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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.
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.
I put up my tree last night. And on Sunday, I was at a PJ event, and one of my friends confided that her kids were picking out their tree later on that afternoon. Confided, because it’s something that is still somewhat shameful. And while a part of me understands the secrecy, I do, there’s a huge part of me that doesn’t.
I’m Jewish, and I’m doing my best to raise the next generation of Jewish children. I worked HARD for this Jewish label, I met with a rabbi for close to a year on a monthly basis. I took my two oldest children to a mikvah, and sat before a Conservative Beit Din. I dunked my screaming toddler three times (okay, only twice, because the rabbi took pity on him and said enough was enough). I’ve got my own challah and hamentaschen recipe, candlesticks, I crocheted matching yamulkes for my husband and son. I’ve read and studied and thought and debated and discussed. I’m proud of my Judaism.
But I’m never going to be a Jewish woman who grew up steeped in the culture. My grandmother didn’t make matzoh ball soup, my grandmother was Irish and English and Catholic. I’m not ashamed of that. My mother isn’t a Bubbe with her own challah recipe, she’s Grammy and she decorates wildly and enthusiastically for all holidays, from Valentines Day straight through until Christmas. My kids come from that. I don’t feel like I need to hide that, or be ashamed of it, or pretend that it’s not a part of who I am, and who they are.
I know not everyone agrees with me. I know that there are lots of people who really, really don’t agree with me. People who think that being Jewish is, in large part, defined by what you don’t do, and putting up a Christmas tree and celebrating what, for many, is absolutely a Christian holiday, is perhaps one of the biggest signalers of being Jewish. People who think I’m confusing my kids, and watering down Judaism and perhaps I never should have converted in the first place. I know that.
But I truly believe that I’m a good Jewish mom. I think I’m a good Jewish wife. I think I’m doing my best, to be the best Jewish woman I can be. By showing my kids that you need to honor all that you are, not just the parts that society deems acceptable. That, in the end, all you can do is be true to who you are.
If that means that my family doesn’t understand why I converted, then it’s up to me to educate them. To teach them what Judaism is, to show them why it’s so important to me. To bring them in, as much as I can, so that they can see what I see when I see my oldest teaching my son how to read Hebrew, and hear my baby recite the blessings. If being who I am means that there are members of my community who disagree with me, and think my tree has no place in a Jewish home, it’s up to me to show them that maybe they need to look past the tree to see the Jewish home. To see the PJ Library books scattered all over the rug, and the Shabbat box that came home from preschool on Friday. To see the Siddur on my daughters bedside table, and the bag of yamulkes I keep in my china closet so that guests in our home on Friday night can put one on.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s my job to make it a little easier for the woman who married a Jewish guy and is trying to figure out how to raise her children in a tradition that isn’t hers by birth. Because it’s hard. Really hard. It takes determination, and flexibility and a lot of encouragement and acceptance. There’s a huge number of us, non-Jews who married Jews and we want to do it right. We want our kids to grow up feeling secure and welcomed and happy about both sides of their heritage. Whether that means exploring Judaism and converting ourselves, or not. I converted, and I’m so grateful I did. For my family, for me, it was the right choice. But a dip in the mikvah doesn’t change the thirty plus years of not being Jewish, nor should it. I’m not ashamed of converting, and I’m not going to tell my children that they aren’t a part of my family’s traditions. They are. Their story starts with ours, with my husband’s journey as well as mine.
And in our house, we put up a tree. And we don’t hide it.
Thanksgivukkah 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.
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.
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?
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.
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: Gettinganywhere
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 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.