Welcoming the Stranger (to Judaism) at the Passover Table

As the calendar begins to hint at the end of a very long winter, a lot of people are thinking about having more time in the sun and packing their winter coats into storage.  I’m excited about those things, too, but I also have a little case of Passover fever. I love Passover for many more reasons than I’ll write about today. Today I want to talk about the guest list. As I plan my big April dinner party, I am not only thinking about the menu and the order of the seder. I am also thinking about the strangers, the people who come not knowing what the seder means to me, and the opportunity Passover grants to share that meaning.

Passover is my favorite holiday. My birthday falls right around the beginning of Passover, and as much as I complained as a kid about putting candles into Passover brownies instead of “real” cake, I’ve always loved that there is a big gathering of people I love right around my birthday.  In cold years like this one, especially, I appreciate that we have a day on the calendar where, rain or shine, we can announce our readiness for spring and rebirth.

Red WineAs an adult and often the seder planner and leader, I have also come to appreciate Passover for the way that it lends itself to sharing my own Jewish beliefs with friends and family, Jewish and not Jewish. On Passover, rather than inviting someone to a synagogue or a text study to learn what Judaism means to us, we invite them into our homes, to a great meal with plentiful wine and lots of good conversation.

During the seder we are commanded to invite the stranger into our home. We could debate the meaning of this phrase for days, but to me the first step of observing that is to think about who might be alone that night, and give them a call. My next step is often to consider who is a stranger to Judaism who might want to know a little bit more about both the religion and what it means to our family.

The seder encapsulates so much of what is most important to me about my Jewish practice. It demands thoughtful engagement, asks us to wrestle with difficult ideas, and spurs countless conversations. With storytelling as the primary tool, the seder reminds us to look to our past to inform our present and instruct us about the future. It includes a call to action and tikkun olam, to continue to work to make the world a better place. The seder also provides space to celebrate what we have, to sing and laugh and play games together. And, of course, there’s all of that food and the wine I talked about before.

Some people who are not Jewish probably identify some of those elements as the good parts of their own culture or faith as well. On top of that, the seder is chock full of universal themes. The story of enslavement and redemption is one common across many groups. The reliance on faith for hope and wisdom about how to be better people is something that draws countless parallels. A structure for welcoming and celebrating spring is something in which we all can participate. As parents, the seder reminds us of our dual responsibility to be both models and teachers, a practice that extends into the entirety of the job of raising children.

For me, the seder is one of the best parties I’ll have all year. The kitchen is a mess, the table overflowing with food, and the china makes its annual appearance. What better time to open up my home to our interfaith circle of family and friends, and to invite those who are strangers to Judaism to pull up a chair and join in the party.

Ending the Shabbat Protests

Ruthie's Homemade Challah

Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.  Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, it’s the kind of challenge I’ve longed for in contrast to what’s been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.

Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates “an event” even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.

But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.

In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didn’t want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didn’t get very far at first. “Because it’s stupid.” “Because I don’t like the prayers.” “Because I am hungry.”

And then, finally, an answer I could work with:

“I don’t want to be Jewish, Mommy.”

Ouch. That hurt. But I didn’t want to let on just yet.

“Why, Ruthie?”

“Because I don’t understand the prayers. We don’t say them in English, and I don’t know what we’re saying.”

Aha!

“Could we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthie’s request.

Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.

After the Tough Questions About Sochi Were Answered, the Scantily Clad Women Arrived

What do these two things have in common? Both are reminders that soon, my little boy will not be so little anymore.

The other day I felt good about how I handled Sammy’s challenging political questions about the Sochi games. We discussed Jonathan Pollard when Edward Snowden came up again in conversation. We talked about the parallels between Russia’s anti-gay policies and Hitler’s ideas of racial supremacy during a discussion about the price paid at an auction last year for Jesse Owen’s gold medal. In fact, I was feeling so good about having managed the Winter Games’ teachable moments that I began to think that it was time for some parental high-fives.

