Daniela Ruah chats with us about her wedding and her first child, and why she and her stuntman husband are on the same page where parenting is concerned.Go To Pop Culture
When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.
Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious. As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass. The Valentine’s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.
My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life. This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life. She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.
So Isabel’s first American Valentine’s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentine’s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier. We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.
Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course). But that was a minor happening in the day’s festivities.
When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away. Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls. When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.
I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day. They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending. They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be. They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.
But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each other’s lockers.
That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.” But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way. So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too. Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue. We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate. And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal. Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about editing the scary stuff from Bible stories when I read them to my 5-year-old. I acknowledged that the time when she starts understanding the scary stuff, both in The Bible and in real life, is fast approaching. However, for as long as I am in control of the stories, my first instinct is to try to find an age-appropriate way to tell them, and at this age what feels most appropriate is a telling without violence. Since I wrote that post, the universe has reminded me that the notion of control is a luxury, and often an illusion.
About a week after my post, Melissa Schorr wrote a lovely reflection on protecting childhood innocence in The Boston Globe Magazine. In the article, she talks about the heartache she felt when she had to explain the Holocaust to her 8-year-old before she was ready to do so. The piece is also about coming to understand her parents’ choice to shield her from evil as a child, and the rare gift of being able to do so.
In response, KJ Dell’Antonia wrote a piece on The New York Times website about how she discusses tragedy with her kids. Dell’Antonia argues that if you want to choose how tragedy is explained to your kids, you can’t wait for the right time. She points out that there rarely is a time that will feel right, and that we often don’t have a say in the timing of our kids’ discoveries. The article encourages parents to seize opportunities to talk about tragedy when they arise.
Reading these, I first wondered if my declaration to protect my child from Biblical evil was a wimpy one. But I don’t think that that was the point. These two articles remind us that we aren’t really in charge of everything our children see and hear. Because of this, we need a strategy so that when our kids ask tough questions we know what we want to say, and aren’t deciding in the heat of the moment.
And then, on Friday, something awful happened. A 14-year old boy fatally shot his 9-year-old brother inside their Boston home. I do not know the intimate details, but I do know that it is a terrible tragedy. My heart breaks for the boys’ family and friends.
On Saturday, I took Ruthie with me to a community meeting. The meeting was not about the incident, so the speaker caught me off guard by beginning the meeting with a report on the shooting and a moment of silence in remembrance of the young boy.
On our way home, Ruthie asked me what the man said about the boy and the gun. So I recounted the facts that I knew she had already heard in a direct way – that a boy was playing with a gun, and another boy was shot. I waited to see if she had a response. She asked me why there was a gun in their house, and I told her that some people have guns in their houses, but that guns are very dangerous, and that kids should never ever play with them. I reminded her that I work with a lot of Moms who are trying to help protect kids from guns. She was done with her questions and shifted the conversation to the rules around gunplay at school, and we had a great conversation about how we both feel about gunplay.
As we pulled into our driveway, I felt the ache that Schorr described about the potential for Ruthie’s childhood bubble to shrink, even with me trying to blow new air into it at the other end. Ruthie seems fine – she got the facts she needed, and she seems much more nervous today about the Louis Sachar teacher who turns children into apples than about guns.
I still think I might edit The Bible stories for a little bit longer, since I hope to nurture my girls’ early romance with them before jumping into the tougher parts. But I am going to try to be ready for those moments that I need to seize, when the best way to make my girls feel secure is to tell them difficult things in the context of what they mean for our lives. All the while, I will be trying my best to be a reliable primary source as they try to make sense of the world.
On Thursday night, Cameron was working late and instead of reading the next chapter in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of 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.
On our flight home from our Christmas visit with Cameron’s family in Vermont, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about 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?
In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity. A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos. Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.
The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale. As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noah’s ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoah’s palace. Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – he’s made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.
About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases. She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own. I figured there couldn’t be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire. But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isn’t all sunshine and roses. There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I don’t feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.
Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesn’t, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating mom’s tree. And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament. Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husband’s children. And there’s bad stuff in these stories because there’s bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.
Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people. I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I can’t keep them from knowing hardship firsthand. But if I can give them tools to know that scary things don’t need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job. When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people. If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, we’ll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but we’ll also need to talk about it for a while. And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.
In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that “There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.” There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.
Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready. But for now, I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smith’s newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.
This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate
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.
I work at a Jewish organization, and at a recent meeting a colleague questioned what we mean when we talk about our work being driven by Jewish values.
“Sometimes when we say that, what I hear is that we think Jewish values are better than others,” she said, “and I am not so sure that is true.”
