My Favorite Interfaith Children’s Book

  

Juggler book

When I was a child there were two books I wanted desperately to hear before bedtime. The first was Goodnight Fred. This was a favorite because the grandmother in the book comes out of the telephone to visit Fred and Arthur, her grandsons. I, too, thought my grandmother lived in the telephone and could come out and visit whenever she pleased.

Then there was The Clown of God. This book, written by Tomie De Paola, is about an Italian boy named Giovanni who juggles. He juggles for food and a place to sleep. He spends his whole life juggling and has one fancy trick called “the sun in the heavens,” in which he juggles colorful balls. The last ball he throws into the air is gold like the sun. Then one day he drops the sun in the heavens and he stops juggling. He goes from door to door begging for bread as he once had done as a child. Now that he’s an old man, people don’t care about him. The book is filled with Catholic references. By the end of Giovanni’s journey he ends up at a church for a big religious festival. He has fallen asleep in the church and when he wakes there is a big procession for the statue of the Madonna and her child.

When everyone leaves, Giovanni notices that the Madonna’s son is frowning. So, Giovanni puts on his clown makeup and does his most famous juggling trick in front of the statue. As he throws up the golden ball he shouts, “For you sweet child for you!” Then he drops dead in front of the statue. Two monks run in and find him lying dead on the floor. One of the monks looks at the statue in shock. The statue of the boy in the mother’s lap is smiling and holding the golden ball.

It isn’t surprising that I chose to build my life with a man from Mexico who grew up poor, Catholic and happy. I pretty much looked all my life for Giovanni and found him in Adrian. Instead of juggling, Adrian cooks. He also knows how to enjoy the simple things in life. We have a roof over our heads and we have food in our bellies. We have work. We have a healthy baby girl. These are not small things.

Anna and family

As a child I did not grow up poor. I didn’t grow up Catholic either. I grew up Jewish and most of the time I was happy. I expected more because I was given more as a child. I grew up with big dreams and high hopes and plans. I planned everything. I planned what shoes I was going to wear with what shirt. I planned what job I would have, how much money I would make and whom I was going to marry. I planned to have a baby no later than 25 years of age. I planned to own a house and a summer house by 30. I planned to keep in touch with all of my closest friends from nursery school, first grade, camp, junior high, high school and work. Sometimes, God has other plans. Actually, all of the time God has other plans.

I am 35 years old. Adrian and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Helen Rose, our little one, wakes up every morning smiling at us from her crib. In our apartment there is a hamsah hanging in our kitchen and a Virgin of Guadalupe in our bedroom. There is a menorah in the living room and a prayer to Jesus in Adrian’s wallet. Good Night Fred and The Clown of God are a part of Helen’s library. These are our riches.

Life surprises me. Growing up Jewish I wish I could say that my most inspirational book was A Tale of Two Seders or Snow in Jerusalem. This is not the case. The book that most inspired me while I was tucked in under my puffy quilt with my Scottie dog wallpaper was The Clown of God. On my journey through Judaism this makes sense. When I began working in restaurants I was most inspired by the kitchen workers, most of whom had left their own countries in search of a better life. In school, I am most inspired by the students who hold down two jobs and have families or the students whose first language isn’t English but are getting an education and getting A’s in every class. I am inspired by the human capacity to overcome struggle.

I feel that people often tend to see goodness as a religious quality. But goodness is a human quality. Goodness is often compared to gold. It is this quality I wish to pass on to my daughter. Having an interfaith family is challenging. It challenges me every day to be more open and aware. It makes me ask questions and urges me to listen. It stops me from making plans and lets life lead me.

My favorite page in Tomie De Paola’s Clown of God is when Giovanni is still a young man and he makes his money juggling. One day he runs into two monks on the way to town. He shares his food with them and they begin to chat:

“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.

“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.

“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”

I wonder if my mother knew while she read me that book that it would take two faiths, not one, to convince me of God and God’s many beautiful and unexpected plans.