Then three tanned and topless females wearing only thong bikini bottoms and big smiles appeared in my mailbox. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue had arrived. I knew that many men anticipated the arrival of this once-a-year celebration of women frolicking in the sand and surf, but as the mother of a 9-and-a-half-year-old boy, I was neither filled with anticipation for what was inside this magazine nor was I celebrating it.

But the arrival of these women on my doorstep was my fault. I was the one who during Sammy’s school magazine fundraiser said it was okay for him to get the “regular” edition of Sports Illustrated (S.I.), in addition to S.I. for Kids. I thought reading about sports would be better than surfing the Internet for sports news. I forgot that the swimsuit issue was part of the subscription package.

I cancelled my subscription to S.I. 26 years ago, before heading to college. See, I too was a sports-crazy kid. I would read my weekly sports bible lying on my bedroom floor. I studied the swimsuit issue with a mix of amazement (women really looked like that!) and curiosity (was it possible to visit the exotic locations in the pictures?). I had a good idea what was inside the 50th anniversary edition.

But on this day, I did not look at the magazine with amazement or curiosity. I looked at it with a mother’s eye, a Jewish mother’s eye, and thought, there’s no way my kid is looking at this. I try not to be a helicopter parent, and I work to embrace the blessing of the skinned knee, but I’m still a mom that wants to shelter her son from some things for as long as possible – like barely clothed women with long legs and big breasts.

At the risk of sounding like my parents, kids grow-up so fast. I want to preserve Sammy’s innocence for as long as possible. I’m glad he still thinks kissing in movies is gross – he covers his eyes when Aragorn smooches Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and like that he has “girls who are friends” instead of girlfriends.

With this in mind and because Sammy was at school and had not yet seen that S.I. arrived, I hid the magazine in my office under legal pads and file folders and anything else I could find. I’m not proud that I took his mail or that I wasn’t truthful when Sammy said, “I wonder why I didn’t get Sports Illustrated this week.” As a Jewish parent, I know I should be working a little harder than I am to model walking in God’s ways.

But, come on, I think a little wiggle room should be granted on the eighth and ninth commandments for moms and dads who need to bend the rules in the name of responsible parenting. I mean sometimes a mom has to do what a mom has to do.

I fudged the commandments to protect my child, and to prevent him from breaking the tenth commandment – thou shall not covet. I knew the photos in the magazine might lead to lots of coveting of swimsuit beauties, including Israeli model Bar Refaeli who was featured in the former cover girl section. As I looked at the picture of her, I imagined Sammy using the line, “But she’s Jewish,” to convince me to let him hang her poster in his room. As if somehow being Jewish would negate the fact that she wasn’t wearing much clothing.

The arrival of this magazine really sent me into a tizzy in a way that questions about Putin, terrorism and gay rights in Russia did not. Why? I’m not naïve. I know that some day soon Sammy will be thinking and looking at girls as more than just friends. I know that, in a few years, he will be a teenager with raging hormones.

I was reminded of all these things that as a parent, I wished to put off, when the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Date Assignment Request Form arrived in the mail. Realizing that the teen years and all the developmental changes that they bring were not as far off as I liked to think triggered my mama bear response to the magazine. Taken together, the two items made me realize that, in three, years, my little boy would not be so little anymore.

At the same time that Sammy is called to the Torah to accept his obligation to fulfill Jewish laws and be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), he will be becoming more interested in bodies and sexuality – things that I find more difficult to discuss than politics. But I can’t stop the turning towards adulthood. It is coming, in many ways and sooner than I want.

I know this, but I still want to prolong Sammy’s innocence as long as I can. Which is why, I deposited the magazine in the recycling bin. I’m not yet ready to address the challenging topics raised by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. But I know I need to do it. I just need some additional time to think about what to say.

 

Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Confessions of a Peeking Parent

The following is a guest blog post by Jodi S. Rosenfeld

The rules are right there in the Shema.

