Counting our Blessings on the Last Shabbat of Summer Vacation

Happy Labor Day weekend!  Every year, I anticipate Labor Day weekend with both a smile and a bittersweet taste in my mouth.  It always brings some kind of fun celebration, but in so doing it marks the end of summer (a particularly big deal for those of us who live in New England).  Unlike last year, when the Jewish New Year collided with the start of the school year, we still have a few weeks to go before Rosh Hashanah.  But for parents of school-aged children, Labor Day marks a transition into another kind of new year.  A new year of earlier school day wake-ups, school uniforms to keep clean, and new groups of teachers, parents and children to get to know.

We have had a lot of fun this summer.  It was Ruthie’s first summer at real “big kid” day camp, and a huge developmental period for Chaya.  We had a great vacation in Maine, and a lot of weekend adventures.  We made wonderful memories with family and friends.

As I prepare to for this last summer weekend, I thought I’d take a moment to count some of the blessings of the summer, and think about how I might carry them into the next three seasons.  Here are some things I’ll remember:

  1. Every once in a while, its okay to stay up late to sit around the campfire, or run around like crazy monkeys with a gaggle of cousins.
  2. Every once in a while, it is good to go to bed early to make up for the late nights.
  3. Try not to sweat the sand in the bottom of the backpack.  It is a measure of how great the day has been.  And as long as you are careful it won’t ruin your plumbing.
  4. Similarly, relish the mud on your face.  Cake some more on, while you are at it.
  5. Never underestimate the power of a breath of fresh air.
  6. Don’t let the rain scare you from going outside.
  7. Every nook and cranny can be a stage for singing “Let It Go,” as long as you have a vision for it.

Those are a few of the gifts from our summer.  What are yours?

Mourning, Consolation and Joy

The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister.  In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan.  Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat.  It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation.  After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year.  It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment.  It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.

When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn.  The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags.  There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint.  When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake.  There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.

Sisters discovering a new farm for picking blueberries together. Credit: Eliza Berman

But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much.  There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present.  The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on.  My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake.  I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could.  My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.

And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends.  Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character.  While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities.  They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car.  And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.

One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future.  Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.

A Walk in the Woods, A Conversation About Life and Death, A Moment of Connection

A nurse log in the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.

These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.

Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.

In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.

On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.

As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.

I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”

I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.

He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.

My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.

I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.

“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”

My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.

Happy Second Birthday to My Little Dancer

My little Chaya turned two this month.  Two is a lot of fun. She is developing language at lightening speed, and even though I feel that Eric and I already know her better than anyone else (except, I must admit, her sister Ruthie), it feels as if I get to meet her anew every time she throws another new sentence together. She is just learning how to make a joke, and she loves figuring out how to make us laugh. She is firmly committed to figuring out her place in the world, which sometimes means she shows a glimmer of a “terrible two’s” tantrum, and can be a bit bossy, but overall is just a fascinating study in human development. And on that note, in honor of her birthday, I wanted to share a little story of a deliciously 2-year-old thing she did at Shabbat this month.

A few weeks ago, we were stuck in the throes of a typical Friday night. The girls were both exhausted, and attempting to eat their way through the kitchen cabinets in a race against my ability to get a balanced dinner on the table. Eric was home just a few minutes past his planned arrival time, which was hardly a disaster but meant the dog still needed to go out and the table wasn’t really set. I could hear the sound of chaos in our dining room, and was trying to figure out how to transition us into a peaceful welcoming of our Friday night.

I decided to try something different. Instead of attempting to commandeer everyone into their seats at a nicely set table, I waited until everyone was in the general vicinity of the dining room, made my Shabbat-commencing-confirming eye contact with Eric, and lit the match for the candles. Aha. I had everyone’s attention. I lit the candles, covered my eyes, and began to say the blessing.

Just as the blessing came out of my mouth, Chaya started to dance. I gave up on peeking and just uncovered my eyes. We all looked over at our smallest family member, who was watching the candles with a huge grin on her face, dancing to the melody of the blessing.

It may be a little trite, but this two-year-old was trying to tell us that Shabbat is something about which we should be dancing. More than that, it felt like a bit of a parenting victory. I often feel like when I start a ritual I never know how long it will take to stick, or even if it will stick. This goes across the board, from something as big as Shabbat or as small as teaching the girls to put their clothes in the hamper when they’re dirty. When Chaya danced, it felt like I wasn’t teaching her about Shabbat – she got it, and in her own way, even better than what I tried to teach her.

I doubt Chaya is going to dance every week, or even that I can transition our house from chaos to commonality every Friday like I did that week. But I am thankful for a two-year old who teaches me to see things in new ways, and whose gifts to me will always outnumber what I give to her.

 

A Meditation on Rules: My Shavuot Postscript

Rules

Boatright Family Rules (Draft Form). Rule # 10 says "Be Kind to Other People"

Shavuot came at an interesting time in our parenting journey this year. In addition to cheese blintzes, the main event on Shavuot is a commemoration of when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and the Torah. It is a holiday to renew our commitment to the Torah, to study on the Ten Commandments, and to celebrate the many stories and mitzvot that the Torah contains. This celebration of the rules that G-d gave to us at Mt. Sinai fell at a time when the role of rules in our family is at the forefront of our interactions.

At 5, Ruthie is in a period where her primary developmental focus is to test the boundaries of the world around her. This manifests itself in a constant engagement with Mom and Dad’s rules, as she uses her (of course exceptional) intellect to try to sneak around rules, to push the boundaries set out for her, and sometimes to ram head-first against a decree that Eric and I think is completely non-negotiable. As we try to support her through a series of transitions–the end of the school year, the beginning of an unknown summer camp, and the anticipation of kindergarten–what I hear in her words is a complete disdain for rules, but what I see in her behavior is a need for structure even more than she’s needed before.

