Charity Begins at Home

  
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Every day, I open the newspaper or listen to the news, and I am disheartened by what is happening in the world—violence at home and abroad, food shortages, disease, natural disasters, drought and environmental issues. There are days when I just have to tune out because what is good seems to have disappeared.

But recently, two things have restored my faith in humanity. After the devastating storms in Dallas following Christmas, I watched as friends and neighbors mobilized to help complete strangers try to pick up the pieces of their lives. Then in the early hours of Saturday morning, the home of my son’s classmate burned to the ground. The family had built the house and had only moved in two weeks ago during winter break. Thankfully, the family escaped unharmed, but they lost everything. As news of the tragedy spread on the class Facebook page, parents mobilized to help make sure the family’s immediate needs were met.

One family arranged for temporary housing and stocked the kitchen with groceries, and another parent set-up an online sign-up for gift cards, clothing and more. Other parents offered their home as a collection point for donations. I arranged for the school’s resale shop to open on Sunday so my son’s classmate and his brother could get the uniform clothing they needed. Teachers purchased school supplies; the head of school provided a laptop, the school counselor reached out to the family. The senior class purchased items and parents from the community that didn’t know the family whose home was destroyed called to offer help. It was amazing what was accomplished in the span of a few hours.

I told my son when he woke-up on Saturday morning what happened. As I was cooking breakfast, he said, “I want to help James and his family.”

Our son’s Hanukkah gift this past year was gelt or money. Each night he received “Gelt to Get” and “Gelt to Give.” The idea was that he received money that he could spend on himself and received an equal amount that he had to distribute to those in need in any way he chose. The “Gelt to Give” was given in small bills so that he could choose to distribute a little to many people or organizations, or pool it and give a large lump sum.

After watching the news of the tornadoes in Dallas on TV while we were on vacation, my son decided that he wanted to adopt a family and give his gelt to them. As of Saturday, a week after getting home from our trip, we had not identified a way to get the money to a family in the affected area.

After hearing the news about his friend’s house fire, my son changed his tzedakah or charity distribution plan. He was going to use his money to help his classmate. Later that day, I took my son to the grocery store so he could buy a gift card for his friend’s family so that they could buy food. As I watched with pride as my son paid for the gift card with his wad of cash, I thought of the saying, “Charity begins at home.”

The phrase expressed the demands of taking care of one’s family, before caring for others. But for me, it meant something else. It was a reminder that learning to be charitable, learning to be a tzadik or righteous person began at home. As parents, we were primarily responsible for modeling the values and behaviors that we wanted our children to see as important and to embrace. If we wanted our kids to take their responsibility to the world around them seriously, then it was up to us to show them what it meant to help others and our community.

I knew that my husband and I were far from perfect parents. There were many things we had done wrong or could have done better, but teaching our son what it meant to act justly and serve the community was one thing we’d gotten right. Whether it was helping a friend in need, raising money for education and clean water for children in Haiti, volunteering at the local food bank, purchasing prayer books for a synagogue with limited resources or doing a park cleanup, my son’s actions showed that charity did, in fact, begin at home.

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The Start of My Jewish Family’s Interfaith Education

  

Amy's kids celebrate Hanukkah

Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the ‘80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the “token” Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parents’ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.

The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path … and the story wouldn’t be totally wrong.

But it’s also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if I’m reading the story of me, or someone else. I’m no longer that ‘80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesn’t always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And I’m sure by now you’re wondering why.

My name is Amy, I’m a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 ½) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. I’m a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.

This place isn’t exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while I’m at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope you’ll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isn’t so simple for me—and if it’s not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.

Christmas tree

Amy’s kids with their first Christmas tree

So as an introduction, I’ll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, I’m looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. I’ve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that I’m staring at. The idea was absurd as I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasn’t part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.

Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, I’ve got a real live one, and I’m totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriend’s tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point that’s what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.

The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care … not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew how—I joined in.

I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who don’t believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.

So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.

