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When I was 8 years old I had a good friend who lived around the corner from me. His name was Nachshon. We took the same school bus to school and at the Orthodox Yeshiva we attended we were in the same class. I went to his house often after school to play video games or just to hang out. He rarely came to my house. My family was not religious enough for his family even though we had a kosher home and my parents tried hard to educate us in Judaism. My parents were liberals. They had been actors and met on stage. They believed in finding out about oneself both inside and outside of the religion. For this reason the Jewish community at my Yeshiva rejected many of my parents’ beliefs and therefore my brother and I were rejected as well, though in a subtler manner.
I was allowed into Nachshon’s home where the rules of kosher/non-kosher, religious and non-religious were in tact and could not be stirred. He was, however, not allowed into my own home. At 8 years of age I didn’t care. He had a Nintendo and my brother and I did not. He had better toys, better games and carpeting in his basement. He had what I didn’t have, or so it seemed.
Then something happened to Nachshon, or rather something happened to his father. One day Nachshon didn’t show up to school. In the middle of Torah study that morning our teacher told us all to put on our coats, we were going somewhere. Once outside we boarded a yellow bus. The bus twisted and turned through the sooty Brooklyn streets until we were close to my own neighborhood. We ended up in front of Nachshon’s residence.
I had been to his house many times before but never with my whole class. There were twenty of us: the girls dressed in long skirts and long sleeved shirts, the boys with yarmulkes, black pants and white shirts. We looked like a sea of exclamation points shuffling through the small doorway. The house was dark and the mirrors had been covered with black fabric. There were low boxes on the floor in the living room for the family members to sit on. It was then I realized what we were doing there. We went, as a class to sit shiva. Shiva is the traditional Jewish mourning period. It usually lasts for seven days and family members sit on the floor or on low boxes, they cover their mirrors and in my neighborhood they leave the door open for visitors to come and go. It is a “mitzvah,” a good deed to sit shiva. As a child it is terrifying.
Nachshon looked small in his own home surrounded by guests from all over the neighborhood. His father had been sick for a long time. No one knew any of the details. He died of some kind of cancer and now the closest family members sat around the living room on low boxes reciting his name and weeping.
That year I stopped going to Nachshon’s house to play. He didn’t speak to me in school. I heard that his mother wanted him to hang around only very religious Orthodox Jewish boys and girls. I was not in that category. The next year I was kicked out of the Yeshiva and I didn’t see him again for a long time. Then one day something happened to me, or rather something happened to my father.
I saw Nachshon again four-and-a-half years later at a shiva for my own father. He showed up on the front porch with sad eyes, dressed in a black suit, his yarmulke a patch of crimson velvet on his head.
“I’m so sorry about your father,” he said. It was the first time he had ever been to my house. Death had brought him there. Death, sympathy and compassion had overcome my “not Jewish enough” family. Though he came on his own. There was no school bus, no long skirts following his lead. He came alone. It was the last time I ever saw him. I felt as if his presence was an apology.
Today I have a newborn. She is Jewish by her mother, Mexican-Catholic by her father. I wonder what she will feel as she grows up in the neighborhood I grew up in. Her father speaks a different language and her mother wears rock t-shirts every day of the week. Does this make her less Jewish? Will parents be afraid to send their children to our house? How will this make her feel? What will I say when she says “Why?”
I will tell her I lost a very close friend a long time ago because of fear and judgment. I will tell her something broke between us because the community that surrounded us did not know how to bind us closer together in a time of mourning and instead shifted us apart.
I would like my daughter to grow up understanding the customs of each religion. The way Catholics and Jews deal with death is of equal importance. But more than this I want her to make her own decisions about religion and I want her to be able to turn to spirituality in times of great distress. I want her to have courage the way Nachshon had when he defied the community and walked up on my front porch to pay his respects. I will explain to my daughter one day that in that one fixed moment in time we were who we were as Jews but more so as resplendent human spirits.
I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?
The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.
The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”
But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.
I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.
Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.
The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.
But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.
I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.
Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.
The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.
Eight nights of wax have hardened on the little menorah that has traveled with me for more 25 years of Hanukkah celebrations. It looks as if the last scrap of wrapping paper is finally in the recycling bin, and for what feels like the first time in eight days, I have found a moment of stillness. As I remember this year’s celebration of miracles, I am thinking about some of the modern miracles and gifts we have enjoyed since we recited our first blessings nine days ago. Here are just a few things I am thankful for this year…
1. I am thankful for the miracle of 8 mornings. So much about life feels especially precious and fragile these last few weeks, and I am so grateful for the days I have had to wake up with my family and discover what the day holds.
