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Thanksgivukkah has come and gone, and we have racked up stories of latke-stuffed turkeys and donuts on the dessert table, and, most importantly, of the beautiful lights of the menorah on the Thanksgiving table. But before it becomes history for another 150 or 77,000 years, depending on how you count, I want to take a moment to appreciate what makes this year different for the Interfaith (Jewish/Christian) family. This year, Thanksgivukkah gave way to an easier holiday season, where we can focus more on celebration than challenges.
As it has for the last few years, the first week in December my inbox has filled up with announcements for events about the â€śDecember Dilemma.â€ť The emails describe great-sounding panels with clergy from all walks of Judaism and Christianity offering to help me determine how to best parent through the month where our multi-faith background takes the starring role in our lives. But I have to say, its star is shining a little less brightly this year, because there is a little less dilemma before me.
As an interfaith couple, at its most challenging moments December forces us to articulate our faith choices in a way no other month does. How do we explain to our kids that they are a part of two families, even though those familiesâ€™ traditions seem so divergent in this month? In putting out a menorah instead of a Christmas tree, are we trying to tell them that one thing is better than another? (We arenâ€™t, by the way.) These questions are symbolic of the complexities of the choices we make for the four walls that define our home, questions that we navigate and re-navigate as individuals, parents and families all the time, the countless questions that probably led you to this website today.
And on top of the biggies that are highlighted this time of year, two slighlty smaller questions, the detail ones, always loom large for me in December. First, how do I make Hanukkah meaningful, when Christmas is just so gosh darn distractingly fun and wonderful? And second, how do I coordinate celebrating both with both sides of the family, and still minimize any â€ślost timeâ€ť with either?
This year, Hanukkah started the night before Thanksgiving, so we squeezed in our candle lighting between packing and cooking the stuffing we needed to drive to New York for Thanksgiving dinner. As I mentioned last month, we spend Thanksgiving with my Jewish family, so the gang was mostly there for the second night. Â And then we had three whole nights on a holiday weekend, a rare occurrence for Hanukkah. With Christmas so far in the future that gift lists havenâ€™t even been written yet, we could fully concentrate on Hanukkah – no Christmas party invites to juggle between candle-lighting, and barely an ornament display between me and the Hanukkah decorations at Target. It has been a lovely, small holiday, with plenty of nights to share with Grampy, a few with cousins, and two with friends. And now it is over.
Hanukkah is over, and I have three weeks to shop for stocking stuffers for my husbandâ€™s family, three weeks to scheme about which holiday events weâ€™ll attend together when we visit them. It is almost like Christmas is in a different season. In our home, we talk about the importance of helping our Christian family celebrate Christmas, because it is an important and joyful holiday for them. This year, weâ€™re done with our holiday, so we can fully focus on the help. Rather than choosing between one holiday or another, we did ours, and now we can move on to other things. Â My two detail questions are answered pretty neatly (although I will miss you on Christmas day, Dad!).
So it feels like I got an extra gift this December. And perhaps it is a reminder that even though we talk about a â€śdilemma,â€ť in the end what most of us are trying to accomplish two things. First, to define our own nuclear familyâ€™s take on observance, and teach it to our kids with clarity and love. And second, between the long checkout lines and travel hassles and decisions about whether to light candles or strings of lights in our own homes, December is about balancing a whole lot of celebration and joy. If we focus more on the celebration and joy, maybe we can push the dilemma part of the equation off of center stage and into more of a supporting role.
Last week, Linda K. Wertheimer wrote for the Huffington Post about how a local grocery chain warmed her heart with a grocery bag featuring a menorah and a Hanukkah greeting.Â Itâ€™s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit.Â And I had two responses â€“ first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community â€śput a menorah on itâ€ť as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences.Â After reflecting for a moment, though, I think I get where Wertheimer is coming from, and I can see how her shopping bag can open a door to appreciation and hope.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“Then today it happened. The gesture was ever so simple. There, on one side of a local grocery store’s paper shopping bag was a picture of a menorah and the words, “The Wilson Farm Family Wishes Your Family Happy Chanukah!” On the other side of the bag, the greeting was “Happy Thanksgiving,” with a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie. Wilson’s, based in Lexington, a Boston suburb, is an old-style farmer’s market that grew into a large grocery store. They always have been careful to pay homage to Jewish holidays with Jewish-related foods, but I’ve never seen them put Hanukkah on a shopping bag.