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A New Jewish Mothers First Attempt at Christmas Cookies

  

Xmas Cookies

My mother lives three blocks away from me. Her house is filled with artwork. There is a statue of Moses and the Ten commandments on her piano, she has a ceramic dreidel collection in the living room and her Sabbath candlesticks sit on a high shelf in her dining room. Naturally, this December I decided it would be a good idea to bring my newborn to my mothers house and spread some interfaith cheer by attempting to make Christmas cookies while my mother was in New York at the theatre. My plan was simple: I would leave a plate for her when she got home. I was making Christmas tree, reindeer and candy cane shaped sugar cookies.

Why didn’t I bake them at my own house? Well, my mother has more space, more bowls, more dishes and I thought it would be a nice adventure for my newborn daughter. “We’re going to Grandma’s house to bake Christmas cookies!” I told the baby who promptly drooled and went to sleep.

Mistake #1: My mother does not have a crib in her house but she does have a playpen, which I thought would have been sufficient to put the baby in for a nap. Newborns sleep a lot and so I thought I would just put a sheet on the bottom of the playpen and my sweet little girl could nap and I could make my dough and have a cup of tea and maybe read a book. Hahahaha, WRONG!

Here’s a play by play of what REALLY happens when you try to make cookie dough with a newborn: The baby’s diaper is dirty and she needs a change. Once that’s done she’s hungry. Feeding takes about 10 minutes. Then (miraculously) she doesn’t want to sleep so she coos and plays for almost an hour. Then she is over stimulated and starts to cry. I walk the baby around in my arms for 10 minutes and she starts to fall asleep. Finally I put the baby down in the playpen. She startles, cries, but then she somehow manages to fall asleep.

I run at top speed to the kitchen and start throwing flour, sugar, eggs, baking soda, butter and vanilla into a bowl. The second I start kneading the dough the baby starts crying. My hands are covered in dough. I can’t turn the water on to wash. The baby is screaming. I try to get my elbows to the faucet to turn the water on and the front of my shirt falls in the sink and gets drenched in a bowl of milk that was left in there from earlier that day. Now I have dough on my hands, milk on my shirt and a screaming baby who hates the playpen idea.

When I finally get cleaned up and refrigerate my cookie dough I run to the baby. Another diaper change! Also, the baby is looking at me like I must have been insane to put her in such an uncomfortable contraption. After the diaper change she falls asleep on me for two hours. I have to sit still so she can sleep and all I can think about is how I’m going to roll the dough when it’s ready. She wakes up and yet another diaper change, then another feeding.

Mistake #2: Christmas cookies usually take about 40 minutes and as a new mother I thought that it would be a simple task. WRONG! Forty minutes in new mommy time translates to six to eight hours.

I decide to hold the baby while making the cookies. I face the baby forward in my left arm so she can see everything I’m doing. I also decide maybe I should put some bowls in the dishwasher so I have more room on the counter to roll the dough. While attempting to move the bag of flour it slips from my hand, rips open and covers the baby and me in white powder. My daughter looks like a mini Charlie Chaplin without the mustache. I just look crazy.

Mistake #3: If you think you are going to make exact Christmas shapes in the dough while holding your newborn, think again. Rolling the dough with one hand is hard enough but putting the cookie cutters in the dough and then trying to lift out the shapes is near impossible. The reindeer come out looking like pugs with mohawks. The candy cane shapes look like sad broken worms and the Christmas trees look like women wearing housecoats. In other words, I have basically made my Christmas trees look like me and all the other Jewish women in my neighborhood.

decoration

My newborn tires of my cookie cut outs quickly. She cries and I hear myself say “Just one more batch of disfigured reindeer! Just one more!” She cries louder. She needs another diaper change, or she’s hungry, or she’s tired or she just wants to go home.

By the time we get cleaned up and ready to go I leave a plate of cookies for my mother. We get back to our house and wait for Adrian a.k.a. Papi to get home! When he arrives he asks why I’m covered in flour. I had a chance to change the baby but was too tired to change myself. I tell him it was a long day. He takes the baby. At midnight he tells me he thinks the baby has a rash on her stomach. I panic. I lift up her onesie to have a look. Right next to her belly button I see the rash. But, it’s not a rash at all; right there on her little belly is a sandy crystal smear of white Domino sugar.