You know, in the Ve’ahavta part, where it says: These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you’re sitting in your house, when you’re walking by the way, and when you’re lying down, and when you’re rising up. On and on it goes. These are the Torah’s most basic directions for how to be a Jew.

Kids learningBut that line about teaching God’s commandments diligently to our children? That’s a specific directive to us parents. Whether we are raising kids in an interfaith home or in one with two Jewish adults, the expectation is clear–teach the kids about Judaism and teach them with diligence! This makes me anxious.

Think about the endless list of lessons “good parents” are supposed to be sure to impart to their children: good manners, respect for others, healthy eating habits, general knowledge of the world. I remember, when my now-10-year-old was in about his sixth month, people started asking me if I was teaching him baby sign language. My heart would pound. I would think, in list fashion: I’ve started solid foods; I’ve transitioned him from the black and white books to colorful, stimulating toys; I read “Goodnight Moon” every night because routine is important; I take him to sing-a-long class to enhance his appreciation for music…must I teach him sign language too? It seemed like one more task in an overwhelming, unending series of parental responsibilities.

As I thought about how I wanted to teach my children about being Jewish, I decided to start with Shabbat. We began lighting candles every Friday night in the manner our Rabbi had taught us–all of us “gathering the light” by sweeping our hands above the flames three times and then covering our eyes while we said the blessing. As my children became old enough to join us in these rituals, I found that my personal behaviors had changed. I would gather the light, then, rather than cover my eyes, I would peek. Just as a toddler playing hide-and-seek might open her fingers to peer out between them while counting, I was peeking at my kids! Rather than enjoying the serenity of that darkened moment of prayer, I was staring at them–were they covering their eyes? Were they saying the blessing? (I know they know this blessing!) It had become my weekly parenting test: Were my kids doing Judaism right? Had I diligently taught them how to observe Shabbat?

This was not working for me. I had come to dread that sundown moment of disappointment if say, they were poking one another instead of focusing on the holiness of the moment. I started to call them out on it. “You were not covering your eyes!” to which they would reply, “Mom, how could you know we weren’t covering our eyes if you were covering yours?”

Touché. Smart kids.

And so this is what my kids taught me about their Jewishness: they would learn by watching me. If Shabbat blessings were important to me, eventually they would see that they were important. If I became engaged in the community of our synagogue, they would find value in that community. If I continued to peek, the jig would be up.

Now, this is how I do Judaism with due diligence–at home, I focus on what is meaningful to me: lighting candles, eating Challah on Friday nights, hosting family meals for the holidays. My kids watch. And participate. And learn.

The Challenge of Sharing The Bible with Younger Kids

In 2003 (five years before I had kids), I read about a project that drew me in for the ways it combined my love of storytelling, my nostalgia for the toys of my youth, and my general admiration for out-of-the-box creativity.  A guy named Brendan Powell Smith had started a website, and then a series of books, called The Brick Testament, where he re-created biblical stories from with Legos.  Eric and I were excited to find a big stack of Brick Testament books two years later at the MIT Press Booksale, and we gathered them up, a set for ourselves and a bunch more to give as gifts.

A sampling of The Brick Testament

The project is impressive – Smith has amassed tons of Lego sets and re-assembled them into unique collections for each tale.  As you read it you can see the pieces of a farm set climbing into Noah’s ark, or perhaps the body of Obie-Wan with a new head to look like a biblical farmer, walking across Lego tableaus of the Garden of Eden or the Pharoah’s palace.  Smith does not use an official translation to tell his stories – he’s made his own based on a compilation of sources – but the stories are very recognizable to those that I have learned over time.

About a year ago, Ruthie discovered these books on one of my bookcases.  She saw the Legos – toys – and claimed the books for her own.  I figured there couldn’t be much harm in reading them to her – we frequently talk about the stories behind the holidays, what it means to be Jewish, and conversations about G-d are not foreign to our repertoire.  But as I leaf through them with her, I am both verbally and graphically reminded that The Bible isn’t all sunshine and roses.  There are some pretty tough parts – violent parts, sad parts – that I don’t feel completely ready to delve into explaining to a five-year old.

