half Jewish?” Or is “half Jewish” like “half pregnant” – either you are, or you are not? For more than two decades, half of marriages involving Jews have been intermarriages. Today on college campuses, there are likely more students with one Jewish parent than with two. Hillels, Judaic Studies programs, and Holocaust memorial observances could be full to overflowing if the Jewish community could learn who these “heirs of intermarriage” really are and how to encourage them to explore the Jewish side of their family heritage.

The problem is that the organized Jewish community has been too slow to face this reality. This goes deeper than a welcoming approach to intermarriage ceremonies, which could start off these intercultural families on a note of welcoming rather than a feeling of rejection. Telling young adults, “I wouldn’t have married your parents” implies there is something wrong about what made them who they are. Too many still see the question of “who is Jewish” as either/or: either your mother is Jewish and thus you are, or you are not (without conversion). What if you want to be, what if you feel, what if you simply are “Jewish and…”?

We all live in many identities. I am Jewish, and a Humanistic Jew, and a rabbi, but I am also male, and a parent, and I grew up in Michigan, and I now live in the Chicago area. All of these identities exist in me simultaneously, and I cannot choose whether I am male or Jewish or Midwestern. An individual with a Jewish parent and an Irish/Italian/Latino/African American/etc. parent is unlikely to choose one or the other identity if it means they must deny, reject, or forget the other “half” of their family. These questions are not simply issues of individual identity; there are real live (and deceased) parents and grandparents and family traditions and heirlooms and memories at stake. There are almost as many varieties of “half Jewish” experiences as there are individuals. Some embrace the term while others reject it, but we all know what it means, even without Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song.

This April 20-22, 2012, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism will be exploring this crucial issue at its Colloquium 2012: “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage. Held on the Northwestern University campus in partnership with Fiedler Hillel of Northwestern University and Newberger Hillel of the University of Chicago, speakers and panelists will explore the “half Jewish” experience through qualitative and quantitative research, personal stories, and passionate debate. Voices from academia, Jewish outreach (including Rabbi Ari Moffic of InterfaithFamily/Chicago), the arts, Hillel, Birthright Next, and Israel will discover who this population is, in all of its diversity, and how we can speak to them as they are rather than as we imagine or wish them to be.

The truth is that the question of “half Jewish” is really a question of “what does it mean to be Jewish?” I vividly remember a conversation with a Reform rabbi friend who was strongly opposed to the concept of “half Jewish.” He asked, “How can you be two religions at once that believe different things?” I responded, “Can you be half Jewish and half Korean?” And that changed the discussion. While there are some who are raising children as “both religions” (and that experience will be part of the Colloquium discussion), for many heirs of intermarriage, their connection to both sides of their family, Jewish and other, is as culture and heritage more than religious belief and practice.

In this, they are not very different from most other Jews, who do not believe everything they are supposed to believe, do not avoid the foods they are supposed to shun, or do not perform the rituals tradition commands. Large numbers of American Jews connect to Jewish culture, history, and ethnic identity more strongly than to traditional Jewish religion and religious law; they may go to synagogue twice a year, but they feel Jewish all year round because it is who they are. Why should the heirs of intermarriage be any different?

Our hope is that Colloquium 2012 – “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage is the beginning of a wider conversation that will help determine the future of the Jewish community. Will we have the courage to be open and welcoming, the courage to change our expectations for the chance of success, or will we continue the self-inflicted losses of recent Jewish demographics? Will the heirs of intermarriage find Jewish homes, and create Jewish homes with their own families, even if their homes are “Jewish and…”? The choice will be theirs, and ours.

More information on the Colloquium, including registration forms, can be found on the IISHJ website.

What is Judaism?

This is a guest post by Rabbi Evan Moffic on the topic of a new book that examines Jewish identity. It is partially in response to another review, “Jews, Damned Jews, and Sociologists”.

What is Judaism? At first glance, this question seems simplistic. Judaism is, of course, a religion. Yet, what religion has its own language (Hebrew)? What religion has generated hundreds of cookbooks? Well, we might say, Judaism is a culture. Culture, however, is an inherently vague word, and how does one create schools and synagogues around a culture? The truth is that Judaism does not fit into traditional sociological categories. It is a religion, a culture, a philosophy, and much more. Its many dimensions have made Judaism a subject of serious exploration in a variety of scholarly fields, including those centered on identity formation. Scholars and rabbis have sought to address the issue of what establishes and creates Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish?

