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By Shawna Gale
My parents, who are both Jewish, were married in the 1970s. In the year they took their vows, only 36 percent of the Jewish respondents in a 2013 Pew Research Center survey had married spouses who were not Jewish. By 2005, the year I was married, that number had climbed to almost 60 percent. Now, as the children of this recent boom in interfaith marriages begin to explore their Judaic roots and, consequently, synagogues prepare to experience an influx of interfaith families, many Jewish communities are entering uncharted territory, endeavoring to preserve a tradition that is thousands of years old while accepting the realities of our modern time—a reality they must embrace if Judaism is to have a future.
I am a part of that reality. My husband and I met when we were in the ninth grade. By the time we left for college (at schools 1,000 miles apart), we had been a couple for over a year and we had every intention of staying that way. Our families were, for the most part, supportive of our relationship. But every so often they would remind us—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—that despite our many similarities, there was one defining difference.
I was raised in a Jewish home. My husband was brought up in an Episcopalian family. Yet at age 17, this didn’t even register as a concern for us. My husband knew even then that someday I intended to raise my children Jewish. It was never a point of contention. He was fine with it. I was fine with it. What was the problem? A challenge was maintaining a long-distance relationship in the age before cell phones and Skype. Being an interfaith couple at the dawn of the new millennium was no big deal, right?
Perhaps the writing was on the wall as we sat, eight years later and newly engaged, listening to my childhood rabbi patiently explain why he could not marry us. I was incensed. Was he for real? Did he not hear us say that we were intending to raise our children Jewish? Wasn’t that the important thing?
We were married in a civil ceremony by a Jewish judge who could perform all the rituals that mattered to me. We could still have the chuppah and the wine and the smashed glass. But the refusal stuck with me all the same. Already I felt the weight of our interfaith union.
Our early married years were uncomplicated by religious concerns. We celebrated holidays with both families, with Christmas dinners and Passover seders alike. But new challenges were on the horizon as we prepared for the birth of our first child.
After our son was born, we planned a Jewish naming ceremony, hung the decorative certificate bearing his Hebrew name on the nursery wall and then spent the next three years mostly teaching him to walk and talk and eat with a spoon. Religion took a back seat to sleep training—the only prayer in our house was for a full night’s rest.
It wasn’t until our second son was born and we enrolled our older child in a Jewish preschool that our interfaith parenting experiment began in earnest. I was delighted as our 3-year-old came home reciting Shabbat prayers, recounting the story of Hanukkah and asking to bake hamantaschen—all cultural hallmarks of my Jewish upbringing—but I also began to worry that my husband would feel left out. These things were not part of his childhood memories. How would he connect with our children and help them to form their Jewish identities when he had not experienced that himself? How could he feel comfortable in a community where he did not share in the collective subconscious?
These are the struggles of many of us who are parenting Jewish children as interfaith couples. Our journey is an ongoing series of tough questions and difficult answers. Often, we have no model to emulate, no map to follow. We are making up the rules as we go along.
I found the answers to those lofty existential questions in a surprising place. While attending an event at our local JCC, I enrolled my children in a program called PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to children across the United States and Canada each month. Reading the books we receive monthly is such a simple thing, but the impact has been profound.
As my husband started sharing these stories with our sons at bedtime each night, he began to learn—right alongside our children—about Jewish holidays and celebrations; Hebrew words and Yiddish phrases; prayers and rituals and traditions. He discovered latkes and matzo balls and yes, hamantaschen. He started teaching our children about tzedakah, about doing a mitzvah and being a mensch—concepts so central and important in Jewish parenting. He is proud to be raising Jewish children and he is proud of the role he is playing in their spiritual upbringing.
I don’t mean to suggest that we have solved all our interfaith parenting challenges with a collection of bedtime stories. For example, we recently decided to suspend our attendance at my in-laws’ Christmas celebrations after our 5-year-old, excited about his burgeoning Jewish identity, expressed confusion about his place there. Needless to say, we were not the most popular family members that year.
However, according to a new participant survey from PJ Library, a majority of families like mine are finding help and support from the program in raising their children grounded in Jewish traditions. Three years and dozens of books later, PJ Library continues to provide my husband with a platform of knowledge, a fine substitute for those roots he lacked having not been raised Jewish. It gives him the vocabulary he needs to play an active role in our children’s religious education, and it allows him to feel more comfortable within our synagogue community where he participates confidently and often. We laugh when other members are surprised to find out that my husband is not actually Jewish. We are glad to be forging a path for the growing number of interfaith families in our community, and we are proud to be shaping a more introspective, responsive Judaism for this new era.
