The Most Religious Thing I Have Ever Done on Christmas

My grandfather and me in 1975 at my Jewish family's Christmas celebration wearing our matching gifts.

Christmas is a week away and many interfaith families are busy with preparations for their family celebrations – buying gifts, packing for travel to relatives, baking, decorating, and shipping presents. This makes many in the Jewish community nervous.

They worry that engagement in this Christian holiday will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and will make it less likely that Judaism will be passed on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish; a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.

Many interfaith families like mine agree with the point that a home should have one religious identity, and that is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying as Jews does not mean that we ban Christmas from our homes or decline to participate in the holiday activities of our extended families.

What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is technically a religious holiday, although it is not considered to be the most important by the Church. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.

According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 December Holiday Survey, 88% of us celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts; we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, and spend time with relatives. Most of us celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish kid growing-up in a Jewish family.

My childhood Christmas included a tree in my home, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. It was a period when everything slowed down, and was a convenient time for my family to reconnect with out-of-town relatives we did not see on a regular basis.

I thought that my family’s celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it was not “our” holiday. So, I assumed, when I met Cameron that I would experience a more religious observance. After all, my in-laws’ faith is very important to them.

My father-in-law is a graduate of theology school and a layman in the Episcopal Church, and my mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas or Christmas Eve (too many “C&Es” – people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter).

What I have learned since joining the Larkins, is that just because a family is Christian does not mean that their observance of a Christian holiday is religious. The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component; no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas.

Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkin’s Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.

So the concern in the Jewish world about interfaith families’ religious observance of Christmas made me cull through my memories for my most religious Christmas moment. What I realized is that the most religious thing that my family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.

When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, we observe, the holiday, religiously after our secular Christmas. If we are in Dallas, Cameron, Sammy, and I light the candles at sundown in front of our tree often with Jewish friends. If we are in Vermont, we kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and nephew. Sammy, Cameron, and I say the prayers in Hebrew and our not Jewish extended family read the blessings in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our family Christmas celebration.

I wish more Jewish academics; leaders, professionals, and laypeople took the time to understand the significance or lack thereof that Christmas has in the lives of many interfaith families choosing Judaism. Instead, they assume, like I did, that because Christmas is a religious holiday any observance of it must be religious too.

They also assume that all intermarrieds are the same; we all raise our children in two faiths or none at all, and allow our children to choose their religion when they are older. Therefore, celebrating holidays from different faiths must be syncretic and confusing. But just as there are different kinds of in-married families – secular, cultural, ritually observant, and somewhere in between – there are different kinds of intermarrieds including ones who have a solely Jewish identity.

For interfaith families like us who have chosen Judaism, and nurture their Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement; what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life. Just as the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity does not call into question the family’s Christian identity.

For dual-faith or no-faith families observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I do not know; I am not one of them. All I can say is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish (interfaith) household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. So excuse me for rolling my eyes at the prognosticators who predict that Jewish continuity is in jeopardy because people like me are celebrating Christmas.

The most religious thing our family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.

My wounded tree

My tree fell over. Twice. And at least once, my toddler toppled off the couch into it.

Last night, my husband took the whole thing apart, and realized that I had not precisely put it in the tree stand the way that I should have. Okay, maybe I just shoved it in and assumed that it would be good. It was – for a few days anyway.

The tree is a big deal for me. I’m a Jewish convert, and putting up the tree has been a difficult topic every single year. Putting up a tree is representative of a whole lot more than just a tree – it’s a symbol of my past and my traditions, and my children’s connection to it. And when it fell over last night for the second (or third) time, I burst into tears and sobbed all thru the clean up. I lugged it outside and propped it up on the porch, so I wouldn’t be staring at the glaring failure of all my Christmas dreams all night long. I moved some furniture and put my daughter’s baby tree (she wanted her own little tree this year)into a place of prominence in the window and even put my angel (the one my mother bought for me twenty years ago, when I first moved out) on top of it.