A recent volume brings together a variety of voices on this question. Edited by three eminent sociologists, and including essays from a variety of disciplines, Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities offers few answers. It does, however, offer some new insights into the contemporary Jewish community. For those of us who work with and in the field of interfaith families, we can take comfort in knowing that scholars better understand that Jewish identity does not fit in fixed categories. Marrying someone who is not Jewish, for example, does not mean a personno longer has a place in the Jewish community. Judaism, rather, has a deeply subjective aspect to it. It is not something externally imposed by a traditional authority. It is a faith, a people, an approach to life that we embrace, and through which we can find both personal meaning and vibrant community. 

This view is not without opposition. Those who study the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as differences between Jewish life in America and in Israel, have identified the issue of authority as a core tension. Many in the Orthodox community and in Israel identified Judaism as defined within a larger communal framework of authority. For Orthodoxy, that framework is Jewish life. For those in Israel, it is the Jewish national culture.

Those in America, and in non-Orthodox communities around the world, tend to see Judaism as an autonomously chosen way of life. It is something more fluid than fixed. It changes and evolves over time, and we look at differently depending on where we are in the journey of our lives. WE are our own primary authorities.

Both approaches have their dangers. For those in the camp of communal authority, Judaism can easily become frozen. It can appeal to a smaller and smaller subculture of the Jewish world. For those in the individualist camp, Judaism can become so subjective that we lose any sense of boundaries or communal cohesion.

These are questions we address every day. This book helps us understand and appreciate our own story.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.

Lessons Learned From our First Love and Religion Workshop in Chicagoland

We just finished our first Love and Religion Workshop in Chicago, a four-session workshop developed by Dr. Marion Usher in D.C. and offered at JCCs across the country. The workshop, for interfaith couples who are seriously dating, engaged or newly married, seeks to engender discussion about the role of religion in their lives. Couples can begin to openly discuss issues they face as partners from two different backgrounds. Hearing other couples’ stories and understanding that they are not alone also helps in the search for answers to challenges they face. In a safe environment, couples work on creating their religious lives, learning how they can make Jewish choices while still respecting their partner’s religion.

Four interfaith, Chicagoland couples, all of whom are getting married this summer, participated in our workshop. They logged into their computers with multiple video conferencing on Wednesday evenings so that we could see and hear each other from the comfort of our own homes. For the last session, we met in person at a Jewish deli on the North Shore.

Having tried to get a glimpse into these couples’ lives over the past month, here are my thoughts:

1. These couples (and many of the couples I marry) have not had backlash, ill-feelings or negativity from their parents and extended family at the thought of marrying someone from a different religion. There are, of course, exceptions. Some parents do find it hard to speak to their children about their disappointments and concerns. Not surprisingly, these issues often get exacerbated when grandchildren come into the picture. However, couples often share that their parents are happy for them: happy they found a partner who brings them joy and support.

2. Couples are interested and eager to plan their interfaith wedding ceremony and to unpack the meaning of the traditions. For couples who want to bring aspects of both religions into the ceremony and their lives as a married couple, they may feel that they are dancing on eggshells to make sure that both sides are represented in the ceremony. They want their ceremony to feel Jewish and yet honor the other partner’s religion as well in real ways. Couples are concerned that their family members who are not Jewish will feel part of the ceremony. Partners who are Jewish worry about the mention of Jesus as possibly alienating Jewish family members. Many of the couples printed out our wedding guide for help deciding on readings; gaining understanding about the meaning behind traditions; and to begin envisioning what their ceremony would look, feel and sound like. An interfaith ceremony has to present both religions’ traditions in ways that affirm the other. The wedding shouldn’t feel like two totally different ceremonies have been placed into one whole, going back and forth and back and forth with no connections being made and with ideas that conflict. As with many other aspects in Judaism, interfaith relationships are compelling us to look at liturgy and traditions with a new lens, with a new openness and with creativity to understanding the spirit behind the words and rites.

3. It is not a far leap from talking about a wedding ceremony to talking about how couples will raise their future children. Before we could talk about what role religion would play, we tried to articulate what each partner believes about major aspects of their own religion. This is where I got a lot of blank stares. For some people who grew up Jewish, they never heard a rabbi or teacher ever talk about theology. For many, what Jews do or don’t believe about God, about life and after death, about sin and other major life questions are mysteries. A lack of our own Jewish knowledge and literacy makes it more difficult to figure out, in thoughtful and purposeful ways, what we want to pass on to our children. Some say they just want to celebrate holidays in secular ways. However, if there is interest in infusing deeper meaning, both cultural and religious, couples may need guidance. How does one begin to fill in some of these holes in their own religious education? I highly recommend participating, as a couple in, an introduction to Judaism class. They are held regularly, throughout the year, in various congregations around Chicagoland.

