Providing quality experiences to enrich the lives of the community at large with award-winning preschool programs, summer camps and a wide array of enriching activities. JCC Chicago provides the opportunities to bring Jewish values to the lives of everyone from infants to adults.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful and intermarried heroine of Purim.
Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.
As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?
Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).
The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.
Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.
But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.
When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.
Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.
Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.
Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.
She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.
She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.
What do these two things have in common? Both are reminders that soon, my little boy will not be so little anymore.
The other day I felt good about how I handled Sammy’s challenging political questions about the Sochi games. We discussed Jonathan Pollard when Edward Snowden came up again in conversation. We talked about the parallels between Russia’s anti-gay policies and Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy during a discussion about the price paid at an auction last year for Jesse Owen’s gold medal. In fact, I was feeling so good about having managed the Winter Games’ teachable moments that I began to think that it was time for some parental high-fives.
Then three tanned and topless females wearing only thong bikini bottoms and big smiles appeared in my mailbox. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue had arrived. I knew that many men anticipated the arrival of this once-a-year celebration of women frolicking in the sand and surf, but as the mother of a 9-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was neither filled with anticipation for what was inside this magazine nor was I celebrating it.
But the arrival of these women on my doorstep was my fault. I was the one who during Sammy’s school magazine fundraiser said it was okay for him to get the “regular” edition of Sports Illustrated (S.I.), in addition to S.I. for Kids. I thought reading about sports would be better than surfing the Internet for sports news. I forgot that the swimsuit issue was part of the subscription package.
I cancelled my subscription to S.I. 26 years ago, before heading to college. See, I too was a sports-crazy kid. I would read my weekly sports bible lying on my bedroom floor. I studied the swimsuit issue with a mix of amazement (women really looked like that!) and curiosity (was it possible to visit the exotic locations in the pictures?). I had a good idea what was inside the 50th anniversary edition.
But on this day, I did not look at the magazine with amazement or curiosity. I looked at it with a mother’s eye, a Jewish mother’s eye, and thought, there’s no way my kid is looking at this. I try not to be a helicopter parent, and I work to embrace the blessing of the skinned knee, but I’m still a mom that wants to shelter her son from some things for as long as possible – like barely clothed women with long legs and big breasts.
At the risk of sounding like my parents, kids grow-up so fast. I want to preserve Sammy’s innocence for as long as possible. I’m glad he still thinks kissing in movies is gross – he covers his eyes when Aragorn smooches Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and like that he has “girls who are friends” instead of girlfriends.
With this in mind and because Sammy was at school and had not yet seen that S.I. arrived, I hid the magazine in my office under legal pads and file folders and anything else I could find. I’m not proud that I took his mail or that I wasn’t truthful when Sammy said, “I wonder why I didn’t get Sports Illustrated this week.” As a Jewish parent, I know I should be working a little harder than I am to model walking in God’s ways.
But, come on, I think a little wiggle room should be granted on the eighth and ninth commandments for moms and dads who need to bend the rules in the name of responsible parenting. I mean sometimes a mom has to do what a mom has to do.
I fudged the commandments to protect my child, and to prevent him from breaking the tenth commandment – thou shall not covet. I knew the photos in the magazine might lead to lots of coveting of swimsuit beauties, including Israeli model Bar Refaeli who was featured in the former cover girl section. As I looked at the picture of her, I imagined Sammy using the line, “But she’s Jewish,” to convince me to let him hang her poster in his room. As if somehow being Jewish would negate the fact that she wasn’t wearing much clothing.
The arrival of this magazine really sent me into a tizzy in a way that questions about Putin, terrorism and gay rights in Russia did not. Why? I’m not naïve. I know that some day soon Sammy will be thinking and looking at girls as more than just friends. I know that, in a few years, he will be a teenager with raging hormones.
I was reminded of all these things that as a parent, I wished to put off, when the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Date Assignment Request Form arrived in the mail. Realizing that the teen years and all the developmental changes that they bring were not as far off as I liked to think triggered my mama bear response to the magazine. Taken together, the two items made me realize that, in three, years, my little boy would not be so little anymore.
At the same time that Sammy is called to the Torah to accept his obligation to fulfill Jewish laws and be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), he will be becoming more interested in bodies and sexuality – things that I find more difficult to discuss than politics. But I can’t stop the turning towards adulthood. It is coming, in many ways and sooner than I want.
I know this, but I still want to prolong Sammy’s innocence as long as I can. Which is why, I deposited the magazine in the recycling bin. I’m not yet ready to address the challenging topics raised by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But I know I need to do it. I just need some additional time to think about what to say.
Sammy and I have been talking about more than sports during the Sochi games.
On Thursday night, Cameron was working late and instead of reading the next chapter in The Lord of the Rings: The Returnof the King after dinner, Sammy wanted to watch coverage of the opening day of the Olympics. Sammy, a huge sports fan, had been eagerly anticipating the start of the games.
