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.

A Shabbat Gift

  

Our cantor, giving the participants in the congregation's Women's Retreat a musical gift on Shabbat morning.

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 “Shabbat Shalom.”

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
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life… (Werner, 2001)

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?”

Cameron and Sammy

Cameron and Sammy capturing the gift of father-son time in a self-portrait.

“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.

Me-day
My “me-day” was spent with many wonderful women.

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.

Finding God

  
Sunset on Lake Kezar

Finding God at sunset on Lake Kezar in Maine

I’d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogue’s pews, but we don’t. That’s not to say we don’t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, it’s just not necessarily divine.

My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.

I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.

For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain we’ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.

Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.

Breckenridge, CO

Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO

Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but it’s not for others. In my extended family the “right” way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. It’s OK to refer to a beautiful place as “God’s country,” but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.

This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)

But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God – be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legos– it’s the right way for him.

Celebrating Shabbat on Vacation

  

Lighting the candles with iShabbat in Seattle

My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogue’s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when we’re on vacation. In fact, when we’re away we don’t celebrate Shabbat at all.

My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, “Mommy, its Friday.”

“I know, one more day of skiing,” I responded.

“No, it’s Friday,” he said. “It’s Shabbat!”

“Oh yeah,” I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.

“How are we going to celebrate?” Sammy asked.

“Well, we don’t have candles or matches and even if we did, I don’t think it’s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while we’re out or asleep,” I answered. “We’ll celebrate next week when we’re at home.”

“We can still say Shabbat Shalom,” Sammy replied.

“You’re right, we can do that,” I said.

“Shabbat Shalom,” we said together and gave each other a kiss.

It wasn’t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.

After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.

I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.

Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is very…un-Shabbat. It’s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phone’s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.

Our second vacation Shabbat was observed at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island

I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to “light” the candles by dragging a “flame” to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles “burned” over a two-hour period.

With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.

We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.

Three Year Olds and God

  

There’s something about that age, for my kids, anyway.  Three is where they start to get a concept of God – and I find it absolutely magical.

When Jessica Mary was three, she was so fascinated by the concept of God that I started looking much more seriously at Judaism, because I wanted a strong religious foundation for her.  There was no Church of Melissa that I could send her to for formal instruction, and when I looked at raising her in my spiritual tradition or Marc’s – Marc’s was the clear winner.  On the theological bones of it, Judaism was such an easy fit for my beliefs – and Judaism had the added bonus of already having a huge community waiting to welcome her.  She loved the rituals, lighting the candles and making the blessings, and explaining that something was a mitzvah was the quickest way to ensure her cooperation.  As a three year old, her spirituality was already so defined.

When Samuel Earl was three years old, he was the same way.  He wanted to have a birthday party, just him and God for his fourth birthday.  Part of that was that he didn’t like people all that much and at least God wouldn’t be looking at him and making him talk – but part of it was also that he had a profound connection to nature and trees and being outside.  I called him my little Druid – he was intensely connected to nature.  I remember him sobbing after a really bad storm came through and so many trees were lost.  It was painful for him on a level that was hard to watch.  For Sam, his belief in God has always been intense and natural and easy.  God is his friend, God made the trees and when there is damage done to nature, Sam is devastated, not just for him, but also for God.

And my Julianna Ruth, who turned three in April… Last night, I started reading her a book that I had picked up for Sam for summer reading. First Book of Jewish Bible Stories – and I just read the beginning of it, where God first created the world. She was fascinated.  It was a story she’s heard before, because she goes to preschool services at the synagogue, and she knew the song about the days of the week, ending in Shabbat. She was so excited about it, reading about her friend God. She announced that he was her new best friend, and how he must have created people so that they could be his friends – and I thought about what a fascinating way children have of boiling down theology to their level.  And how safe and reassured she was – God was out there, and God loved her and she loved God, and it was so exactly what I wanted her to take away from the story.

I struggle sometimes with Judaism.  I don’t feel at home with the culture all of the time.  I don’t like gefilte fish, and don’t understand Hebrew.  But what I love about it is that the Jewish God is my God. He (or She) is the one that I’ve been connected to for as long as I remember, and I have always felt as though we have a very personal, individual relationship. And when I’ve struggled the most is when I’ve felt cut-off from that relationship. But in the end, I believe what my kids believe. I think three year olds know it all already, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand it: That God loves us, and gave us tools to make it easier to connect with each other and with God, that the natural world is intimately a part of God and that in the end, the world is a better and brighter place because of our relationship with God.

Blessing

  

In Hebrew, a blessing is a Brachah.  We say a Brachah before we light Shabbat candles, and before we eat or drink anything.  There is a Brachah for when we see a rainbow, hear thunder or smell something particularly delicious to the senses.  We even say a Brachah after using the bathroom.

What is the point of the Brachah or blessing, anyway?  The first word in a Bracha, Baruch, is related to Brechah, or spring (as in water source).  By saying a Brachah, we acknowledge that G-d is the source of everything in our lives.  It’s a way of saying thank you.