And this morning, my husband took his little saw outside, and cut and trimmed my tree, and we shoved it back into the stand. Brought it back inside and and then took off all the lights and garland, popcorn and cranberry strings my son had made for me, and it stands there, naked, waiting for decorations. After a teary phone call home (because only my mother would understand why I was so sad last night), my mother is coming over this morning with new ornaments to replace my broken ones, and lights (because she never thinks I have enough lights), and Julie and I will decorate the tree with her this afternoon. So when my older kids come home tonight, they’ll have their tree back, prettier than before. More stable. Less likely to fall.

I’m thinking of the tree as an analogy for me this year. This month has been hard – the December Dilemma has been particularly difficult this year, and I’m feeling battered and worn down and tired. Just like my tree. But there’s another week and a half before Christmas, and I’m vowing, like my tree, to emerge ready and steady, newly decorated and committed to making sure that December is not the month of conflict and isolation, but rather a month of warmth and peace. Of celebration and gratitude and love. Hot cocoa and candy canes, looking at lights and watching holiday specials. Of anticipation and parties and quiet nights reading together. Like my tree, standing so proud, I’m going to embrace the scars and battle wounds – because all of it makes me who I am. Christmas means more to me because I fight for it, because I insist on bringing a bit of my past into my Jewish home. My tree is prettier because of the hole where Julie toppled into it, and it’s more stable now because it fell over. Twice, or was it three times?.

Merry Christmas everyone – may we all emerge from December a little stronger, a little more settled and, like my tree, able to wear the wounds and bruises proudly. Because it’s what makes our tree, and us, who we are.

 

Why do we have to hide?

I put up my tree last night.  And on Sunday, I was at a PJ event, and one of my friends confided that her kids were picking out their tree later on that afternoon.  Confided, because it’s something that is still somewhat shameful.  And while a part of me understands the secrecy, I do, there’s a huge part of me that doesn’t.

I’m Jewish, and I’m doing my best to raise the next generation of Jewish children.  I worked HARD for this Jewish label, I met with a rabbi for close to a year on a monthly basis.  I took my two oldest children to a mikvah, and sat before a Conservative Beit Din.  I dunked my screaming toddler three times (okay, only twice, because the rabbi took pity on him and said enough was enough).  I’ve got my own challah and hamentaschen recipe, candlesticks, I crocheted matching yamulkes for my husband and son.  I’ve read and studied and thought and debated and discussed.  I’m proud of my Judaism.

But I’m never going to be a Jewish woman who grew up steeped in the culture.  My grandmother didn’t make matzoh ball soup, my grandmother was Irish and English and Catholic.  I’m not ashamed of that.  My mother isn’t a Bubbe with her own challah recipe, she’s Grammy and she decorates wildly and enthusiastically for all holidays, from Valentines Day straight through until Christmas.  My kids come from that.  I don’t feel like I need to hide that, or be ashamed of it, or pretend that it’s not a part of who I am, and who they are.

I know not everyone agrees with me.  I know that there are lots of people who really, really don’t agree with me.  People who think that being Jewish is, in large part, defined by what you don’t do, and putting up a Christmas tree and celebrating what, for many, is absolutely a Christian holiday, is perhaps one of the biggest signalers of being Jewish.  People who think I’m confusing my kids, and watering down Judaism and perhaps I never should have converted in the first place.  I know that.

But I truly believe that I’m a good Jewish mom.  I think I’m a good Jewish wife.  I think I’m doing my best, to be the best Jewish woman I can be.  By showing my kids that you need to honor all that you are, not just the parts that society deems acceptable.  That, in the end, all you can do is be true to who you are.

