Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac n’ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.
“I am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,” she said.
“Oh, that must have been fun,” I replied.
“Yeah, it was tons of fun!”
“What other holidays do you celebrate?” I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.
“We also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,” she continued, “but we have Christmas too,” she said, “because my mommy is Christian.”
“Oh, really?” I replied. “That’s interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,” I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldn’t call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack, what do I say! I’m much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, but… how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old!
I continued to play along with the conversation. “I suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. She’s a very, very liberal Christian,” I added. “And she celebrates Christmas, yes.” Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.
When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year. We’d only been dating for a few weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his father’s holidays.
This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.
I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.
When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least that’s how I remember the conversation going. We’d just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, “I’ve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.”
I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. “Really? You’d do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,” he told me, “meaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. I’m so glad you’re open to this!”
Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. I’ve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would “honor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.” This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say we’re going to raise our children as solely Jewish!
That’s funny, I find myself thinking. I thought we’d agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didn’t I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?
Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, children who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, children who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.
At least, it sounds confusing to me. I’m not sure it’s confusing to our older daughter. It’s simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, “I’m the only Jewish kid in my school.” I’m not sure that’s quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewish—and whether she’d say it this way or not, she knows, too, that it’s not quite that simple.
A very, very Happy New Year, everyone. Hopefully your New Year’s Eve comes on the heels of a lovely holiday season – more joy than travel hassle, more love than overwhelmedness. My family had a really, truly lovely one, complete with a jam-packed friend- and family-filled Hanukkah in our home, a Hanukkah party at my Dad’s, a beautiful last night of Hanukkah celebration hosted by Eric’s sister (and topped off with her homemade rugelach!) and a wonderful, joyous Christmas celebration with Eric’s family. (In the interest of honesty in blogging, all of this joy swept over some rough spots, like a loss that we continue to feel for my sister-in-law’s family, and a bout of flu that swept over both the four of us and a lot of our extended family). All in all, we are feeling very blessed.
Looking to 2015, I have a proposal to make for a resolution for all of us interfaith families. Long ago, I scaled back on the big ticket resolutions – I have found much more success in the years I vowed to be really good at a small step than in the years I failed to break down life-changing goals into smaller pieces. While I long to be as sharp as Eric and be able to do the Sunday New York Times crossword, the year I vowed to just get smart enough to do the Friday Metro crossword I did pretty well.
So here is a resolution to try on for 2015. Talk more. And listen, too. However you have decided to incorporate faith into your family life, talk about it. Talk about it with you partner. Talk about it with your families. Find friends with whom you can talk about it. If it suits your path, talk about it with clergy, or within your faith community. When your kids start conversations about it, follow their lead and talk about it with them, too. Talk about things that are clear, talk about things that are joyous, talk about things that bring you comfort. And talk about things you don’t know the answers to, the things that are difficult, the things that make you doubt a choice you’ve made. See if you can have one conversation about a part of your faith you have not talked about, or see if you can have one conversation about something about blending faiths that is really hard.
As I understand my own path, being a Jewish household in a multi-faith family is a lifelong journey. What it means to be Jewish to each of my family members, and to our household, will change as the years come and go. Our relationships with Judaism and with our family’s Christian roots will change too. What it means to be “interfaith,” or part of our multi-faith family, will also change. Most important, our relationships with one another, and with the parents and siblings and grandparents and extended family we love, will continue to blossom alongside these changes. Nothing is absolute. What we have the most control over is how we can influence these changes. I think our best shot at doing this is to have a lot of great conversations. They don’t all need to happen in 2015, but in 2015 we can decide to be more deliberate about how we talk, and how we listen. So here is to a new year filled with honesty and understanding, some good conversations, and all of the happiness and good health the year can hold.
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 following is a guest post by Emily R. Mace
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
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!).
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.
‘Tis the season for Jewish Scrooges to say, “Bah! Humbug!” to anything that they judge to be a blend of Hanukkah and Christmas or an inflation of a minor Jewish holiday. Any attempt to sprinkle Hanukkah with a little tinsel is depicted as a perversion of the holiday’s message.
