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
This week was my
I may be wrong, but I’d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” It’s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.
So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in today’s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and D’var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:
So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you weren’t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.
This weekend, my girls received special gifts from The PJ Library. A box came for each of them in the mail, and inside was a beautiful new Tzedakah box and a box of “Kindness Cards” that can be used for four special mensch-themed games to remind the players about six important Jewish values related to tzedakah, or charity. My girls were thrilled, and spent the better part of the day carrying around the boxes and admiring the colorful cards.
The boxes also came smack in the middle of the holiday weekend highlighted by both Thanksgiving and Black Friday (and its companion consumption-oriented Saturday, Sunday, and Monday). Even though I try to focus on the calm family togetherness vibe of Thanksgiving and avoid shopping, I still can’t help getting caught up in the bit of the gift-list-making and shopping-planning that the Black Friday coverage instills. So it was good to have these tzedakah boxes arrive on Black Friday, to remind me about the importance of both making tzedakah and talk of tzedakah a part of my family’s December traditions.
I will admit I could be much more organized with my giving, but when I feel I can give, I try to do so, and I generally try to give in three pots. The first is to causes or charities where I feel there is a real need being met – something from which I may never benefit but where I believe important work is happening to really change people’s lives. The second is that I try to set aside some funds to give to charities friends are involved with, so that when someone is pouring their heart into a fundraiser or working for or directly benefiting from a service, I can appreciate them through a connection. And the third is to places that provide a benefit to me, where I cannot pay in direct proportion to that benefit but where I can give a little to recognize how important they are in my own life.
The PJ Library Tzedakah box was a gift to my children to excite them about tzedakah. It reminded me, though, that we are a part of the tzedakah work of PJ Library. The Kindness Cards feature pictures from a number of the girls’ favorite books, books that have helped them relate to and understand their Judaism. They have also given them a library where books about Jewish things are just a part of the stories they love, not the rare find they were when I was a girl. So while they will put money in the boxes and dedicate coins to the causes that resonate with the huge hearts in their small bodies, I have decided a little bit of my coins should go back to the PJ Library.
Even before the boxes came, I was also getting excited about #GivingTuesday and helping out InterfaithFamily in their first year of participation. Because as I decide how much I can extend into the three pots this holiday season, and how to balance my gift-giving with my tzedakah, I appreciate the strong role of InterfaithFamily in my Interfaith Journey over the last 15 years. InterfaithFamily provided Eric and I with the list of clergy people willing to perform our wedding ceremony, and led us to a wise, kind and generous rabbi who felt passionately about the need to welcome Interfaith couples into Judaism from the get-go. Personally, it has given me the very special opportunity to be a writer, and to reflect openly on my parenting path. InterfaithFamily has provided countless holiday resources to my family, and has helped us find new ways to explore the traditions we are building, Jewish and otherwise. Even more, it is helping to create an environment within the Jewish community where my girls can feel welcomed and able to embrace their whole selves in ways that weren’t widely available even a generation ago.
Everyone has their own way of deciding how to weave tzedakah into their giving, and the scope of each family’s ability to give is widely different. If you don’t, though, I’d encourage you to take a moment (maybe even a moment on Tuesday) to think about how you can give to those who have given to you. A quick peek at the #GivingTuesday website is a great way to start. And if InterfaithFamily has been important in your Interfaith Journey, too, you can skip that website and give here.
When I set out to write my book From Generation to Generation: A Story of Intermarriage and Jewish Continuity, I wanted to demonstrate through the telling of my family’s story that intermarriage has not been as bad for the Jews as many in the Jewish community would have us believe. I wanted to show that the reality of the religious lives of mixed faith families is more nuanced and richly Jewish, than is often portrayed through surveys, statistics, and snapshot anecdotes.
For years, the Jewish community’s belief that intermarriage is a significant factor in the decline of the Jewish population has been reinforced by how it collects its data. Jewish demographic surveys mostly look at rates of intermarriage and Jewish childrearing by intermarrieds. There have been few studies that I’ve come across that dig deeper into this issue through qualitative and quantitative research; few researchers, academics, or community leaders interested in understanding the hows and the whys of Jews who are intermarried.