2. I am thankful that even though we are not fully unpacked from this summer’s move, we found two menorahs to put in the window of our new home to light each night.
3. I am thankful for two little girls that have adopted those menorahs as their own, one for each, and for the miracle of hearing centuries-old blessings pouring out in their sweet voices.
4. I am thankful that my husband has spent the last 16 years perfecting his latke-making skills, and for the gift of the perfect homemade latke (crisp on the outside, warm and gooey inside) from his griddle on my plate.
5. I am thankful for the gift of my family’s annual Hanukkah party, and not only for the good fortune we have to exchange gifts with one another, but for the miracle of the warmth and love I feel in their company.
6. I am thankful for the friends and family, new and old, who helped make every day of this year’s celebration a special occasion.
7. I am thankful the blessings that my family who is not Jewish calls to wish us a Happy Hanukkah, and that they will share a Christmas greeting call with my Jewish father in 11 days.
8. I am thankful that through the miracle of air travel and the gift of a vacation, we can celebrate Christmas with Eric’s family next week….and
9. I sure am thankful for the gift of 11 days to recover from Hanukkah and rebuild my energy to share in some Christmas cheer.
Happiest, happy holidays!
Tashlich, the Jewish New Year practice of symbolically casting our sins off into the water, was not something I knew much about growing up. It is a practice I have come to enjoy as an adult, however. There is something both powerful and relieving about the physical opportunity to throw away your digressions, even in the form of breadcrumbs. It is also a nice tradition to embark on as a family; to take a walk around a river or lake; to be in nature together and enjoy the early fall weather as we observe the holiday with an activity that everyone can participate in in some way. This year’s journey to the Charles River has me thinking a lot about the act of practice and how a new focus on that concept can be a guide to successful resolutions and growth in the new year.
After Rosh Hashanah services this year, I rallied my girls and my extended family to take a walk to the river for Tashlich. We stood by the water and lined up, bits of crackers in each of our hands.
I was glad to have something for Chaya to do that would be marginally spiritual but mostly just a chance to be with family and throw some things – always a winner for my three year old. But for Ruthie I had high hopes. She had this monumental first year of sunday school and four weeks into first grade, she is making mental leaps and bounds of which I am in daily awe. I got ahead of myself imagining how she’d talk about being a better listener; a nicer friend; a more caring big sister. I even went so far as to think about how cute those things would sound right here in my blog.
“Throw a piece of cracker in the water, sweetie, and say something you want to do better next year,” I encouraged her.
“I want to be a better reader!” she said, throwing her first crumbs.
Not quite what I had in mind, so I tried again.
“Something you don’t do so well now, that you are hoping to change,” I suggested.
“I want to ride my bike without training wheels!” Another crumb in the water.
I smiled at her aspirations, and I thought about stopping her. Going deeper than I had planned into the concept of sin, or even suggesting to her something I thought she could improve.
Then I remembered the old adage about parenting being a marathon, and not a sprint and that really doing something from the heart takes practice. This year, when I talked about doing things better, Ruthie thought about her skills. Next year, she may interpret my instructions differently. Or she may not – at least not yet. We don’t do our traditions, we practice them. She has to practice Tashlich, and my hope is she’ll have the chance to practice it for a long time.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, I stopped myself from getting in my own, and I let her name a few more skill building hopes. Then I took my turn alongside and threw in crumbs for less screen time during family time, for being a more patient parent, for appreciating the people I love more and a few more things.
Since that day, though, I have been pondering the idea of practice. Because it doesn’t just apply to Rosh Hashanah, or to our spiritual beliefs. We can’t change overnight, and luckily we usually get more than one chance to try to do things better. So whether it is Tashlich or how I manage my low energy reserve at bedtime, I am going to try to remember that learning something different takes practice. If the universe allows it, I will get another year at the river. In the interim, I am not going to be better, I am going to practice being better – right alongside Ruthie as she sheds those training wheels, too.
In mid-April, I joined an army of Instagramers around the world on a journey called The 100 Day Project. The project was a “celebration of process that encourages everyone to participate in 100 days of making.” To participate, you simply committed to do one thing every day for 100 days, and then to post a picture of that thing on social media. After learning about the project from a college classmate (#100spotsforsitting), I launched #100TrueSleepers, a photo journal of what sleep really looks like in my house.