These Jewish grinches shout “syncretism” and “commercialization” from pulpits; in classrooms, traditional media outlets and homes; and across social media. Yet, many Jews and Jewish interfaith families, ignore the rhetoric and go big with Hanukkah anyway.
Some do it to assuage Christmas envy, others to honor the traditions of not Jewish family members or to simply make religion fun. But whatever the reason, there is a strong desire to inject Hanukkah with some of the holiday cheer present in our surrounding culture. That is the rationale behind the Menorah Tree.
The Menorah Tree was designed by two Jewish brothers as a way to “ramp up” the Festival of Lights, and honor the Christmas tree tradition of one of their wives. The goal was to create something that was as festive as a tree, but genuinely Jewish. Something, that was big enough to be the centerpiece of a family’s Hanukkah celebration.
While a giant 6-foot tall hanukkiah with Frazier pine garland isn’t something that everyone will embrace, there is nothing wrong with something that screams “Jewish” even if it does borrow from dominant Christian culture. Blending ideas, foods, symbols, and rituals from other cultures to increase Judaism’s fun-factor isn’t bad and doesn’t weaken Jewish identity as some in the community want us to believe.
Religious activities and observances that are perceived as fun create positive faith experiences and lasting memories. I share in From Generation to Generation the effect a lack of positive religious experiences in childhood has had on members of my own extended family. One inmarried sibling observes Jewish holidays out of obligation and not because he derives any fulfillment from the experience, and my Jewish uncle has a home that is absent of religion.
Examples like this highlight why adding fun to holidays now can make the celebrations more memorable than they would be otherwise without diminishing their significance. And positive memories increase the likelihood that children will want to carry on the tradition in adulthood. Christmas is the perfect case in point.
Many adults who grow-up with Christmas, have a strong emotional attachment to the holiday regardless of whether they are religious Christians. This connection is often not derived from recollections of going to services on Christmas Eve, but rather, from everything else that surrounds the holiday. My not Jewish mother-in-law, who is active in her church and faith, has never said that the reason Christmas is her favorite holiday is because of services, Jesus, God, or wise men. However, memories of decorating the tree, candy canes, gingerbread houses, holiday lights and carols, baking cookies and opening stockings and presents all contribute to her holiday love.
A community concerned about declining engagement, shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss things that can help build positive Jewish memories and connection. That’s the goal of the Menorah Tree, Maccabee on the Mantel and other Hanukkah-themed products. What’s wrong with that?
A child curled up with his Maccabee doll next to a Menorah Tree reading the Maccabee on the Mantel on the night before Hanukkah would be good for the Jews. Maybe he could even sing a few Hanukkah carols.
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Last year, Hanukkah came early (remember that once in every 77,000 years Thanksgivukkah Celebration?). Back then, I blogged about how the early Hanukkah was a special gift for interfaith families, allowing those of us who are a union of Christian and Jewish traditions to more easily separate the December holidays and focus on each individually.
This year is a bit more typical, with Hanukkah starting on December 16 and ending on Christmas Eve. With six weeks to go before we dust off the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), I think we have just enough time to keep December from being a dilemma. Like many things in parenting, and life, your best chance to make this happen is to start planning now.
The December holidays are a wonderful time. The lights, be they candles in our windows or lights around our trees, are beautiful. The music is joyful, and the food is both plentiful and sweet. Families and friends are together in celebration, filling homes, street corners and hearts with love and togetherness. The themes of our holidays remind us about some of religion’s most important lessons – faith, hope and the potential for miracles.
The December holidays can also be challenging. Expectations are high, and as parents we are often harried in our attempts to make magic for our children. Feelings of loss sting a bit more strongly for those of us missing a loved one, or out-of-touch with someone with whom we’d like to be in touch. With Christmas movies at the box office and schoolyard chatter a flurry with talk of gifts to be received, there can be a special tension for those of us whose families try to integrate multiple traditions.