Some kids love the scary, but Ruthie doesn’t, largely because, I am sure, her apple fell pretty close to her horror-movie-hating mom’s tree.  And the challenges of getting the scary out did not start with the nights we read The Brick Testament.  Even though the Disney stories all end in a happily-ever-after, they also almost all contain a terrifying witch, an evil sorcerer, or my least favorite villain, a stepmother out to destroy her husband’s children.  And there’s bad stuff in these stories because there’s bad stuff in real life, stuff that Ruthie is getting closer understanding with each passing year.

Intellectually, one of my primary goals as a parent is to make my kids resilient people.  I know that no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent them from everything that is scary, I can’t keep them from knowing hardship firsthand.  But if I can give them tools to know that scary things don’t need to make all of life scary, and that the bad things that happen do not need to define them, I will feel like I have done a good job.  When push comes to shove, however, and the picture on the page is of biblical bloodshed, my maternal instinct tells me to skip that page – to gather the girls up in my arms and protect them from even knowing that people kill other people.  If resiliency is the goal, it means that someday, and I am sure a day sooner than I am ready for it, we’ll need to not only read about Cain killing Abel in full, but we’ll also need to talk about it for a while.  And in the end, The Bible, which is reinforced with thousands of years of commentary about why things happened the way they did, is one of my best tools to open the discussion about why evil happens and how to understand it.

In a great article on this website about introducing Torah to your kids, Kathy Bloomfield notes that “There are times when the Torah portion is just not something you want to discuss with the children. Explaining animal sacrifices, what “begat” means or why there seems to be so much bloodshed can get very tiresome.” There is also a great animated video series on this site presented by Torahlog, which presents the year’s worth of Torah portions with commentary.

Ideally, I want my girls to start out understanding the richness and the wonder of the stories upon which our faith is built, and gain a comfort level that will make them open to the more complex parts as they are developmentally more ready.  But for now,  I am going to purchase a few of the books Bloomfield suggests, along with Brendan Powell Smith’s newer bible stories for kids, and start preparing for the days when all four of us are ready for that complexity.

How a Tin Can and Piece of Paper Taught me to Speak for the Trees

A Jewish National Fund Blue Box similar to the one my grandfather kept on his desk.

This week, the Jewish world, will celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year of trees. Often referred to as Judaism’s Earth Day, it is a time when Jews renew their commitment to care for the earth, celebrate nature and anticipate the renewal of the natural world.

The other day, as I thought about the coming holiday, I reflected on my own environmentalist roots. I remember the famous 1970s “Crying Indian” public service campaign by the group Keep America Beautiful that said, ‘People start pollution; People can stop it.”

As a child, I took the campaign’s message seriously and would pick up garbage on the beach when my family went to the Jersey Shore. Years later as a counselor on a teen tour, I made my campers pick up trash at the national parks we visited two and three times before leaving.

Another thing that shaped my desire to care for the environment was The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Published when I was one-year-old, the book tells the story of the Once-ler and the fuzzy little man who implores him to stop destroying the earth by shouting, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees!”

But while the message of the ’70s environmental movement resonated with me as a young girl, two other things influenced my commitment to ecological causes – a tin can, and a paper certificate. These items were not found during one of my garbage pick-ups, but rather in my grandparent’s home and at my synagogue.

When I was a child, I often would go to my grandparent’s house. During these visits, I would go upstairs and play dress-up with the clothes and jewelry in my grandmother’s bedroom closet. When I was finished, I would go across the hall to my grandfather’s office and sit at his desk. I would open his drawers and examine the various trinkets on his desktop – a University of North Carolina paper weight, a beer stein with the university logo used as a pencil holder, and newspaper clippings and photos my poppy had tucked into the side of his desk blotter.