This focus on calculating the percentage of Jews that intermarry and raise singularly Jewish children has failed to move the debate about how to best address intermarriage and its effect on Jewish continuity forward in a meaningful way. Instead, it continuously creates communal hysteria and vitriol with the release of each new study.
One of the problems with the data on intermarriage is that it captures the religious choices of families at a single point in time. This method assumes that interfaith family life is static. However, an intermarried family’s relationship to faith can be as dynamic as an inmarried family’s.
For example, some not Jewish partners choose to convert after many years of living a Jewish life. Previously uncommitted couples decide to engage Jewishly when a child is born or starts preschool. Interfaith families who identify as Jews of no religion become more involved after a significant life event. Families who start out as dual-faith later make the decision to have singularly Jewish homes. Children of intermarriage choose to identify as Jews in some way when they reach adulthood.
Until recently, most demographic studies have failed to measure the Jewish identification, engagement, and experience of interfaith families in a way that captures scenarios such as the ones highlighted above. However, after the publication of the Pew report, Theodore Sasson, a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies asked the Pew research team to look at the rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identified as Jews.
He found that over the years, “the proportion of adult children of intermarriage identifying as Jewish has steadily increased, reaching 59%” for children born after 1980. The result was almost evenly split between those identifying as Jews by religion and those identifying as Jews of no religion.
In discussing his findings, Sasson states in the Spring 2014 issue of Contact, “the higher-than-expected rate of Jewish identification among the adult children of intermarriage is…a significant milestone. The rate at which young adult children of intermarriage identify as Jewish exceeds the rate at which their parents claimed to be raising them as Jewish in the NJPS 2000-01 survey.”
Sasson’s data captures people like my cousin, the child of a Jewish father and not Jewish mother raised in a home with no religion. During his first year of college, he met other kids like him. Some of his friends had heard of Birthright and suggested that they all look into it.
The idea of exploring his Jewish heritage interested my cousin enough that he announced at his family’s secular Christmas dinner that he was planning to apply to go on the Israel trip with his friends. My Jew of no religion uncle, who had been turned-off by the faith after his
By collecting data on intermarriage and the child-rearing choices of intermarried Jews in the way that we do, we do not allow for the possibility that being Jewish or engaging in Judaism can become important or of interest to interfaith families and children of intermarriage over time. Dr. Sasson’s findings will hopefully get the Jewish research community to consider additional ways to study intermarriage’s effect on Jewish identity.
I hope to see more qualitative research being done too in order to better understand why intermarrieds are or are not choosing Judaism, and how they are engaging in Judaism if they are associating themselves with the Jewish people in some way. But, until communal leaders start asking these questions, it is up to intermarrieds who are actively choosing Judaism to make our voices heard.
By sharing my family’s interfaith and Jewish journey in From Generation to Generation, I hope others will be encouraged to share their story. Our narratives can help answer questions such as why, how, and when are intermarrieds making Jewish choices.
The Jewish community needs to learn from and leverage the experiences of interfaith families living Jewishly in order to draw more intermarrieds into American Jewish life. If it does not, the predictions of the communal pessimists will eventually become reality.
Sasson suggests that the Jewish community support efforts to maximize the percentage of intermarrieds raising Jewish children and welcome young adults not raised as Jews to explore their Jewish heritage. He seems to recognize what many Jewishly engaged intermarrieds already know; Jewish spouses will not sustain us, but Jewish engagement will.
Theodore Sasson, “Investing in the Children of Intermarriage,” Contact: The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2014, Volume 16, no. 1, 8-9. http://www.steinhardtfoundation.org/wp-install/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/spring_2014.pdf
I love a good wedding, which almost all of them are, in my experience. Last weekend I had the privilege of being a guest at a really powerful wedding, with a ceremony that was not only joyous but also left me with strong food for thought about the power of marriage, partnership, love, family, and community. I especially loved the way the ceremony charged family and friends to play a role in the couple’s marriage, so much so that I thought I’d share it with you.
Keeana and Marc’s wedding was special because they are a lovely couple – they are both remarkable people who are head-over-heels for each other in an infectious way. They are connected to and with their faith and their clergy in way that made it impossible to not feel spiritually connected to their ceremony. And the fact that five of their friends came together to form a choir just for their ceremony, or that Keeana’s mother, a reverend herself, led the final step of the ceremony, only sweetened the pot.
