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By Rabbi Ari Moffic
While InterfaithFamily is a Jewish organization, we naturally work with individuals and clergy of other faiths and often get requests to hear about topics from another religious perspective. As the December holidays approach, Rabbi Ari Moffic, Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago, reached out to Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block, who herself was raised in an interfaith household, to share her views.
Many of the articles and blogs on our website feature families who choose Judaism. Here we offer a perspective of someone who chose to become a Christian pastor in the hopes that it will be interesting to all of you and model the ways that we can listen to each other’s experiences. Rabbi Ari Moffic conducted this interview over email, and we thank Rev. Gonzalez-Block for sharing her thoughts with us.
What would you say is the religious message of Christmas (in a nutshell)?
Christmas is a holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus, who Christians believe to be the Messiah. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, churches observe the Advent season, which is a time of waiting and reflection in preparation for the Messiah’s coming. Christmas is also an occasion of great joy because it is a reminder of God’s commitment to God’s people, as exemplified by sending the gift of Jesus.
What are some of the cultural (not religious) aspects of Christmas?
Christmas throughout the centuries has expanded from being a strictly Christian religious holiday to a more cultural one – especially here in the United States. This can get tricky for Jewish and interfaith families who may participate in cultural aspects of Christmas. There can be much judgement for assimilation or for seemingly confusing Jewish children. Family members and others may accuse parents of evoking a feeling to their children of not being fulfilled through the Jewish holidays alone. Some families like German Jewish ones may have had cultural Christmas traditions going back generations in America. Christmas carols can be heard on the radio airwaves, and persons of different faiths may put up lights or gather with family and friends. In fact, some of the immortal Christmas carols were written by Jewish composers for mainstream audiences. Interestingly, most of society’s favorite Christmas traditions are not necessary directly related to Jesus’ birth story. These includes traditions around Santa Claus and the act of decorating Christmas trees – both of which have emerged out of different cultural contexts and have been incorporated into the way this holiday is celebrated.
How can Jews make sense of a Christian partner who may not be religious who wants a tree and the cultural elements?
There are many reasons why a Christian partner might want to celebrate the Christmas holiday. One possible answer might be found in the beloved character Tevye’s favorite word: Tradition! There is certainly something comforting about celebrating a holiday (be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving) in the way that one’s family did. If a partner has childhood memories of decorating the Christmas tree and hanging up tinsel, the partner might feel drawn to carry on these practices in their new home today. For this reason, even a non-observant Christian partner may still want to share the “spirit” of the holiday with the family and partake in some of the cultural or religious practices.
What are the values you hold dear around the Christmas narrative?
The Christmas story brings a deeply meaningful spiritual message to me: “God is with us” (which is what Jesus’s name, Emmanuel, means). In this narrative, God gives the greatest gift. God freely chooses to come to earth, not as a king bearing gold, but rather as a poor baby born to a teenage, unwed Jewish mother in a barn. In my eyes, this shows that God is not only committed to walking among us, but has a pronounced compassion for the marginalized and those in need. Made in God’s image, we are called to be a gift to those around us, especially those who have fallen on hard times or feel far from God. Christmas is a wonderful time to volunteer and to help serve those in need.
What can someone Jewish expect when going to church over Christmas?
Get ready for lots of music! Christmas services in both Protestant and Catholic churches are filled with familiar holiday hymns – from “Joy to the World” to “Away in Manger.” Many churches do not play any Christmas songs during the Advent season, so Christmas is a celebratory time when the choir, congregation, and horn section all soar. The Christmas story is read aloud and the pastor or priest typically offers a sermon. If there is a Christmas pageant, children, and even adults may be dressed as shepherds, sheep, angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph, and perhaps even a real baby posing as Jesus. Many churches hand out candles to parishioners, and while singing “Silent Night,” the lights are dimmed. It is usually a packed house (not unlike the Jewish high holidays) and there is palpable energy and joy in the air.
As a Christian Pastor who grew up in an interfaith home, what is your message to other interfaith families over this sometimes overwhelming and emotionally fraught holiday season?