Somewhat environmentally conscious, I had taken a reusable grocery bag to the store, but when I saw the Hanukkah bag, I couldn’t resist. I asked for one and gushed about how I couldn’t wait to show it to my 5-year-old son.”
Reaction # 1: Ugh
In her article, Wertheimer talks about feeling like her Jewish lens was invisible in the rural Ohio town where she grew up.Â My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag.Â 30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community.Â In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews.Â Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a â€śholiday tree,â€ť and put a star on top of it. To decorate the tree, the school asked us 7 Jews to color in paper menorahs, as our friends sat beside us and chose from a variety of Christmas symbols for themselves.Â And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place.Â But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual â€śholiday show,â€ť a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.
And that was the end of the story. Â Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions. Â With this childhood chip on my shoulder, for years I have bristled at the menorah amidst the Christmas decorations as a weak gesture towards understanding the richness of my faith.
Reaction # 2: Not so fast, Jessie
Fast forward those 30 years, and maybe I can see things a little bit more through Wertheimerâ€™s eyes.Â One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting â€śHappy Diwaliâ€ť on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity.Â Maybe the storyline of the December dilemma could be more of a jumping off point, pushing us to open ourselves up and recognize the multitude of interesting, important, and often joyful holidays that happen for different religious groups throughout the year.Â What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each otherâ€™s cultures, in place of all of the disharmony and bad news delivered through the media every day?
Another thing hit me through the celebratory tone of Wertheimerâ€™s article.Â Iâ€™ve always been hung up on the idea that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, so trying to acknowledge it along with Christmas is a misaligned attempt â€“ why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think Iâ€™ve been focusing on the wrong thing.Â Hanukkah may be minor on the Jewish calendar, but it is beautiful. The lit Hanukkiah in the window makes the same gesture as the Christmas tree, to provide more light and invite warmth and cheer into our homes.Â As the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, why not focus on every opportunity we have for more light?
So I think I say Thanks for the Hanukkah bag.Â What do you think?
Two months ago, I declared my resolution to unplug with you on this blog. I told you Iâ€™d let you know how it was going along the way. I have been reticent to write about it again, but I feel compelled to come clean. I am doing a pretty bad job.Â I am doing a great job at being mindful of how often I turn to technology, which is one step in the right direction, but I am probably only achieving total shutoff every 1 out of 5 weeks, which is much worse than where I thought Iâ€™d be.
If you are observant enough that unplugging isnâ€™t novel, or if you have your own version and youâ€™re pretty good at it, you may not find this of interest. But if youâ€™re one of the many people who told me, â€śThatâ€™s a good idea, I wish I could do that,â€ť I thought Iâ€™d let you know where I am getting hung up. You can use my hang-ups as a reason to not try yourself, or as a guide to how to create your own unplugging objectives. Up to you.
Here is where I find myself reaching for the things I said I could live without:
Reason # 1 (the one I kind of anticipated): Making plans
Because this is not really a â€śturn off electricity because of our religious observanceâ€ť rule, we are turning off our phones but interacting in a non-religious world for most of Saturday. Saturday is a big day for us to be together as a family and with friends.Â All of these friends have their phones on.Â When my girls were younger, I was home on Fridays, so I could focus on family time and planning for the weekend on Friday during the day.Â But now I work fulltime in the office, and so I am trying to both be in family time and plan family time simultaneously on Saturday.Â Itâ€™s a rarity to have the day all planned by Friday night so that I donâ€™t feel an urge to text a few friends so I donâ€™t miss them at the soccer field, or to plan a spontaneous play-date when naptime is over.
