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.

Put a Menorah on It

Hanukkiah

Last week, Linda K. Wertheimer wrote for the Huffington Post about how a local grocery chain warmed her heart with a grocery bag featuring a menorah and a Hanukkah greeting.  It’s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit.  And I had two responses – first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community “put a menorah on it” as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences.  After reflecting for a moment, though, I think I get where Wertheimer is coming from, and I can see how her shopping bag can open a door to appreciation and hope.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Then today it happened. The gesture was ever so simple. There, on one side of a local grocery store’s paper shopping bag was a picture of a menorah and the words, “The Wilson Farm Family Wishes Your Family Happy Chanukah!” On the other side of the bag, the greeting was “Happy Thanksgiving,” with a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie. Wilson’s, based in Lexington, a Boston suburb, is an old-style farmer’s market that grew into a large grocery store. They always have been careful to pay homage to Jewish holidays with Jewish-related foods, but I’ve never seen them put Hanukkah on a shopping bag.

Somewhat environmentally conscious, I had taken a reusable grocery bag to the store, but when I saw the Hanukkah bag, I couldn’t resist. I asked for one and gushed about how I couldn’t wait to show it to my 5-year-old son.”

Reaction # 1: Ugh

In her article, Wertheimer talks about feeling like her Jewish lens was invisible in the rural Ohio town where she grew up.  My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag.  30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community.  In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews.  Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a “holiday tree,” and put a star on top of it. To decorate the tree, the school asked us 7 Jews to color in paper menorahs, as our friends sat beside us and chose from a variety of Christmas symbols for themselves.  And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place.  But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual “holiday show,” a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.

And that was the end of the story.  Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions.  With this childhood chip on my shoulder, for years I have bristled at the menorah amidst the Christmas decorations as a weak gesture towards understanding the richness of my faith.

Reaction # 2: Not so fast, Jessie

Fast forward those 30 years, and maybe I can see things a little bit more through Wertheimer’s eyes.  One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting “Happy Diwali” on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity.  Maybe the storyline of the December dilemma could be more of a jumping off point, pushing us to open ourselves up and recognize the multitude of interesting, important, and often joyful holidays that happen for different religious groups throughout the year.  What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each other’s cultures, in place of all of the disharmony and bad news delivered through the media every day?

Another thing hit me through the celebratory tone of Wertheimer’s article.  I’ve always been hung up on the idea that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, so trying to acknowledge it along with Christmas is a misaligned attempt – why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing.  Hanukkah may be minor on the Jewish calendar, but it is beautiful. The lit Hanukkiah in the window makes the same gesture as the Christmas tree, to provide more light and invite warmth and cheer into our homes.  As the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, why not focus on every opportunity we have for more light?

So I think I say Thanks for the Hanukkah bag.  What do you think?

A Shabbat Gift

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

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.

Me-day
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.

Unplugging, Part 2

Two months ago, I declared my resolution to unplug with you on this blog. I told you I’d let you know how it was going along the way. I have been reticent to write about it again, but I feel compelled to come clean. I am doing a pretty bad job.  I am doing a great job at being mindful of how often I turn to technology, which is one step in the right direction, but I am probably only achieving total shutoff every 1 out of 5 weeks, which is much worse than where I thought I’d be.

If you are observant enough that unplugging isn’t novel, or if you have your own version and you’re pretty good at it, you may not find this of interest. But if you’re one of the many people who told me, “That’s a good idea, I wish I could do that,” I thought I’d let you know where I am getting hung up. You can use my hang-ups as a reason to not try yourself, or as a guide to how to create your own unplugging objectives. Up to you.

Here is where I find myself reaching for the things I said I could live without:

Reason # 1 (the one I kind of anticipated): Making plans

Because this is not really a “turn off electricity because of our religious observance” rule, we are turning off our phones but interacting in a non-religious world for most of Saturday. Saturday is a big day for us to be together as a family and with friends.  All of these friends have their phones on.  When my girls were younger, I was home on Fridays, so I could focus on family time and planning for the weekend on Friday during the day.  But now I work fulltime in the office, and so I am trying to both be in family time and plan family time simultaneously on Saturday.  It’s a rarity to have the day all planned by Friday night so that I don’t feel an urge to text a few friends so I don’t miss them at the soccer field, or to plan a spontaneous play-date when naptime is over.