While Thursday was the official start of the Winter Olympics, there was not much to watch. We saw the preliminary rounds of slopestyle snowboarding and the team competition in figure skating. With a lack of events to cover, I assumed NBC would fill their primetime coverage with travel and culture stories, and athlete profiles designed to whet viewers’ appetites before Friday’s Opening Ceremony.
But instead of the fluffy filler, we found ourselves listening to Bob Costas talk with David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The New Yorker, and Vladimir Pozner, a Russian-American journalist about the hot political issues surrounding the games – LGBT rights, Edward Snowden, terrorism. I thought Sammy would be uninterested in these more adult segments of the show, but that was not the case. He was as engaged in the discussion of current events as he was in the early rounds of the ice skating and alpine competitions.
Some background on Sammy. He is a very curious child, and he loves to learn. While sports, Legos, and reading are particular passions, he wants to know more about most things.
Not surprisingly, Sammy fired off a bunch of questions. “Why does Putin want to let Snowden stay in Russia? Why are they worried about terrorism? What kind of anti-gay laws did Russia pass?”
So much for powering down our brains before bed while watching skaters twirl and snowboarders jump. This was going to be a thinking kind of night.
“I guess Putin thinks Snowden has valuable information on the American government,” I replied to the first question. “They are concerned about terrorism because there is an area in Russia called Chechnya where some residents want full independence. There has been fighting on-and-off since the 1990s. Sometimes the people who want to separate from Russia do things that hurt innocent people like attack theaters or schools. They do this in order to put pressure on the Russian government to recognize them as an independent state. The have a lot of security at the games because they want to keep everyone safe,” I said.
On to question number three. “Do you remember what I told you the word gay is sometimes used to describe?” I asked. Sammy shook his head no. “The word gay is sometimes used to describe people who love someone of the same gender,” I said.
“Like George and Alex?”
“Right, like George and Alex.” George and Alex are our good friends, who happen to be a same-sex couple. Sammy feels very close to them. When we talk about marriage equality or gay-rights cases before the Supreme Court, we relate the discussion to George and Alex so that Sammy understands how these issues affect people in our life.
“So, what the journalists are saying is that Russia is not friendly towards people who are gay,” I continued. “There is a lot of discrimination, and recently, the Russian government passed laws that essentially make it illegal for anyone to suggest or promote that people in same-sex relationships have equal rights.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” he said. But before Sammy could ask any follow-up questions, figure skating came back on. I was saved from giving other details for the moment, but not for long. Sammy often thinks about things for awhile. I knew additional inquiries would come over the coming days.
After Sammy had gone to bed that night, I found that his questions stayed with me, and I thought about the many parallels to events in Jewish history. Snowden reminded me of Jonathan Pollard; the Jewish-American civilian intelligence analyst convicted of passing classified information to Israel.
The discussion of terrorism made me think of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and the terrorist acts committed by Israeli and Palestinian groups in their struggles for statehood. The actions of organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas are well-known, but the operations of the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization are less familiar to some. (The Irgun believed that it was justifiable to use any means necessary, including acts of terror, to establish a Jewish state. Irgun operations included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946 and the Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948, which killed over 100 residents of a Palestinian Arab village.)
My mind moved from terrorism to gay-rights and the parallels to the many periods of persecution that populate Jewish history – slavery in Egypt, near annihilation in Persia, battles for religious freedom against the Seleucid and Roman Empires, the Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms, Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism. And what about Hitler’s attempts to exclude Blacks and Jews from the competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics?
It was clear to me that the hot topics surrounding the Sochi games were issues Jews had seen play out before. I considered how to connect current events to Jewish history in a way that did not ignore the complexities, but was still understandable to a grade-schooler. I decided to use the parallels to teach Sammy about his heritage, remind him of the values we aspire to live by, and explain how we can learn from the past in order to work towards a better future.
Sammy’s Sochi questions have not yet resurfaced, but when they do, I am ready for a detailed discussion. These Olympics offer more than outstanding feats of athleticism. They present an opportunity for a Jewish history and values lesson.
We started our Shabbat ritual, in part, to teach Sammy to count his blessings, big and small.
On our flight home from our Christmas visit with Cameron’s family in Vermont, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journalabout raising children to appreciate things big and small, and the tangible benefits of giving thanks including a more positive outlook on life, less depression and higher GPAs. I could not help but think how the story’s placement was perfectly timed.
Sammy had just spent the fourth quarter of 2013 collecting presents. In October, he turned nine. While he did not have a birthday party (he celebrated with one friend at a hockey game), he did acquire enough gift cards to buy himself an iPad mini and a Rainbow Loom.
Hanukkah arrived in November, and the eight nights of lights also included eight nights of books and tennis equipment. Gifts that nourished Sammy’s mind and supported a healthy activity seemed like less materialistic choices.
In December, Santa’s sleigh arrived at my in-laws filled with colored rubber bands for the Rainbow Loom, Legos, books and merchandise from the fan shop of his favorite NFL team. There were plenty of trinkets in Sammy’s stocking too.