Reason # 2: Getting anywhere
When I was living in LA in my 20s, everyone lived by this incredible map book called The Thomas Guide. Over time, the book was imprinted in my brain in a way that only comes from the act of reading off of a page. Now, I use the map app on my phone to get anywhere. And it hasnâ€™t really imprinted. So I either need to print out directions to anywhere I need to go by sundown on Friday, or fumble my way through Boston by trial and error, both of which I am failing to do.
Reason # 3: Music
We live stream a lot of music in our house (and our car). If the rule is that the phone is off, the Internet radio is, too. I try to draw a hard-line on this one, but I am stuck with commercial radio, which I am not crazy about, and CDs, of which we donâ€™t have many that I am not sick of already.
Reason # 4: Reading
I recently put a real page-turner that I took out from the library on my phone. Sure, I have magazines to read, but I want to finish that book, gosh-darn it.
Reason # 5: Writing
Writing is a diversion I really enjoy. It allows me to clear my head, think differently, and attempt to get interesting things up on this blog. But after over 20 years of relying on word processors, I just canâ€™t write that quickly on paper anymore. And my hand cramps. And then I need to transcribe it on Sunday. So Iâ€™m not writing, but Iâ€™m not crazy about not doing it.
Reason # 6: Winding down
On a good week, Eric and I put the kids to bed and enthusiastically play a board game or talk about whatâ€™s on our minds. But on a regular week, when we are stressed and tired, thereâ€™s nothing that feels more romantic than snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie or six episodes of How Itâ€™s Made. But our resolution was that unplugging means no TV on Friday nights. Some weeks, we just decide to skip that rule, and others, we both just go to bed early, which is good for our health but doesnâ€™t achieve the objective of taking the TV away so that we can better connect to one another.
Because of all of these things, Iâ€™ve cut myself some breaks that feel unavoidable in the moment but don’t help me in achieving my goal. Iâ€™m not ready to change the rules just yet â€“ I want to give it some more time. And even with the rule skirting, I think weâ€™re getting somewhere. When we donâ€™t use the Internet radio, we talk more, read more stories, or remember to look out the car window at the beautiful trees instead of looking at the pictures on the phone. We may not actually ban TV for 24 hours, but we are mindful of not turning it on before we have a conversation to unwind together first. And the phone has pretty much disappeared from our dinner table 7 days a week, when it had crept in a little too much. So weâ€™re getting somewhere. Its just slow going.
Earlier this week, Ruthie, her friend, and I had a heart-warming (for me) conversation about my work in affordable housing.Â We were talking about an event I had for work that night, and I asked Ruthie to explain my job to her friend.Â Of course, she started with the story of the dog that lives in one of our buildings and how he might have to find a new home because heâ€™s peed in the hallway one too many times (they both thought this was hilarious), but she ended with really explaining (in 4-year-old terms) about how some people need help finding and affording decent housing.Â So I had a proud moment of feeling like I am doing a good job in teaching her about the importance of Tikkun Olam, healing the world.
And then this morning happened.Â Ruthie refused her nighttime bath, for fear that weâ€™d sneak in a stealth hair-washing, but slipped into the shower with me this morning.Â When she was done washing, and I reached over to turn off the faucet, she embarked on a mini-tantrum, yelling at me that she just needed 3 more minutes.Â As much as I have modeled good behavior, and dragged her along to volunteer events, charity walks and my own work, I am stumped when it comes to conservation.Â Raising kids in the era of hand sanitizer, it feels harder than ever to teach the tension between the value of cleanliness and the need to protect the earthâ€™s resources.
There was a father in our parenting class who is an environmentalist by trade, and in the session where we discussed teaching Tikkun Olam, I asked him how he taught his three kids about conservation.Â He told a sweet story about how he taught his kids to turn the tap off so that they could save water for the fish (meaning the fish in the sea).Â He made it sound like it was a pretty easy sell.Â So the next time Ruthie started to protest the shower ending, I tried it.
