Introduction and December, Y’all!

Shalom, y’all! I’m Warren, and I’m going to be contributing to the Parenting blog here at InterfaithFamily. I’m the Jewish partner in my marriage — my wife was raised in a church-every-Sunday Episcopalian home — but I’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 I’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. I’ve always intended for my children to be Jewish, but because of my family background, my spouse’s religion was never a huge concern.

I’ve been fortunate enough to marry a wonderful woman who’s agreed to join me in raising Jewish children, even though that’s not her faith. We were a long time in coming to these decisions, obviously, just like I’m sure most of you were. So, that’s a little about me & mine — looking forward to the conversation!

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The “December Dilemma” 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 we’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-laws’ Christmas traditions in my house. Due to Moira’s pregnancy, for the first time in our relationship (10+ years), we won’t be traveling to either her parent’s home or mine for Christmas. Instead, we’re hosting her parents and siblings for Christmas in our otherwise Jewish home.
I’ve celebrated Christmas with them four or five times, but this will be the first time we host Christmas at all, and that makes me a little nervous.

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 parents’ home, it’s also importantly different and “ours.” Similarly with Pesach (Passover) & the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), Chanukah, etc.

However, because we’ve always traveled for Christmas, we’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 “should be” in our home makes me nervous.

What’s Christmas like for you all with your non-Jewish family?

A Christian BFF

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.

Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah Come Light the…Christmas 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.

A Christmas Tree is always a Christmas Tree, If You Want It To Be

So I just read the post from Benjamin Maron about “When is a Christmas Tree Just a Christmas Tree?” 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 don’t go to Christmas Mass though (or any mass really except if it’s for a family event on Alex’s side) and we don’t tell the Christmas story. We do have Christmas dinner with my husband’s family and there have been times my Jewish family has joined in as my daughter Kaitlyn’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 Sandler’s Chanukah songs(although the first version is the best!).

My daughters identify as Jewish and respecting their dad’s and his family’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 “Mr. Galvin, I don’t know this because I am JEWISH.” 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 religion’s holiday doesn’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 that’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.

Here we go again

It is that time of year again.  The leaves haven’t fallen off the trees.   Halloween pumpkins are still un-carved.  Thanksgiving seems like a million years away.  But the conversation about Christmas has already started.  Like the ornaments and holiday music in the stores, it seems that I start the conversation about December, earlier and earlier with my kid’s public school teachers.

In October, our temple does a program for teachers about religious sensitivity.  They talk about how Christmas-themed everything is sort of insensitive to kids that aren’t Christian.  That kids that aren’t Christian have to suck it up every year because it is being done in a fun festive spirit.   I send the letter out to the kids’ teachers and say, hey, if you want to go to this you not only get continuing education credits, but I will pay for it.  (It is only $10 so it isn’t like I am breaking the bank, but I want to leave no stone unturned.)

Usually, I get no response.  This year, my letter seemed to trigger something in one of my son’s teachers.  She emailed me and told me about a project that they do every year.  The parents send in $5 and the kids make Christmas trees out of foam and fabric.  I remember this from when my older son was in 4th grade.  What they end up with is cute, BUT, you cannot imagine how irritating it is to have my money go towards something that is religiously insensitive.

I understand the Supreme Court ruling that states that Christmas Trees are secular.  I understand that technically what they are doing isn’t illegal.  But, logically it is nonsensical to make a Jewish kid give his parents a Christmas Tree for Hanukah.  What about the Muslim kids?  Yes, my kids have an out, they can always give it to Grandma.  But somewhere, deep in my heart, it bothers me.  Why do we have to do this?  I can think of about eleventy billion other projects that the kids could do that are cute, easy and NOT a Christmas Tree.  Heck, I just saw a very cute snowman doorstop made out of a key shaped paver.

So, I haven’t even bought Halloween candy yet, and already I am having the conversation about Christmas with my kid’s teachers.  I used to get fired up about it.  Stand solidly on my soap box and denounce all the religion in the schools.  But, I have gotten exactly nowhere with that.  I guess I am tired of trying.  Or maybe this year I am taking the chicken exit, but we are just not going to go to school for a week and I have asked all the teachers to hold off on the Christmas stuff till we skedaddle out of town.