Reason # 2: Getting anywhere

When I was living in LA in my 20s, everyone lived by this incredible map book called The Thomas Guide. Over time, the book was imprinted in my brain in a way that only comes from the act of reading off of a page. Now, I use the map app on my phone to get anywhere. And it hasn’t really imprinted. So I either need to print out directions to anywhere I need to go by sundown on Friday, or fumble my way through Boston by trial and error, both of which I am failing to do.

Reason # 3: Music

We live stream a lot of music in our house (and our car). If the rule is that the phone is off, the Internet radio is, too. I try to draw a hard-line on this one, but I am stuck with commercial radio, which I am not crazy about, and CDs, of which we don’t have many that I am not sick of already.

Reason # 4: Reading

I recently put a real page-turner that I took out from the library on my phone. Sure, I have magazines to read, but I want to finish that book, gosh-darn it.

Reason # 5: Writing

Writing is a diversion I really enjoy. It allows me to clear my head, think differently, and attempt to get interesting things up on this blog. But after over 20 years of relying on word processors, I just can’t write that quickly on paper anymore. And my hand cramps. And then I need to transcribe it on Sunday. So I’m not writing, but I’m not crazy about not doing it.

Reason # 6: Winding down

On a good week, Eric and I put the kids to bed and enthusiastically play a board game or talk about what’s on our minds. But on a regular week, when we are stressed and tired, there’s nothing that feels more romantic than snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie or six episodes of How It’s Made. But our resolution was that unplugging means no TV on Friday nights. Some weeks, we just decide to skip that rule, and others, we both just go to bed early, which is good for our health but doesn’t achieve the objective of taking the TV away so that we can better connect to one another.

Because of all of these things, I’ve cut myself some breaks that feel unavoidable in the moment but don’t help me in achieving my goal. I’m not ready to change the rules just yet – I want to give it some more time. And even with the rule skirting, I think we’re getting somewhere. When we don’t use the Internet radio, we talk more, read more stories, or remember to look out the car window at the beautiful trees instead of looking at the pictures on the phone. We may not actually ban TV for 24 hours, but we are mindful of not turning it on before we have a conversation to unwind together first. And the phone has pretty much disappeared from our dinner table 7 days a week, when it had crept in a little too much. So we’re getting somewhere. Its just slow going.

The Maccabee on the Mantel

Mac, our Maccabee on the Mantel.

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.

Save Some Water for the Fish

Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing.  We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend.  Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because he’s peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing.  So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.

And then this morning happened.  Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that we’d sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning.  When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes.  As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation.  Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earth’s resources.

There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation.  He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea).  He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell.  So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.

fish tank

“Ruthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.”  She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom.  I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.

“Look, Mommy,” she said, “the fish have plenty of water.”  I am guessing my classmate didn’t have a fish tank in his house.

So we keep trying.  As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the “3 more minutes” pitch is over.  The saving water for the fish story isn’t working.  Anyone have a better idea?

The Extended Influence of Camp

Sammy with "our Israelis" Tal and Gilad. Two weeks ago, Gilad was in Dallas to help Sammy celebrate his 9th birthday.

Two weeks ago Sammy celebrated his ninth birthday. It was a day filled with love, excitement and camp.

The day started like all Saturdays do in our house, with cinnamon challah French toast and quickly progressed to getting ready for Sammy’s weekend sports event. This week it happened to be a swim meet.

Sammy was excited for this particular meet because he was going to graduate from the 8-and-under division to the 9-10 section. After his races we planned a celebratory family dinner at his favorite restaurant followed by his requested birthday dessert – a cookie cake like they make at camp.

The experience of overnight camp has been a powerful one for Sammy, and has impacted him in large and small ways. The cookie cake is an example of the little influences, while a phone call I received during his swim meet reminded me of the big ones.

Prior to one of Sammy’s races Gilad, one of the Israeli staff members from camp, called to say that he was in Dallas and would love to see us later in the day. “Absolutely!” I responded, “Join us for dinner and Sammy’s birthday celebration.”

We all have a special relationship with Gilad not because he was Sammy’s counselor, he was not, but because prior to the start of the summer we were his Texas host family. We volunteered to house for two days two staffers from Israel before they traveled to camp for orientation.