But the item that most intrigued me was a blue tin box with a slot on top and a map of Israel, a Jewish star, Hebrew letters, and the words Jewish National Fund on the sides. I would toy with the box, turning it over-and-over and wonder what was this mysterious piggy bank. What did my grandfather do with the money he saved in it? What kind of magic was there in the country pictured on the box?

I learned over the years that my grandfather sent the money he collected to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organization dedicated to developing and cultivating the land of Israel. The group was, and is an environmental leader and focused resources on afforestation and water among other things. I understood that if my poppy were collecting money for trees in Israel, then trees must be important.

The other object that taught me to revere nature was the tree certificate I received in religious school after planting a tree in Israel. I recalled my Sunday school teacher telling my class that trees were to be respected and how we could help the earth by planting one in the Jewish state. I remember she said that if we did, we could even visit our tree when we were older.

The idea of having my very own tree in a foreign country that I could go see one day sounded awesome. I had to have one! I already knew from my grandfather’s Blue Box that our planet needed trees because they had both community and social value. I imagined that the tree I planted would bear a sign with my name and stand in a forest in Israel doing very important things like providing oxygen and preserving soil.

You can understand the disappointment I felt when I discovered, as a 16-year-old that none of the many trees planted by Diaspora Jews in Israel had my name on it. But while I realized that the sapling I planted as a young child was simply one among millions, I still believed it made a difference. It still was part of a larger ecosystem that supported wildlife and improved air quality.

The JNF Blue Box and tree certificates issued when you purchased a tree in Israel were an integral part of my childhood memories and helped me to understand my obligation for caring for the earth. Now, as a parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my child understands that he too is a Shomrei Adamah or guardian of the earth, and like the Lorax, he also speaks for the trees.

Luckily, Cameron shares my interest in ecological issues, so Sammy learns about the importance of caring for nature from both of us. To reinforce the message of environmental stewardship that we deliver through our everyday actions, such as picking up garbage on walks with our dog, recycling, organic gardening and supporting sustainable agriculture, we also put tzedakah into a Blue Box and plant trees in Israel.

We do this because, in today’s fast-paced, disposable world, someone needs to heed the Lorax’s call to care “a whole awful lot.” This Tu Bishvat consider planting a tree, and please, remember to treat it with care, give it clean water and feed it fresh air.

Our Blue Box with certificates for trees we have planted in Israel in Sammy's honor.

My wounded tree

My tree fell over. Twice. And at least once, my toddler toppled off the couch into it.

Last night, my husband took the whole thing apart, and realized that I had not precisely put it in the tree stand the way that I should have. Okay, maybe I just shoved it in and assumed that it would be good. It was – for a few days anyway.

The tree is a big deal for me. I’m a Jewish convert, and putting up the tree has been a difficult topic every single year. Putting up a tree is representative of a whole lot more than just a tree – it’s a symbol of my past and my traditions, and my children’s connection to it. And when it fell over last night for the second (or third) time, I burst into tears and sobbed all thru the clean up. I lugged it outside and propped it up on the porch, so I wouldn’t be staring at the glaring failure of all my Christmas dreams all night long. I moved some furniture and put my daughter’s baby tree (she wanted her own little tree this year)into a place of prominence in the window and even put my angel (the one my mother bought for me twenty years ago, when I first moved out) on top of it.

And this morning, my husband took his little saw outside, and cut and trimmed my tree, and we shoved it back into the stand. Brought it back inside and and then took off all the lights and garland, popcorn and cranberry strings my son had made for me, and it stands there, naked, waiting for decorations. After a teary phone call home (because only my mother would understand why I was so sad last night), my mother is coming over this morning with new ornaments to replace my broken ones, and lights (because she never thinks I have enough lights), and Julie and I will decorate the tree with her this afternoon. So when my older kids come home tonight, they’ll have their tree back, prettier than before. More stable. Less likely to fall.