The Start of My Jewish Family’s Interfaith Education

  

Amy's kids celebrate Hanukkah

Once upon a time, I was a kid growing up in North Jersey in the ‘80s, and I had a pretty clear idea of who I was and who I wanted to be. Even though I was the “token” Jewish kid in the neighborhood, I never struggled with my identity, in part to my parents’ credit for creating a strong Jewish home life, and in part because of my close connection to the Reform synagogue at which I spent countless hours. Whether I was celebrating a Jewish holiday, marching in an Israel celebration parade or singing with the junior choir at Shabbat services, it was clear to everyone around me that this kid was on a path, and that my Jewishness was a huge part of who I was and who I was going to grow up to be.

The story could just end there, with the assumption that I stayed that kid and that I followed that path … and the story wouldn’t be totally wrong.

But it’s also incomplete, and sometimes even I find myself looking over my history and wonder if I’m reading the story of me, or someone else. I’m no longer that ‘80s kid who was so self-assured, and my connection to Jewish life doesn’t always resemble the picture I imagined in my head. And I’m sure by now you’re wondering why.

My name is Amy, I’m a divorced mom of two (mostly) hilarious kids (ages 6 & 8 ½) and well, now I live in Maine. Wait, let me say that again. I’m a divorced mom of two and I live in MAINE.

This place isn’t exactly known as the center of Jewish life in these great United States. And while I’m at it, I should also mention my Irish Catholic boyfriend. So begins my interfaith journey, one that I hope you’ll join me on. I promise to fill in some of the blanks (like, are the kids Jewish? Is their dad Jewish? Yes and yes) on this blog, and to be real with all of you. Because for the first time in my life, identity and belonging isn’t so simple for me—and if it’s not simple for ME, the complexities of raising Jewish kids while trying to navigate this newness? My brain hurts just thinking about it.

Christmas tree

Amy’s kids with their first Christmas tree

So as an introduction, I’ll leave you with this story, because I think it will start developing the Polaroids for you to get the picture. As I type this, I’m looking at my Christmas tree. Yes, MY Christmas tree. I’ve never had a Christmas tree until this very tree that I’m staring at. The idea was absurd as I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ve never had tree envy: even when my friends would invite me over to decorate theirs. It wasn’t part of who I was and there was no question that I would never, EVER have a tree.

Remember the whole Jewish girl from Jersey thing? Yet for the first time in 39 years, I’ve got a real live one, and I’m totally and completely enthralled with it. I could say it was the boyfriend’s tree since we were putting it in HIS apartment, but I went with him to pick out the perfect one, it was tied to the roof of MY car and I went to the store with him to pick out ornaments. I carefully decorated it, twice (because apparently trees have been known to fall over; I clearly have so much to learn), and added my own special touch: a blinged out Chinese takeout container, because up to this point that’s what Christmas meant to me. After a third tree felling (followed by said tree being attached to the wall), my kids got involved in the action. My Jewish children, who had never touched a Christmas tree let alone decorated one, were about to experience something totally foreign.

The night they came to decorate coincided with the seventh night of Hanukkah and the kids were excited to light the menorah and exchange gifts. All that happened, and it was our normal Jewish life. Until they decided that what they really wanted for Hanukkah was to decorate the tree. By the light of the candles, they carefully chose ornaments and hung them with care … not quietly. Instead, my amazing children, who only cared about making it look special for my boyfriend, decorated the tree while belting out as many Hanukkah songs as they could think of. There are no parenting manuals that tell you what to do, or how to react in a situation like this, so I did the only thing I knew how—I joined in.

I laugh thinking about it now as I look at the tree. My kids singing in Hebrew about dreidels, only wanting to spread love and joy. In that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe I can make this interfaith thing work. Their excitement was electrifying and for two kids who don’t believe in Santa (I may have come up with some threats if they ruin it for their friends!) well, I think we all found a little magic that night.

So begins this chapter, as I try to figure out how to maintain old traditions and incorporate new ones that I (or the kids) never expected to be part of.

Two Holidays, Twice the Festivities: But One at a Time

  

Mace-holiday-decorI have always loved the holiday season, and celebrating Hanukkah as an interfaith family brings with it an extra dose of joy. When I was a child, my mother insisted that we wait until after my birthday, which falls in the first week of December, before any celebration of Christmas could commence. She wanted to make sure we didn’t detract from the first December holiday, my birthday, before moving onto the one with far greater hoopla.