During that time we introduced Gilad and our other guest, Tal, to Tex-Mex food, Dallas culture, and the heat and humidity that is summer in Texas. They reminded us of the joy in welcoming the stranger and the magic that happens when we take time to disconnect from our busy lives and engage in meaningful conversations with others.

With Gilad’s call we had the opportunity to reconnect with one of “our Israelis” and give Sammy the gift of a little bit of camp on his birthday. When Sammy finished his race, I told him that Gilad would be joining us for dinner. “Yes!” he said with a celebratory fist pump.

It is said that camp is a great way for children to develop lasting relationships and deepen their connections to Jewish life. But it has done both of these not just for Sammy but for Cameron and me too. Opening our home to counselors from abroad enable all of us to participate in this bonding experience. It expanded our sense of Jewish community and brought us into a more personal relationship with Israel.

No longer are the events in the Middle East just something we read in the media or are interested in because of our affiliation with Judaism. Now they affect real people who we are in real relationship with. As we listen to the news we hope that Tal, who is finishing his military service, is stationed far from any potential conflict and we are thankful that Gilad is in the U.S. for the year while he works for The Jewish Agency for Israel.

I know that as Cameron and I discussed sending Sammy to a Jewish overnight camp we did not think of how the experience might benefit our family. Like many parents we focused on what camp would do for our child – help him unplug, build character and community, develop self-reliance, and create habits of Jewish engagement and practice. But what we have learned is that camp’s influence extends beyond the summer and children, and can touch the entire family.

Two holidays in one? I’m not so sure.

There was a time when Eric and I shared a love for The O.C. In the days before OnDemand, one of the most romantic things that my future husband ever did was to take copious notes of the 2004 season premiere when I was stuck at a community meeting that night and couldn’t watch it myself. It was a nighttime soap opera filled with hyperbole and totally unrealistic situations, the kind of show that I should be embarrassed about loving. But I admit it proudly, we were serious fans.

Chrismukkah Seth Cohen

Even though I think that the prominence of the Cohens, the lovably complex interfaith family at the center of The O.C.’s drama, probably helped gain some ground for Jewish/Christian partnerships overall, I cringed when Seth Cohen asked the world to embrace Chrismukkah in the Winter of 2003. I’m going to show my cards here: I don’t believe that the answer to “The December Dilemma” is to combine holidays. Its not because I want to deny either Christmas or Hanukah – its quite the opposite. I love both holidays – and I love how marrying into a Christian family means I’ve had 14 years to get an inside view of how joyous Christmas is. But the holidays are so profoundly different – especially in their level of import to the religions of which they are a part – that to me combining them feels like a disservice to them both.

Chrismukkah definition

I have been reminded of my conflicting love of The Cohens and unease for the Chrismukkah they popularized as a new combination of holidays is coming up this year. With the first night of Hanukkah occurring on Thanksgiving, everyday folks, community leaders, and yes, makers of merchandise, have begun to proclaim 2013 the year of “Thanksgivukkah.” I first started hearing about the “holiday” via a mouthwatering post of Thankgivukkah recipes on BuzzFeed. It’s hard to object to a holiday that boasts sweet potato bourbon noodle kugel and pecan pie rugelach. From that first post, it seems to have caught on like wildfire….there are t-shirts, limited edition menorahs, a website (put up by Manischewitz), a Facebook page, and even a block party in LA. Not to mention a piece on this site about navigating the convergence of both holidays with Jewish family and those who do not celebrate Hanukkah.

So am I ok with it? Its growing on me….this idea that it is phenomenally rare (read this article to see just how rare), that there are totally great menu possibilities, and that my family will conveniently all be together to light the menorah for the first time (like many interfaith couples I’m sure, we usually spend Thankgiving with our Jewish family and Christmas with our Christian family, so Thanksgiving is already kind of a Jewish family thing). And part of my objection to combining Christmas and Hanukkah is that it forces an importance on Hanukkah that isn’t consistent with the rest of the religious calendar – making it easy to breeze over a true understanding of either Christmas or Hanukkah.

But Thanksgiving and Hanukkah might fit better together – they are both based on lore that don’t necessarily create something new (like a whole new religion!) but allow people to pause in a time of turmoil to consider new hope. And since we usually eat well before sundown but don’t light the candles until sundown, hopefully they’ll be a moment to pause in between and talk to our kids about each holiday, separately. And, finally, now that I have kids and am navigating life in a multi-generational, multi-faith family where the absolutes of my pre-kid 20’s seem a little fanciful, maybe I’ll soften up on Chrismukkah, too. No promises, Seth Cohen.