I’m thinking of the tree as an analogy for me this year. This month has been hard – the December Dilemma has been particularly difficult this year, and I’m feeling battered and worn down and tired. Just like my tree. But there’s another week and a half before Christmas, and I’m vowing, like my tree, to emerge ready and steady, newly decorated and committed to making sure that December is not the month of conflict and isolation, but rather a month of warmth and peace. Of celebration and gratitude and love. Hot cocoa and candy canes, looking at lights and watching holiday specials. Of anticipation and parties and quiet nights reading together. Like my tree, standing so proud, I’m going to embrace the scars and battle wounds – because all of it makes me who I am. Christmas means more to me because I fight for it, because I insist on bringing a bit of my past into my Jewish home. My tree is prettier because of the hole where Julie toppled into it, and it’s more stable now because it fell over. Twice, or was it three times?.

Merry Christmas everyone – may we all emerge from December a little stronger, a little more settled and, like my tree, able to wear the wounds and bruises proudly. Because it’s what makes our tree, and us, who we are.

 

Why do we have to hide?

I put up my tree last night.  And on Sunday, I was at a PJ event, and one of my friends confided that her kids were picking out their tree later on that afternoon.  Confided, because it’s something that is still somewhat shameful.  And while a part of me understands the secrecy, I do, there’s a huge part of me that doesn’t.

I’m Jewish, and I’m doing my best to raise the next generation of Jewish children.  I worked HARD for this Jewish label, I met with a rabbi for close to a year on a monthly basis.  I took my two oldest children to a mikvah, and sat before a Conservative Beit Din.  I dunked my screaming toddler three times (okay, only twice, because the rabbi took pity on him and said enough was enough).  I’ve got my own challah and hamentaschen recipe, candlesticks, I crocheted matching yamulkes for my husband and son.  I’ve read and studied and thought and debated and discussed.  I’m proud of my Judaism.

But I’m never going to be a Jewish woman who grew up steeped in the culture.  My grandmother didn’t make matzoh ball soup, my grandmother was Irish and English and Catholic.  I’m not ashamed of that.  My mother isn’t a Bubbe with her own challah recipe, she’s Grammy and she decorates wildly and enthusiastically for all holidays, from Valentines Day straight through until Christmas.  My kids come from that.  I don’t feel like I need to hide that, or be ashamed of it, or pretend that it’s not a part of who I am, and who they are.

I know not everyone agrees with me.  I know that there are lots of people who really, really don’t agree with me.  People who think that being Jewish is, in large part, defined by what you don’t do, and putting up a Christmas tree and celebrating what, for many, is absolutely a Christian holiday, is perhaps one of the biggest signalers of being Jewish.  People who think I’m confusing my kids, and watering down Judaism and perhaps I never should have converted in the first place.  I know that.

But I truly believe that I’m a good Jewish mom.  I think I’m a good Jewish wife.  I think I’m doing my best, to be the best Jewish woman I can be.  By showing my kids that you need to honor all that you are, not just the parts that society deems acceptable.  That, in the end, all you can do is be true to who you are.

If that means that my family doesn’t understand why I converted, then it’s up to me to educate them.  To teach them what Judaism is, to show them why it’s so important to me.  To bring them in, as much as I can, so that they can see what I see when I see my oldest teaching my son how to read Hebrew, and hear my baby recite the blessings.  If being who I am means that there are members of my community who disagree with me, and think my tree has no place in a Jewish home, it’s up to me to show them that maybe they need to look past the tree to see the Jewish home.  To see the PJ Library books scattered all over the rug, and the Shabbat box that came home from preschool on Friday.  To see the Siddur on my daughters bedside table, and the bag of yamulkes I keep in my china closet so that guests in our home on Friday night can put one on.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s my job to make it a little easier for the woman who married a Jewish guy and is trying to figure out how to raise her children in a tradition that isn’t hers by birth.  Because it’s hard.  Really hard.  It takes determination, and flexibility and a lot of encouragement and acceptance.   There’s a huge number of us, non-Jews who married Jews and we want to do it right.  We want our kids to grow up feeling secure and welcomed and happy about both sides of their heritage.  Whether that means exploring Judaism and converting ourselves, or not.  I converted, and I’m so grateful I did.  For my family, for me, it was the right choice.   But a dip in the mikvah doesn’t change the thirty plus years of not being Jewish, nor should it.  I’m not ashamed of converting, and I’m not going to tell my children that they aren’t a part of my family’s traditions.  They are.   Their story starts with ours, with my husband’s journey as well as mine.