I imagine that even if you and your spouse grew up next door to one another, going to the same house of worship and marrying after a long high school courtship, you can find yourselves mismatched in your expectations for December. For interfaith couples of any stripe, these mismatched expectations can be amplified. And for parents for whom being of different faiths doesn’t feel like a big deal from January to November, December puts their different backgrounds front and center. Even if you stand firmly grounded in your personal choices about religion, your kids are bound to throw you off base with a question about why you do or don’t do the same thing as another family they know.
Today, I would like to advocate that you make a plan. It does not need to take up all of November, but better an hour of planning in November than four hours of frustration in December. Here is what I propose.
Buy a bottle of wine. Or better yet, call a sitter. Carve out an hour of time with your partner to talk about what your Hanukkah through Boxing Day calendar will look like, and what you’d like it to be. If you’re not sure, look around your community or online for articles, classes or friends who can help you plan to make the time a period of fun, giving, relaxation and maybe even a little learning.
Some questions that I have seen come up for our family and others during this time, in case you don’t know where to start:
Do that, and then call your own parents. Talk to them about what they hope for, and share what your own hopes are. If you can’t do that, at least share your feelings with whomever will help make the holiday spirit bright for your family.
And then have fun. Eradicate the dilemma from your December, and bring on the holiday cheer. And let me know how it all works out.
I didn’t intend to write a post-Hallowen blog. To be honest, Halloween isn’t something that is big in my family. I’m not a costume or candy person, and neither is my husband. While our son Sammy enjoys trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, it isn’t something that he wants to do every year.
This year we weren’t home for the holiday. We took Sammy to Legoland for a belated birthday celebration. As we relaxed at the hotel on Halloween night, I posted on Facebook pictures of the Shabbat set we built from the box of bricks in our room and scrolled through pictures of my friends’ children in costumes.
As I gazed at princesses and zombies, I came across a post by a non-Orthodox rabbi that a friend had commented on. It was a Halloween put-down. It griped about the overly commercialized pagan holiday that encourages children to play tricks on others and eat too much candy. It suggested that costumes be saved for the “truly fun holiday” of Purim.
Some friends of the post’s author shared his distaste for trick-or-treating. They said celebrating Halloween sent a confusing message to Jewish children since it wasn’t a Jewish holiday. That participating in such celebrations blurred the lines of who Jews were and what they stood for and contributed to the increased weakening of Jewish identity.
Really? I’m certain that Sammy has never been confused about his religious identity because we celebrate Halloween. He has never asked if we’re pagans instead of Jews or mistaken Halloween for a Jewish holiday. Like most people, he sees Halloween as an American tradition just like Thanksgiving. The more I read the comments from the Jewish anti-Halloween crusaders, the more I realized how out of touch some of these communal leaders were with the reality of Jewish life in America today.
According to the 2013 Pew report, many non-orthodox Jews now identify as Jews of no religion. They feel a cultural connection to Judaism but have few ties to Jewish organizations. They are Jews of the world–assimilated and cosmopolitan in their thinking and lifestyle. To reach them, they need to be met where they are–in secular life.
Demonizing a holiday that most American Jews view as a harmless, secular observance that enables children to dress up and have fun is not meeting them where they are. Nor is it the way to strengthen the ties of the loosely affiliated or bring Jews with a weak connection back to the faith. Anti-Halloween rhetoric is simply tone deaf.
I state in From Generation to Generation that we need to help all Jews–inmarried and intermarried, affiliated and unaffiliated–answer the question why be Jewish. We can do this by using opportunities presented by the secular and non-Jewish to demonstrate how Judaism is part of this world, not separate from it. Concerning Halloween, we can show families and children how Jewish values and traditions are mirrored in the holiday.
We can highlight the similarities between Halloween and Purim: both are joyous holidays that share a tradition of dressing in costumes, giving gifts of food (mishloach manot) and charity. We can discuss how collecting for UNICEF or donating Halloween candy to charities that help families in need is an act of tzedakah.
We can encourage people to celebrate their Jewish-Americanness by adding some Halloween fun to their Shabbat celebrations–enjoy challah stuffed with candy or a costume party Shabbat. And we can remind families that greeting their neighbors as their children go house-to-house or as they distribute candy is honoring the Jewish principle of loving thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34).