Shawna Gale is a blogger, wife and mother of two young boys living in Glastonbury, CT. Her website, www.outandaboutmom.com helps local parents find fun activities to do with their children. Shawna is an active member of her synagogue community and was recently elected to the board of trustees.
By Sarah Rizzo
The phone rang and I heard my dad’s apprehensive voice. “Hi Sarah. I have a bit of a strange question for you. We are thinking ahead about Easter and we would like to have everyone over for brunch and an Easter egg hunt. We would of course love to have you there, but we know you’re raising Shira Jewish and we don’t want to offend you by extending the invitation.”
I cut him off before he could even muster up the right words for the question that would follow. I was ready for this moment and said, “We will be there. I’m glad you brought this up, since we haven’t had a conversation about it yet. Yes, we are raising her Jewish, but we want her to understand that her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins celebrate other holidays. We won’t observe them in any religious capacity, but whenever invited, we want her to participate in those holidays to appreciate what her loved ones celebrate.”
He and I both seemed relieved that the conversation, albeit brief, finally took place. My daughter is 2 years old and we’re now on our third round of celebrating Easter. We just got through her third Christmas as well. I found the timing of the conversation to be funny because we made it this far without having a need for it.
Then I remembered that earlier in the day, my dad had been over at our house and Shira was sharing leftover challah with him. I told him that making and eating the challah is her favorite part of our weekly Shabbat routine. He could see the challah cover, kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks proudly standing on our kitchen table. I understand now that up until that moment, he didn’t realize that we practiced Jewish traditions together as a family on such a regular basis. He knew we had done the Simchat Bat ceremony and we observe Passover and Hanukkah, but other than the celebrations and holidays we’ve included him in, our Jewishness is mostly kept rather quiet and simple within our own home.
It must have struck him that we were indeed raising her Jewish in the everyday, not just on the seemingly big holidays. He may have been surprised to come to that realization because it was in stark contrast to how I was raised.
Like my daughter, I was born into an interfaith family. My mother, now deceased, was Jewish, and my father is Protestant. Growing up, we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, but that was the extent of the religiously affiliated holidays we celebrated as a family. None of our holiday observances felt religious in nature. Our celebrations were much more about culture and family traditions. As a young child, I didn’t feel any strong religious identity.
After my mom passed, my dad remarried someone who was Catholic. With this change in our household religious dynamic, any element of Judaism that I once had some connection to had to continue on my own will. My dad and stepmom were both supportive of me lighting the Hanukkah menorah, going to Friday night Shabbat services with friends and joining a local Jewish youth group to explore my roots. They always joined in and happily participated whenever my mom’s family invited us to a Passover seder.
At the same time, I joined them in their celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I had celebrated them when my mom was around, so it felt normal to continue celebrating those occasions with my family. For this reason, I couldn’t see raising my own family without Christmas and Easter. These holidays have always been a part of my upbringing. While my husband and I are raising our family Jewishly, in a more religious and observant way than how I was raised, we both grew up celebrating these Christian holidays and we want our daughter as well as any future children to understand that these holidays are an important piece of our family fabric.
We hadn’t been intentionally avoiding the subject with our families, but we knew that with Shira being so young, her understanding of differing religions, rituals and celebrations is still very limited. My husband and I knew we would need to address it with her, and our respective families, once she reached an age of more awareness. We were preparing for the topic to come up eventually, and this challah-snacking Shabbat day just happened to present the perfect opportunity.
We were late. ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the aisles of Target, my husband and I were doing our version of stuffing stockings. We were running so fast we were practically sliding to try to fill his stocking and my festive Chinese takeout box before we left for his parents’ house.
We each picked up cookie cutters for the other person, but unfortunately Target is not known for its Jewish cookie cutters. Although I found a package of winter cookie cutters for him, they still included a tree. I love Target and would buy out the entire store, but it’s not our go-to for Jewish holiday foods or items. We were lucky to find a menorah at one store the year before, though. (What’s funny is that my husband is the one who usually remembers to light our Hanukkah candles.)
We did our best, but in the end he still couldn’t find cookie cutters for Hanukkah at Target. I think this exemplifies how I feel at Christmas: Takeout boxes and menorahs aside, it ain’t easy bein’ Jewish.
Growing up in a college town in Iowa, mine was one of the few Jewish families around. I still remember wanting to connect with other kids celebrating Christmas while we were ordering Chinese food and going to the movies. So although I feel guilty about it, there’s a part of me that’s happy that I finally get to celebrate Christmas. We open presents and bake cookies. It all works like clockwork until I go to church with my in-laws on Christmas Eve and hear the word “Jesus” one too many times. And, suddenly, I feel more alone than ever.
