Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
As the end of the school year approaches, my family is actively planning our summer vacation. This year we’re traveling to Santa Fe for art, culture and hiking.
As I’ve done since my husband and I began traveling together before we married, I’m researching the various landmarks, historical sites and things to do at our destination. I’m also looking at how we can incorporate Jewish heritage into our trip.
Often we think that we must travel to Israel in order to explore Jewish life and history. But, Jewish heritage, like the heritage of other faiths especially Christianity, exists the world over.
For example, when my husband and I traveled to Europe, we visited many famous churches and cathedrals, but we also stopped at Jewish cultural sites. In Paris, we visited the renowned French Gothic cathedral Notre Dame on the same day we walked through the nearby Jewish Quarter in the Marais district.
While walking the streets of the Pletzel, the Yiddish name of the Jewish district, we stopped at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme. The museum, housed in the 17th-century mansion known as the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, presented the 2,000-year history of the Jewish community in France and positioned French Jewry in the broader context of Judaism as a whole. It featured magnificent ritual objects from across the ages, tombstones from the Middle Ages and Judaic art from various periods, and it depicted Jewish life in Paris during Emancipation and at the beginning of World War II.
In Rome, we toured the Vatican and the remains of the Jewish ghetto, Great Synagogue, and Jewish Museum. We viewed Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel and discovered that it wasn’t the only magnificently painted ceiling in a Roman religious institution. The ceiling and interior of the Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome) were magical. The inside of the square aluminum dome had a rainbow and trees, and the ceiling was a rich blue with gold stars that looked brilliant against the massive 50-foot free-standing ark.
In Prague, the Jewish Quarter with the Jewish Museum, Ceremonial Hall, Old-New and Spanish Synagogues, and the old Jewish cemetery, captivated us while the Church of St. Nicholas dazzled. In Budapest, we spent time at St. Stephen’s Basilica and investigated my ancestral roots at the grand Dohany Street or Great Synagogue.
This summer, in Santa Fe, we plan to investigate the Jewish influences in the city from iconic churches to art. We look forward to finding the Hebrew inscription for the name of God above the entrance to St. Francis Cathedral. Some people believe the engraving is a tribute to a Jewish benefactor who helped finance the construction of the church. We are also excited to learn how Judaism mixed with local culture.
Travel provides a wonderful opportunity for interfaith families to explore the Jewish and not Jewish religious and cultural traditions of an area. It shows us how Judaism intermingled with general culture offering new insights and context to the Jewish experience. It reminds us, and our children, that there is more to Jewish history than persecution and Israel. When we mix in stops at synagogues, Jewish museums, and other venues with visits to sites important to other faiths, we get a fuller picture of the world. We also develop a richer sense of Jewish heritage.
This summer, as you travel with your family, bring some balance to your sightseeing. Visit breathtaking cathedrals and churches as well as Jewish points-of-interest. Before you go, check out the travel website Jewish Discoveries to find lesser-known areas of Jewish culture. Use your trips to learn more about your family’s background and deepen your family’s connection to Judaism.
There are times in life when we’re in the zone. We’re so involved in performing or participating in an activity that we get lost in the experience. Other times, we’re more of a participant-observer. We’re engaged in the action or event, but we have enough distance from what is happening that we can study or reflect on what is going on at the moment.
I had a participant-observer experience at the Passover Seder we attended this year. We celebrated the first night of the holiday at our friend’s house. We met this family when we first moved to Dallas. The wife and I were in a Mommy & Me class together at the JCC. We were kindred spirits and both intermarried Jewish women raising Jewish children with the support of our not Jewish husbands. We became close friends quickly and navigated the joys and challenges of intermarriage and observed holidays together.
Over the years, our families had celebrated Passover with each other so many times that we had a holiday routine. We read a Haggadah for young families. The adults and kids ate at separate tables. The same friends and family filled the seats. But this year there were several changes to our typical ritual. We graduated to a Haggadah for families with elementary and middle school age children. The adults and kids sat together at one long table in my friend’s living room. There were new faces seated among the usual suspects.
Maybe those changes made me listen more carefully and observe more closely, or maybe I was simply more attentive on that particular evening. Whatever the reason for my heightened awareness, I saw several things that made this Passover different from others. I noticed that a regular Seder attendee, who brought her new boyfriend, was more relaxed and contented than she was in years past. I noted the good behavior of a usually mischievous young guest. I marveled at my husband’s and my friend’s husband’s Hebrew skills.
