Why I still celebrate Christmas

  

I’m Jewish, and pretty happy about it.  I converted about four years ago, with our oldest two children.  But, yeah, I still celebrate Christmas.  I don’t celebrate it as the birth of Christ, but it’s still a tremendously meaningful and important holiday for me.  I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite holiday of the year – there’s too much other stress going on for that.  December is decidedly a challenging month for my husband and I.  Between the number of Jewish people who write articles that I can’t stop myself from reading that assure me that a tree has no place in a Jewish home, and worrying about whether or not people are judging me for putting up the tree anyway.  It’s celebrating a holiday that while it has never been particularly Christian to me – it is a Christian holiday to many people.  And either way, it is most definitely not Jewish.  It’s a hard month for my husband, who didn’t grow up  celebrating Christmas, but not celebrating it is almost a part of his Jewish identity – so it’s never an easy time of year.

But celebrate it we do, enthusiastically.  I’ve got stocking hung by the chimney with care, and a tree that’s lopsided, with way too many lights on it, and ornaments that are well loved and not particularly coordinated.  I’ve got pictures of all of my babies with Santa Claus, and tinsel and candy canes EVERYWHERE.  So why do I celebrate?  Why do I insist on participating in holiday that everyone keeps telling me is all about rampant consumerism and materialism?  If I strip away the Christian connotations to it, what exactly is Christmas all about?  And why exactly do I insist every year that we celebrate it?

I celebrate it because it’s wrapped up in some of my favorite memories from my childhood.  Caroling with my cousins, singing songs to my sister at night before we fell asleep.  Every Christmas Eve, my little sister would beg to sleep in my bed with me, and I’d tell her stories about Santa and swear that I could see Rudolph’s nose in the sky.  Baking Christmas cookies with my baby cousins, and taking my nieces and nephews out at night to look for the prettiest Christmas lights.  My mother has this one song – Mary’s Boy Child, and it’s this odd sort of Jamaican Christmas carol, and every time it comes on the radio, she’d turn it up as loud as it could go and rock out.  My mother doesn’t rock out as a rule, and watching her chair dance in the car while we drove anywhere in December was (and is) kind of awesome.

I celebrate it because I love the anticipation of Christmas Day.  I love that my kids talk about Santa Claus (despite the fact that both the older ones know it’s just a myth).  When I was a kid, I loved that sense, all month long, that we were building up to this one day when magically, just because, we’d wake up and find that someone had brought us presents, just because.  It’s not about the gifts, exactly.  Looking back, I don’t remember any specific Christmas gift that I ever got that made a huge impression.  What I remember is the magic, the excitement and the joy of it all.  I want that for my kids.

I celebrate it because I’m still my mother’s daughter.  And I’m raising her grandchildren.  Having a child convert to a different religion isn’t easy, and my mother supported me and stood beside me every step of the way.  I’ve never doubted her love or commitment, and I can’t imagine how hurt and disappointed she’d be if I didn’t give my kids the same opportunity to love Christmas as she gave me.  I won’t do that to her.  I won’t do that to her grandchildren.  It’s not that she wants them to not be Jewish, she loves listening to my two year old lisp out the Shabbat blessings, and makes sure that she’s a part of our holiday traditions as well.  She just wants to know that my family still a part of her family, celebrating her favorite holidays and traditions.  Like sleeping over at Grammy’s house on the night before Thanksgiving, and trekking up to Maine every year to camp at Hermit Island – celebrating Christmas, for my mother, is about spending time with her kids, and her grandchildren.  Passing along those traditions.  I’m not willing to tell them that it’s not their holiday just because they’re Jewish.  Yes, my children are observant Jewish kids but they’re also a part of my extended non-Jewish family as well.  Christmas is part of what they inherit from my side of the family, along with a crappy sense of direction and a gift for sarcasm.

I celebrate it because I believe in peace on earth and goodwill towards men.  And having a day to celebrate that is lovely to me.  I celebrate it because I feel a little closer to everyone else on earth during this time of year – it seems to me that it’s the one time when we all try a little harder to be nicer, a little harder to appreciate the blessings we have.   We don’t always succeed, and we aren’t all on the same page, but I sincerely think that the world is an amazing and beautiful and blessed place.  On Christmas, I think we all feel that way.

It’s not about the shopping or the wrapping or the stress.  And for me, it’s not about celebrating the birth of the Messiah.  It’s about joy and peace – it’s closer to a celebration that we’re coming into the light.  It’s no accident that the Solstice is on the twenty-first – we are literally getting a little more light, just a bit, every day.  I think it’s also an important theme of Hanukkah, that each night, we light just one more candle.  I think that’s worth celebrating.  I think having a day to stop and just celebrate the magic, celebrate the beauty of family and friends, to eat candy canes and drink eggnog, to watch your kids open presents and be absolutely delighted is awesome.  Christmas isn’t perfect, and it’s nowhere near as simple and as easy as it used to be for me, but it’s still an integral part of my year.  And my life.  I don’t want to miss it.  Being Jewish has added so much to my life, so much meaning and resonance, it’s given my kids a framework to build a spiritual life upon.  It’s given me Shabbat dinner, and Passover Seders and a community that I love.  But I still love Christmas.