Talking regularly with our partners about different aspects of religion helps both people sort out what is important to them, what questions they still have, areas they want to explore more and where similarities and difference lie. The way couples experience religion will no doubt look different from what either partner grew up with. That can be liberating and exciting or challenging, frustrating and even sad. Yet being willing to actively grapple with these issues can lead interfaith couples to find a new religious vibrancy and identity.

The next session for Love and Religion starts soon. Join us in May!

Writing a Religious School Pledge for All Families

From the moment I left the Kallah that we co-lead with the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

One piece that I have been giving a lot of thought to is what I would write in my religious school handbook concerning interfaith families if I were still the Director of Education at an area congregation. Religious school handbooks typically have information about snacks served (for families concerned about allergies), information about carpool and pick up lines, the school attendance policy, dress code, how to make up work if classes are missed, whether students are required to attend religious services, and expectations about behavior. None of the schools in the area seem to have a policy for working with interfaith families. Some schools felt that there does not need to be a separate policy because it isolates interfaith families as having special needs and makes them feel different than, and not part of, the community.

I think interfaith families often do have special needs and the more we are sensitive to them, and explicit about meeting their needs, the better we do at bringing all of our families into the deeper layers of what it means to really be part of the community.

Here are my thoughts about what this part of my handbook would say:   

A Pledge for All of Our Families:

We know that we have families where one parent is not Jewish and yet is living a Jewish life, creating a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. We know that we have families in which one parent is not Jewish and still practices a different religion and yet is supportive of the children being raised with Judaism in the home and in their lives. We know that we have families in which one parent has chosen Judaism for himself or herself  as an adult and, while not having childhood memories of Judaism, finds Judaism to be the language by which he or she understands and engages with the world personally. We know that we have families in which one or both parents grew up in interfaith homes themselves and have varying degrees of Jewish education and memories of experiencing Judaism. We have families in which both parents were born into homes of two Jewish parents and are in need of and desire a deeper Jewish education as adults. And we have families that are some combination of these descriptions and have even different layers to their religious stories. This pledge is for all of our families:

  1. We pledge to make Judaism accessible. This means that we will translate every Hebrew or Yiddish word into English. This means that we will offer adult Hebrew classes so that you can learn to read Hebrew and gain a sense of the beauty and richness of this ancient language yourself. We will offer adult education classes from the introductory level to the intermediate levels and beyond. We will offer Learner’s Services so that anybody can learn the choreography of the  Friday night and Saturday morning worship services and understand the order of the liturgy, the history of the prayers, and be able to contemplate modern meanings for us today. We will offer family education so that you can learn with your children and have Jewish experiences with your children that will touch your senses and stay with you for years to come. We will offer ways to participate in mitzvot (commandments, ethical and religious living) from rituals to our ethical mandates of social justice. We will offer ways for individuals, couples and families to fully participate with this synagogue community in all aspects of Judaism because we affirm that Jewish living adds meaning, purpose, joy and order to our lives and a sense of rootedness and connectedness that we are all seeking.
  2. We pledge to interact with the children in our religious school and Hebrew school with respect, understanding and empathy, and with an openness to hearing what their experience in our program is. When children speak about celebrating non-Jewish holidays with family members, attending church or other houses of worship with family members, talk about feeling “half and half” in terms of their religious identity, wondering aloud about Jesus or other aspects of another religion in their lives, their comments will be met with respect. Comments will not be swept under the rug, but will be addressed aloud for the class because there are others in the room wondering the same things. Discussions can be had at times that will benefit all in the room about the diversity of the Jewish community, the common threads in the families, what it means to have Judaism as part of your identity and more.
  3. We want to know our families. Please help us get to know you by sharing your own religious stories. Let us know what you “do” in your home for religion, questions you have, challenges you have, and how we can better understand where you are coming from, what’s important to you for your children to absorb in this Jewish setting, and whether we can help bring families together for deeper communal experiences.

If you are reading this and send your children to religious school, what would you think of having such a statement in your school’s handbook? If you are reading this and are in Jewish education, could you imagine using pieces of this?