It was this last observation that grabbed me the most. How had I not noticed before how well both of these men pronounced and enunciated Hebrew words? Was this facility with Hebrew new or had it been there for a while, and I missed it?
After more than a decade of living a Jewish life, I knew that my husband and my friend’s husband could recite, in Hebrew, most of the Friday evening Shabbat blessings. And I knew my husband had participated in Havdalah enough times that he could sing the prayers. But the Hebrew words that were part of their assigned Haggadah readings weren’t familiar. Yes, there was transliteration. But transliteration was a pronunciation, not enunciation, tool. These guys pronounced the Hebrew clearly and crisply with the right emphasis.
Maybe the language skills of my husband and my friend’s husband stood out to me because of how different they were from many of the Jewish guests. Both husbands read the transliterated Hebrew with confidence. Many of the Jewish participants read the Hebrew hesitantly, mispronouncing words and using incorrect articulation. Several times during the Haggadah reading, these guests acknowledged that they had not done much Jewishly since their bar or
The scenario demonstrated how repeated exposure to Hebrew and frequent involvement in Jewish life can positively affect Jewish fluency regardless of someone’s religious background. It also highlighted why the usual rhetoric about intermarrieds—they are less likely to raise Jewish children or associate themselves with Jewish practice—isn’t universally true. Rather, it illustrated how a focus on engaging interfaith families benefits Judaism.
As the children at our Seder recited the Four Questions, a fifth question came to mind. Ma Nishtantah? Why are Jewishly active interfaith families different from other Jewish families? The answer: regular engagement with Judaism.
This post originally appeared on Jane’s Interfaith and Jewish blog.
If you or your Jewish partner is like me, you remember your childhood Passover seders as long and boring affairs. There was no child-friendly Haggadah, toy plagues, or jumping around as everyone sang “Frogs here! Frogs there! Frogs were jumping everywhere.” Maybe there was a kids’ table, which was acknowledged only when the youngest was asked to recite the Four Questions.
As an adult, whether you are Jewish or from another background, you may have wondered, why can’t Passover be fun? The answer is, it can be. The holiday can retain its serious and important message and be enjoyable. It just takes a little creativity.
When my son was a toddler, I thought a lot, about how I wanted him to view Judaism. As an intermarried Jew raising a Jewish child, I wanted him to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than obligation. I didn’t wanted his childhood memories of faith to be the same as my husband’s or mine–more serious than fun.
Because of our early experiences, my husband and I shared the feeling that it was important to make the holidays and Judaism enjoyable in order for our son to develop a strong connection to the Jewish faith. I only needed to look at my own extended family to see what a lack of positive religious experiences did to a person’s desire to continue to be observant when they reached adulthood. A Jewish relative, who inmarried, observed the holidays out of obligation and not because he derived any fulfillment from the experience.
My husband and I believed that by increasing the fun quotient of holidays when our son was young we could make the celebrations more memorable, without diminishing their significance. We felt this was especially important for an interfaith family because by creating positive Jewish experiences year-round, we avoided the need to pack a full year’s worth of Jewish identity building into December.
So, we spiced up our Passover observance. When our son was a toddler, we read Passover children’s books and sang the holiday songs learned in preschool. We told the story of the Exodus using a Shalom Sesame coloring book. I photocopied the pages and let the kids at our seder color them while the adults read the story. We read Sammy Spider’s First Passover and Dinosaur on Passover instead of reading a traditional Haggadah. We used a child-friendly seder printed from the Internet. As our son got older, we watched the many Passover parodies on YouTube.
We didn’t worry that how we told the Passover story was unconventional. After all, we were simply commanded to tell the story. Contrary to what Jewish parents of a certain generation thought, there was no rule to how it was told. A Haggadah wasn’t required nor did a seder need to be the same as our mothers’ or mother-in-laws’. We were free to do what we wanted.
As you get ready for Passover, think about how you can create happy memories by celebrating the holiday in a slightly different way. Work to nurture your child’s connection to Judaism so that it will be the foundation for observance later in life. Use a less traditional approach to connect members of your family from different backgrounds to the holiday. Remember the words of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna (Jewish Oral Law codified about 200 CE.), “For only the lesson enjoyed is the lesson learned.”
Below are a few suggestions for injecting some creativity into your Passover celebration. Use them or come up with your own.