My mother mastered the art of see-no-holiday and hear-no-holiday. If we chanced to see a Christmas tree on a car’s rooftop during the weekend after Thanksgiving, my mom would gleefully declare, “I don’t see anything!” When we heard the first Christmas carols on radios or loudspeakers, she’d call out, “I can’t hear anything, can you?” My mother always meant well with this gesture, even if it flew in the face of my own very real excitement about the coming Christmas season.

Only after my birthday, a few days into December, could we get out our own decorations, choose our tree, or play Christmas music on the stereo at home. My family continued this tradition well into my adulthood, such that even this year, my brother (who has been married for several years) apologized to me during our usual Thanksgiving phone call: “I think we’re going to get out the holiday decorations before your birthday this year.” I laughed, thinking it sounded like fun.

The first Hanukkah I celebrated with my Husband (then-boyfriend) began November 29, the day after Thanksgiving. We lit a small travel menorah in a hotel in Chicago, where we’d come to celebrate both holidays with his family. For once, I didn’t have to wait to celebrate a December holiday! I didn’t even have to avoid, as usual, Black Friday shopping, since I needed to finish buying gifts for my boyfriend well in advance of the busiest shopping day.

Now that I have celebrated over a decade and more Hanukkahs with Ben, I am used to the ebb and flow of the Hanukkah calendar. This year, Hanukkah starts on a great day, the evening of December 6, far enough into December to allow a few more days to shop and prepare, but not so late that we light the lights of both holidays at the same time. I skipped Black Friday shopping this year, but on Saturday I remembered that with Hanukkah starting in a week, perhaps I really should have joined the throng on the busiest shopping day of the year.

Santas-trees-dreidels-and-stars cookies, iced and ready to eat

Santas-trees-dreidels-and-stars cookies, iced and ready to eat

When we celebrate two holidays in my interfaith family, we hang white lights and blue lights and multi-colored lights all across the doorways in our home, and along the tops of bookshelves and curtain rods. Christmas-colored lights line the shelf on which we place our menorahs. We break out Jewish-star emblazoned Hanukkah place mats with matching blue napkins, and join them with green-and-red place mats and napkins. We bake paper-thin butter cookies in shapes appropriate for both holidays, and we make sour milk sugar cookies with colored icing. When I was a child, we called these red-and-green cookies “Santa Clauses and Christmas trees,” but now we’ve added blue-and-white menorahs, dreidels and six-pointed stars to the mix as well.

Giving the cookies the awkward name of “Santas and dreidels and menorahs and trees” is the closest we come to a December holiday mashup. Despite the holidays falling in such close proximity, we don’t hang dreidels on our tree, or call it a Hanukkah bush. We give  each holiday its own separate identity as best we can, although this might seem difficult when the holiday books stack together and the red-and-green towels on our oven door hang right next to blue-and-white ones. Two holidays make for twice the festivities.

This year Hanukkah starts early, and my daughters reap the benefits of being in an interfaith family. They’ll compress a month’s worth of anticipation into a week’s worth of waiting. As we wait, we’ll tell the stories of Hanukkah as best we can, giving this holiday its own weight and emphasis. After Hanukkah ends, our daughters will still have more than a week of renewed anticipation as they wait for Christmas Day. They’ll dream and wonder about Santa Claus, and we’ll talk, too, about the birth of the historical Jesus, as best we can.

We unpacked our holiday boxes the weekend after Thanksgiving. I wish I could show you my mother’s face from our Skype call when we told her we were unpacking the boxes. Her expression relaxed, I’m glad to say, when I explained that Hanukkah started next weekend.

Before we unpacked our two holidays’ decorations, Ben wanted to know if I felt sure I was OK with it: After all, my birthday isn’t until later in the week.

“I’m sure,” I said. “The kids are excited, and truth be told, Hanukkah starts in a week, and I’m excited too!”

Do you prefer an early or late Hanukkah? How does your holiday season double the festive feeling? 