But what I really loved were the three “Charges” of the ceremony.
As I understand it, the Charge is the officiant’s chance to tell the couple about the responsibilities they are taking on as a married couple. In a Jewish wedding, I think these charges tend to be a bit more understated. In Keeana and Marc’s Christian wedding, the Charge was not only explicit, but it was said three times in three different ways. First to the congregation, then to the families, and finally to the couple themselves.
In the first charge, the pastors from Boston’s Bethel AME Church (who happen to be married to one another), told the congregation that the couple’s goal for their ceremony was to celebrate their love, to encourage unmarried guests to think about getting married, and to remind married guests about the power of marriage. This is such a lovely way to attend any wedding – to remember not only to notice the wedding dress and to listen to the couple, but also to reflect on your own relationships as you participate.
The second charge was the one that really stood out to me. I can never do it justice verbatim, but following are the Cliff Notes. The reverends took pause from the flow of the ceremony to speak directly to the bride’s and groom’s families. They reminded them that Keeana and Marc were standing before them and before G-d to enter into a holy partnership, and that moving forward their primary relationships would be with each other and with G-d. Because of the sacred nature of the commitment they were making to each other, the officiants implored the families that the best way to support these two individuals going forward would be to support them as a couple. This included supporting their ability to (and perhaps need to) forge their own path as a unit, sometimes stepping aside to let them stumble together. The reverends promised that if the families supported the couple’s partnership, they were gaining a respective son and daughter, and that respecting the partnership was the way to be close to the adult child who they raised themselves.
This was not striking because it was a revelation to me – Eric and I have always felt great support for our marriage from our parents. As a parent myself, now, I feel like I am one step closer to understanding the potential challenge of this charge (although not nearly close enough to really get it!). After nine years of marriage, I am unmeasurably appreciative of the ways in which our families have supported our marriage journey, even when we’ve made choices that have been very different from those our parents made (or might have made for us!). The way Keeana and Marc’s pastors laid out the charge reminded me that this is never something to be taken lightly, that it is work, and that it is sacred work. And while this post may read as more about marriage than parenting, the truth is that all of this only becomes more important when children are in the mix, and the dynamics present and decisions to be made feel even more complex than before.
So it reminded me, especially on the eve of our anniversary this week, to say:
Thank you to Mom and Dad and Mom and Dad!!!
(and the rest of our families, too, of course), and to remember that the successful union of two people is all the richer when we have our friends and family holding up that union.
The final charge, to the couple, was a lovely statement about love and commitment. And all of the wedding guests will remember the way that two pastors emboldened them to maintain a passionate marital bed, but that is for another kind of post for another kind of day.
So Mazel Tov to Keeana and Marc. Mission accomplished in helping me reflect on the power of love and marriage. Thanks to you two, too.
The following is a guest post by Stephen Richey
Reading over the posts on InterfaithFamily’s Parenting Blog, I have come to the realization that a decision Kat and I made has allowed us to avoid some of the issues facing families that are blended from two distinct faiths or cultures. We know we do not want children and it was one of the easiest decisions for us to make. It also eliminates many common areas of disagreement in interfaith families such as religion in which to raise the kids, education and discipline.
How can deciding not to have kids—a watershed moment in most people’s lives—be so easy for us? If you take a step back and look at the facts critically and without playing to the emotions so often tangled up in it, the matter becomes a balancing of the positives and negatives of what parenting would entail in our family. Admitting this out loud often raises people’s ire because “How can one put a price on the joy that children bring?” I can imagine what some readers are thinking, because we have heard it all before. Folks most often respond with stares of horror or confusion or with comments about how we are young and will change our minds as we “grow up” (I am 33 and Kat is 29).
The most practical reason for our decision is simply this: Neither Kat nor I want a lifestyle that is suitable for raising children. Kat is an EMT and works weird hours. My schedule is not much better and is not likely to improve as we move forward with our efforts to expand my research overseas. When that happens, it is likely that Kat will move over to working with me at our non-profit full time. There’s a decent likelihood that one or both of us will be out of town over a hundred days per year. That is just not a good situation to bring children into and we do not wish to give up our careers.