The winter holidays are easier and harder since I met my husband. Now I have the right person to celebrate them with, but it has come with a conflicted sense of identity. Instead of the clearly defined separation from Christmas that I grew up with, I can’t remain on the outside of the holiday and culture that surrounds us in the States. I still want to remain outside, but I’m also inside the phenomenon.
The phrase “December dilemma” implies there’s a conflict. But while it’s easy to say it’s external, between spending time decorating the tree or lighting Hanukkah candles, isn’t it more internal? It’s the cognitive dissonance between being with people you love and hearing about the one they adore, and needing to escape into the lobby of the church. It’s making Christmas cookies and needing to avoid most of the cookie cutters because they’re outlining the differences you’re not discussing.
Now, however, I’m trying a different strategy. For my husband, the holiday season was incomplete until we had a Christmas tree in our home. I still have trouble unfolding this umbrella tree (and not just because it’s larger than I am), but now I try to see it as a traditional symbol, not a religious one. Indeed, the tree is a fake one that my in-laws took with them when they moved from house to house; it’s literally part of their family’s history.
Helping my partner lug the tree up our basement stairs is part of helping him observe his holiday. (Our cats try to help set up the tree, too, but their version involves eating the tinsel instead of putting it up.) It’s all part of our life together. I used to walk through the store aisles, see menorah and dreidel ornaments and feel confused. Now I understand that these are pieces of new traditions we are creating. In a way, when we add these to a Christmas tree, we are resting symbols of a smaller Jewish holiday on the branches of a much bigger Christian one. We all make choices. I never anticipated having a Christmas tree in my home, but I always knew there would be a menorah shining out the window.
Christianity started when people began following a Jewish man. He searched and others found him to be so wise they thought he was the Messiah. Although Jews think he was a good man, we disagree with the Christian conclusion. This could be considered, simply, a major difference of opinion. The weird part is that it’s between Christians and Jews, rather than between two Jews (who would, of course, have three opinions).
We hold different beliefs and lug different traditions out of our storage closets. And Target may or may not have our cookie cutters. But in the end, I think each of us would like a secure place to keep whatever cookie cutters we’ve bought, and family to help us fill them with dough. My mother-in-law has a fabulous recipe, and although she keeps it close, I think it involves elements found in many kitchens: love, warmth and laughter. Maybe a little bit of teasing and schmaltz, too.
1. Thoroughly cream shortening, sugar and vanilla. Add egg; beat until light and fluffy. Stir in milk. Sift together dry ingredients, then blend into creamed mixture. Divide dough in half. Chill 1 hour.
2. On lightly floured surface, roll half of dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Keep other half of dough chilled until ready to use. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from pan. Makes two-dozen cookies.
By Elizabeth Vocke
My husband jokes that I only married him so I could finally celebrate Christmas. And I admit that I do love Christmas. I love the anticipation and excitement, the coziness of the season, the decorations. I also love Hanukkah, but I think it’s more difficult to create that same sense of excitement, though for the sake of our 8-year-old daughter, we do try.
It’s taken all 11 years of marriage to figure out how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we still don’t have it all figured out. This year will be even more difficult because Hanukkah starts on Christmas Eve. I like to make a big deal out of the first and last nights of Hanukkah, but this year I don’t see that happening.
I vividly remember the first year I decorated our house for Christmas. I enjoyed creating a snow scene using white and blue ornaments in a crystal bowl, plus a beautiful white garland. It didn’t feel religious, just festive, but was definitely meant for Christmas.
My husband walked in and said, “Oh, look, you decorated for Hanukkah!” Well, no, actually. I decorated for your Christmas holiday, dude!
In fact, decorating for Hanukkah was not something I thought Jewish people even did, and it’s only been bit by bit over the years that I’ve started adding Hanukkah items to our holiday decorations.
Fast forward to today and we have a house loaded with Christmas decorations, plus menorahs and dreidels, and I’ve made peace with it all. But we still don’t have all the answers.
We do have annual traditions.
We have a big Hanukkah celebration with my family that is fun and festive and raucous. We host a latkes and hot dogs party for the neighborhood kids (most are not Jewish), and every year I go into my daughter’s class and teach the students about Hanukkah and how to play dreidel. I love these things.
Every year we also drive around looking at decorations on Christmas Eve, watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and enjoy a big Christmas celebration with my husband’s family. I love these things, too.