There are many reasons why we are leaving town when we are leaving town, and the stuff at school isn’t the driving force, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you I am relieved to not have to worry about it this year.  (Something in my head says that those are famous last words and that Christmas is still going to rear its ugly head, but hopefully I will be on the beach by the time it happens.)

Christmas Sharing?

Can we tolerate one more post about the December Dilemma?  I promise to be short.  I just want to share with you what my oldest child (he is in 6th grade) did at school recently. 

The district has a program called Christmas Sharing where they collect clothes and food for families in our area who are less fortunate.  Great program!  At our elementary school they call it Holiday Sharing.  When our oldest went to middle school we learned that the program is actually called Christmas Sharing.  As part of the program they ask the kids to donate money and then they can create an ornament to hang on the Christmas tree.  If they donate enough money, food, and clothing Santa will visit the school.  Yes, this is middle school.

For obvious reasons my son was upset that all other religions were being excluded.  He took it upon himself to write the Principal about the issue.  He detailed his concerns.  He said that he was uncomfortable donating to a Christian program.  That some of the Muslim or Buddhist families in our school might feel the same way.  He had questions about who benefited from the program.  Was it only Christian families?  There might be families of other faiths that need help too.

He told the Principal that he did not have an issue with the motives behind it, but would like to have the public school be more aware that not everyone is Christian and offer more inclusive activities.  He detailed some ideas that would be more inclusive.  Rather than creating ornaments, perhaps the kids could create holiday/winter pictures that could be hung on the walls in the cafeteria; instead of Santa, how about homework passes or a day with no homework?

Our Principal is great.  He asked Mac to participate in the newly renamed committee, Holiday Spirit.  It was Christmas Spirit until Mac brought up the issue.  He will be the only student on the committee, until now it was compromised entirely of teachers and staff.  He will be able to talk about ideas that will make things more inclusive.  The Principal has invited Mac to attend a meeting with the Superintendent and the local churches to discuss renaming Christmas Sharing to Holiday Sharing.

Mac is beginning to work towards creating a world that is more tolerant and understanding, more inclusive to people who are not Christian.   Not only is this a proud parenting moment, it proves that in spite of everything, our child is a Jew.

Santa or Star of David?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to narrow down the eleventy-seven questions that run through my head this time of year. (Couple that with my work barely coming out of busy season in time for the added holiday stress, and I’m often a real joy to be around this time of year.) I know my household isn’t alone in facing the December Dilemma, and I know we all have unique circumstances in our dilemmas. So, to keep the confusion in my head from just spilling out all over the page here, I’ll try to limit today’s post to just a couple issues.

We live in the Bible belt where, to put it nicely, people just assume you’re Christian. There are no Jewish day schools or daycares near where I live, so Baby goes to “school” at a wonderful daycare near our home. This school uses the A Beka curriculum, which is a Christian-based curriculum. We knew this when we chose the daycare, and we decided it was still the best place for Baby to go while we both work during the day. He’s happy there. His best friend (not coincidentally, the child of one of my best friends) is in his class. The teachers love him, the directors love him, and we’re quite pleased with the care he gets.

The school is warm and caring, and they decorate for all the seasons and holidays. Christmas is no exception. Yes, you read that right. Christmas is no exception. There are no menorahs or other Hanukkah decorations. There are no Kwanzaa decorations. It’s all snowflakes and Santa and stockings and trees. (At least it’s all “secular” Christmas decorations, even though many of you – my husband included – will tell me there’s no such thing as “secular” Christmas decorations. I hope we can agree to disagree on that for just this minute.) It’s festive and fun, and Baby LOVES the snowflakes and blue ball ornaments hanging from the ceiling all down the hall. As the Christian parent in the family, this actually doesn’t bother me…except…Baby is Jewish. Should it bother me? Should I request that the adorable Santa face outside the classroom that has Baby’s name on it be replaced with a Star of David or a menorah? We’ve not been overt about Baby’s religion, nor do we feel we need to be…should we be? Would it make things awkward at school? Should it matter to me if it does?