If that means that my family doesn’t understand why I converted, then it’s up to me to educate them.  To teach them what Judaism is, to show them why it’s so important to me.  To bring them in, as much as I can, so that they can see what I see when I see my oldest teaching my son how to read Hebrew, and hear my baby recite the blessings.  If being who I am means that there are members of my community who disagree with me, and think my tree has no place in a Jewish home, it’s up to me to show them that maybe they need to look past the tree to see the Jewish home.  To see the PJ Library books scattered all over the rug, and the Shabbat box that came home from preschool on Friday.  To see the Siddur on my daughters bedside table, and the bag of yamulkes I keep in my china closet so that guests in our home on Friday night can put one on.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s my job to make it a little easier for the woman who married a Jewish guy and is trying to figure out how to raise her children in a tradition that isn’t hers by birth.  Because it’s hard.  Really hard.  It takes determination, and flexibility and a lot of encouragement and acceptance.   There’s a huge number of us, non-Jews who married Jews and we want to do it right.  We want our kids to grow up feeling secure and welcomed and happy about both sides of their heritage.  Whether that means exploring Judaism and converting ourselves, or not.  I converted, and I’m so grateful I did.  For my family, for me, it was the right choice.   But a dip in the mikvah doesn’t change the thirty plus years of not being Jewish, nor should it.  I’m not ashamed of converting, and I’m not going to tell my children that they aren’t a part of my family’s traditions.  They are.   Their story starts with ours, with my husband’s journey as well as mine.

And in our house, we put up a tree.  And we don’t hide it.

The Gift of an Early Hanukkah for Interfaith Families

DoughnutThanksgivukkah has come and gone, and we have racked up stories of latke-stuffed turkeys and donuts on the dessert table, and, most importantly, of the beautiful lights of the menorah on the Thanksgiving table. But before it becomes history for another 150 or 77,000 years, depending on how you count, I want to take a moment to appreciate what makes this year different for the Interfaith (Jewish/Christian) family. This year, Thanksgivukkah gave way to an easier holiday season, where we can focus more on celebration than challenges.

As it has for the last few years, the first week in December my inbox has filled up with announcements for events about the “December Dilemma.” The emails describe great-sounding panels with clergy from all walks of Judaism and Christianity offering to help me determine how to best parent through the month where our multi-faith background takes the starring role in our lives. But I have to say, its star is shining a little less brightly this year, because there is a little less dilemma before me.

As an interfaith couple, at its most challenging moments December forces us to articulate our faith choices in a way no other month does. How do we explain to our kids that they are a part of two families, even though those families’ traditions seem so divergent in this month? In putting out a menorah instead of a Christmas tree, are we trying to tell them that one thing is better than another? (We aren’t, by the way.) These questions are symbolic of the complexities of the choices we make for the four walls that define our home, questions that we navigate and re-navigate as individuals, parents and families all the time, the countless questions that probably led you to this website today.

And on top of the biggies that are highlighted this time of year, two slighlty smaller questions, the detail ones, always loom large for me in December. First, how do I make Hanukkah meaningful, when Christmas is just so gosh darn distractingly fun and wonderful? And second, how do I coordinate celebrating both with both sides of the family, and still minimize any “lost time” with either?

This year, Hanukkah started the night before Thanksgiving, so we squeezed in our candle lighting between packing and cooking the stuffing we needed to drive to New York for Thanksgiving dinner. As I mentioned last month, we spend Thanksgiving with my Jewish family, so the gang was mostly there for the second night.  And then we had three whole nights on a holiday weekend, a rare occurrence for Hanukkah. With Christmas so far in the future that gift lists haven’t even been written yet, we could fully concentrate on Hanukkah – no Christmas party invites to juggle between candle-lighting, and barely an ornament display between me and the Hanukkah decorations at Target. It has been a lovely, small holiday, with plenty of nights to share with Grampy, a few with cousins, and two with friends. And now it is over.

Hanukkah is over, and I have three weeks to shop for stocking stuffers for my husband’s family, three weeks to scheme about which holiday events we’ll attend together when we visit them. It is almost like Christmas is in a different season. In our home, we talk about the importance of helping our Christian family celebrate Christmas, because it is an important and joyful holiday for them. This year, we’re done with our holiday, so we can fully focus on the help. Rather than choosing between one holiday or another, we did ours, and now we can move on to other things.  My two detail questions are answered pretty neatly (although I will miss you on Christmas day, Dad!).

So it feels like I got an extra gift this December. And perhaps it is a reminder that even though we talk about a “dilemma,” in the end what most of us are trying to accomplish two things. First, to define our own nuclear family’s take on observance, and teach it to our kids with clarity and love. And second, between the long checkout lines and travel hassles and decisions about whether to light candles or strings of lights in our own homes, December is about balancing a whole lot of celebration and joy. If we focus more on the celebration and joy, maybe we can push the dilemma part of the equation off of center stage and into more of a supporting role.