Last year, in the “Community Voices” section of my local paper there was a column written by a woman about the proliferation of yard signs in her neighborhood proclaiming “God lives here!” She said that often the behavior of her neighbors displaying these signs was far from divine.
Recently, I recalled this column as I noticed the “He is Risen!” crosses beginning to appear in my neighbors’ yards. I knew many of these people held close their belief in Jesus and acted as he did–they reached out to families new to the area, they befriended the friendless and cared for the weak. But others, behaved in ways that weren’t really in line with Jesus’s actions.
They argued with each other about the cutting down of dead bushes between properties, escalating the fight to the point where lawsuits were threatened. They disregarded neighborhood speed limits and drove at dangerously high speeds when children were leaving for school in the morning. They failed to clean up after their pets but got angry when others left their dog’s waste in the park. They fought about who should and should not have access to neighborhood common areas and green spaces.
But residents with crosses on their lawns weren’t the only ones acting in ways that were inconsistent with their religion’s values. A number of people with mezuzahs on their doors behaved similarly. Neither Jesus nor Moses would have been particularly proud.
While I was bemoaning the unneighborly behavior, I remembered other actions by neighbors that were the embodiment of shared religious values. There was the family that invited a neighbor for dinner when her husband was out of town. A man who found at the gym a water bottle that belonged to a woman from down the street and returned it to her. A young woman who moved in with an older, single woman to care for her. A mom who found a neighbor’s dog that had gotten out and ensured that the pup got home safely. A teen who retrieved my son’s basketball from the pond in our park.
Tattooed and ghoulish looking, and dressed in dark clothes, the teenager appeared to be an unlikely savior. Yet, he turned out to be the personification of loving-kindness.
As my son and I struggled to find a way to get his ball that was moving further towards the middle of the lake, the teen approached with a friend. Our dog went up to them hoping to get a pat. We said hello and returned to trying to get the ball. Suddenly, the male teen walked into the cold, murky pond toward the ball. It was then that we noticed his shoes on the bank and his rolled-up pants. He grabbed the basketball and returned it to my son.
For a moment, we were speechless. My son and I thanked him over and over, and asked if there was something we could do to show our appreciation. The only thing the teen wanted in return was to pet our dog for a minute. Then he and his friend walked away. I was certain we had just encountered Elijah.
According to Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah, who is destined to wander the earth as a heavenly messenger, appears to individuals in many guises. He arrives to guard the sick and newborn and to help the hopeless dressed as a beggar, scoundrel, peasant and now, possibly, a goth teenager. He reminds us not to judge someone’s godliness by his or her appearance or a symbol on a lawn or door. Rather, he shows us that a person’s goodness and adherence to the principles of their faith is revealed through deeds.
After lamenting the ungodly behavior of her neighbors, the writer of the “Community Voices” essay, said that God did live in her neighborhood through the right actions performed by some of the area’s residents. She said, “Deeds outrank yard signs.” The encounter with the would-be Elijah provided a similar reminder for my son and me–actions trump dress.
This Passover, when you open your door for Elijah, think about how you and your family can walk in the prophet’s ways. Then do it, because actions speak louder than words.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when we got our dog Brady, my son asked if an animal can have a religion. The question was only half-serious. He knew that pets didn’t actually practice a faith, but he wanted the dog to have a religious identity anyway.
But what would that identity be? My son and I are Jewish, my husband is not. We have an active Jewish home and consider ourselves more Jewish than interfaith. Since Brady was delivered to us on a Friday night in December shortly before the start of Shabbat and the day before the start of Hanukkah, we were convinced that his religious identity was preordained. Brady would be Jewish.
But neither of his canine parents were Jewish. So, we gave Brady a bath and called it a mikveh. Now he was officially a Jewish pup and like any child being raised in the Jewish faith, he needed a Jewish education.
My mother-in-law purchased a dog-training book for us at a “Friends of the Library” sale–How to Raise a Jewish Dog. The book offered tips for training dogs from the Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary. Apparently, the rabbis were renowned for their ability to teach owners how to create unbreakable bonds with their dogs.
We were skeptical about the rabbis’ approach, which used child-rearing techniques employed by Jewish mothers of previous generations–guilt, shame, passive aggression, sarcasm and Conditional Unconditional Love. As we read the book, I could hear my mother’s voice jumping from the page.