My project, inspired by my interest in one of the biggest themes from my parenting life, uncovered some deeper revelations about how big 100 days can really be. This week, most of us will transition from the long days of summer into the excitement of September and the introspective spirit of the High Holidays. At this important moment, I wanted to share some reflections from my project to encourage us all (myself included) to pay attention to at least one small thing everyday, as a reminder of how our children, and we as parents, grow every single day, whether we notice it or not.
Two things about sleep have intrigued me ever since I became a mother. First, I love to watch my girls sleep. It is not that I prefer it to when they are awake, it is just that I love seeing the peace of a day well lived on their faces. The second is a dialogue I’ve always wanted to explore in a more public fashion – that bedtime parenting can be really tough. My kids have never been easy sleepers, and I sometimes wonder if the popularity of sleep training and related techniques makes us less inclined to be honest about what really happens in our homes on the path from dinnertime to dreamland. I launched #100TrueSleepers as the intersection of these two ideas.
During the course of 100 days, my photos narrated drawn out bedtimes, moments of frustration, and how much of a superhero Eric is for saving the bedtime hour most nights. I also got to share some great shots of my girls holding hands asleep, looking completely peaceful, and entirely beautiful.
During the process of showing up every day to take my pictures, I discovered a third and powerful thing. As I captured my girls’ sleeping moments, I also paid closer attention to the space of each day. I often heard a certain line in my head as I posted the pictures, a psalm I came to understand from Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, a fantastic book I studied in college:
“So teach the number of our days, so that we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”
Psalms Chapter 90, Verse 12
This idea, that wisdom is gained in the counting of individual days, gained more and more resonance as my 100 days accumulated.
Often, the way I track time is driven by milestones and deadlines, and not by individual days. The theme of a week or a month is a project deadline, a new school year, our weekend away – major events that we plan for, and build up to. By picking a way to significantly note each day, I began to understand how much all of those milestones can be attributed to one 24 hour period, or three, or even 100. Taking that moment to catalog each photo, I also could take note of the magic of that day, and even in what had changed from one, or two, or 10 days ago.
Some amazing but smaller things happened in those 100 days – the girls changed how they liked to sleep, where they slept, and which lovies were the best sleeping companions. I was able to count the number of nights I missed entire evenings with my family (8), the nights we all slept away from home (22) and the night the girls put themselves to sleep all by themselves (Night #100).
Some big milestones happened for each girl – Ruthie lost her first two teeth and learned how to read her sister bedtime stories on her own. Chaya grew out of her nap AND her pacifier. And some big and unexpected things happened, too. Eric’s Nana passed away, a huge loss. And we moved out of our condo, the first place both girls called home, and into a new house, something we never would have predicted on Day One.
I finished my 100 Day Project about a month ago, and I decided to take a break from the every day of it. The project was a lot of fun, and has given me pause – to look more closely at how the days add up into the story of our journey as a family. It is a wonderful reminder to take into the new year.
By now hopefully you’ve had a moment to read about Jane Larkin’s Rosh Hashanah parties, which I plan to crash if I am ever in Texas for the Jewish New Year. This year my family started a new Rosh Hashanah tradition, too, although we hardly invented it; it was just new to us. At a family program at Ruthie’s Sunday School, the Rabbi taught us about the Sephardic tradition of the Rosh Hashanah Seder (which you can read about here on InterfaithFamily). I had never heard about this tradition, but figured it was worth a whirl. It was not only fun, but it brought with it a great chance to explore our hopes for the New Year in a new way. And it had the added bonus of being a very tasty addition to the celebration, as well.
The Rosh Hashanah seder is a seder of word plays, so the order is a series of foods that you eat, each of which has a word play that expresses our hopes for the New Year. For example, the Hebrew, or Aramaic, word for beet is related to the Hebrew word for beat, so when we eat it we can think about beating our swords into plowshares, or beating a path to free ourselves from our enemies. They are word plays that force a chuckle or a smile but also beautifully represent hopes for a sweet, peaceful and fulfilling year.
