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Shalom, yâ€™all! Iâ€™m Warren, and Iâ€™m going to be contributing to the Parenting blog here at InterfaithFamily. Iâ€™m the Jewish partner in my marriage â€” my wife was raised in a church-every-Sunday Episcopalian home â€” but Iâ€™m also the product of an interfaith marriage: my mother was raised as a Conservative Jew, and my father as a Baptist.
My wife, Moira, and I are expecting our first child in February (yay!). Added to this fun and exciting mix is the fact that Iâ€™m also a Reform Jewish camping professional. Jewish camp was a huge part of my life growing up, and continues to be, both personally and professionally. Iâ€™ve always intended for my children to be Jewish, but because of my family background, my spouseâ€™s religion was never a huge concern.
Iâ€™ve been fortunate enough to marry a wonderful woman whoâ€™s agreed to join me in raising Jewish children, even though thatâ€™s not her faith. We were a long time in coming to these decisions, obviously, just like Iâ€™m sure most of you were. So, thatâ€™s a little about me & mine â€” looking forward to the conversation!
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The â€śDecember Dilemmaâ€ť has never been a dilemma for me (though I learned a few years ago that it was an issue for my Jewish mother at first). My parents were always very clear that we were a Jewish household and we celebrated Christmas for my father. Moira and I anticipate doing much the same with our child(ren) in the future. I know weâ€™ll create our own ChristmaHannumas traditions just as my parents did. Their compromise is delicious: latkes & fried chicken.
No, this year my December dilemma is my in-lawsâ€™ Christmas traditions in my house. Due to Moiraâ€™s pregnancy, for the first time in our relationship (10+ years), we wonâ€™t be traveling to either her parentâ€™s home or mine for Christmas. Instead, weâ€™re hosting her parents and siblings for Christmas in our otherwise Jewish home.
One of the things I think Moira & I have done well over the years is to identify parts of Jewish traditions that we really enjoy and embrace. So while Shabbat in our home looks a lot like Shabbat at my parentsâ€™ home, itâ€™s also importantly different and â€śours.â€ť Similarly with Pesach (Passover) & the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Chanukah, etc.
However, because weâ€™ve always traveled for Christmas, weâ€™ve never developed a set of Christmas traditions. And while I like my in-laws a lot, their Christmas traditions are very different from the ones I grew up with, since theirs is a Christian home and mine was a Jewish one. And, as I mentioned before, trying to meet their expectations of what Christmas â€śshould beâ€ť in our home makes me nervous.
Whatâ€™s Christmas like for you all with your non-Jewish family?
My 4 year-old son’s BFF is a Christian boy named Connor. The two are not only inseparable; they have been in the same daycare class since 5 months of age.
I’ve been explaining to Oliver that Connor doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah. It’s been a fruitful conversation to talk about how we don’t share all of our holidays with some friends and family. Connor may not celebrate Hanukkah, but he does celebrate Christmas, and we want to be sure to wish Connor a Merry Christmas. So Oliver decided that he wanted to give Connor a Christmas gift, and he specifically wanted to make a Christmas ornament for Connor’s tree. So I pulled out some red felt, cut a large circle, and threaded a piece of silver ribbon through the top. “Ok,” I told him, “Now you have to decorate it.”
Oliver thought for about 10 seconds and then retrieved a marker and started drawing. The Christmas ornament has a giant blue menorah on it. Knowing Connor’s parents, they are going to be touched by Oliver’s Christmas ornament. And I’m sure they’ll hang it on their tree.
Saturday morning my family and I were at a children’s Shabbat service. Halfway through the service, our youth director asked the children to think of something they were excited to experience in the coming week. My son Oliver perked up and shot me an excited look, then reached his arm high into the air. I knew what was coming. We were going to cut down our Christmas tree the next day, and Oliver had been talking about it incessantly all week long. He is a child who hides his face and refuses to talk in Shabbat services, but Christmas trees could bring him out of his shell. I began sinking farther down in my seat and wishing this wasn’t happening.
Sure enough, the youth director called on Oliver first. “I’m excited to get our Christmas tree tomorrow!” he practically shouted. To the youth director’s credit, and probably in recognition of the number of interfaith families who are members of our synagogue, she asked Oliver whether or not we were going to cut the tree ourselves or buy it pre-cut. Oliver had no idea, but that didn’t stop him from saying we would buy it pre-cut. Then she said, “Sounds fun!” and moved on to the next child, who expressed his excitement for Hanukkah starting in a week. Which got Oliver excited, too. Hanukkah AND Christmas were so close? Amazing!
It was a nice moment, because she didn’t shoot him down or ignore his excitement. She did what a good youth director does and engaged him in conversation. Oliver was pleased that he participated. And I felt relieved and thankful for a youth director who understands interfaith families and excited little kids.
The episode reminded me of a Hanukkah/Christmas book called, “Light the Lights” by Margaret Moorman. I like it because it explores how both holidays use light during the darkest time of the year, and many of the sweetest interactions are about talking to your neighbors and observing your community as it prepares for the holidays. I especially like that you can’t tell which parent is the “Jewish” parent and which one is the “Christian” parent. Instead, both parents are equally participating and enjoying the holidays. It’s available at Amazon.com for under $10, and is part of the growing canon of books exploring both holidays.
So I just read the post from Benjamin Maron about â€śWhen is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?â€ť I can say that I totally relate to this. My daughters are being raised Jewish and their father/my husband, Alex, is Catholic and yes, we do have the Christmas tree and stockings and decorations. We donâ€™t go to Christmas Mass though (or any mass really except if itâ€™s for a family event on Alexâ€™s side) and we donâ€™t tell the Christmas story. We do have Christmas dinner with my husbandâ€™s family and there have been times my Jewish family has joined in as my daughter Kaitlynâ€™s birthday is Christmas Eve and my family rightfully wants to see her. We also do Chanukah, visit with my family, have latkes, play dreidel, watch the Maccabeats on You Tube (and we are seeing them in concert during Chanukah this year, how cool is that?) and listen to Adam Sandlerâ€™s Chanukah songs(although the first version is the best!).
My daughters identify as Jewish and respecting their dadâ€™s and his familyâ€™s religion is not going to make them any less Jewish. My older daughter last December actually announced it in the middle of class. Her teacher had given out a work sheet to play a game to fill in the missing letters of Christmas carols and my daughter got up and said â€śMr. Galvin, I donâ€™t know this because I am JEWISH.â€ť She then had me come in to her class that spring and do a lesson on Passover so her friends would understand her holidays. Celebrating another religionâ€™s holiday doesnâ€™t make you less; it makes you bigger than the sum of your parts. I am so proud of my girls and how they understand that what they are is not necessarily the same as everyone else and that thatâ€™s ok.
Do your children understand the differences and how do you explain it to them? I am still working on my five year old Megan understanding that men and women can be Jewish since she thinks that because her dad is Catholic all men must be Catholic and since mom is Jewish that all women must be Jewish.