Another factor in the decision to not procreate is that we do not wish to give up or change our own identities and lifestyle to raise children. This may seem a very selfish reason on its face but stop and think about how many of your friends drifted away when they had children. If it makes someone else happy, that’s spectacular but we know that it isn’t for us. I am thrilled to live vicariously through someone with regards to their children so long as they agree to do the same with regards to our lifestyle.
One of the common rebuttals that folks (often older folks) have is “But won’t you miss having children around?” And we might, but perhaps not as much as you would think. Our take is that kids are great in small doses. And we’ll be able to get those small doses with our nephew, thanks to my younger sister and her husband.
The other common question is “But who will take care of you when you’re old?” Once again, this is usually something that comes from people the age of my grandparents because people tend to ask about things that are sources of concern to themselves. While having children is one way to try to ensure your wishes and needs are taken care of, it is no guarantee. Grief does screwed-up things to people and clear thinking is usually one of the first things to go. So having someone who is closely tied to you make end-of-life decisions may end up causing additional problems.
As I mentioned, people most often try to persuade us with the argument that we will come to want children as we “grow up” is the most common one we encounter, and it is often done in a rather patronizing way. It is also frankly one of the most insulting things one can say to a person. Saying such things about someone’s core beliefs about their life is akin to criticizing their religion. To say such things to us is to imply that we are wrong, though it is more likely that the people judging us do not fully understand our circumstance. If a lifestyle choice makes a person happy and they are not harming anyone else with their views, why should it be a concern of yours? Just as Kat and I do not judge others and may not understand fully their desire to have children, we respect and support their decisions. All we ask is the same courtesy.
Having children can be a beautiful blessing, and a continuity of the Jewish community, however, there is also sometimes strife that child rearing causes in relationships—including interfaith marriages. We cannot help but ask whether more people should be taking a critical view of whether having children is right for their situation rather than trying to make their relationship fit having children.
The social and religious expectation that a couple will produce children is so overwhelming that many do not stop to think about the reality of it in any concrete way. Maybe it is time that such matters be given more consideration and not simply be treated as a given. If it works for you, great! But the responsibility of parenting should be a rational and sober decision and not one made simply to please cultural, social, religious or family expectations.
Stephen is a secular humanist Jew and a trauma biomechanics/crash survivability researcher from Indianapolis, Indiana. He and his loving fiance Kat will be married this September in an interfaith ceremony.
The following is a guest post reprinted with permission from Julie A. Silver and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
By Julie A. Silver
On Mothers’ Day, my wife Mary and I went on a hike at Will Rogers’ State Park near our home in Los Angeles. We left our two year old home to nap, dropped off our nine year old for a horse-back riding lesson, then took the first hike we’ve taken together in years. I was thirsty from the moment we ascended, but Mary shared her water with me and, as always, made me laugh along the way.
When we reached the top and took in that gorgeous 360 degree view of downtown LA, the magnificent mountains and the shining ocean, I thanked God for this place that supports our family: two working mothers in an interfaith marriage who aren’t exactly spring chickens with two very young daughters. And interfaith isn’t limited to our respective religions. Mary loves the Mets and I love the Red Sox. Mary loves camping and I enjoy clean sheets. Mary loves cats and I’m allergic. I could go on. The bottom line is that despite our differences, we’ve built a life and filled it with kids, family, friends, fun and I’m exhausted just writing about it.
I also might be lying about being allergic to cats.
For the last 25 years, I’ve been a traveling singer/songwriter. I can’t imagine doing anything else. My work requires both constant connections with people and long stretches of solitude—and let me tell you it isn’t easy, but it is precisely this tension that pushes me forward in everything I do.
Mary Connelly has had a long and successful career in television and comedy and has been the Executive Producer of The Ellen DeGeneres Show since its beginning. Every day she walks with grace and confidence through an industry that is the polar opposite of mine. You know, a little gray hair and a few wrinkles around the eyes can kill a woman’s career in Hollywood. In my world, gray hair gives you status. Wrinkles show you’ve been laughing. Glasses mean you’ve been studying. My people celebrate age and wisdom; not so much in the fleeting world of entertainment. But Mary’s creative fingerprints are all over that show in its compassionate outreach and its sense of fun—like the woman herself, always of service to someone in need.