I may have been the only one who knew what those Christmas cookies were supposed to look like but Adrian was so happy that I put in the effort. We even put a plate out on Christmas day when all of his brothers came over to celebrate with us and the baby. Upon seeing the cracked and somewhat disheveled cookies, his brothers reached politely for a taste and Adrian said with a smile, “Anna made them for us!” Next year I’ll make sure to bake in our own home and find a time when Adrian is home to hold the baby while I bake.

 

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The Twelve Days of Interfaith Holidays

  

With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this December’s interfaith holiday season:

1.  Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouse’s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouse’s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my family’s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.

2.  Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.

3.  Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.

4.  Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).

baking cookies5.  Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.

6.  Answering the persistent queries from my children’s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know we’re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).

7.  Soothing my 6-year-old daughter’s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that we’ll enjoy between now and next December.

 

Holiday dishes8.  Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our home’s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plant’s name?

9.  Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.

10.  Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldn’t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?

11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughter’s head as she insists on singing the song “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” all by herself.

12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, I’ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.

Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!

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Our Jewish Catholic Mexican American Newborn

  
Newborn's foot

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lau Tzu

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. My parents were liberals who met in the theatre where they had been professional actors. My father was a Brooklyn boy, born and raised in Crown Heights. My mother, a Baltimore native who said she always wanted to marry a Brooklyn boy, and so she did. They moved to Midwood, a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. They wanted to be close to my Grandmother and to buy a house and to teach their children my brother and I the importance of our Jewish heritage. My father wanted us to always remember where we came from.

My parents were not religious but we celebrated every High Holy day. Every year it is a tradition to walk with my mother one mile to the Orthodox synagogue that is around the corner from where my Grandmother used to live. The walk to synagogue has always been part of my tradition with my mother. Our synagogue separates men on one side and women on the other. I never saw myself as less than anyone else, although I know there is much debate about a woman’s role in Judaism. I always knew I was a Jew. I knew inside my heart what that meant and I spent a lot of my childhood defending my differences to those from more devout households.

We were not a religious household by any means. My father drove on Saturdays; my mother got her hair done on Friday nights. We were traditional Jews who knew all the stories from the Torah, but I wore jeans and my brother played electric guitar and learned every AC/DC song by heart to play on his Gibson SG (the same guitar Angus Young had). My friends would often invite me over on Shabbat so that I could turn on their electronic appliances for them, something they were not permitted to do on the Sabbath.

Fast-forward to today, and my life partner, Adrian, is Catholic. He was born in a small village in Mexico and left his home to work at 13. He came to the United States at 15, and when he left his village, his mother tied a scapular around his neck that had been blessed by the local priest for guidance, safety and luck. He has never taken it off.

When times are difficult Adrian directs his prayers to the spiritual mother of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is well known for having appeared to a poor village man named Juan Diego. No one would believe Juan Diego when he said the Virgin appeared to him but Guadalupe urged him to go back and convince the village people. When he returned to the village, and a crowd formed around him, he opened his cloak and 100 red roses fell out. There, on the inside of the cloak was an apparition of Guadalupe. The great Basilica in Mexico City was built where the Virgin is said to have revealed herself.

As a Jew and a deep believer in Kabbalah and all things mystical, the stories of the Torah and the stories from the Bible are the lessons I would like to pass down to the next generation. It is the message of each of these stories that make the traditions of both religions so rich. On the 12th of December Catholics from Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe’s birthday. Here in Brooklyn we light Hanukkah candles. Both traditions celebrate life.

Adrian and I recently had our first child, a baby girl. She already hears the coos of Spanish, English and Hebrew echoed throughout our household. At two months old she has already witnessed her mother burn Christmas cookies, light the menorah in the wrong direction and forget to buy half the ingredients to make tamales on a trip back from the grocery store. But, in all the chaos she is witnessing traditions new and old. Our baby is named after my two Grandmothers and we recently had a baby naming ceremony for her at the East Midwood Jewish Center. It was an incredible day because my family was meeting my partner’s family for the first time. We were all there together from different cultures and religions celebrating this new and precious life.