She was speaking specifically about our commitment to the 5th commandment, to “honor thy mother and father,” since we work with seniors. She went on to describe how she has watched the adult children of non-Jewish residents of our communities take great lengths to visit their parents, to bring them groceries and ensure that they are happy, healthy, and not alone. Her story reminded me of my own in-laws’ tremendous efforts to care for Eric’s two grandmothers, an impressive and beautiful endeavor that I have been humbled by over the last several years. Don’t these things prove that the values of many different cultures and religions can be pretty great, too, my colleague wondered?
The short answer to her inquiry is that my agency’s commitment to Jewish values is not an assertion that those values are better than others. It is simply what we follow because of who we are and our organization’s history. Our president has written some really wonderful pieces to this point on our website (read this or this). But I was struck by her question not as a colleague, but as a parent in an interfaith family who faces this question all the time.
I know I’ve spoken before about the challenge that we face alongside all interfaith parents who have chosen a single faith for their kids–to teach our children our chosen religious framework while lovingly sharing how the different religious lenses of our extended family are good, too. This can be hard with young kids, who often do best when things are packaged up in neat boxes with clear boundaries.
As much passion as I have for Judaism, I know, as my colleague pointed out, that Jews do not have a monopoly on good values. When Eric and I were first engaged and some Jewish friends or family members asked if I was worried about our different religious backgrounds, I would answer with the very true statement that despite some differences, our families raised us with very similar values. It is hard to encapsulate something so core to my being in a blog post. But here are some of the things that were firmly embedded in both of us through our upbringings: to honor your parents, to nurture your family and familial relationships, to be kind, to give back to the world, to find a path to spirituality, and to maintain a sense of humor (this last one might not be found in either the Torah or the New Testament, but it is certainly a part of the codes by which we live).
This is a tremendous oversimplification, but the common threads are what made it easy for us to fit our lives together. And it’s one of the most important things I need to impart on my girls–that following, and hopefully loving, Judaism doesn’t mean you think others’ beliefs are inferior. What’s more, if you dig beneath the surface, we often share more than we don’t, and those commonalities are what build the families and communities that will hold them up throughout their lives.
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.
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.
My tree fell over. Twice. And at least once, my toddler toppled off the couch into it.
Last night, my husband took the whole thing apart, and realized that I had not precisely put it in the tree stand the way that I should have. Okay, maybe I just shoved it in and assumed that it would be good. It was – for a few days anyway.
The tree is a big deal for me. I’m a Jewish convert, and putting up the tree has been a difficult topic every single year. Putting up a tree is representative of a whole lot more than just a tree – it’s a symbol of my past and my traditions, and my children’s connection to it. And when it fell over last night for the second (or third) time, I burst into tears and sobbed all thru the clean up. I lugged it outside and propped it up on the porch, so I wouldn’t be staring at the glaring failure of all my Christmas dreams all night long. I moved some furniture and put my daughter’s baby tree (she wanted her own little tree this year)into a place of prominence in the window and even put my angel (the one my mother bought for me twenty years ago, when I first moved out) on top of it.
And this morning, my husband took his little saw outside, and cut and trimmed my tree, and we shoved it back into the stand. Brought it back inside and and then took off all the lights and garland, popcorn and cranberry strings my son had made for me, and it stands there, naked, waiting for decorations. After a teary phone call home (because only my mother would understand why I was so sad last night), my mother is coming over this morning with new ornaments to replace my broken ones, and lights (because she never thinks I have enough lights), and Julie and I will decorate the tree with her this afternoon. So when my older kids come home tonight, they’ll have their tree back, prettier than before. More stable. Less likely to fall.
I’m thinking of the tree as an analogy for me this year. This month has been hard – the December Dilemma has been particularly difficult this year, and I’m feeling battered and worn down and tired. Just like my tree. But there’s another week and a half before Christmas, and I’m vowing, like my tree, to emerge ready and steady, newly decorated and committed to making sure that December is not the month of conflict and isolation, but rather a month of warmth and peace. Of celebration and gratitude and love. Hot cocoa and candy canes, looking at lights and watching holiday specials. Of anticipation and parties and quiet nights reading together. Like my tree, standing so proud, I’m going to embrace the scars and battle wounds – because all of it makes me who I am. Christmas means more to me because I fight for it, because I insist on bringing a bit of my past into my Jewish home. My tree is prettier because of the hole where Julie toppled into it, and it’s more stable now because it fell over. Twice, or was it three times?.
Merry Christmas everyone – may we all emerge from December a little stronger, a little more settled and, like my tree, able to wear the wounds and bruises proudly. Because it’s what makes our tree, and us, who we are.