We also have amazing childcare—women who take care of our daughters like they were their own when neither Mary nor I can be around. With that said, I like to say that Mary works Monday through Friday and I work Friday through Monday, but the truth is Mary is gone 12 hours a day during the week. I’m a full time Eema. My day is a mix of driving kids, writing, studying, practicing, taking care of my business, setting up play dates, singing to Katie, piano lessons, paying bills, managing the house, and fulfilling my deepest calling, being a “Dance Mom.”
When I’m away, Mary becomes a single parent. She does the errands, cooks, and takes care of our home and our daughters. While I’m out singing at synagogues across the globe, my Catholic wife drives Sarah to Hebrew School on Sundays. She’s got to deserve something for doing that alone, right? Like a cat? We’ll see.
To be sure, Mary and I are together on this: We want our girls to be of service; to give of themselves and to embrace life’s challenges. We want them to find loving partners who will climb to the top of the mountain beside them, share their water with them and make them laugh so hard they spit it out onto the trail. And when they get to the top, out of breath and exhausted, we want them to look around and love that view.
Julie Silver is one of the most celebrated and beloved performers in the world of contemporary Jewish music today. She tours throughout the world, and has been engaging audiences with her lyrical guitar playing, her dynamic stage presence, and her megawatt smile for over 25 years. Silver lives in Southern California with her partner Mary Connelly, a highly successful Executive Producer and their delicious daughters, Sarah and Catherine.You can follow her on Twitter at @JulieAnnSilver or visit her website at juliesilver.com.
Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.
As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?
Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).
The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.
Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.
But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.
When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.
Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.
Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.
Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.
She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.
She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.
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.
About a month ago, I visited my 96-year-old grandfather at his skilled nursing facility in New Jersey while in the area for a family event. It was Shabbat morning, my favorite time to go see him.
My grandfather and I have always been very close. As the oldest grandchild and the only girl, we share a special bond that is different from the one he has with my brother and male cousins. I make it a point to spend time with him whenever I go east to see my family, and I always bring Sammy.
It is important to me to visit with him, even though I am not certain that he knows me or that Sammy is his great-grandson. My grandfather has dementia. On some visits, he does not seem to connect our smiling faces to any name or person that he can recall, but is just happy to have some visitors. On others, I can see that he recognizes me when I walk over.
But even with the uncertainty of his response, I still go and I still bring Sammy. I do not do this out of obligation, or because Jews are commanded to visit the sick. The mitzvah Bikur Cholim, a concept I learned from my grandfather when I was a young child, and he took me to visit his infirmed and elderly parents, tells us to be with someone who is ill because the presence of a loving and kind person is a gift that can lighten the burden of illness.
No, I do not perform this mitzvah because I am told to. I go to visit him because I love him, and I have a deep desire for him to know Sammy as best he can and for Sammy to know him, even though the man he will know is not the vibrant grandparent I remember. But I want Sammy to have some connection to the person he hears about in stories and sees in pictures.
I also go with Sammy because I want my grandfather to hear about my son’s life and our home, our Jewish home. See, I made a promise to my grandfather 12 years ago when Cameron and I became engaged that my children would be raised as Jews, even though Cameron was not one. I remember the conversation.
“Janey, will your children be raised Jewish?” my grandfather asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Cameron and I have agreed to have a Jewish home and raise our children as Jews.”
“Oh, okay. Is he going to convert?”
“No, I didn’t ask him to.”
“Okay. Well maybe one day he’ll decide to,” my grandfather said.
I understood my grandfather’s questions and his hopes. He was the oldest son of observant Jewish immigrants from Hungary. His father was a chazzan, a cantor, who grew-up at the Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohany Street Synagogue, in Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Judaism was a central part of his upbringing and identity, and Jewish continuity was important to him, especially given that intermarriage was widespread in my family.
He watched his son, my uncle; marry a woman who was not Jewish; as well as several of his brothers’ children. With my engagement, another generation was continuing the pattern. While some of my intermarried relatives raised children within Judaism, others had no connection to Jewish practice or community, or any other religion either.