I have always wanted children and I was always worried about it never being the “right time.” It was never the perfect situation, there was never enough money or the right job or the Jewish boy I was “supposed” to marry. Finally one day after having been with Adrian for three years I stopped waiting for the “right moment” to have a child. We just decided to have one. We talked about our different cultures and religions. We talked about what our child would grow up learning about and believing in. One night we said, “she will learn from both of us and the biggest lesson she will learn is love and respect.” Those are the two basic themes of any religion.

Delivering a baby was the most spiritual journey of my life so far. Both Adrian and my mother were in the delivery room and when the baby came out we all burst into tears. Adrian ran around the table to hug my mother, the baby was on my chest for skin-to-skin and in that moment I thought of a quote I had heard as a girl in Yeshiva. It was a quote from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘grow, grow.” That’s what we were put on earth to do. I’d like my daughter to grow to ask questions and not always do something because it’s the way it’s been done for centuries.

I’d like her to respect and love and admire where both her parents come from so that she can respect, love and admire herself. So that she can know that there is never just one faith – but to have faith in something, in anything will catapult her toward her dreams and whomever she wants to be.

Anna and Adrian with their newborn

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Reflections on Hanukkah 2015

  

FullSizeRenderEight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with me for more 25 years of Hanukkah celebrations. It looks as if the last scrap of wrapping paper is finally in the recycling bin, and for what feels like the first time in eight days, I have found a moment of stillness. As I remember this year’s celebration of miracles, I am thinking about some of the modern miracles and gifts we have enjoyed since we recited our first blessings nine days ago. Here are just a few things I am thankful for this year…

1.  I am thankful for the miracle of 8 mornings. So much about life feels especially precious and fragile these last few weeks, and I am so grateful for the days I have had to wake up with my family and discover what the day holds.

2.  I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summer’s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.

3.  I am thankful for two little girls that have adopted those menorahs as their own, one for each, and for the miracle of hearing centuries-old blessings pouring out in their sweet voices.

4.  I am thankful that my husband has spent the last 16 years perfecting his latke-making skills, and for the gift of the perfect homemade latke (crisp on the outside, warm and gooey inside) from his griddle on my plate.

5.  I am thankful for the gift of my family’s annual Hanukkah party, and not only for the good fortune we have to exchange gifts with one another, but for the miracle of the warmth and love I feel in their company.

6.  I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this year’s celebration a special occasion.

7.  I am thankful the blessings that my family who is not Jewish calls to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, and that they will share a Christmas greeting call with my Jewish father in 11 days.

8.  I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Eric’s family next week….and

9.  I sure am thankful for the gift of 11 days to recover from Hanukkah and rebuild my energy to share in some Christmas cheer.

Happiest, happy holidays!

 

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Birthdays, Hanukkah and Learning to Let Go

  

letting goI was supposed to celebrate my birthday, which fell on the seventh night of Hanukkah with my husband Cameron and son Sammy. We were going to light the hanukkiah, exchange gifts and go out for a sushi dinner. The plan sounded ideal to me–I love Hanukkah, sushi and spending time with my guys.

But the celebration did not turn out as planned. The night before, as we were getting ready to leave to go to Sammy’s string concert at school, we got a message from the dad of one of Sammy’s friends with a last minute request. Could Sammy come to his older son’s bar mitzvah tomorrow night?

Apparently, cousins with children the same age as Sammy’s friend just cancelled, and Sammy’s friend was not going to have anyone his age to hang out with at the reception. He would love Sammy to be his running mate for the evening.

It would have been easy for me to call back and say, “I’m sorry, Sammy can’t make it. We have plans,” or “It’s my birthday tomorrow and we are celebrating as a family.” As a parent, I could have made an executive decision. But I did not. I shared the invitation with Sammy and let him decide. I knew we needed to start to loosen the strings that tied Sammy to us and empower him to make decisions for himself.