Private Practice

  

I am going to admit to something that I would not normally cop to in such a public forum.  I watch Private Practice.  It is a guilty pleasure.  In the show, Cooper (Jewish) is married to Charlotte (Christian).  They are pregnant with triplets, and the topic of what religion to raise the kids comes up.  It is discussed for 2 minutes (which we all know in tvland is a deep heartfelt discussion) and they decide to expose the kids to both and let them decide.

My television still works.  I did throw everything I thing I could reach from my nest of blankets at it though.  My husband is so glad I was too tired to knit, so I was not armed with pointy sticks.  All I had near me were old magazines and papers, not a good weapon to be found.  That will teach me to clean.  I was disgusted.  Really?  We will let the children decided.

My poor family had to listen to me yell at Cooper and Charlotte and tell them that they are massive wimps.  Make a decision (there may have been more colorful language here, but this is a family blog).  Seriously, you are the adults and you can’t decide so you abdicate the decision to your children?  After I calmed down a bit, my kids asked me why I feel so strongly about this. (They were not watching with us, but came down when they heard the ruckus.)

First, one reason they gave for doing both was that the kids would be denied the other parents religion.  Ok, I can see that is a very scary prospect.  Seriously, I almost didn’t get married because of that.  I understand.  But, in reality, you can still celebrate and expose your kids to both, without identifying them as both (or really nothing).

My kids very strongly identify as Jews.  Yet, they happily go to see my family every year for Christmas.  They know it isn’t their holiday, but that does not mean you cannot enjoy it.  Just like we invite Christian friends to have latkes and share in a Passover Seder.

But, the real reason it irritated me so much is that by raising the kids as both, you raise them as nothing.  You put your child in the position that you found yourself in, having to choose one parent over the other.  Imagine how that must feel?  Life is hard enough without having to choose which religion you want to practice, while potentially alienating one of your parents.  That is why the parents need to choose.  Best if you do this before you get married, because really if you can’t agree it will become a deal breaker.

My husband pointed out to me as we wrestled with this decision, that you cannot be a Jewish Christian.  They are separate religions.  In order to do one of them well, you cannot be the other.  I am not advocating one way or the other, but I am saying CHOOSE.  When the rabbi told me that he didn’t care what decision we made just that we made one, the reality of this situation was brought home to me.

The statement that people make of “I will let the kids choose,” tells me that they recognize that a choice needs to be made.  But, for some probably highly logical reason, the adults in the family did not want to make it.  We make thousands of decisions during our kid’s lives that have immeasurable impact on their development.  Some right, some wrong, many without so much as a second thought, I would like to encourage everyone to make this choice for their kids.  Let them have an identity.

It was ugly at my house as all of this went down.  When the child that the couple already had said, “I like being both, double the holidays, double the presents.” I had to turn the television off.

My Girls Are 100% Jewish

  

So I’m at Thanksgiving last night with my husband’s family and religion somehow came up (does it come up as much with families that are all one religion, or do I just notice it more being from an interfaith family?).  I was discussing how my daughters actually like going to temple (have no idea what I’m doing right there) and my husband’s uncle mentioned that they are half-Jewish.  That got the hairs on the back of my neck to rise like a disturbed cat.  I don’t know about you, but my kids aren’t “half” anything.  They have a Jewish mother and a Catholic father but they aren’t half Catholic; they are 100% Jewish.  I didn’t even know how to respond without offending him (and more importantly my mother-in-law) and to top it off my mother was sitting right there too but thankfully it either went over her head, she didn’t hear it, or the filter between her brain and mouth was working (it doesn’t always work) and she kept quiet.  If she did hear I can’t wait to see if she comments next time we are together without my husband around, that’ll be a hoot.

It bothers me that I didn’t know how to respond.  I am so grateful that my mother-in-law is cool (or at least an academy award winning actress) about my girls being brought up Jewish and no one else from my husband’s family has ever said anything negative about it, but the 50-50 comments bother me.  Is there a way to address it or do I just let it go, knowing that my girls view everything correctly and that it will all get sorted out as they get older?

Why I’m Blogging

  

Hi, my name is Suzanne and as this is my first blog post I thought I would start out by introducing myself. I am a Conservative/Reform Jewish woman (not sure where I really fit yet as I was raised Conservative but do not keep kosher anymore or follow many other rules so maybe I’m Reform?) married to my Catholic husband, Alex. We have two daughters, Kaitlyn, almost 9 (born Christmas Eve, what better day for an interfaith family?), and Megan, who is five. We live in Staten Island, New York, where we are raising our daughters in the Jewish faith, but we also celebrate the Catholic holidays as we love and respect my husband/their father.

My older daughter is in the Bet class (second class) at our Conservative synagogue but we started out at a Reform synagogue for her with Sunday School. I didn’t switch because of my personal confusion; I switched synagogues because I couldn’t get my daughter to Hebrew School on Wednesdays at the Reform temple but the Conservative temple had an arrangement with our JCC for busing if you are in their after-school program. This was being practical, not spiritual. It turned out to be a good fit for my daughter as she has more girls in her class that also attend camp with her and the boys are pretty great too (as my 5 year old would attest to with her first crush on an older man, another interfaith child who is 9 like my daughter). I miss my Reform temple, not for the spiritual way it conducted itself but for the friends I had made there. I have made some great friends at my new temple but you can’t help looking back, can you?