As someone who was a young adult during World War II and the Holocaust, my grandfather understood that every Jewish child was precious to the community, and he did not want our family’s connection to the faith to disappear. He wanted some assurance that someone would pass on our tradition.
I know that he was glad to hear that Cameron and I would have a Jewish home, but I think that while he hoped for the best, he believed, like others in my family that our promise was empty and that little action would be taken to fulfill our commitment. Unfortunately, shortly after Cameron and I were married, my grandfather’s mental health began to decline. By the time Sammy was born, he had been moved from assisted living to the nursing facility’s memory unit.
He has never been able to experience or appreciate the central role Judaism has in our home. Yet, regardless of my grandfather’s mental state, I still want him to know that Cameron and I have kept our promise.
When we visit with him, I talk about the many things he and I have done together, and about my synagogue involvement and holiday rituals. I share with him Cameron’s commitment to and engagement in our Jewish home.
Sammy sings him Jewish holiday songs in Hebrew and tells him about his Jewish day school. He talks to him about his Jewish summer camp and his kippah collection that his not Jewish grandmother has crocheted for him. And because Sammy loves sports as much as my grandfather once did, especially tennis, he talks sports too.
I do not know if any of this means anything to my grandfather, but it is important to me that I demonstrate that I have honored the commitment I made to him, and show him, in whatever way possible, that his hope for a Jewish future is being realized through Sammy. So we will keep visiting, I will keep talking, and Sammy will keep singing Jewish songs.
The other day, as the Halloween candy was being eaten and costumes were being put away, I saw a house decorated in Christmas cheer. It had a large wreath with balls covering one side of the home, and the frame was lined with bright red and white lights. I sighed and thought, “Is it really that time again?”
It seems that each year the holiday season starts earlier. What used to happen after Thanksgiving – holiday decorations in neighborhoods and stores, and merchandise on retailers’ shelves – now appears before Halloween, drawing out the seasonal cheer in a way that leaves many of us feeling exhausted before the holidays even arrive.
For Jewish families, the elongated season and ever increasing intensity with which Christmas is celebrated in the public sphere can leave us feeling more than a little Grinch-like. What to people who are not Jewish are non-religious symbols and accessories (trees, garland, lights, dancing Santas), are reminders to Jews that we are different. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the commercialization of the winter holidays can make them feel particularly stressful and drag us into a competition between traditions that we all want to avoid.
In my house, we try to take the holidays in stride and treat them like any other celebration. We work to make our observance about family and tradition. But it is hard not to be lured in by the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, and every now and then, I find myself longing for a credible Jewish alternative to elves, and reindeer, and snowmen and Santa in order to add a little more sparkle to the Festival of Lights.
My friend Abra can relate. Abra, describes herself as a nice Jewish girl who, as a child, loved latkes, delighted in dreidel and coveted Christmas bling. At age 6, she started secretly decorating her closet with homemade boughs of holly and began purchasing Christmas ornaments. She says it was never about not wanting to be Jewish, it was just that she wished that Hanukkah came with more tinsel.
Now, as an intermarried adult raising two Jewish children she wanted to make being Jewish fun and the Jewish holidays enticing, while instilling in her kids a deep love of Judaism. Not an easy task at a time of year when the merry and cheer of Christmas abounds.
So, Abra created The Maccabee on the Mantel so that her children, and all Jewish children, could have something to call their own during this season of Frosty, Rudolph, and Old St. Nick. The Maccabee on the Mantel is a children’s book and snuggly toy solider doll that connects kids to the rich history and traditions of Judaism.
Mac, as we like to call him in our house, is not a Jewish Elf of the Shelf. He is historical rather than mythological. He does not possess magical powers. He does not report to a large man in a red suit. And he is not related to Hanukkah Harry.
Mac is a reminder that Judaism is full of human heroes who have achieved great things through courage, bravery, and sacrifice. He encourages us to retell our stories, and explore who we are and where we come from.
Mac does not twinkle and he does not make our mantels shine. But he does provide a more lasting radiance by reminding us to believe in miracles. To me, that is real sparkle and that is the kind of holiday tinsel I want my son to embrace.