And in our house, we put up a tree.  And we don’t hide it.

The Gift of an Early Hanukkah for Interfaith Families

DoughnutThanksgivukkah has come and gone, and we have racked up stories of latke-stuffed turkeys and donuts on the dessert table, and, most importantly, of the beautiful lights of the menorah on the Thanksgiving table. But before it becomes history for another 150 or 77,000 years, depending on how you count, I want to take a moment to appreciate what makes this year different for the Interfaith (Jewish/Christian) family. This year, Thanksgivukkah gave way to an easier holiday season, where we can focus more on celebration than challenges.

As it has for the last few years, the first week in December my inbox has filled up with announcements for events about the “December Dilemma.” The emails describe great-sounding panels with clergy from all walks of Judaism and Christianity offering to help me determine how to best parent through the month where our multi-faith background takes the starring role in our lives. But I have to say, its star is shining a little less brightly this year, because there is a little less dilemma before me.

As an interfaith couple, at its most challenging moments December forces us to articulate our faith choices in a way no other month does. How do we explain to our kids that they are a part of two families, even though those families’ traditions seem so divergent in this month? In putting out a menorah instead of a Christmas tree, are we trying to tell them that one thing is better than another? (We aren’t, by the way.) These questions are symbolic of the complexities of the choices we make for the four walls that define our home, questions that we navigate and re-navigate as individuals, parents and families all the time, the countless questions that probably led you to this website today.

And on top of the biggies that are highlighted this time of year, two slighlty smaller questions, the detail ones, always loom large for me in December. First, how do I make Hanukkah meaningful, when Christmas is just so gosh darn distractingly fun and wonderful? And second, how do I coordinate celebrating both with both sides of the family, and still minimize any “lost time” with either?

This year, Hanukkah started the night before Thanksgiving, so we squeezed in our candle lighting between packing and cooking the stuffing we needed to drive to New York for Thanksgiving dinner. As I mentioned last month, we spend Thanksgiving with my Jewish family, so the gang was mostly there for the second night.  And then we had three whole nights on a holiday weekend, a rare occurrence for Hanukkah. With Christmas so far in the future that gift lists haven’t even been written yet, we could fully concentrate on Hanukkah – no Christmas party invites to juggle between candle-lighting, and barely an ornament display between me and the Hanukkah decorations at Target. It has been a lovely, small holiday, with plenty of nights to share with Grampy, a few with cousins, and two with friends. And now it is over.

Hanukkah is over, and I have three weeks to shop for stocking stuffers for my husband’s family, three weeks to scheme about which holiday events we’ll attend together when we visit them. It is almost like Christmas is in a different season. In our home, we talk about the importance of helping our Christian family celebrate Christmas, because it is an important and joyful holiday for them. This year, we’re done with our holiday, so we can fully focus on the help. Rather than choosing between one holiday or another, we did ours, and now we can move on to other things.  My two detail questions are answered pretty neatly (although I will miss you on Christmas day, Dad!).

So it feels like I got an extra gift this December. And perhaps it is a reminder that even though we talk about a “dilemma,” in the end what most of us are trying to accomplish two things. First, to define our own nuclear family’s take on observance, and teach it to our kids with clarity and love. And second, between the long checkout lines and travel hassles and decisions about whether to light candles or strings of lights in our own homes, December is about balancing a whole lot of celebration and joy. If we focus more on the celebration and joy, maybe we can push the dilemma part of the equation off of center stage and into more of a supporting role.

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?