Bottom line, I know that the quality of care Baby gets at his school is the most important thing, and that he’s happy there. And I know that one day – or even one “season” (in the sense of the Christmas season) – won’t make him any less Jewish, if his Daddy and I do our jobs right as interfaith-parents-raising-a-Jewish-child. But still, these types of questions nag at the back of my mind. I’d love to hear thoughts from others in similar situations out there.

When is December Not A Dilemma?

As everyone who is reading this already knows, December is probably the most stressful/crazy/anxiety-ridden time of the year.  Or at least that’s what everyone wants you to feel.  Especially if you are intermarried or if you grew up in an interfaith family.  The questions – What are you doing for the holidays?  Do you have a tree?  Do your kids believe in Santa?  Do your kids get presents for both holidays?  Maybe it’s because I have been intermarried for 10 years and have had kids for the last 7, but thankfully I do not have a dilemma in December.  This is due to my amazing husband, in-laws and extended family and because we really did and continue to do the work to secure this non-dilemma situation during this crazy time of the year.  We celebrate Chanukah in our house and Christmas at my in-laws and extended family.  We each have our own menorah and bring it with us when the holidays overlap.  We have a great time and so do our kids.  While my in-laws celebrate Christmas as a truly religious one, we celebrate it as a truly fun day or two to spend with family – exchange gifts – and eat cinnamon buns.

The first year we were married, and I didn’t observe my family’s Jewish Christmas tradition of going to the movies and going out for Chinese food – unique, I know – I was completely overwhelmed by the gifts.  My in-laws are completely non-materialistic people so that made me even more taken aback.  Chanukah in my family was one nice gift and a bunch of little things for the rest of the seven nights.  Thankfully after we had kids, the bulk of the presents went to them – rightfully so – but I still haven’t been able to make my own peace with all of the presents.  Even today, I went to Macy’s in our local mall for a Chanukah Family Fest and was simply in shock at how many people were at the mall and all of the shopping bags they were walking out with.  Not that I am anti-gifts – my kids would never forgive me for that.  In fact, I am done with my shopping and I bought almost all of the gifts at non-commercial places like independent toy stores and book stores – crowds make me a little crazy plus I am a bad decision-maker so smaller stores with fewer options work out better for me. 

The first couple of years with our kids at Christmas, I was slightly adamant about their gifts being wrapped in non-Christmas paper: something wintery was fine – snowflakes or snowmen – and I definitely didn’t want any gifts from Santa – only from Grammy & Poppy.  I am beyond grateful that my in-laws respected my wishes – and humored me.   I also feel that my husband and I have done our job as parents for the other 364 days out of the year so one day is not going to make a lasting impact in their identity.

Now our 7 year old is the one asking questions – Why aren’t stores decorated for Chanukah?  Why do only people who celebrate Christmas put up lights in their yard?  Why do more people celebrate Christmas than Chanukah?  Is Santa real?  My husband and I try to answer these questions with simple yet truthful answers and in a way to let him know that we know these things can be hard to understand.  The Santa one is the hardest because it is such an honest question and one that we don’t want him to ruin for his friends – kind of like the tooth fairy.  It’s a tough one – what do you tell your kids?

Calendar Schmalendar

Spin the dreidels, light the menorahs, it is Hannukah time.  When we announced that Saturday was the first night of Hannukah, the kids dropped their electronic gadgets, stopped texting their friends, and cleaned the table off.  Everyone was so excited to start the celebration.

What, your calendar says that Hannukah is still a couple of weeks off?  Well, because Hannukah coincides with our trip to California to celebrate Christmas with my family we are doing it early.  We have always played loose with the dates for Hannukah.  When our kids were really small we made the decision to celebrate each holiday on its own.  We felt that by making each event stand on alone, it would eliminate the competition between the two.

The agreement Bob and I reached before we got married was that we would celebrate Christmas with my family but not in our house.  We have violated this one year when we didn’t have the time or resources to go to my family’s home.  We had a very low key celebration at our house.  I am not sure what we will do when my mother is no longer with us, and I don’t like to think about that.

At first I was disappointed about this.  I fought it, and tried to put up a tree and decorations.  Now, I love that we don’t have to worry about putting up lights and decorating a tree.  It is one less thing I have to do.  When we go to my mom’s the kids can do all the Christmas stuff.  I don’t have to try and squeeze it into our schedule.  When we are there we can do it without all the other stressors of our lives.  The kids get the full experience and I have less work, win/win!