Yes, our holidays are filled and busy—but fun! And so by now we should have it all figured out, right? Well, no.
Every year we discuss (debate?) if we’re going to church for Christmas Eve with my mother-in-law. My husband is actually the one who doesn’t want to go. Ironic, right? Some years we go, and some we don’t.
Christmas Eve, a night I really love, is often rushed and stressed trying to cram everything in (see above). Hanukkah still sometimes feels anti-climactic, and we’ve been known to forget to light candles a night or two. Hanukkah presents are also often less exciting. Let’s face it—one present just doesn’t compare to a pile. In fact, our daughter tells us that she asks Santa for the big, expensive presents because she figures he’ll bring them to her, and for Hanukkah she’s open to whatever we want to give her. Little does she know.
So, like most things in life, in marriage—and especially an interfaith marriage—we’ll keep trying and tweaking until we get it right. And by that time our daughter may be married with kids of her own!
By Kelly Banker
I am 8 years old. My siblings and I are huddled in my parents’ bedroom, awaiting the precious sound of the Hanukkah bell. We have just come from an evening of lighting the menorah, dancing and singing in a circle and haplessly spinning a dreidel. Now here we are, eyes closed and ears open for the sound of that beautiful bell. My dad looks at us and slowly raises his hand, cupping the bell gently. He shakes the bell three times and the magic settles upon us. We giggle nervously as my mother slips out of the room to see if the Hanukkah Fairy has visited our house.
We wait for what seems like an hour, but is more likely about 10 minutes. Each minute crawls by as we stare intently at my father’s face, trying desperately to see if he is giving us a clue about where we should look, about what to expect. Finally, the long-awaited knock comes and my mother is at the door, beckoning us out into the hallway to search for the presents that the Hanukkah Fairy has left for us. We tear through the house, searching every nook and cranny to find the impeccably wrapped gifts, signed with a sweet note from the Hanukkah Fairy herself.
As each of us find our present, we sit in a circle on the green rug in the living room, running the fringe through our fingertips, waiting. When everyone has found their gift, we sit together in a circle and open our presents all at once. Together we exclaim, “Thank you, Hanukkah Fairy!” And “Happy Hanukkah!” The angelic-looking doll, who we understand as a stand-in for the real Hanukkah Fairy, rests on a table nearby. With her tightly curled blonde hair and blue eyes, she watches us as we thank her for bringing us such sweet gifts.
Fast forward to 16 years old. The Hanukkah traditions of my earlier childhood have worn away slowly, and at this point have dwindled to lighting the candles for one or two nights, perhaps with some singing that reminds us all of our younger days. The magic of lighting the candles remains, though. No matter how few or how many nights bring us together for the lighting of the menorah, I am always left with a sense of wonder that I cannot explain. I am awestruck by the beauty of the blessing, the solemnity of it, the gathering of voices and the soft glow of the menorah lighting up the dark night.
I was at least 18 years old when I learned that, in fact, the Hanukkah Fairy is not a staple of Jewish practice, but rather a very creative concept devised by my intermarried parents. You can imagine my shock and laughter when I found out from more observant Jewish friends that they had never heard of the Hanukkah Fairy, and that in fact she sounded like a blend of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Hanukkah and Christmas. I remember that moment of learning; I remember feeling an immediate surge of pride for my parents’ ingenuity. They created a ritual that became meaningful for our family that in many ways merged their two traditions.
My father was raised Catholic, but no longer identifies with any religion. My mother is Jewish and identifies as such, but more in an ancestral sense than in a practicing sense. As such, my childhood was typical in many ways of interfaith families: We celebrated Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and sometimes Passover, and for many years we attended a local Unitarian Universalist church. We were raised to have a deep respect for all religious traditions yet without a true grounding in any particular one. The open approach to religiosity in my childhood, far from being a limitation or barrier, has in fact been transformative for me as an adult.
For the past several years, I have slowly begun to delve deeper into spiritual practice, first through an exploration of Goddess traditions, and then through a connection with earth-based Jewish practice, primarily in Renewal Jewish communities. I love every moment of this choice. Had I been raised with a more dogmatic approach to one or both traditions, I feel that my relationship to God and Jewish practice would be different; more difficult, perhaps, to return to. Now when I light Shabbat candles, or sing the Shema or make Havdalah, I feel intimately connected to the tradition because I enter it from a place of consent, agency and pure joy. Every time I engage in Jewish practice, I feel that I am returning to myself, to God and to my ancestors.