I’m hoping by blogging that I can help myself sort out what is going through my own mind spiritually. I feel very torn and confused at times and at others feel like I am in exactly the right place. I love being Jewish and sharing it with my daughters. I love that they are the ones who make sure we go to temple on Friday nights (which my sister and I never did with two Jewish parents!). I love how they identify themselves as Jewish, not half-Jewish. I’m torn at times when my girls ask questions about their dad’s faith or assume that all males are Catholic and all females are Jewish since their mom is Jewish and their dad is Catholic and we have no sons to show that their brother would be Jewish too (I am not Nellie from Little House on the Prairie who chose how to raise her kids by gender).

By blogging and almost forcing myself to have a conversation in my head maybe I can sort out how to continue teaching my daughters about our faith and how to respect everyone else’s too. I look forward to hearing from other parents who have handled similar situations as well.

Sammy Sings the Shema

  

As I’ve posted on here before, our bedtime routine is pretty typical – bath, pjs, stories, songs, lights out. While the pjs and the stories chosen might vary each night, the songs never do.

Each night, the request is the same: first, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (no, I’m not kidding; he actually wants to hear this EVERY night); second, the Shema; third, “La La Lu” (the lullaby from Lady and the Tramp).

Lately Sam has started to sing the songs with me. I know he doesn’t fully understand it yet, but I love that Sam is already starting to “pray” with me at night. I hope his “bedtime song” helps to open the door for him to easily talk to G-d as he grows.

If you incorporate prayers into your evening routine, when did your kids start saying them with you? When do you think they started to understand that they were more than just words or pretty tunes?

Thursday Shabbat

  

I once heard that time does not exist. It is only a concept that we, the people of the world, agree to for organization. I was thinking about this as I moved Shabbat up a night this week. My mother, who lives out of town, came in on Monday to spend the week with us. When my daughter, Sarah (age 6), heard Gramoo was leaving on Friday afternoon, she told Gramoo she couldn’t leave before Shabbat. Shabbat is the most special time of the week and she can’t miss it.

When I heard that, it took about two seconds for me to move Shabbat to Thursday evening. Our Friday observance is to have family night at home. We go to services at our synagogue on Saturdays. On Thursday, I set the table with our Shabbat dressings, the silver flatware, crystal glasses, the good china. We opened a bottle of wine (and grape juice for the younger set). I made matzo ball soup and challah. My husband roasted chicken. I made chocolate chip cookies for dessert. We enjoyed them warm from the oven. We picked up my husband’s mother and brought her over for dinner, too, so we had both grandmothers with us, a special night indeed!

We blessed the candles, the food, and the kids, and spent the evening together. It was a wonderful evening and one we will remember forever, I hope. My mother (Catholic) asked why we light two candles. Great question! They represent two forms of the fourth commandment Zachor (Remember) the Sabbath and keep it holy and Shamor (Observe) the Sabbath and keep it holy. And that is just what we did. We remembered and observed the Sabbath. So what that it was Thursday. Time is a concept open for interpretation after all. This week we welcomed the Sabbath bride twice. On Friday it was sans grandmothers, though the memory of the night before was still with us burning as bright as a third candle.

Shabbat Shalom, friends!

Giving Thanks

  

Tonight was the first time my family – my husband, me and my two boys – said the Hamotzi  (blessing over the bread) at home – outside a Jewish holiday. It’s not that I am opposed to giving thanks before my meals – I know how many blessings I have and am thankful for them daily – I just don’t express my thanks to G-d on a daily basis. But maybe I should. 

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, my father-in-law, who’s Episcopalian, always leads the Grace before dinner. This year our very chatty two-year-old thought that Grace was the greatest thing ever – getting to hold everyone’s hands before dinner. And his way of saying Grace was by saying “I love my family” – what could be better than that. My father-in-law’s version of Grace is also very universal – thanking G-d for our many blessings, for the meal we are about to enjoy, thankful to the family we are gathered with and also thankful for those who are not able to be with there. Then it’s chow time.

Tonight however, my in-laws were not having dinner with us, it wasn’t a special meal or holiday. It was just a regular Monday night. Just after we all sat down, our seven-year-old asks, “Can we say the blessing?” And I respond that there are different ways – Grace is what Christian people say, the Hamotzi is what Jewish people say and then our younger son’s version – I love my family.  He immediately picked the Hamotzi, as if that was what he was trying to think of on his own, which we then all sang together.   Even his little brother joined in – he has lots of practice from weekly Shabbat celebrations at the JCC pre-school.

Just a little story about how a regular Monday night turned into a really sweet moment for our family who might consider saying some form of thanks on a nightly basis.

Hamotzi lechem min haaretz,
We give thanks to God for bread.
Our voices rise in song together as our joyful prayer is said,
Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz. Amen.”