Be a Fly On the Wall: Hear What Jewish Leaders Talk About

InterfaithFamily/Chicago co-lead the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE) Principal’s Kallah on Sunday and Monday, January 29 and 30. About 20 Chicagoland Jewish educators (including directors of lifelong learning, religious school principals and early childhood directors) from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative denominations gathered at the Schaumburg Hyatt Place on Sunday evening. Anita Diamant was the key-note speaker; she spoke about the American Jewish family in the 21st century. She taught us about the growth in number of conversions to Judaism. Did you know that the rate of conversions to Judaism has not been this high since 500 C.E.? She talked about how the rabbinic codes and laws concerning conversion were written at that time to be open and welcoming.

Today, American Jews are so successful and assimilated into every aspect of American culture (including the outspoken and proud Jon Stewart), that marrying someone Jewish seems like a realistic and wonderful choice for someone who grew up a different religion and is not practicing, or even for someone who still practices another religion.  American Judaism is open, flexible, adaptable, and so young couples think intermarriage “works.” 

She said that it is now statistically normative to be intermarried, which is a powerful statement with many ramifications. She spoke about how labels can impact our sense of identity. She said at the end that she is optimistic about the future of American Judaism and wouldn’t want to live at any other time than now. 

On Monday, Karen Kushner (who lives and works in San Francisco) and I ran three workshops for the Kallah participants.

The first workshop involved getting to know each other and starting to think about the most welcoming language for synagogue membership forms. Filling in a form should leave one with the feeling that this synagogue is inclusive and respectful of all backgrounds. All of the educators at our conference said that they work with interfaith families. Many said that they were sure they had students in their classes who felt that they were “half and half” or confused about their religious identity. Many affirmed that they have children from interfaith homes who feel proud to be Jewish, love their family and feel whole and secure. So, we spoke about how interfaith families come through our doors with different needs, issues, desires, backgrounds, questions and more. 

It was so interesting for the educators to take a good look at their own congregation’s website and their school forms. Many confessed that they hadn’t read through the language in quite some time and were either pleasantly surprised by how inclusive their language was or turned off by the lack of specific mention that interfaith families are welcome in their community. We had the educators circle or highlight every Hebrew or Yiddish word on their forms, all “insider” language terms and references to synagogue lingo that some parents may not “get.” We debated if one should actually translate the words, “Shabbat,” “matzah” and “Torah” for example as “everyone knows what these words mean…” Interestingly, many may not know the origins of even these Hebrew words. For instance, Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for rest; Torah has the same etymological root as horim and morim (parents and teachers) and means learning. 

We ended Monday with a session on how children form a sense of self and gain a Jewish identity. We spoke about the challenges to having a “full” Jewish identity when a parent is bringing Christianity or another religion into the home. 

We talked about how these issues aren’t black and white, but full of grays. For some, a Christmas tree or Easter egg hunt are purely secular, so adding these elements into a Jewish home doesn’t feel like they create theological problems. I see this, for example, when I meet with couples who are preparing for their weddings. I usually start by saying, “Tell me your life in a nutshell…” I sometimes ask myself what children growing up in interfaith homes will they tell their rabbi before they get married. Will s/he say that their Jewish story is that they grew up going to a temple, attended religious school, celebrated Jewish holidays in the home and that mom or dad also celebrated another religion’s holidays, and they occasionally went to church with family members but that they want a rabbi at their wedding because they feel a core inside connection to Judaism…? It will differ for each child.

We do know, however, how important a connection to a synagogue is. We do know how important it is to have positive, joy filled, meaningful Jewish experiences that touch the senses. These experiences stay with us, and we want our children to experience them too. This is how we pass on our values, our memories, and live with and through our children fully.

There was definitely a lot of discussion. Many people asked questions. Many answers, suggestions and opinions were shared. The most important thing is that 20 Chicagoland educators devoted two days from their hectic schedules – juggling childcare, work obligations and more – to think about the precious subject of the American Jewish family today and how we can best bring interfaith families into the tent of Jewish living. It was an honor to be part of such a workshop.

Jewish Identity

A video has been making the rounds that explores what Jewish identity can mean – maybe you’ve seen it on Facebook already. It took me a while to get past the opening montage; I’m not a fan of “Jewish” being tied to Holocaust imagery, and the song from Schindler’s List is a little heavy-handed. But I stuck with it and found it interesting.

Watch it through, and let me know: Were you to create a video, poem or rant about how you relate to Judaism as an individual, what would you say? How would it differ from Andrew Lustig’s (that’s him in the video)? Would you mention your interfaith family, extended family, being a Jew by choice?

A Holiday Disclosure

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.