So in the middle of a somewhat involved parenting moment, Shavuot rolled around. I was lucky to take the girls to two wonderful Tot Shabbat services the week before and after Shavuot, where they (and I) got two different perspectives on how to celebrate the holiday. And my mind was soaking it all up, particularly when we talked about the Ten Commandments. I spent a lot of the week of Shavuot thinking about those rules, and about what they provided to the Jewish people. While the commandments are not simple to follow, they are reasonable. They give us a framework to use in relating to one another and to G-d, and a lens for understanding “right” and “wrong.” For the most part, they do not confine our every movement, but they do give us enough direction to frame the way we interact with the world.

So Shavuot seemed like a great way to hit a reset button and try to redefine the role of rules in our family. A wonderful parenting expert recommended to us that we rein in the rule-pushing by restarting with a set of family rules that the four of us make together. The weekend after Shavuot, Ruthie, Chaya, Eric and I sat down to make 10 family rules.

They are not exactly like the Ten Commandments, in that they did not come from G-d, or even from a single authority figure, but they came from all of us thinking collectively, in our case an important step for helping Ruthie feel like she has a role in defining her world. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not steadfast–they reflect a moment in time, and hopefully we can conquer these 10 as we all have some mastery and our family changes.

But they do apply equally to all of us, just like the Ten Commandments. And I hope that they show Ruthie that rules do not confine her every movement, but provide enough direction to guide her in interacting with the world, and hopefully even to find a feeling of safety within that. And for us, Shavuot marks a new start on rules, just as it has for the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years.

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.

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.

Teaching An Attitude of Gratitude

We started our Shabbat ritual, in part, to teach Sammy to count his blessings, big and small.

On our flight home from our Christmas visit with Cameron’s family in Vermont, I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about raising children to appreciate things big and small, and the tangible benefits of giving thanks including a more positive outlook on life, less depression and higher GPAs. I could not help but think how the story’s placement was perfectly timed.

Sammy had just spent the fourth quarter of 2013 collecting presents. In October, he turned nine. While he did not have a birthday party (he celebrated with one friend at a hockey game), he did acquire enough gift cards to buy himself an iPad mini and a Rainbow Loom.

Hanukkah arrived in November, and the eight nights of lights also included eight nights of books and tennis equipment. Gifts that nourished Sammy’s mind and supported a healthy activity seemed like less materialistic choices.

In December, Santa’s sleigh arrived at my in-laws filled with colored rubber bands for the Rainbow Loom, Legos, books and merchandise from the fan shop of his favorite NFL team. There were plenty of trinkets in Sammy’s stocking too.

There were moments during these months when, Cameron and I surveyed Sammy’s celebratory loot and felt as if we were losing the battle against consumerism. We questioned whether our efforts to raise a child who appreciated all that he had – material and otherwise – were futile.

But then we would hear Sammy say with a mix of genuine appreciation and excitement, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you so much. This is awesome!” These exclamations of thankfulness were typically accompanied by a hug or a post-celebration phone call or email to the gift-giver.

Cameron and I smiled. Maybe, Sammy was absorbing the concept of appreciation. Maybe the things we have done to cultivate an attitude of gratitude did have a positive affect.

Cameron and I understood early on that appreciation and thankfulness were not innate qualities, but rather learned virtues. We recognized that, as parents, it was our responsibility to be teach and model these behaviors.

We began a regular Friday night Shabbat ritual, in part, to help us fulfill our responsibility for nurturing Sammy’s (and our family’s) gratitude muscle. Given our hectic weekday schedules, it was hard to commit to meaningful family dinners Monday through Thursday, and while we tried to model the qualities that we wanted Sammy to develop on a daily basis, we felt it was important to reinforce our family values in a significant way.

Shabbat gave us the opportunity to elevate the act of expressing gratitude from a simple thank you said in response to another’s action to a ceremony that reminded us to be appreciative of all that we had. It taught Sammy to give to others through the collection of tzedakah, and to be grateful for more than just material things.

Blessings for the candles, wine, challah, and all present reminded us to be thankful for having each other in our lives, the opportunity to spend time together, and the food we eat. In difficult periods, such as when Cameron closed his business due to the economic downturn or illness in our extended family, our practice of sharing the good things that happened to us during the week reminded us that even in tough times we still had many blessings.

Over the years, Cameron and I have seen, through Sammy’s actions, flashes that have given us hope that our efforts to instill a gratitude attitude are working. We have seen glimpses of it in the thank you’s Sammy says during the holiday gift-giving season and the reports of his politeness and good manners from teachers and other parents, and we have witnessed it in his deep desire to give to others who are less privileged.

When he was seven, Sammy decided he wanted to purchase prayer books for a synagogue in need, so we found, with the help of a friend who works for the Union for Reform Judaism, a new congregation in Texas that needed siddurim. Sammy donated money he saved to the temple and his action inspired an anonymous donor to match his contribution.

While we count these actions as proof that our appreciation cultivation program is working, we occasionally see Sammy being tugged by materialism. He is envious that his friends have video entertainment systems and impressed by the size of some of his classmates’ homes.

At moments like these, we remind Sammy that there is more to life than the acquisition of stuff and remind ourselves that thankfulness is like a muscle. To remain strong, it requires regular exercise at various levels of intensity.

In our house, we nurture our feelings of appreciation through light activity five to six days a week, but pick-up the pace on Shabbat. Our Shabbat ritual is the ultimate workout for our gratitude muscle. What is yours?

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.

Honoring my Promise to my Grandfather

Sammy and I with my 96-year-old grandfather in October. We had a special visit.

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.

“Maybe.”

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.

My grandfather and me at my second birthday.