The rabbis’ system focused on instilling in dogs the ideas that our parents instilled in us, such as “be perfect or disappoint those who love you” and “you may think you’re smart, but you’re wrong about certain things.” It also promised to develop three important traits of Jewish dogs–an exaggerated sense of his own wonderfulness, an exaggerated sense of her own shortcomings, and an extremely close relationship with his master.
The book was cute and clever, filled with neurotic, nervous, intellectual Woody-Allenesque prose. I even imagined Allen playing the dog-training rabbi in a film. But we didn’t want a neurotic Jewish dog. We wanted a dog that was just Jewish.
As we thought about how to do that, we realized that we didn’t need a book or a trainer. We already had one of the best methods for creating Jewish identity–Shabbat. Since we had a regular home practice, we didn’t need to learn new commands or systems. We just needed to keep lighting the candles on Friday night.
To make Brady feel part of our ritual, we blessed him when we blessed our son. In the beginning, the touching and blessing made Brady growl, but he enjoyed getting a piece of challah after we said the Hamotzi. Soon he realized that giving thanks for and getting bread followed the blessing for children. The growling stopped.
Routine is a great teacher of humans and dogs. Brady now knows what is going to happen when he sees us set the table for Shabbat. As we begin the home rituals, he sits close and watches as we light the candles. He accepts the blessing for male children and sits as we recite the Kiddush and Hamotzi, eagerly anticipating the challah. As we give him a piece of Shabbat deliciousness, we wish him Shabbat Shalom.
If you want to raise a Jewish pup–four-legged or two-legged–forget about the books and trainers, guilt and sarcasm. Just celebrate Shabbat.
An email from the family in charge of leading the discussion for the next fourth-grade book club landed in my inbox. It said the selection for this month’s meeting was Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. An appropriate choice since we were about to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Some parents were hesitant to let their kids read about the Holocaust. I was not. My son Sammy already knew about the horrors of World War II. He had been introduced to this part of Jewish history when he was in Kindergarten at a Jewish Day School. At the time, I thought six was too young for the lesson, but it was taught whether parents approved or not. Even though Sammy knew about the Holocaust, I was glad the book was about heroes and survival, rather than labor camps and gas chambers.
Number the Stars tells the story of the evacuation of the Jews from Nazi-held Denmark during World War II. On September 29, 1943, word spread throughout the country that Jews were to be detained and then relocated to extermination camps. Within hours, the Danes including average citizens, resistance fighters, and police arranged boats to take 7,000 Jews to Sweden. Lowry fictionalizes this true-story and brings it to life through 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family harbors her best friend, Ellen Rosen, on the eve of the round-up and smuggles Ellen’s family out of the country.
My son loved the story, as did the other kids. As the children eagerly talked about the book, the adult discussion leader asked them if they thought it was possible for a holocaust to happen again.
All the kids agreed that it was possible for a holocaust-like tragedy to happen if a “mad man” came to power, but all felt it was not probable. They said that the United States would never allow it. They believed that the President would protect Jews in the US from such evil and would ensure that our country came to the aid of others if it happened elsewhere in the world.
As the children spoke, the parents sitting on the outer edge of the circle exchanged glances and began to whisper. Should we tell them that the US didn’t help the Jews during the war? Should we make them aware of recent genocides and how little America did to stop them? We decided we should.
We told the kids that mass killings didn’t end with the Holocaust, they were still happening today. We told them that the response of America and her allies to these atrocities in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Myanmar and the Central African Republic was anemic. We said that rescuing the Jews targeted by Nazi Germany was not a priority for the US during World War II. We explained that the US government greatly restricted the number of Jews it allowed to immigrate here during the war and sent those fleeing the Nazis by ship back to Europe.
We didn’t want to scare the kids. But we also didn’t want them looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. We wanted them to understand that the actions of the Danish were truly heroic and that they exemplified the ideal of human decency. Under the leadership of King Christian X, they acted with courage and integrity to save almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark. Their heroism was mesmerizing.
After book club, I asked Sammy if the discussion changed how he felt about the US. He said no, it just highlighted the mistakes our government made and showed that it didn’t always act with a conscience. Then I asked him if it changed how he felt about being Jewish. He paused. After a moment, he said it did, but in a good way.
“It made me realize that as a Jew, I have a responsibility to act with decency, treat others kindly and with dignity, and not discriminate. As a Jew, I have a responsibility to be courageous.”
Over the next few weeks, we will be reminded of these responsibilities when we celebrate Purim and Passover. Hopefully, we will take the lessons to heart and when faced with a crisis act like Esther and Moses, Christian X and the Danes, the Johansens and Rosens. Hopefully, we will be courageous.