As someone who grew up in an interfaith home, where we practiced both Judaism and Christianity, both Hanukkah and Christmas were important holidays for my family. The ways Judaism and Christianity were brought into our family home came out of many trying and eye-opening discussions between my parents. My message to interfaith families who are navigating this coming holiday season is for partners to sit down together to discuss their spiritual and culture concerns and desires. By so doing, they can prepare for the holidays in a way that feels authentic and acceptable to them both. This will no doubt take a great deal of compromise, openness, effort, and may even require partners to put their shared needs before the social pressures of extended family and friends. If possible, partners should turn to clergy and trusted confidantes for further discussion and advice. The holidays, however difficult, do not need to be a “make or break” moment for a couple, but rather can be a formative time to imagine together what spirituality will look like in their interfaith home.
Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block, who was raised in a Jewish-Christian household in New Jersey, is the Associate Pastor at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC.
By Amourence Lee
A good story is supposed to have a beginning, middle and end, right? Well, this story about being Jewish only has a beginning. Yep, I’m Jewish. Exactly 50% Ashkenazi according to my genome. And Jewish law says I’m 100 percent because my mother is Jewish—which also makes my kids Jewish.
I spent the first half of my life knowing this about myself, but that was literally all I knew about being Jewish. I never went to synagogue, didn’t become a bat mitzvah, we didn’t light candles or celebrate Jewish holidays or eat Jewish food. Since I don’t “look” Jewish, the only Jewish things about me are that I lived in New York and have a passion for lox and bagels.
I grew up in a secular home with lots of influences—Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, atheist, New Age. My dad is a fourth generation Chinese-American, born in Hawaii. If you ever see a balding, long-haired Chinese guy in Berkeley wearing two different color crocs, that’s my dad! My “Jewish” mom wasn’t raised Jewish. My grandfather was atheist and my Austrian grandmother converted to Christianity. I can only imagine this was her best way to cope during the war. In the background, my Jewish auntie and uncle would assure me that I am Jewish, even though I didn’t know what that meant. Then there’s my god-mom, a Southern black woman who meditated every morning and only ate macrobiotic, unless she was cooking her famous mac-n-cheese.
It was a smorgasbord that was totally liberating and utterly confusing! As a kid I felt trapped in between—I was everything and nothing; not Chinese, not white, not black, not Jewish or Buddhist or atheist, but I also felt I had a claim to all these things. Have you ever had to answer the question, “What are you?” Growing up, this was always the first question that people asked me. Innocent curiosity about my ethnicity was exhausting. There were times when I envied people who could check one box and who knew what they were and where they belonged.
But that wasn’t being handed to me, so everything about my identity has been claimed and self-determined. I moved to China, learned to speak Mandarin, studied up on Asian-American history and married a Chinese guy. We’re raising our kids bilingual; my 4-year-old daughter can sing more songs in Chinese than I can and our 7-year-old does Kung Fu.
I was feeling pretty smug about raising my kids to be so culturally fluent, until one day at the JCC. When I took the kids swimming, I had gotten in the habit of pointing out the Hebrew on the pillars and telling them it’s the Jewish language (not that I could read it). I checked a mental box every time I reminded them, “You’re Jewish too.” That day, my son Simon stopped me and asked, “How do I know that I’m Jewish?” And I said, “You’re Jewish because I’m Jewish.”
“How do you know you’re Jewish?”
“Well, because my mom’s Jewish.”
“No mom. How did the first person know they were Jewish?”
I was stumped. “That’s a good question.” That moment I realized that we don’t practice or express our identification as Jews in any outward way—it’s just been a statement of fact. Clearly this falls short, especially compared to the experiences, language and cultural ties that we’ve cultivated on the Chinese side. Simon in his 7-year-old wisdom knew: You have to do something to be part of it and for it to belong to you. Somehow he lasered in on this missing piece of our identity and it sent me spinning.
So I threw myself into reading Jewish books and met with three different rabbis to start my Jewish education. I even went to my first Passover seder with the kids. It turns out there’s lots of ways to be Jewish and my version is part of the Jewish experience. I’m 38 years old and this is just the beginning of my story about being Jewish… whatever that means.
Amourence Lee lives in a fixer-upper in San Mateo, CA, with her husband, two kids, two chickens and two cats.