Every night at bedtime, part of the routine with my son is to pray for the people we care about.  The last part of the prayer is to tell G-d we’re thankful.  I say thank you for all of our live’s “Blessings”, whether it’s an invitation for a Shabbat meal, some hand me downs from a friend or the opportunity to do a Mitzvah.  One day soon, my son will add to our list.

This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Slavery

  

An obvious theme of Passover is slavery.  The Jewish people were slaves in Egypt.  The slavery was particularly awful because much of their work was back breaking labour meant more to waste time than to actually build anything.

The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, meaning constriction, also relates to the theme of slavery.

Every year as we approach Passover, we are reminded to ask ourselves about what enslaves us.  What is slowing us down from reaching our potential?

I think my list can go on for a very long time.  I am impatient.  I am stubborn.  I very much cannot let things go until they are resolved.

Even today, I am tested on those weaknesses.  I am trying to book lodging through a website.  This should be a simple task.  The owner has not yet accepted the reservation through the website (but he messaged me saying, “Great see you when you arrive!”) which means there is no reservation.  Nothing will happen.  I don’t get the actual location of this lodging and there is no payment.  Talk about constriction!

I feel my anger and frustration building.  It isn’t easy to find the best place for a vacation and once you find THE place, you want things to go very smoothly.  I keep staring at my inbox waiting for the confirmation.  Refresh.  Refresh.  Refresh.

I know what I am doing.  I know it’s all from G-d.  I try short bursts of busy work, but I am back at the laptop.  Refresh.

What enslaves you?

This post is the third post, part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Retelling

  

One of the main activities of Passover is the retelling of the story of Exodus.  We retell the story to remember.  We retell the story to learn from the past.  The cycle of Jewish holidays is described to be spiral; although we end up at the same point after each cycle, hopefully we are moving up and growing.

One would hope that in the retelling of the Passover story each year, we will gain new perspective.  We will pick up on some detail we missed the previous year or some  lesson that we will integrate into our lives.

In our family, there is homework for our Seder.  I ask each person (I admit, so far it has only been my husband and myself) to share something connected to one of the themes of Passover.  The idea is to find something meaningful to share and hopefully in the sharing we will pick up that new thing each year.

This year I am excited to be hosting our first ever guests at one of our Seders. I have already asked them to find something to share and they are very excited to participate.

How do you retell the story each year?

This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.

Believing

  

On twitter and instagram, @imabima has made a list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of the month of Nissan.  I have decided to do my best and try to write something for each theme (each day).  Day 1 is Believing.

I believe that G-d loves me and you.  I believe that G-d makes things happen when the time is right.  I believe that G-d sends hints our way to let us know, He’s there and listening, just be patient (a character trait I admit to be lacking).  I believe everything happens for a reason, we just don’t always understand the reason.

I came to believe because when I arrived at my “now what?” moment a few years ago, G-d answered.  It started with a simple invitation to Shabbat that I was unable to accept.  It opened doors.  In fact it opened up my soul.

What do you believe?

Who Needs Shabbat? ME, That’s Who!

  

Our schedule is crazy lately. I know, I know, whose isn’t? My two big boys are both playing baseball this spring, and will soon be starting up select basketball. Both sports run concurrently (so, 2 boys playing 2 sports = NO free time, really) through early July.  This schedule, plus a 30-minute drive to synagogue means we don’t get to services nearly as often as I’d like. And while there are nights I could go on my own, or just the baby and I could go, it just doesn’t happen. Much as I love our congregation and rabbi, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to go (and wrestle my munchkin into some form of quiet-ness for an hour) on my own.

Lately, with some stuff that’s been going on, I’ve NEEDED a reconnection with something bigger than myself. I’ve needed something to remind me that some of the pettiness and general sometimes-it-stinks-to-be-a-grown-up crud I’ve been dealing with is, really and truly, small potatoes. I don’t really have a church home anymore, and, honestly, Sunday mornings are one of our FEW quiet times as a family, so I enjoy them at home. So, what’s a (gentile) girl to do?

I’ve found great comfort in us lighting the Shabbat candles lately. It’s not always right at sundown, and I don’t always get to rest or study or simply enjoy their gentle glow. But I do get the reminder that there’s something bigger out there than me and my daily struggles and joys. I get to share the blessing with my boys. Most times, Daddy lights the candles and says the blessing. One week, I did it. I loved doing it. Bubba found one of the baby’s books that has the transliteration of several Shabbat prayers (I’ve mentioned it here, before, My Shabbat) and pulled it out on his own to try to sound through some of the other simple blessings. Bear got in on that, too. It’s still all “fun” for them, but I like that they’re curious enough to try, and to ask.

More recently, I’ve lit the candles on my own, when Daddy and the big boys were out, and it was just Baby Boy and me. I even braved last week’s Tot Shabbat (once a month at our synagogue) – just Baby and me. (He loved it, by the way, danced and sang and wanted to go “up dere” on the bimah, and cried and cried when it was time to go home.)

So, while I continue to work on my own spiritual journey, I hope to continue at least lighting the candles on Friday nights to bring me back out of myself and the myopic view of life I tend to develop during our hectic weekdays. And even if my journey doesn’t lead me to any kind of conversion, I think I probably will always need Shabbat.