The spirit of the Rosh Hashanah seder is lovely, and the eats are good (more details on what we ate at the end of this piece). But it also offered something else to my family. As a parent of young kids, it is hard to find space to connect to the holiday. I derive joy and spiritual connection from watching my girls discover their Judaism, but sometimes it is hard to find time to remember my own Judaism. My time in the synagogue is a mix of reading, reflection, and making sure Chaya is coloring only on her coloring sheet, and not the synagogue furniture. The chance to extend the day’s observance to the intimate setting of our own home, where my kids can vacillate between the table and playspace, gives us all another inlet for observance. So our first Rosh Hashanah seder was a wonderful addition, and hopefully the first of many.
And in case this all sounds nice, but like too much to coordinate, here’s a shortcut to our seder:
Here’s what we ate:
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.
As the year begins, many of us find ourselves feeling as if we need to detox after the holidays. I am not talking about cleansing ourselves of the festive food and drinks in which we indulged (or maybe over-indulged). I am referring to the process of removing the toxins that have accumulated in our hearts and minds from extended time spent with family, and especially in-laws.
In a pre-holiday article, in The Boston Globe, Leon Neyfakh writes about the familiar image of “the monster-in-law” and reminds us that nothing seems to bring out our angst about our parents-in-laws like the holidays. For interfaith families, the season can feel especially toxic. Mix the navigation of different faiths and religious customs with regular seasonal stress, sprinkle a little Hanukkah-Christmas competition on top and what you get is a recipe for “holidays from hell.”
But it does not have to be this way. We just returned from Christmas in Vermont with my in-laws and the worst thing I can say about the trip is that my legs are a little sore from skiing.
I feel lucky. Neyfakh reports that more than 60 percent of married women experience sustained stress because of their parents-in-laws. But I love mine. What is wrong with me?
I would like to think that nothing is wrong with me; that my in-laws and I just happen to have found the ingredients for a successful relationship. That all these relationships need, is love.
The first time I met my in-laws, my mother-in-law wrapped me in an embrace as I entered her kitchen. The greeting was not over-the-top or staged. It radiated genuine warmth.
I was moved because I knew I was not the poster child for a future daughter-in-law. I was Jewish, not Christian; and my divorce from my first husband was still not finalized. Yet, my future in-laws greeted me with an air of acceptance.
My divorce would be official eventually; alleviating any concerns that my in-laws might have about my relationship status. But I was still Jewish. Yet, any worries that I had about the acceptance of my Jewishness were dispelled when I arrived for my first Christmas with the Larkins.
Hanging from the mantel with the family stockings was one in white wool with blue Stars of David. It was for me, and I appreciated that my mother-in-law found a way to include me in their holiday tradition while recognizing and respecting my faith.
The hug and the stocking laid the foundation for our relationship, and helped us to focus on our shared values, rather than on our theological differences. For example, we found that we both take our responsibility to help make the world a better place seriously.
Over the years, my in-laws have worked to care for elderly friends, feed the hungry (my father-in-law coordinates a summer lunch program for children and families in need), and help settle Sudanese refugees in the Burlington area (my mother-in-law has volunteered with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program). Their efforts embody Christian values, and from my Jewish perspective, are the very definitions of mitzvot and tikkun olam.
We also realized that we share similar religious experiences and points-of-view. We trade stories about our involvement as lay leaders in our respective houses of worship and find similarities in our liturgies.
My mother-in-law has mentioned that the Reform prayer book Mishkan T’filah reminds her of the one her church uses. And my father-in-law, a student of theology, has been a great resource for answering questions related to the Bible.
While we have found common ground and created inclusive celebrations, I know that my in-laws had hoped that their grandchildren would be baptized in the same church as Cameron and his sister. I know that they were disappointed when we announced that our children would be raised Jewish and realized that a baptism would not happen.
But I also know that they felt that giving a child a spiritual foundation, regardless of religious denomination, was more important than upholding a custom. Knowing that our children would be raised in a home with religion diminished any disappointment that they felt.
I know that my relationship with my in-laws, and their support and participation in our Jewish home have been made easier by the fact that we both affiliate with the theologically liberal brands of our faiths. I also know that focusing on each other’s good qualities, rather than each other’s imperfections has helped too.
This has been our recipe for success. Maybe it is unique. But I do not think so.
It may not be easy to get past criticism, prejudice, exclusion, and parental meddling in order to build good in-law relations; and fundamentalism and the perceived threat of new or different religious beliefs and traditions can add another layer of difficulty. But I do think that many other families can make it work.