â€śRuthie, sweetie, we need to be careful with the water and not use too much of it, so that we can save water for the fish.â€ťÂ She looked at me, turned off the water frantically, and ran out of the bathroom.Â I followed the pitter patter of her feet and found her in the living room, standing infront of our fish tank.
â€śLook, Mommy,â€ť she said, â€śthe fish have plenty of water.â€ťÂ I am guessing my classmate didnâ€™t have a fish tank in his house.
So we keep trying.Â As we edge closer to her fifth birthday, she is beginning to get the idea of resource conservation a bit more (huge thanks to her schoolteachers on that one!), but we still have a ways to go before the â€ś3 more minutesâ€ť pitch is over.Â The saving water for the fish story isnâ€™t working.Â Anyone have a better idea?
There was a time when Eric and I shared a love for The O.C. In the days before OnDemand, one of the most romantic things that my future husband ever did was to take copious notes of the 2004 season premiere when I was stuck at a community meeting that night and couldnâ€™t watch it myself. It was a nighttime soap opera filled with hyperbole and totally unrealistic situations, the kind of show that I should be embarrassed about loving. But I admit it proudly, we were serious fans.
Even though I think that the prominence of the Cohens, the lovably complex interfaith family at the center of The O.C.â€™s drama, probably helped gain some ground for Jewish/Christian partnerships overall, I cringed when Seth Cohen asked the world to embrace Chrismukkah in the Winter of 2003. Iâ€™m going to show my cards here: I donâ€™t believe that the answer to â€śThe December Dilemmaâ€ť is to combine holidays. Its not because I want to deny either Christmas or Hanukah â€“ its quite the opposite. I love both holidays â€“ and I love how marrying into a Christian family means Iâ€™ve had 14 years to get an inside view of how joyous Christmas is. But the holidays are so profoundly different â€“ especially in their level of import to the religions of which they are a part â€“ that to me combining them feels like a disservice to them both.
I have been reminded of my conflicting love of The Cohens and unease for the Chrismukkah they popularized as a new combination of holidays is coming up this year. With the first night of Hanukkah occurring on Thanksgiving, everyday folks, community leaders, and yes, makers of merchandise, have begun to proclaim 2013 the year of â€śThanksgivukkah.â€ť I first started hearing about the â€śholidayâ€ť via a mouthwatering post of Thankgivukkah recipes on BuzzFeed. Itâ€™s hard to object to a holiday that boasts sweet potato bourbon noodle kugel and pecan pie rugelach. From that first post, it seems to have caught on like wildfireâ€¦.there are t-shirts, limited edition menorahs, a website (put up by Manischewitz), a Facebook page, and even a block party in LA. Not to mention a piece on this site about navigating the convergence of both holidays with Jewish family and those who do not celebrate Hanukkah.
So am I ok with it? Its growing on meâ€¦.this idea that it is phenomenally rare (read this article to see just how rare), that there are totally great menu possibilities, and that my family will conveniently all be together to light the menorah for the first time (like many interfaith couples Iâ€™m sure, we usually spend Thankgiving with our Jewish family and Christmas with our Christian family, so Thanksgiving is already kind of a Jewish family thing). And part of my objection to combining Christmas and Hanukkah is that it forces an importance on Hanukkah that isnâ€™t consistent with the rest of the religious calendar â€“ making it easy to breeze over a true understanding of either Christmas or Hanukkah.
But Thanksgiving and Hanukkah might fit better together â€“ they are both based on lore that donâ€™t necessarily create something new (like a whole new religion!) but allow people to pause in a time of turmoil to consider new hope. And since we usually eat well before sundown but donâ€™t light the candles until sundown, hopefully theyâ€™ll be a moment to pause in between and talk to our kids about each holiday, separately. And, finally, now that I have kids and am navigating life in a multi-generational, multi-faith family where the absolutes of my pre-kid 20â€™s seem a little fanciful, maybe Iâ€™ll soften up on Chrismukkah, too. No promises, Seth Cohen.
