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This is a blog about a different kind of December dilemma. It is not about whether my family should have a tree–we do–or hang a wreath on our door–we do not. It is not about whether we recognize Christmas in our home or only at my not Jewish in-laws–we celebrate a secular holiday in both locations. This is about whether I should tell my Jewish friends before they visit my home during the holiday season that we have a Christmas tree.
Before becoming engaged in Jewish outreach, I did not think much about the intense feelings Christmas decorations and symbols aroused in Jews and I never felt resentful or alien or like an outsider during the holiday season. I was raised in a Jewish home with a Christmas tradition that included a tree. My family drove around looking at holiday lights and went to New York City to view the tree in Rockefeller Center and the Christmas displays in the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue.
It was only after I became active in outreach work and participated in December Dilemma programs that I realized how reviled the Christmas tree and holiday decorations were by Jews. During the first December discussion I attended, I remember a man becoming agitated when he was asked to articulate his feelings about the Christmas tree image on the screen in the front of the room.
At another program, a woman who’s son had intermarried said she told him that a home could not really be Jewish if it had a Christmas tree. The son and his not Jewish wife were raising Jewish children and the tree was the only recognition of the wife’s former traditions. Still the Jewish mother would not enter her son’s house when the tree was up.
These incidences made me realize just how uncomfortable some Jews were with decorations associated with Christmas–even ones that were considered more of a beloved custom than a religious symbol. I decided that since I did not know how our inmarried Jewish friends felt about Christmas trees in Jewish homes I would tell them that we had one before they came to my house during the holiday season. Then they could prep their kids before they arrived, be prepared to answer their children’s questions or decline the invitation.
I would not apologize for how we celebrated the holiday or honored my husband’s holiday tradition. I would simply tell visitors what to expect when they walked into my house–a big tree with lights and decorations. If asked, I would explain the many Jewish religious or cultural symbols–Stars of David, menorahs, dreidels, mezuzahs, yads and hamsas–that we had as ornaments.
I do not know if the tree really bothered any of our friends. To date, no one has ever declined an invitation to our house because of it. Some have asked if they could help decorate the tree. Others did not respond to my declaration in any way.
I assume that some of our friends refrain from sharing their discomfort because they fear that they might offend us and I appreciate that they are willing to respect our celebration even if they do not agree with it. I hope that by seeing how our tree reflects our Jewish identity and honors my husband’s commitment to a Jewish home that they will be more accepting of the nuances inherent in interfaith family life. They might even begin to see the Christmas tree as just a tree.
Since moving back to Atlanta, my husband and I have been running around like madmen buying furniture, reconnecting with old friends, traveling to see family, settling into our jobs and new house and preparing for the kid-to-be.
Hectic is the theme of our life right now. Between CPR classes, baby showers, doctor appointments and pediatrician interviews, this tiny little baby in my belly has already squarely established himself as center of our attention. But we’re okay with that… he’s just so darn cute.
This morning was no different as it was our first meeting with a rabbi of a local synagogue to discuss joining the temple and his views on intermarriage and conversion. We’ve attended services at this synagogue a few times and both felt very comfortable, not an easy task for a family quite like ours.
After the usual formalities, our discussions varied from homosexuality and Hebrew school philosophies to Israeli politics and what makes someone Jewish. It was not exactly what I expected, but I enjoyed the conversation immensely. He shared personal stories of his own interfaith family (he is married to a Jew-by-choice) and inquired about our experience. His views on intermarriage and conversion meshed well with our own and his questions for us even made us stop and think about issues we’ve never considered… Again, not an easy task when it comes to two people who have had nearly 10 years to discuss everything under the sun (and believe me we both are known to be quite the talkers).
The rabbi, of course, asked me why I haven’t considered conversion and listened without judgment or interruption as I explained my personal decision not to convert. Yes, my conversion would make everything easier and on the practical level makes complete sense. I mean, I already live in a Jewish household, keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, attend synagogue, know Hebrew and even lived in Israel for a year. Come on, it is all right there!
But I’m not looking for easy. I’m not looking for practicality when it comes to my spiritual needs. I’m looking for a relationship with G-d. My own faith fulfills that need and until it doesn’t and until I find I am fulfilled by Judaism, I have no plans to convert. He accepted my reasoning under the caveat that the discussion, not only for conversion purposes, but for the overall role of religion and spirituality in our lives between us as a couple, our families, our community and internally never be over. As a true believer in the art of good communication and continued personally growth, I fully agreed. I don’t expect us to know the answers to every hurdle we may face as a family and I want someone in our religious community I can trust to help us navigate the path ahead.
I hope we have found a home temple where we both feel comfortable, where my husband and our children can grow in their Judaism, where we can find a community of acceptance and support and leaders who guide us to better ourselves as a family.
Having a baby has flipped our world upside down in hundreds of ways already and I can’t wait to see what this little guy has in store for us next. He is making us better and opening our eyes to our greater potential every single day.
Before leaving us with a firm handshake, another date to discuss a mohel, a few booklets and a membership packet, the rabbi said he hoped he’d see us in services very soon. I think he just may.