Sammy’s reaction to the invite was excitement followed by a blank stare. “It’s your birthday tomorrow,” he said. I could tell he was worried that the decision he wanted to make would upset me.

I said, “There will be many more birthdays and Hanukkahs to celebrate together. If you want to go to the bar mitzvah, you should go.”

I realized that now that we were in the tweenage years there would be many more of these types of requests–requests that came with choices. I also knew that as commitments go, a quiet Hanukkah and birthday celebration were small. There would be times when the answer had to be “no.” Call it a good parenting day, but intuitively I knew that saying “yes” now was like putting money in the bank. It would make the necessary “no’s” easier to take.

Sammy said he wanted to go. I called the friend’s dad and told him that Sammy would love to celebrate with their family.

As we drove to the strings concert, I told Sammy that I would be happy to go with him to the bar mitzvah service and then he could go on the bus to the party with the other kids. “No thanks,” he said. “You don’t need to.” My little boy was now an independent 11-year-old.

Saturday night, Cameron dropped off Sammy and another friend who was invited at the bar mitzvah service. He walked them into our synagogue, got them seats and left. They were now responsible for navigating the evening themselves.

Later, as Cameron and I celebrated my birthday over dinner, we talked about how this was Sammy’s first “night on the town” without us. And the various parenting questions that arose when you entered this stage—should you send them with a phone and if so, what are the appropriate usage guidelines; in the absence of anything illegal or dangerous, when do you rescue your child from a situation and when do you make them stick it out—dominated our dinner conversation.

We knew we were entering rookie territory. As we toasted the occasion and I reflected on the year ahead, I realized that it would be a year of learning, learning to parent to a way more suited to Sammy’s new stage of life, and learning to let go.

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Two Holidays, Twice the Festivities: But One at a Time

  

Mace-holiday-decorI have always loved the holiday season, and celebrating Hanukkah as an interfaith family brings with it an extra dose of joy. When I was a child, my mother insisted that we wait until after my birthday, which falls in the first week of December, before any celebration of Christmas could commence. She wanted to make sure we didn’t detract from the first December holiday, my birthday, before moving onto the one with far greater hoopla.

My mother mastered the art of see-no-holiday and hear-no-holiday. If we chanced to see a Christmas tree on a car’s rooftop during the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would gleefully declare, “I don’t see anything!” When we heard the first Christmas carols on radios or loudspeakers, she’d call out, “I can’t hear anything, can you?” My mother always meant well with this gesture, even if it flew in the face of my own very real excitement about the coming Christmas season.

Only after my birthday, a few days into December, could we get out our own decorations, choose our tree, or play Christmas music on the stereo at home. My family continued this tradition well into my adulthood, such that even this year, my brother (who has been married for several years) apologized to me during our usual Thanksgiving phone call: “I think we’re going to get out the holiday decorations before your birthday this year.” I laughed, thinking it sounded like fun.

The first Hanukkah I celebrated with my Husband (then-boyfriend) began November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. We lit a small travel menorah in a hotel in Chicago, where we’d come to celebrate both holidays with his family. For once, I didn’t have to wait to celebrate a December holiday! I didn’t even have to avoid, as usual, Black Friday shopping, since I needed to finish buying gifts for my boyfriend well in advance of the busiest shopping day.

Now that I have celebrated over a decade and more Hanukkahs with Ben, I am used to the ebb and flow of the Hanukkah calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts on a great day, the evening of December 6, far enough into December to allow a few more days to shop and prepare, but not so late that we light the lights of both holidays at the same time. I skipped Black Friday shopping this year, but on Saturday I remembered that with Hanukkah starting in a week, perhaps I really should have joined the throng on the busiest shopping day of the year.

