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.

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.


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.


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? 

There is Something You Should Know, We Have a Christmas Tree


This is a blog about a different kind of December dilemma. It is not about whether my family should have a tree–we do–or hang a wreath on our door–we do not. It is not about whether we recognize Christmas in our home or only at my not Jewish in-laws–we celebrate a secular holiday in both locations. This is about whether I should tell my Jewish friends before they visit my home during the holiday season that we have a Christmas tree.

Before becoming engaged in Jewish outreach, I did not think much about the intense feelings Christmas decorations and symbols aroused in Jews and I never felt resentful or alien or like an outsider during the holiday season. I was raised in a Jewish home with a Christmas tradition that included a tree. My family drove around looking at holiday lights and went to New York City to view the tree in Rockefeller Center and the Christmas displays in the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue.

It was only after I became active in outreach work and participated in December Dilemma programs that I realized how reviled the Christmas tree and holiday decorations were by Jews. During the first December discussion I attended, I remember a man becoming agitated when he was asked to articulate his feelings about the Christmas tree image on the screen in the front of the room.

At another program, a woman who’s son had intermarried said she told him that a home could not really be Jewish if it had a Christmas tree. The son and his not Jewish wife were raising Jewish children and the tree was the only recognition of the wife’s former traditions. Still the Jewish mother would not enter her son’s house when the tree was up.

These incidences made me realize just how uncomfortable some Jews were with decorations associated with Christmas–even ones that were considered more of a beloved custom than a religious symbol. I decided that since I did not know how our inmarried Jewish friends felt about Christmas trees in Jewish homes I would tell them that we had one before they came to my house during the holiday season. Then they could prep their kids before they arrived, be prepared to answer their children’s questions or decline the invitation.

I would not apologize for how we celebrated the holiday or honored my husband’s holiday tradition. I would simply tell visitors what to expect when they walked into my house–a big tree with lights and decorations. If asked, I would explain the many Jewish religious or cultural symbols–Stars of David, menorahs, dreidels, mezuzahs, yads and hamsas–that we had as ornaments.

I do not know if the tree really bothered any of our friends. To date, no one has ever declined an invitation to our house because of it. Some have asked if they could help decorate the tree. Others did not respond to my declaration in any way.

I assume that some of our friends refrain from sharing their discomfort because they fear that they might offend us and I appreciate that they are willing to respect our celebration even if they do not agree with it. I hope that by seeing how our tree reflects our Jewish identity and honors my husband’s commitment to a Jewish home that they will be more accepting of the nuances inherent in interfaith family life. They might even begin to see the Christmas tree as just a tree.

The Unintended Consequences of Blintzes for Blitzen


My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewish—but keep celebrating Christmas—my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a Tu Bishvat celebration. On the drive there, she kept proclaiming, “It’s the New Year for Christmas trees! I love Christmas trees!” Once we parked the car, we earnestly encouraged our daughter not to mention Christmas trees while at the event, which would involve planting a small bit of greenery (which turned out to be parsley for the seder plate). She didn’t quite understand why people wouldn’t want to hear about Christmas trees (they’re pretty, and come with presents: What could be wrong with that?), but she trusted us and didn’t mention the possibly offensive greenery.

I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what “religion” is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays: Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).

Emily's family

Emily and her family celebrating Hanukkah

But in her life, these two holidays are part of what’s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day. That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.

As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I share—but feel ambivalent about—our older daughter’s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I don’t really want her to want to sit on Santa’s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. I’d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that we’d raise our children in the  Jewish tradition, but I don’t think I understood how children’s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldn’t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.

For now, I’m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this “more the merrier” perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santa’s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.

Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.

Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.