The PEW Study and What It Should Mean to Us

The PEW Research Center published a study this month, A Portrait of Jewish America.  And like most Jews, I was fascinated, alarmed and proud by what it said.

When I first made the decision to formally convert to Judaism, one issue that I really worried about was how to convert; Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.  One of the deciding factors behind my decision was that I was raising Jewish children and technically, according to Jewish law as interpreted by my Conservative rabbi, they weren’t Jewish.

We had “synagogue shopped,” like a lot of young families, and the one that we loved the most, the one that we felt was the best fit for our specific family was the one where my husband had grown up, the one his family attended.  I know that Reform Jews would say that my children were Jewish already, they had a Jewish dad and were growing up in a Jewish home.  But we weren’t Reform.  And I never wanted their identity to be questioned – I didn’t want anyone telling them that they weren’t Jewish because of me.    For me, for us, my husband’s impact on our children was as valuable as mine, and they inherited Judaism because he’s Jewish.  I took the added steps of going through a formal conversion with a Conservative beit din, not just for myself, but also so that their Judaism would be just as valid.

Even with all of that, my kids are still somewhat different from most Jewish kids.  We still celebrate Christmas and Easter, and half of their extended family isn’t Jewish.  Their ancestry and culture is Jewish, sure, but not just Jewish.  I was surprised and somewhat disconcerted to see that more than sixty percent of all respondents think that Judaism is mainly of ancestry and culture.  Respondents of the survey were able to decide if they were a “Jew by religion” or a “Jew of no religion.”  There was no discussion of matrilineal descent, if you self identified as Jewish, it was good enough.  But there was that qualification, either you were Jewish by religion or Jewish with no religion, just a cultural/ancestral association with Judaism.

For me, this raises some really interesting questions about the future of Judaism.  If the majority of Jews believe that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, then how is it possible to welcome a convert to the religion?  How does a child, growing up in a home where half their ancestry and culture is NOT Jewish, feel welcomed and a part of that religion?  When the intermarriage rate for Jews is still holding steady at roughly 58% (in marriages performed since 2000), how do we, as a religious community, support and encourage young Jewish families to feel a part of the culture, a part of the community?

In many ways, according to the study, my family is an anomaly.  I’m a convert to Judaism, and my husband was raised in a mostly secular Jewish family.  Our children are growing up in an interfaith household, in a lot of ways.  And yet – we’re most definitely a Jew by religion family.  In many ways, and not in spite of, but because we started as an interfaith family, being Jewish is a choice we make every day.  We’re very deliberate about it, everything from the foods we eat, to where we send our children to school, to the after school activities they participate in – our Jewish identity is a part of all of that.  And like 94% of all respondents, we’re proud of our Jewish identity.

I don’t have any answers.  I only know what works for us.  I believe that we must do more, as a community, to welcome interfaith families.  To encourage conversion but not pressure those non-Jewish parents who are willing and eager to learn more about raising Jewish children.  We should make our synagogues more child centered and more family oriented.  Let’s try harder to get to know each other, reach out to new and potential members and encourage those who are not affiliated with a synagogue to join us.  Because that’s what works – Jews who are religiously connected are more likely to raise Jewish children.  Judaism is more than just gefilte fish and Jewish comedians.  If we want our children to be active and involved members of the Jewish community, we have to be that ourselves.  We have to continue to learn and question and think and discover, if we want our children to do it as well.

I’m grateful every day for the opportunities I’ve had, for the spiritual and religious community that I’ve found as a mother, as a wife, as a woman.  Being Jewish is a part of who I am, and it’s a part of who my children are.  And like all Jewish parents, I want my children to grow up knowing that they are a part of a much larger community, with the responsibilities and privileges that go along with that.  I want my children to be pushed and encouraged and taught to think, to be intellectually curious, and spiritually connected.

The Pew study has been analyzed and debated and discussed in a lot of different forums.  But the take away from it, for me, is for the vast majority of Jews love Judaism.  The majority of Jews feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  I’m proud to be a member of that 94%, proud of Judaism; what it has represented in the past, and what it is today and what it’ll be in the future.

(a version of this post will appear in the Jewish Voice www.jewishcentralvoice.com)