The Unintended Consequences of Blintzes for Blitzen

The following is a guest post by Emily R. Mace

My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewish—but keep celebrating Christmas—my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a Tu Bishvat celebration. On the drive there, she kept proclaiming, “It’s the New Year for Christmas trees! I love Christmas trees!” Once we parked the car, we earnestly encouraged our daughter not to mention Christmas trees while at the event, which would involve planting a small bit of greenery (which turned out to be parsley for the seder plate). She didn’t quite understand why people wouldn’t want to hear about Christmas trees (they’re pretty, and come with presents: What could be wrong with that?), but she trusted us and didn’t mention the possibly offensive greenery.

I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what “religion” is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays: Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).

Emily's family

Emily and her family celebrating Hanukkah

But in her life, these two holidays are part of what’s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day. That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.

As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I share—but feel ambivalent about—our older daughter’s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I don’t really want her to want to sit on Santa’s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. I’d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that we’d raise our children in the  Jewish tradition, but I don’t think I understood how children’s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldn’t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.

For now, I’m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this “more the merrier” perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santa’s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.

Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.

Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.

My New Year’s Resolution: Improvement Not Perfection

A lesson on caring for our world before a park cleanup made me realize I wasn't doing all I could to fulfill my responsibility to be a guardian of the earth.

If you’ve read some of my blogs related to Sukkot and Tu Bishvat or articles in the InterfaithFamily article archive, you know that the environment is an issue that my family and I care deeply about. We have an organic vegetable garden, use earth-friendly cleaning products and buy local meats and produce whenever possible. We keep our house warm in the summer and cool in the winter, and support environmental organizations such as Jewish National Fund. I drive a small hybrid car and like any good tree-hugger, my favorite shoes are an old pair of Birkenstock sandals that I occasionally wear with socks in the winter.

Given our passion for the environment, you can imagine how excited we were when we learned that the family mitzvah project for our son Sammy’s religious school class was a park clean up at White Rock Lake. White Rock Lake is the Central Park of Dallas.

The morning of the event, we grabbed our yard gloves and bug spray, and headed to our synagogue to meet our group. Before we left for the park, one of our rabbis led us in a discussion about our responsibility as Jews for caring for the earth. After discussing some Jewish texts, she asked the kids to share what they would do if they saw trash on the ground. They all said that they would pick it up and throw it away.

Then she asked if they would pick up the trash if it were gooey and dirty. Most children still said yes because they would have a nabber-grabber or plastic bag with them to use to grab the sticky garbage. These kids were not going to admit easily that there were times that they might not pick up trash. The rabbi then asked what they would do if they didn’t have nabber-grabbers or bags.

Knowing that there is often a contrast between what people say about themselves and actual behavior, the rabbi shared a story about herself. She talked about how when she walks her dog in her neighborhood she often sees garbage along the side of the road. She tries always to pick it up, but sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she walks past the sticky Gatorade bottle even though she knows she shouldn’t.

After her story, we headed to the park. I parked my Prius next to my rabbi’s. As we were walking to get our cleanup instructions and materials, I told her that I was also guilty of not always picking up the trash I see when I walk our dog.

I explained that while I have the best intentions if the dog hasn’t gone to the bathroom, I worry that I won’t have enough bags to clean up his waste. I tell myself that I’ll pick up the garbage after he goes when we’re on our way home, but often we don’t walk the same way. I feel bad when I do this, but I do it anyway.

Admitting my own lapses in environmental stewardship was easier after hearing someone that has moral authority admit that they make the same mistake. As I confessed, my rabbi nodded in understanding and I realized that others shared the moral dilemmas of dog walking.

As we worked to clean up the park, I thought about the morning’s discussion. I knew I could and should do more to live my earth-loving values and picking up trash when walking the dog was an easy way to do it. I resolved to increase the frequency of my trash pick up.

Later in the day, I shared my resolution with Sammy. I thought it was a good opportunity to model the concept of teshuva, repentance. I even explained the action I would take to meet my goal of increased garbage pick up: bring more bags to ensure that I had enough for garbage and poop.

Sammy thought my plan was good but asked if I was going to separate recyclables. “It’s better to recycle if you can,” he said. And what about dog waste that other owners neglected to pick up, he asked, “Are you going to clean up that too?”

Walking the dog was becoming more morally complicated by the minute. I thought this must be why people walk by garbage and dog poop–there are too many ethical decisions to consider.

But I didn’t want too many moral choices to stop me from fulfilling my responsibility to be a shomrei adamah, guardian of the earth. So, I decided to keep it simple. Separate trash from recyclables when possible; otherwise place it all in the trash and pick up dog waste if I had enough bags. Focus on maximizing the amount of garbage I pick up.

Three weeks into the implementation of my resolution, I’m happy to report that I have increased the frequency of trash pickup when I walk our dog. I’m not perfect, but my goal is improvement not perfection. And that is exactly what Judaism asks of us.

It doesn’t ask us to be perfect; it simply asks us to commit and work to change our behavior in order to live more responsible and humane lives. As we move from the season of atonement into the season of rejoicing, my trash pick plan is, in a small way, helping me to do that. And that’s worth celebrating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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