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree! Thy Candles Shine so Brightly!

  

‘Tis the season for Jewish Scrooges to say, “Bah! Humbug!” to anything that they judge to be a blend of Hanukkah and Christmas or an inflation of a minor Jewish holiday. Any attempt to sprinkle Hanukkah with a little tinsel is depicted as a perversion of the holiday’s message.

These Jewish grinches shout “syncretism” and “commercialization” from pulpits; in classrooms, traditional media outlets and homes; and across social media. Yet, many Jews and Jewish interfaith families, ignore the rhetoric and go big with Hanukkah anyway.

Some do it to assuage Christmas envy, others to honor the traditions of not Jewish family members or to simply make religion fun. But whatever the reason, there is a strong desire to inject Hanukkah with some of the holiday cheer present in our surrounding culture. That is the rationale behind the Menorah Tree.

The Menorah Tree was designed by two Jewish brothers as a way to “ramp up” the Festival of Lights, and honor the Christmas tree tradition of one of their wives. The goal was to create something that was as festive as a tree, but genuinely Jewish. Something, that was big enough to be the centerpiece of a family’s Hanukkah celebration.

While a giant 6-foot tall hanukkiah with Frazier pine garland isn’t something that everyone will embrace, there is nothing wrong with something that screams “Jewish” even if it does borrow from dominant Christian culture. Blending ideas, foods, symbols, and rituals from other cultures to increase Judaism’s fun-factor isn’t bad and doesn’t weaken Jewish identity as some in the community want us to believe.

Religious activities and observances that are perceived as fun create positive faith experiences and lasting memories. I share in From Generation to Generation the effect a lack of positive religious experiences in childhood has had on members of my own extended family. One inmarried sibling observes Jewish holidays out of obligation and not because he derives any fulfillment from the experience, and my Jewish uncle has a home that is absent of religion.

Examples like this highlight why adding fun to holidays now can make the celebrations more memorable than they would be otherwise without diminishing their significance. And positive memories increase the likelihood that children will want to carry on the tradition in adulthood. Christmas is the perfect case in point.

Many adults who grow-up with Christmas, have a strong emotional attachment to the holiday regardless of whether they are religious Christians. This connection is often not derived from recollections of going to services on Christmas Eve, but rather, from everything else that surrounds the holiday. My not Jewish mother-in-law, who is active in her church and faith, has never said that the reason Christmas is her favorite holiday is because of services, Jesus, God, or wise men. However, memories of decorating the tree, candy canes, gingerbread houses, holiday lights and carols, baking cookies and opening stockings and presents all contribute to her holiday love.

A community concerned about declining engagement, shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss things that can help build positive Jewish memories and connection. That’s the goal of the Menorah Tree, Maccabee on the Mantel and other Hanukkah-themed products. What’s wrong with that?

A child curled up with his Maccabee doll next to a Menorah Tree reading the Maccabee on the Mantel on the night before Hanukkah would be good for the Jews. Maybe he could even sing a few Hanukkah carols.

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me;
How often has the Menorah tree
Afforded me the greatest glee!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Much pleasure thou can’st give me.

O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly!
From base to summit, gay and bright,
There’s only splendor for the sight.
O Menorah Tree! O Menorah Tree!
Thy candles shine so brightly! – Adapted from “O Christmas Tree”

The Most Religious Thing I Have Ever Done on Christmas

  

My grandfather and me in 1975 at my Jewish family's Christmas celebration wearing our matching gifts.

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.

The most religious thing our family has ever done on Christmas is light Hanukkah candles.

Put a Menorah on It

  

Hanukkiah

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.  It’s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit.  And I had two responses – first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community “put a menorah on it” as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences.  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.  My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag.  30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community.  In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews.  Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a “holiday tree,” 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.  And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place.  But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual “holiday show,” a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.

And that was the end of the story.  Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions.  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 Wertheimer’s eyes.  One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting “Happy Diwali” on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity.  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.  What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each other’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 Wertheimer’s article.  I’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 – why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing.  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.  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.  What do you think?