As I prepared to publish this post, I hesitated for a second, as hopefully many of you who read my posts also read Jane Larkinâ€™s musings, and we were both moved to write about Jewish learning this month.Â But Iâ€™m sticking with it, because our coinciding themes must mean that itâ€™s important, right?Â With all of the emphasis on back-to-school for our kids, it seems like a good idea to think about the possibility of back-to-school for us grown-ups, too.
I sit on the alumni advisory committee for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a fantastic program offered by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (Bostonâ€™s Jewish Federation).Â At our kick-off meeting for the year, we did an icebreaker where we all answered the question, â€śWhat is the best kept secret about PTJL?â€ťÂ We shared lots of ideas, but the thing that stuck with me was the comment of the woman who spoke after me: â€śIts better than date night,â€ť she said, â€śbecause unlike on date night, when you feel pressured to have a great time, to not be tired and to think of fun and interesting things to say, the curriculum is filled with interesting things to talk about, the babysitting is free, and you can easily connect with your partner without any pressure.â€ť
Now, I love date night, and I wonâ€™t go so far as to say that a Sunday morning class is better than a night out on the townâ€¦and I even think that my friend from the committee might admit to a little hyperbole in her comment.Â But having had two Jewish learning opportunities with my husband, the most recent one two years ago with one kid in (free) babysitting and another on the way, I get what sheâ€™s saying.Â First, because there always is a little more pressure to make the most of every minute of a date than there was before kids, and second, because taking Parenting Through a Jewish Lens with Eric was really great.
When we signed up for a Jewish parenting class, I imagined it would include some aspect of a rabbi telling us â€śthe rulesâ€ť of being a Jewish parent (this sounded helpful enough to me).Â Once we started, though, I realized that just telling us â€śthe rulesâ€ť wouldnâ€™t be very Jewish.Â Instead, the class was about studying direct texts, trying to understand who we are as individuals, co-parents, and children ourselves, and hoping that doing that would help us to be better parents.Â It is so hard in our every day journey to not just be parents, but to think about how well the parenting we are doing lines up with our hopes about the kind of parents we want to be.Â We were lucky in that the structure of our class supported just that kind of thinking.
That in and of itself was pretty great.Â But here was the icing on the cake: with Ruthie in babysitting down the hall, we had 90 minutes every week to be grown-ups together, to learn new things and talk about stuff that really matters.Â And it turns out we really like learning together.Â To hit a pause button every week and do something totally differentâ€¦it would be pretty special no matter what we were doing.Â And all the luckier that it was about the intersection of parenting and values, two things about which we share a passion.
So hereâ€™s my multi-pronged pitch.Â First of all, if you live in the Greater Boston area, sign-up for PTJL this fall, or at the very least put it on your to-do list for next year.Â If you donâ€™t live in Boston, or PTJLâ€™s not your thing, ponder the idea of studying something new with your spouse.Â It doesnâ€™t have to be something about your parenting, but anything that stretches your brain a little bit will probably ultimately benefit not just you, but your kids as well. Â [For those of you who live in areas where IFF has offices, you can take advantage of parenting and relationship classes and workshops in Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.] Â So I hope everyoneâ€™s had a good back-to-school month for your kids.Â And I hope you get back-to-school, too.
A warning to you, kind reader: You have read this story before. Itâ€™s about unplugging from technology and reconnecting with your family. Itâ€™s not a new idea, in fact I know Iâ€™m late to jump on the train. But itâ€™s also about resolutions, and Shabbat, so hopefully I can bring in a little something new to the conversation. And if not, please indulge my unplugging declaration, and a Sweet and Happy New Year to you.