Santas-trees-dreidels-and-stars cookies, iced and ready to eat

Santas-trees-dreidels-and-stars cookies, iced and ready to eat

When we celebrate two holidays in my interfaith family, we hang white lights and blue lights and multi-colored lights all across the doorways in our home, and along the tops of bookshelves and curtain rods. Christmas-colored lights line the shelf on which we place our menorahs. We break out Jewish-star emblazoned Hanukkah place mats with matching blue napkins, and join them with green-and-red place mats and napkins. We bake paper-thin butter cookies in shapes appropriate for both holidays, and we make sour milk sugar cookies with colored icing. When I was a child, we called these red-and-green cookies “Santa Clauses and Christmas trees,” but now we’ve added blue-and-white menorahs, dreidels and six-pointed stars to the mix as well.

Giving the cookies the awkward name of “Santas and dreidels and menorahs and trees” is the closest we come to a December holiday mashup. Despite the holidays falling in such close proximity, we don’t hang dreidels on our tree, or call it a Hanukkah bush. We give  each holiday its own separate identity as best we can, although this might seem difficult when the holiday books stack together and the red-and-green towels on our oven door hang right next to blue-and-white ones. Two holidays make for twice the festivities.

This year Hanukkah starts early, and my daughters reap the benefits of being in an interfaith family. They’ll compress a month’s worth of anticipation into a week’s worth of waiting. As we wait, we’ll tell the stories of Hanukkah as best we can, giving this holiday its own weight and emphasis. After Hanukkah ends, our daughters will still have more than a week of renewed anticipation as they wait for Christmas Day. They’ll dream and wonder about Santa Claus, and we’ll talk, too, about the birth of the historical Jesus, as best we can.

We unpacked our holiday boxes the weekend after Thanksgiving. I wish I could show you my mother’s face from our Skype call when we told her we were unpacking the boxes. Her expression relaxed, I’m glad to say, when I explained that Hanukkah started next weekend.

Before we unpacked our two holidays’ decorations, Ben wanted to know if I felt sure I was OK with it: After all, my birthday isn’t until later in the week.

“I’m sure,” I said. “The kids are excited, and truth be told, Hanukkah starts in a week, and I’m excited too!”

Do you prefer an early or late Hanukkah? How does your holiday season double the festive feeling? 

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Boldly Share the Light of Hanukkah this Holiday Season

  

Hanukkah-wreath-2Over the years, Hanukkah, a minor celebration that isn’t even in the Torah, has become the unofficial national holiday of the American Jewish community. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was promoted as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. Since then, many individuals and communal leaders have fought against the “make Hanukkah big” movement and urged Jewish families to refrain from embracing the idea of Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas.

But the reminders of Hanukkah’s lesser holiday status have not stopped its growth. What once was an eight-day festival has evolved into a six-week season. And many Jewish families are using the holiday to reaffirm their Jewishness in a big way. Instead of small electric menorahs in windows, they’re putting a Jewish twist on non-Jewish holiday decorations and traditions, declaring in a loud and proud way, “I’m Jewish!” For interfaith families, this increase in Hanukkah festiveness allows parents from other backgrounds to indulge their love of all-things-holiday while honoring their commitment to building a Jewish home.

As we move into the holiday season, here are some ideas for boldly sharing the light of Hanukkah. Share the creative ways you make the Festival of Lights special in the comments section.

Hang Hanukkah on the Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates: Wreaths and door decorations are not just for Christmas. Pinterest, Etsy, and eBay have many Hanukkah wreath styles and ideas for making your own. From rustic Jewish stars with lights to evergreen wreaths with Hanukkah garland and dreidels, there are many pre-made and make-your-own options. My neighbor hangs a Hanukkah banner on her front door and highlights it by placing an evergreen garland mixed with Stars of David on the surrounding doorframe.

Hanukkah-lawn-markersShine Some Light on Your Jewish Identity: Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, yet holiday lights have always been associated with Christmas. But in recent years, some Jewish families have decided to make holiday lights their own. A Christian friend, who is raising Jewish children with her husband, and loves holiday lights, decorates the outside of her house with blue and white LEDS. For those that like lawn ornaments, there are lighted Hanukkah characters and symbols including pre-lit Jewish dogs and dreidels, and 8-foot lighted inflatable menorahs.