Honoring my Promise to my Grandfather

Sammy and I with my 96-year-old grandfather in October. We had a special visit.

About a month ago, I visited my 96-year-old grandfather at his skilled nursing facility in New Jersey while in the area for a family event. It was Shabbat morning, my favorite time to go see him.

My grandfather and I have always been very close. As the oldest grandchild and the only girl, we share a special bond that is different from the one he has with my brother and male cousins. I make it a point to spend time with him whenever I go east to see my family, and I always bring Sammy.

It is important to me to visit with him, even though I am not certain that he knows me or that Sammy is his great-grandson. My grandfather has dementia. On some visits, he does not seem to connect our smiling faces to any name or person that he can recall, but is just happy to have some visitors. On others, I can see that he recognizes me when I walk over.

But even with the uncertainty of his response, I still go and I still bring Sammy. I do not do this out of obligation, or because Jews are commanded to visit the sick. The mitzvah Bikur Cholim, a concept I learned from my grandfather when I was a young child, and he took me to visit his infirmed and elderly parents, tells us to be with someone who is ill because the presence of a loving and kind person is a gift that can lighten the burden of illness.

No, I do not perform this mitzvah because I am told to. I go to visit him because I love him, and I have a deep desire for him to know Sammy as best he can and for Sammy to know him, even though the man he will know is not the vibrant grandparent I remember. But I want Sammy to have some connection to the person he hears about in stories and sees in pictures.

I also go with Sammy because I want my grandfather to hear about my son’s life and our home, our Jewish home. See, I made a promise to my grandfather 12 years ago when Cameron and I became engaged that my children would be raised as Jews, even though Cameron was not one. I remember the conversation.

“Janey, will your children be raised Jewish?” my grandfather asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Cameron and I have agreed to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews.”

“Oh, okay. Is he going to convert?”

“No, I didn’t ask him to.”

“Okay. Well maybe one day he’ll decide to,” my grandfather said.

“Maybe.”

I understood my grandfather’s questions and his hopes. He was the oldest son of observant Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father was a chazzan, a cantor, who grew-up at the Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, in Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Judaism was a central part of his upbringing and identity, and Jewish continuity was important to him, especially given that intermarriage was widespread in my family.

He watched his son, my uncle; marry a woman who was not Jewish; as well as several of his brothers’ children. With my engagement, another generation was continuing the pattern. While some of my intermarried relatives raised children within Judaism, others had no connection to Jewish practice or community, or any other religion either.

As someone who was a young adult during World War II and the Holocaust, my grandfather understood that every Jewish child was precious to the community, and he did not want our family’s connection to the faith to disappear. He wanted some assurance that someone would pass on our tradition.

I know that he was glad to hear that Cameron and I would have a Jewish home, but I think that while he hoped for the best, he believed, like others in my family that our promise was empty and that little action would be taken to fulfill our commitment. Unfortunately, shortly after Cameron and I were married, my grandfather’s mental health began to decline. By the time Sammy was born, he had been moved from assisted living to the nursing facility’s memory unit.

He has never been able to experience or appreciate the central role Judaism has in our home. Yet, regardless of my grandfather’s mental state, I still want him to know that Cameron and I have kept our promise.

When we visit with him, I talk about the many things he and I have done together, and about my synagogue involvement and holiday rituals. I share with him Cameron’s commitment to and engagement in our Jewish home.

Sammy sings him Jewish holiday songs in Hebrew and tells him about his Jewish day school. He talks to him about his Jewish summer camp and his kippah collection that his not Jewish grandmother has crocheted for him. And because Sammy loves sports as much as my grandfather once did, especially tennis, he talks sports too.

I do not know if any of this means anything to my grandfather, but it is important to me that I demonstrate that I have honored the commitment I made to him, and show him, in whatever way possible, that his hope for a Jewish future is being realized through Sammy. So we will keep visiting, I will keep talking, and Sammy will keep singing Jewish songs.

My grandfather and me at my second birthday.