For four years, we tried a day school education for our son. For the first two years, it worked. The secular education was excellent, our son’s Jewish identity blossomed, and his knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and the Hebrew language grew.
But our overall satisfaction with the education didn’t mean that we thought the school was perfect. It wasn’t, no school is. We wished there was a greater sense of community and felt that the Jewish studies program was too narrowly focused. But our son was thriving, so it was easy to overlook these issues.
In our son’s third year, the school put in place a new administration. It adjusted the secular curriculum and teaching style in a way that didn’t work for our son. Now the lack of community and the prayer and language focus of the Judaic education nagged at us. Still, we gave the changes a chance. But by year four, it was obvious it was time for a change.
Moving from day school to a non-Jewish learning environment meant that our son would attend religious school starting in the fall. Some of our extended Jewish family and the day school administrators suggested that we let him skip it for a year since he would be ahead of the other students. I wouldn’t consider it.
I didn’t care that he was practically fluent in Hebrew. I didn’t care that his understanding of the Torah was deeper than other children his age. I didn’t care that weekday Hebrew and Sunday school might be filled with much drudgery. And I didn’t care to listen to my son whine about going before he even attended a single class. He was going to religious school. Period. The end.
I explained to him that religious school was not optional and that it was something that a majority of American Jews endured; a right of passage. I told him that if he didn’t go he’d feel left out when all of the other kids complained. I wanted him to have something to complain about too.
I knew it was futile to try to convince him that religious school was fun. I wasn’t sure it was. I knew from my position as a trustee at my synagogue that the religious school staff was working to improve the experience, but I wondered how much improvement there had really been in the past 30 years.
But it didn’t matter to me whether religious school changed a little or a lot. My son was still going. I cared too much about a Jewish future to make it optional.
People think that the faith of a marriage partner is a monolithic determinant of Jewish identity. It’s not, but Jewish education is. According to a 2008 Steinhardt Social Research Institute study, “every additional hour of Jewish education received has an exponentially greater impact than the hour that came before” on the relevance of Jewish identity and attitudes towards Israel.
Another significant predictor of future Jewish engagement is community. The Steinhardt study found that adults who grew up “with more densely Jewish social networks are…more likely to engage in ritual practice…and to raise their children as Jews.”
Religious school might be universally loathed, but it is a shared activity. And shared experiences create bonds. Like it or not, religious school bonds most American Jews. It builds community.
Over the course of a few hours each week, Jewish kids engage with other Jewish kids. For some, it’s the only time they interact with other Jews. For others, like my son, it’s a place to rekindle relationships with preschool friends and reconnect with kids from overnight camp. This community is what makes religious school tolerable, and dare I say it, enjoyable.
My son may complain about going, but on the way home he always says he enjoyed it. He likes his teachers, likes the discussions, and loves seeing his buddies. I’m surprised and thrilled because as Deb Morandi’s recent blog post points out religious school is not enjoyed or even tolerated by all.
I give Deb credit. She has not given up on Jewish education and is trying to find an alternative that can help make being Jewish meaningful and enjoyable for her children. Luckily, there are many choices that involve various levels of parent engagement. I hope Deb and other parents in similar situations find an educational method or tool that works for their family because education is too important to a Jewish future to be optional.
Over winter break, an inmarried Jewish friend told me that her son was no longer dating the nice Jewish girl from his summer camp. He was now dating a not Jewish girl from his high school. I could tell my friend wasn’t enthusiastic about the relationship.
The following week, I received a message from another inmarried friend with two teenage sons. She had just read about the decision by the USY board to drop its policy prohibiting teen board members from interdating. She asked if I could write about the topic since dating was an extension of the intermarriage conversation.
I sensed that both of my friends were a little anxious about the subject even though they were Reform Jews with open minds, open hearts, and intermarried friends that live Jewishly. I also sensed that they weren’t sure how to talk about interdating, and no one was discussing it with them either. My friends were looking for information and some guidance.
This post is for them and other parents who are navigating teenage interdating. Dealing with adolescent romance is not easy, and the issues of Jewish continuity and intermarriage can add a layer of stress. Here are few things for parents to keep in mind.