Wear Your Jewishness on Your Sleeve (or Pants or Chest): Represent the Jewish tradition and stand out from the red, white and green crowd in cozy Hanukkah PJs, leggings, t-shirts, and underwear. Have some real holiday fun in an ugly Hanukkah sweater and menorah hat. Spin around your office Christmas party in dreidel socks.

Rock it Like a Maccabee: While you may not find any local radio stations that play only Hanukkah songs for six-plus weeks, there is plenty of great holiday music to get you in the Festival-of-Lights-spirit. Tune into Jewish Rock Radio on your computer or mobile device. Check out the Jewish A Cappella group the Maccabeats singing “Candlelight,” the Hanukkah version of “Dynamite,” and “All About That Neis.” Listen to “Miracle” by Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu. Explore the music of Jewish rockers Dan Nichols, Rick Recht and Josh Nelson, and the Kosher Gospel of Joshua Nelson.

Deck Your Halls With Stars and Dreidels: Dress your mantel with silver tinsel and modern star garland. Hang Star of David paper lanterns. Add some festiveness to your home by dangling Hanukkah ornaments throughout. Add a Jewish twist to an advent with Hanukkah countdown bags that hang over the fireplace. Use Hanukkah tablecloths, napkins and dishes for the entire holiday. Get more ideas online.

HanukkahpancakesEat Like A Champ: Hanukkah follows the traditional Jewish story of “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” So, eat like a champion. Expand your holiday menu beyond latkes and donuts. Make different kinds of Hanukkah cookies and share with family, friends and coworkers. Enjoy a holiday breakfast with dreidel muffins and dreidel-shaped pancakes, or use your Hanukkah cookie cutters to make holiday-themed challah French toast. Bake Star of David cupcakes for a yummy dessert. Get creative with your traditional foods. Try squash or root vegetable latkes. Think outside the brisket and chicken box.

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Owning Shabbat (Part 1)

  
A few of the girls' creations

A few of the girls’ creations

This week, Ruthie came home from Sunday School with Shabbat.  In a box.  With a combination of resources from Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the creativity of her religious school principal, the box was filled with Shabbat crafts, ritual items, and ideas for making Shabbat a crafty family affair.

I imagined a calm and civilized Shabbat craft session after school next Friday before Shabbat begins.  However, as I watched Ruthie and Chaya exuberantly dive into the box before I even got a chance to take my coat off, I decided to let them take control of both timing and crafting.  They made quick work of decorating challah covers, painting a decorative kiddush cup, and rolling beeswax candles.  Ruthie raided the spice drawer and returned from the kitchen with a sweet smelling Havdalah spice bag.  Impressed by their efforts but a little disappointed by the lack of available teaching moments in their artistic frenzy, I crossed my fingers that their Shabbat enthusiasm would last the whole six days between Sunday morning and Friday dinner time.

So far, so good.  Every time a new visitor has come to our house, Ruthie has sprinted into the dining room, returning with a pile of challah covers to show off to our guest.  I have caught Chaya singing “Bim Bam” quietly in the regular litany of songs she sings when no one else appears to be listening.  They are excited for Shabbat.

I also have a new hope for the items from the box.  The craft projects engaged the girls in thinking about Shabbat – What are the ritual items?  Do the kinds of candles we use need to be special in some way?  What is different about Shabbat dinner and Havdalah?  In this way, the box accomplished what it was supposed to, I think, teaching more about Shabbat through age appropriate activities.

The results of the activities mean something more.  Now, when we set the Shabbat table, the girls will physically own the space.  The dishes may be ones Eric and I acquired long before they were born, and we may assign drinking glasses based on breakability and appetite.  But the challah cover they see, hopefully covering the challah they have baked, will be theirs.  The candles we light together were rolled between their own fingers.  In these very concrete ways, often the ones most obvious for children their age to grasp, the holiday requires, and engages, something from everyone around the table.  Because of this, I can’t wait to set it this Friday!

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