There were moments during these months when, Cameron and I surveyed Sammy’s celebratory loot and felt as if we were losing the battle against consumerism. We questioned whether our efforts to raise a child who appreciated all that he had – material and otherwise – were futile.
But then we would hear Sammy say with a mix of genuine appreciation and excitement, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much. This is awesome!” These exclamations of thankfulness were typically accompanied by a hug or a post-celebration phone call or email to the gift-giver.
Cameron and I smiled. Maybe, Sammy was absorbing the concept of appreciation. Maybe the things we have done to cultivate an attitude of gratitude did have a positive affect.
Cameron and I understood early on that appreciation and thankfulness were not innate qualities, but rather learned virtues. We recognized that, as parents, it was our responsibility to be teach and model these behaviors.
We began a regular Friday night Shabbat ritual, in part, to help us fulfill our responsibility for nurturing Sammy’s (and our family’s) gratitude muscle. Given our hectic weekday schedules, it was hard to commit to meaningful family dinners Monday through Thursday, and while we tried to model the qualities that we wanted Sammy to develop on a daily basis, we felt it was important to reinforce our family values in a significant way.
Shabbat gave us the opportunity to elevate the act of expressing gratitude from a simple thank you said in response to another’s action to a ceremony that reminded us to be appreciative of all that we had. It taught Sammy to give to others through the collection of tzedakah, and to be grateful for more than just material things.
Blessings for the candles, wine, challah, and all present reminded us to be thankful for having each other in our lives, the opportunity to spend time together, and the food we eat. In difficult periods, such as when Cameron closed his business due to the economic downturn or illness in our extended family, our practice of sharing the good things that happened to us during the week reminded us that even in tough times we still had many blessings.
Over the years, Cameron and I have seen, through Sammy’s actions, flashes that have given us hope that our efforts to instill a gratitude attitude are working. We have seen glimpses of it in the thank you’s Sammy says during the holiday gift-giving season and the reports of his politeness and good manners from teachers and other parents, and we have witnessed it in his deep desire to give to others who are less privileged.
When he was seven, Sammy decided he wanted to purchase prayer books for a synagogue in need, so we found, with the help of a friend who works for the Union for Reform Judaism, a new congregation in Texas that needed siddurim. Sammy donated money he saved to the temple and his action inspired an anonymous donor to match his contribution.
While we count these actions as proof that our appreciation cultivation program is working, we occasionally see Sammy being tugged by materialism. He is envious that his friends have video entertainment systems and impressed by the size of some of his classmates’ homes.
At moments like these, we remind Sammy that there is more to life than the acquisition of stuff and remind ourselves that thankfulness is like a muscle. To remain strong, it requires regular exercise at various levels of intensity.
In our house, we nurture our feelings of appreciation through light activity five to six days a week, but pick-up the pace on Shabbat. Our Shabbat ritual is the ultimate workout for our gratitude muscle. What is yours?
A Jewish National Fund Blue Box similar to the one my grandfather kept on his desk.
This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees. Often referred to as Judaism’s Earth Day, it is a time when Jews renew their commitment to care for the earth, celebrate nature and anticipate the renewal of the natural world.
The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s “Crying Indian” public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, ‘People start pollution; People can stop it.”
As a child, I took the campaign’s message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.
Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”
But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparent’s home and at my synagogue.
When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparent’s house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfather’s office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop – a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.
But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?
I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.
The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.
The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfather’s Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.
You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.
The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.
Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.
We do this because, in today’s fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care “a whole awful lot.” This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.
Our Blue Box with certificates for trees we have planted in Israel in Sammy's honor.
As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.
In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”
But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.
I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?
I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.
The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.
I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.
My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.
Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.
The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.
Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.
We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.
My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.
While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.
But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.
I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.
This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.
It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.
I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.
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.
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.
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.
Our cantor, giving the participants in the congregation's Women's Retreat a musical gift on Shabbat morning.
I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.
As I approached the location of my congregation’s Women’s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and “Shabbat Shalom.”
As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.
As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameron’s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.
Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.
After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.
At one point in the service, our female cantor said, “I have a Shabbat gift for you.” She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing “May I Suggest” by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.
May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life… (Werner, 2001)
Cantor Niren’s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.
The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.
When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.
After my “me-day” spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.
As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. “Hi buddy!” I said. “How was the day with Daddy?”
Cameron and Sammy capturing the gift of father-son time in a self-portrait.
“Hi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddy’s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,” Sammy said.
“Wow, sounds like you’ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?”
“Well, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?”
“Of course. I’ll see you at home later.”
Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, “This was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!”
Seeing Sammy’s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameron’s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.
My “me-day” was spent with many wonderful women.
I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Women’s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the program’s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.
The other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, “Is it really that time again?”
It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving – holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailers’ shelves – now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.
For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.
In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.
My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.
Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.
So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a children’s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.
Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.
Our dog Brady loves spending time with Mac too.
Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.
Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.
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