Few high school couples marry. Estimates suggest that high school sweethearts comprise only 2% of new marriages, and a 2006 Harris Interactive survey found that only 14% of respondents age 18-27 met their partner in either high school or college. With dating abuse receiving much attention of late, it is more important that your child is in a healthy, positive adolescent relationship than a relationship with someone of the same faith. Talk to your teens; teach them how to date, how to respect themselves and others, and how to protect themselves from abusive behavior.
Critical Jewish experiences are better predictors of future Jewish engagement than the faith of a romantic partner. I note in From Generation to Generation that the level of Jewish activism in a home–ritual observance, Jewish education and social networks–is a stronger predictor of Jewish continuity than the faith of a love interest or marriage partner. Do you regularly celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays in your home? Do your teens participate in Jewish education post-b’nei mitzvah? Are they involved in Jewish youth organizations and activities? Do they attend Jewish camp? Has your family or teenagers traveled to Israel? Do they have Jewish friends? Answer “yes” to some or all of these questions and it’s likely that your children have a solid Jewish identity and will choose to make a Jewish home, regardless of the religious identity of their mate.
Telling your children “don’t” won’t ensure Jewish continuity. In From Generation to Generation, I quote an Orthodox father of five who says, “Guaranteeing Jewish identity is the sum of everything you do when you raise your children. It’s not just telling them don’t.” Simply prohibiting interdating won’t make Judaism important to your children and unless you plan to arrange your child’s dates, you have little control over the identity of his or her romantic partners. But you do have influence. According to Sylvia Barack Fishman, author of The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness, parents have the biggest impact on their children’s Jewishness when they are involved in and show a strong commitment to Jewish activities and regularly explain in an honest manner why they engage in Judaism. Talk to your teen about why Judaism and its continuation is important to you. Share your hope that he or she will want to have a Jewish home and raise Jewish children irrespective of the faith of their partner. Don’t just do this once; make it an on-going conversation. Show them that you mean what you say by engaging in Jewish life in your home and community.
Welcome the stranger. Make an effort to get to know your child’s not Jewish boyfriend or girlfriend and create opportunities for him or her to learn about your family and your child’s upbringing. Invite them to join you for Shabbat dinner, a Passover Seder or High Holiday meal. Ask them to participate in your Hanukkah celebration. Use these occasions to expose your child’s beau to Jewish life, show them that Judaism is important to your family and give them insight into a different tradition. These experiences are an opportunity to break down stereotypes and build understanding and acceptance.
Interdating during the teen years is part of teenage social experimentation, but it can be difficult for parents. Preventing interdating is unrealistic and fearing the future you have little control over is unproductive. Focus your energy on influencing your teen’s connection to Judaism by planting Jewish seeds, nurturing them often and talking about the importance of Judaism in your lives. Not only will this help strengthen your family’s ties to the Jewish faith today, but it will increase the chances that Judaism will continue to blossom through your children tomorrow.
This is a blog about a different kind of December dilemma. It is not about whether my family should have a tree–we do–or hang a wreath on our door–we do not. It is not about whether we recognize Christmas in our home or only at my not Jewish in-laws–we celebrate a secular holiday in both locations. This is about whether I should tell my Jewish friends before they visit my home during the holiday season that we have a Christmas tree.
Before becoming engaged in Jewish outreach, I did not think much about the intense feelings Christmas decorations and symbols aroused in Jews and I never felt resentful or alien or like an outsider during the holiday season. I was raised in a Jewish home with a Christmas tradition that included a tree. My family drove around looking at holiday lights and went to New York City to view the tree in Rockefeller Center and the Christmas displays in the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue.
It was only after I became active in outreach work and participated in December Dilemma programs that I realized how reviled the Christmas tree and holiday decorations were by Jews. During the first December discussion I attended, I remember a man becoming agitated when he was asked to articulate his feelings about the Christmas tree image on the screen in the front of the room.
At another program, a woman who’s son had intermarried said she told him that a home could not really be Jewish if it had a Christmas tree. The son and his not Jewish wife were raising Jewish children and the tree was the only recognition of the wife’s former traditions. Still the Jewish mother would not enter her son’s house when the tree was up.
These incidences made me realize just how uncomfortable some Jews were with decorations associated with Christmas–even ones that were considered more of a beloved custom than a religious symbol. I decided that since I did not know how our inmarried Jewish friends felt about Christmas trees in Jewish homes I would tell them that we had one before they came to my house during the holiday season. Then they could prep their kids before they arrived, be prepared to answer their children’s questions or decline the invitation.