So hereâ€™s my story:
I am not a big believer in New Yearâ€™s Resolutions. Itâ€™s not that I doubt peopleâ€™s ability to change â€“ quite the opposite, as my resume reflects a career in pursuit of change. Â Itâ€™s just that when it comes to resolutions, I think people have a tendency to set their sights too high, to pick a goal for a 12-month period that is rarely sustainable for more than a few weeks. Â Change is an iterative process, and if weâ€™ve never done something very well before, it is rare that we can go from not doing something to doing it well every day. By setting ourselves up like that, by saying â€śI am never going to lose my temper with my kids,â€ť instead of saying â€śIâ€™m going to remember to breath more deeply when little Frankie gets me frustrated,â€ť we fail to set up enough small victories to keep fuel in our tanks. In measured steps, I think anything is possible, but in huge bounds, as least for me, the hit rate is not always as good.
This year, thereâ€™s a change I really want to make. Technology, especially in the form of Ericâ€™s and my pretty little iPhones, is getting in the way. It all started out rather innocently â€“ when Ruthie was a baby, I started taking my phone out more and more to snap pictures of her â€“ she was so phenomenally, well, phenomenal, and I loved being able to take a snapshot and immediately send it off to her grandparents or her dad. When Chaya was born, it seemed harmless to hand the iPhone over to Ruthie to play a shape-sorting game so I could buy five minutes and finish nursing in peace. And when we try to track down two or three friends at the hectic gate at the zoo, its great to have the tool of texting to save five minutes of searching with two hot kids hanging around my neck.
But despite its innocent beginnings, it is still getting in the way. Too often I catch myself taking the phone out to snap a photo of the girls and accidentally being caught up in an email that really could wait until nap time for a response. Or I complain about not having time to talk with Eric, and then get distracted by a news alert on the phone during our ten minutes of quiet together before bedtime. So how can I blame Ruthie for asking for a video more than I think she should, or begrudge Chayaâ€™s fascination with the lit-up screen of the phone when the alarm sounds in the morning?
It’s not that the touchscreen has no place in my girlsâ€™ development – I believe that their comfort with technology will play a role in their future academic and professional success. And in my own childhood memories, anything that parents forbid became an obsession, so I think parenting around technology should be about limit setting rather than prohibitions. Truthfully, though, after reading lots of blogs and articles about unplugging (see introductory note), I donâ€™t know what those limits should be.
So hereâ€™s our resolution, or perhaps experiment: This year, we are unplugging on Shabbat. Eric and I started talking a couple of months ago about the technology issue, but unplugging every day sounds like a bound to me, something so grand that weâ€™d quickly fall short and taste progress-deterring failure. I started to ponder a middle ground – a set of small steps – and as the High Holidays approached, I realized that that small step is handed to me by Jewish tradition. Shabbat is not just a day of rest – it is a chance to practice a different way of living, and a different way of being as a family. So committing to do something differently 1/7 of our year is a natural thing to do as a Jew, and a great way to try on this no-technology thing.
I am not a dummy, and I know that tons of Jews have been doing this forever – that many believe we are not fulfilling the commandment by using electricity at all on Shabbat. But we are not becoming Shomer Shabbos â€“ thatâ€™s not where we are as family, or as Jews. So rather than saying to my kids â€śCell phones and computers off because we donâ€™t use any electricity on Shabbat,â€ť I am going to try this on: â€śCell phones and computers off because we are going to be together as a family on Shabbat,â€ť to sing our own songs, tell each other our own stories, play games that require sharing a game board or using our bodies.
I see this experiment as twofold. First, I hope it lets us see how we like life without technology, and to inform what the best limits are for our family. As I said before, I donâ€™t anticipate our final rule will forbid technology, but I hope that living without it for a controlled period every week will help us figure out how much weâ€™d like to live without it over the course of a whole week. And second, I hope it will teach us some new things about how we want to be on Shabbat. Maybe weâ€™ll hate it and decide we want to be on our phones all of Shabbat…or maybe weâ€™ll love it and next year will decide to turn something else off for 24 hours.
The initial rules are no cell phones, no Internet, no TV â€“ landline is OK. Â Weâ€™ll see how it goes, and hopefully Iâ€™ll let you know on this blog.
What do you think? Have you tried this, or do you have a different resolution? How do you make Shabbat a different day than the other six?