These kinds of things make Judaism more accessible to modern American Jews because they help them see that they can embrace aspects of Jewish faith and culture regardless of affiliation, marriage partner or belief in God. On the other hand, loud and proud opposition to Halloween focuses on maintaining strict boundaries between Judaism and the secular world.
Jews who view themselves as Jews of the world are not interested in this kind of boundary maintenance. They want to have their candy corns and eat them too. Therefore, the drumbeat of the anti-Halloween crowd will likely do as much to strengthen people’s ties to Judaism as intermarriage prevention efforts have done to increase inmarriage and engagement.
Now that Halloween is over, the debate may have died down, but it will soon be back as the anti-Halloweeners turn their attention toward Hanukkah and Christmas. Their rants about the commercialization and inflation of Hanukkah, the syncretism of Hanukkah bushes and menorah trees, and the participation by Jews in any Christmas tradition is coming to your Twitter and Facebook feed. So, grab a gingerbread latte and read their holiday diatribes while you enjoy a little holiday cheer.
As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.
In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”
But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.
I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?
I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.
The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.
I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.
My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.
Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.
The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.
Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.
We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.
My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.
While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.
But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.
I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.
This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.
It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.
I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.
Christmas is a week away and many interfaith families are busy with preparations for their family celebrations – buying gifts, packing for travel to relatives, baking, decorating, and shipping presents. This makes many in the Jewish community nervous.
They worry that engagement in this Christian holiday will confuse children who are otherwise being raised Jewish or diminish their Jewish identity. They believe that participation in Christmas is religious syncretism and will make it less likely that Judaism will be passed on to future generations. They say that to be Jewish; a home must not include any other religious observances because they create ambiguity.
Many interfaith families like mine agree with the point that a home should have one religious identity, and that is why we have chosen a singularly Jewish path. But identifying as Jews does not mean that we ban Christmas from our homes or decline to participate in the holiday activities of our extended families.
What many within the Jewish community fail to understand is that, for a large number of interfaith families, including mine, Christmas is not religious. Yes, Christmas is technically a religious holiday, although it is not considered to be the most important by the Church. It is simply the most popular culturally and socially, and that is how many Jewish interfaith families honor it.
According to InterfaithFamily’s 2013 December Holiday Survey, 88% of us celebrate a secular Christmas that lacks religious content. We give gifts; we enjoy a holiday meal and festive foods, and spend time with relatives. Most of us celebrate Christmas in the same way as I did as a Jewish kid growing-up in a Jewish family.
My childhood Christmas included a tree in my home, dinner and gifts on Christmas Eve with my father’s Jewish family, and a similar celebration on Christmas Day with my mother’s Jewish family. It was a period when everything slowed down, and was a convenient time for my family to reconnect with out-of-town relatives we did not see on a regular basis.
I thought that my family’s celebration was entirely secular because we were Jewish, and it was not “our” holiday. So, I assumed, when I met Cameron that I would experience a more religious observance. After all, my in-laws’ faith is very important to them.
My father-in-law is a graduate of theology school and a layman in the Episcopal Church, and my mother-in-law sits on the vestry. They attend services most Sundays. But not on Christmas or Christmas Eve (too many “C&Es” – people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter).
What I have learned since joining the Larkins, is that just because a family is Christian does not mean that their observance of a Christian holiday is religious. The Larkin family Christmas has no religious component; no church services or prayers, no reading of scripture or discussion of the nativity story. It is with the exception of stockings and more decorations, the same as my childhood Christmas.
Christmas Eve is a buffet dinner and a grab bag with my father-in-law’s extended family, and Christmas is a lazy, relaxing day filled with food and gift giving. Like my Jewish family’s Christmas, the Larkin’s Christian Christmas is about enjoying time with family.
So the concern in the Jewish world about interfaith families’ religious observance of Christmas made me cull through my memories for my most religious Christmas moment. What I realized is that the most religious thing that my family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.