But, back to Hannukah… it was great to watch my kids get over-joyed by lighting the menorah.  To actually want to sit down and play dreidel with us, we sure don’t have this response when we suggest family game night.  They immediately started in on determining when we would have latkes and who we would invite.  Because of the schedule, the idea of donuts for dinner was met with squeals of excitement.

My youngest who is 6, asked about presents.  We told her, that because we were doing it early that the only gifts they would get during our Hannukah would be the ones from us.  They would still get gifts from everyone else, but they would just come later.  We reminded them that they will just get the usual gifts from us.  We give money, clothing and an experience.  That is it.  Last year we swapped out a material gift for an experience.  The experiences were a trip to a baseball game, a pony ride and a professional soccer game.  It was something each kid got to do with their father, alone.  It was very well received.

So, while for most people Hannukah has not started, for us it is almost over.  That is ok, because we will leave the “coldest place on earth” and head home to California for two weeks of Christmas.  It works for us, what works for  you?

Christmukkah Redux

I’m going to jump into the whole Christmas/Hanukkah discussion with both feet and with some potentially unpopular views. As someone raised in an entirely Christian household (Catholic mother, Baptist father), I’ve got a lot of history with and feelings about Christmas (mostly good). As Jordyn Rozensky wrote on this website, I associate the holiday above all with family get-togethers. It also makes me think of going home for the holidays, It’s a Wonderful Life, the smell of fresh pine, red and green decorations, frosted cookies, etc., etc. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was something to look forward to because the clergy burned incense, the choir was the biggest and best that night, and everyone was in a good mood.

When my Jewish husband and I got married, celebrating Christmas was never a problem. He himself grew up in an interfaith family (Episcopal mother, Jewish father—I know, I know, not considered “really” Jewish in some quarters, more on that in later blogs) that celebrated Christmas. Even my husband’s “very” German Jewish cousins, not interfaith, celebrated Christmas as their families had done ever since arriving in America in the 1800s. So for years we merrily put up a tree, hung stockings, festooned our apartment, then our house, with angels and elves and reindeer—the whole nine yards—without a care. We also joined a synagogue and raised our children as Jews, which included celebrating Hanukkah. We continue to light candles every night of Hanukkah, and the kids receive presents on the first and last nights.

The problems started when I decided to convert. Our kids were 13, 9, and 4 when I began attending classes. I loved conversion class, loved studying Torah, learning Jewish history and picking up some Hebrew. But then came the night when our coordinator brought up the topic of Christmas, delicately suggesting that we might not want to celebrate it any more and wondering how we would feel about that. One young woman looked distraught, then broke down crying and left. Really, she did. Giving up Christmas was too much for her to contemplate. To be honest, if I’d thought at that moment that I would have to give up Christmas once I converted, I probably would have started crying, too. The truth is, as soon as the coordinator asked us, I knew in a profound way that I couldn’t give it up. Besides, even if my husband and I decided to stop celebrating Christmas, our children would most likely tie us up in tinsel, stuff stockings in our mouths, and carry on without us.

So here we are as the holidays approach, now a completely Jewish family, yet neither entirely one thing or the other. We’re ok with it. But sometimes others aren’t. It’s their reactions that give me pause. Every season it happens: a newer Jewish friend or parent of my child’s friend or a neighbor who knows we are Jewish will give us that hard-edged look, or that telling “oooooh, you have a tree.” I flinch. I resist the urge to explain our background, that I just converted a few years ago, that really we are good Jews, that we go to family school and pray.

This is my current solution: I weasel. We put the tree in the back of the house so it’s not quite so apparent to passersby. We tend not to mention it at synagogue, which is interfaith anyway. We hang white lights, which could technically be regarded as a paean to the winter solstice!

Maybe it’s my inner rebel, maybe it’s my dear departed mother’s voice, maybe it’s just a surrender to overwhelming cultural influences, but I won’t stop celebrating the holiday with a tree and presents. And every Christmas morning, I’m perennially surprised and delighted to find there’s still a little magic left.