I know more of us could “heart” our in-laws if we put the stereotypical behavioral scripts that popular culture holds up as the norm aside. By focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us more families might be able to enjoy emotionally intoxicating holidays in the years to come.
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.
I arrived at the Dallas Arboretum at 8:30 am on an early fall Saturday. The lush gardens were quiet in the pre-opening hours. I breathed in the crisped air on the walk to the building where I would be spending the next eight hours.
As I approached the location of my congregation’s Women’s Retreat, the stillness of the setting was broken by the buzz of female voices. A friend, who happened to be standing by the door, greeted me with a warm embrace and “
As I scanned the hallway and refreshment area, I saw old friends and acquaintances, mixed with many strangers. I saw born Jews and new Jews, those in the process of becoming Jewish and women not Jewish but connected to the faith through a spouse or partner. I saw 20-somethings and 80-somethings, and every age in between. It was truly a group representative of the diversity of my synagogue.
As I worked my way through the crowd to the coffee, greeting people along the way, I could feel myself begin to relax. Like many of my mom friends who were in attendance, there was much coordination involved to get here; from clearing Cameron’s calendar several weeks before the event so that he could be with Sammy, to preparing breakfast before I left, walking and feeding the dog, and going over the logistics of homework that needed to be completed.
Tearing away from these duties as commander in chief of the household was never easy. But the opportunity to spend eight hours with women I love, and make connections with others that I did not know, was too good to pass up.
After coffee and conversation, our group of 80-plus women came together for a non-traditional Shabbat morning service that incorporated yoga and poetry with standard pieces of liturgy. During our worship, we stretched, we sang, we danced, and we listened. We moved, and were moved physically and spiritually.
At one point in the service, our female cantor said, “I have a Shabbat gift for you.” She asked us to close our eyes and she began to play a subtle melody on her acoustic guitar. She then began to sing “May I Suggest” by the singer-songwriter Susan Werner.
May I suggest
Cantor Niren’s beautiful voice sang the lyrics that deeply touched us, and as the music faded away, the only sound that was heard was women sniffling, as many of us had been moved to tears. The song inspired presence and reflection, and was a lyrical present. But as the day went on, I began to feel that this moment was part of a larger gift called connection.
The song and retreat were, in a way, just vehicles of goodwill that enabled us to be in the right frame of mind to receive this more meaningful gift. In an ideal world, taking the time to foster relationships like this would happen regularly and organically, without such grand preparation of the body and mind. But the reality of our daily lives often makes this difficult, if not impossible. So, it becomes necessary to physically and mentally separate from our everyday distractions in order to nurture our souls.
When we do this, we are able to draw closer to others, and reconnect with our better selves. After a day of talking, walking, dancing, praying, and actively engaging, I felt energized and rejuvenated, not tired. I understood why we are so often advised to take time for ourselves.
After my “me-day” spent with many wonderful women, I was refreshed and would be returning home a calmer, more patient and clearheaded wife and mother. This was a gift for me, and for Cameron and Sammy.
As I left the arboretum with a spring in my step, I called Cameron and Sammy to check in. Sammy answered the phone. “Hi buddy!” I said. “How was the day with Daddy?”
“Hi, Mommy. Our day has been great! Daddy and I went to brunch, then we took Brady (our dog) to the park and then we went to Daddy’s office. While he worked, I did my homework. Then we went home to get some jackets and now we are on our way to the state fair,” Sammy said.
“Wow, sounds like you’ve been busy. Do you want to meet for dinner?”
“Well, we really want to go to the fair. Is it okay if Daddy and I do that?”
“Of course. I’ll see you at home later.”
Cameron and Sammy arrived home about 9:30 pm. Sammy walked in and said, “This was one of the best days ever! Daddy and I had so much fun!”
Seeing Sammy’s excitement, I realized that a relaxed parent and spouse were not the only gift Cameron and Sammy received from my participation in the retreat. They were able to deepen their bond by spending the day together. Extended father-son time was rare given the demands of Cameron’s job. Being able to connect with each other one-on-one was a wonderful opportunity.
I know the clergy and lay leaders who organized the Women’s Retreat saw it as a way to bring the women of our congregation into relationship with one another. I do not know if they realized how the program’s benefit would extend beyond the participants. But hearing from Sammy and Cameron about what a fun day they had together made me see that the retreat was a gift that kept on giving.