When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, we observe, the holiday, religiously after our secular Christmas. If we are in Dallas, Cameron, Sammy, and I light the candles at sundown in front of our tree often with Jewish friends. If we are in Vermont, we kindle the menorah with my in-laws, sister-in-law, and nephew. Sammy, Cameron, and I say the prayers in Hebrew and our not Jewish extended family read the blessings in English. In these moments, there is more religion, spirituality and talk of God than there is in any other part of our family Christmas celebration.
I wish more Jewish academics; leaders, professionals, and laypeople took the time to understand the significance or lack thereof that Christmas has in the lives of many interfaith families choosing Judaism. Instead, they assume, like I did, that because Christmas is a religious holiday any observance of it must be religious too.
They also assume that all intermarrieds are the same; we all raise our children in two faiths or none at all, and allow our children to choose their religion when they are older. Therefore, celebrating holidays from different faiths must be syncretic and confusing. But just as there are different kinds of in-married families – secular, cultural, ritually observant, and somewhere in between – there are different kinds of intermarrieds including ones who have a solely Jewish identity.
For interfaith families like us who have chosen Judaism, and nurture their Jewish identity year-round through Shabbat and holiday observance, Jewish education and community engagement; what happens on one day in December has little, if any, impact on our embrace of and commitment to Jewish life. Just as the lighting of a menorah with Jewish relatives by an interfaith family that has chosen Christianity does not call into question the family’s Christian identity.
For dual-faith or no-faith families observing Christmas may well create ambiguity and confusion. I do not know; I am not one of them. All I can say is that our Christmas celebration has no power to shape the identity of my Jewish (interfaith) household, just as it had no power to influence my childhood connection to Judaism. So excuse me for rolling my eyes at the prognosticators who predict that Jewish continuity is in jeopardy because people like me are celebrating Christmas.
My tree fell over. Twice. And at least once, my toddler toppled off the couch into it.
Last night, my husband took the whole thing apart, and realized that I had not precisely put it in the tree stand the way that I should have. Okay, maybe I just shoved it in and assumed that it would be good. It was – for a few days anyway.
The tree is a big deal for me. I’m a Jewish convert, and putting up the tree has been a difficult topic every single year. Putting up a tree is representative of a whole lot more than just a tree – it’s a symbol of my past and my traditions, and my children’s connection to it. And when it fell over last night for the second (or third) time, I burst into tears and sobbed all thru the clean up. I lugged it outside and propped it up on the porch, so I wouldn’t be staring at the glaring failure of all my Christmas dreams all night long. I moved some furniture and put my daughter’s baby tree (she wanted her own little tree this year)into a place of prominence in the window and even put my angel (the one my mother bought for me twenty years ago, when I first moved out) on top of it.
And this morning, my husband took his little saw outside, and cut and trimmed my tree, and we shoved it back into the stand. Brought it back inside and and then took off all the lights and garland, popcorn and cranberry strings my son had made for me, and it stands there, naked, waiting for decorations. After a teary phone call home (because only my mother would understand why I was so sad last night), my mother is coming over this morning with new ornaments to replace my broken ones, and lights (because she never thinks I have enough lights), and Julie and I will decorate the tree with her this afternoon. So when my older kids come home tonight, they’ll have their tree back, prettier than before. More stable. Less likely to fall.
I’m thinking of the tree as an analogy for me this year. This month has been hard – the December Dilemma has been particularly difficult this year, and I’m feeling battered and worn down and tired. Just like my tree. But there’s another week and a half before Christmas, and I’m vowing, like my tree, to emerge ready and steady, newly decorated and committed to making sure that December is not the month of conflict and isolation, but rather a month of warmth and peace. Of celebration and gratitude and love. Hot cocoa and candy canes, looking at lights and watching holiday specials. Of anticipation and parties and quiet nights reading together. Like my tree, standing so proud, I’m going to embrace the scars and battle wounds – because all of it makes me who I am. Christmas means more to me because I fight for it, because I insist on bringing a bit of my past into my Jewish home. My tree is prettier because of the hole where Julie toppled into it, and it’s more stable now because it fell over. Twice, or was it three times?.
Merry Christmas everyone – may we all emerge from December a little stronger, a little more settled and, like my tree, able to wear the wounds and bruises proudly. Because it’s what makes our tree, and us, who we are.