I would not apologize for how we celebrated the holiday or honored my husband’s holiday tradition. I would simply tell visitors what to expect when they walked into my house–a big tree with lights and decorations. If asked, I would explain the many Jewish religious or cultural symbols–Stars of David, menorahs, dreidels, mezuzahs, yads and hamsas–that we had as ornaments.
I do not know if the tree really bothered any of our friends. To date, no one has ever declined an invitation to our house because of it. Some have asked if they could help decorate the tree. Others did not respond to my declaration in any way.
I assume that some of our friends refrain from sharing their discomfort because they fear that they might offend us and I appreciate that they are willing to respect our celebration even if they do not agree with it. I hope that by seeing how our tree reflects our Jewish identity and honors my husband’s commitment to a Jewish home that they will be more accepting of the nuances inherent in interfaith family life. They might even begin to see the Christmas tree as just a tree.
The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education (CJPE) is a resource and catalyst for developing education about collective Jewish belonging, often focused on the areas of Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Through its blog and Peoplehood Papers series, the organization creates dialog about the meaning and importance of Jewish peoplehood and how to nurture it.
At the end of October, I posted an essay on the CJPE blog about the role peoplehood played in my interfaith family’s decision to create a singularly Jewish home. I did this after reading many pieces written by a diverse group of Jewish individuals and professionals. I noticed that not a single article addressed intermarriage or the place interfaith families occupy among the Jewish people. With the majority of Jews marrying someone of a different faith from 2000 to 2013, I felt it was important that our voices were heard.
The winter holidays can heighten our feelings of connection to our faith and cultural identities. For Jews, the story of the Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom reminds us of our shared history and connection to the Jewish people. Retelling it brings out our Jewish pride. It is with this in mind that I share my CJPE essay below.
I’d love to hear what Jewish peoplehood means to you and your interfaith family. Is it important; if so, why; how do you instill it in your children; is Israel part of how you define it; how has intermarriage changed or influenced your relationship to it. I look forward to reading your comments.
This essay is reprinted with permission.
I always assumed I would marry a Jew and have a Jewish home. Then I started dating a non-Jewish man.
Early in the relationship, I gave little thought to our different religions. But as we became more serious and started to discuss marriage, I was confronted with the possibility that my future children might not have a connection to the Jewish people. I realized Judaism was too important to me to let that happen.
As we discussed how we would approach the issue of faith in a future home, my boyfriend asked me why I felt strongly about raising my children as Jews. I didn’t have a good answer. “Because,” was the best I could come up with.
I needed a better reason than that, so I thought more about what being Jewish meant to me. I realized that for me, being a Jew was as much about peoplehood as it was about God. In fact, what connected me to Judaism was not faith, but rather culture, values, shared history and community.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in God, it’s just that I believed in the Jewish people more: our common destiny, our mission to make the world a better place, our shared kinship and mutual responsibility, our obligation to each other. I explained to my boyfriend that a bond unites every individual Jew with the larger Jewish community. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh — All Jews are responsible for one another. I wanted my children to feel a part of this bigger group.
It took my boyfriend some time to understand my emotional and cultural connection to Judaism. The idea that a religion could be about more than faith was new to him; there is not a similar concept in Christianity. But after several months of considering the idea of peoplehood and taking a class on interfaith relationships with a priest and rabbi, my boyfriend said, “I’m on board with raising our children as Jews. In our society, you don’t need to do anything to feel Christian. There is more to being Jewish than religion. For our children to be Jewish, they need to be taught what it means to be Jewish.”
My heart exploded with happiness and gratitude. The following month, my boyfriend proposed and a year later we were married.
My husband and I have now been building a Jewish home together for 12 years. We have a 10-year-old son who engages in Jewish education, attends Jewish overnight camp and participates in Jewish youth activities. We are active in our synagogue community and have a regular family Shabbat practice. We take in Jewish culture and host in our home Israeli young adults en route to summer jobs at US camps. Because of the various ways we engage with Judaism, my son thinks being part of the Jewish people is “special.” My non-religious, God-questioning husband does too.
Peoplehood is why my family is Jewish and it can be a powerful reason for other interfaith couples to choose Judaism as well. It doesn’t require acceptance of a certain idea about God and it doesn’t pressure non-Jewish partners to conform to a specific religious belief. What peoplehood does is open the door to the multi-dimensional nature of Judaism, allowing intermarrieds the freedom to explore the faith in their own way and at their own pace.