As someone who is now engaged in rich and informed Jewish practice, I look back at the Hanukkah Fairy fondly. I feel proud of my family’s invented tradition with such a lovely blend of Jewish and Christian practice. I feel so much gratitude that my parents decided to invent this blended ritual for my siblings and me, and that they chose throughout my upbringing to give us the agency to make our own decisions about whether and how we wanted to participate in spirituality. That precious, sweet sound of the Hanukkah Fairy’s bell rings for me now and always as a reminder of that profound familial tradition and the blessing of coming from an interfaith family committed to action, choice and knowledge.
Kelly recently earned her BA from Carleton College in Religion and Women’s Studies. She currently works as a resident organizer at Moishe Kavod House and as an intern at Mayyim Hayyim. She also teaches Hebrew school and yoga at local synagogues. Kelly has also worked as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and as a doula. She loves movement, running in the woods, poetry and the moon.
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 Lela Casey
As the only Jewish kid in my small town in Pennsylvania, Christmas was the loneliest time of year. Most of my classmates, and even some of my teachers, were almost entirely unfamiliar with Judaism. Perhaps if I’d been braver, I could have explained to them why I felt uncomfortable singing “Christ the Savior is Born” in music class, or painting Nativity scenes in art or writing notes to Santa in writing class.
But, I was shy kid. And I’d had enough pennies thrown at me and been accused of killing Jesus too many times to speak up. So I laid low, hummed along, asked Santa for a puppy.
Still, the loneliness remained. One of my earliest memories is of driving home with my parents on Christmas Eve. Each time we passed another sparkling house, another lit up Christmas tree, another window full of smiling children, I shrunk a little further into my seat. By the time we got home to our own dark house, I was so heartbroken that I went straight to bed.
To my young soul, it felt like a punishment. It was as if I’d done something wrong to be missing out on all the fun that every other kid I knew got to enjoy.
When I would ask my mom if we could put up a tree or have a special dinner on Christmas, she would get upset. Christmas might seem like an American holiday, but at its heart it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Celebrating a man as if he were God would be breaking the first commandment, and perhaps even worse than that, assimilating.
It was difficult, as a kid, to understand what was so terrible about assimilating. What could be bad about getting presents, hanging lights and singing songs? It’s not as if celebrating Christmas would negate being Jewish. It would just be a way to feel part of a world that seemed to include everyone but me.
It wasn’t until college that I met other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas eve I spent with my Jewish friends was liberating. We ordered Chinese food, watched movies, and reveled in the joy of being together.
I felt a deep sense of belonging and pride and a little bit of confusion to be celebrating Christmas with other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Because, really, that’s what we were doing. It may not have been with songs of Jesus or presents from Santa, but there we were, all gathered on the supposed day of Jesus’ birth, having a grand old time.
Was that assimilation? I wasn’t sure. But, whatever it was, it wasn’t lonely.
When I got married to my husband who is not Jewish, my feelings on Christmas were still shaky. By that point I’d experienced several Christmases away from my family—some with my Jewish friends, some with my husband-to-be and his family. Each celebration had been vastly different—but they all included one important element—community. Just being with other people, whether we were eating Chinese food or belting out “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” kept Christmas from feeling lonely.
Still, I had difficulty envisioning what Christmas would be like when we had our own kids. Was it important to keep Christmas out of our house completely? Would that alienate my husband? Make my kids feel that same aching loneliness that I felt as a kid?
We have three kids now, and our Christmas traditions have evolved over the years. Some years we go to my in-laws’ house and have a big dinner with family, and some years we stay home and order Chinese food. There’s no talk of Jesus or Santa, but there are presents and laughter and music and it’s never lonely.
It feels sometimes like I’ve copped out—given in to the assimilation that my mother was so fearful of. And, perhaps I have. But, the truth is my kids live in America and have a father who isn’t Jewish. Christmas is not some alien cultural phenomenon that they have to adapt to; it is an integral part of their world, their heritage. Celebrating Christmas is not so much assimilation as it is acknowledgment of the many components of themselves.
I feel confident in the strong Jewish roots I have given my children. They’ve whispered prayers into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they’ve learned the aleph, bet and stories of Jacob and Isaac in Hebrew School, they’ve helped me clean the house of chametz on Passover and light the menorah on Hanukkah.
My kids are Jewish—and, if one day they chose to take a different path, it won’t be because they enjoyed a joyful night with family at the end of December.
Lela Casey is a mother of three children living in Bucks County, PA. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from both Penn State University and Rhode Island College. You can find her work on many websites including kveller.com, pjlibrary.com, elephantjournal.com, brainchildmag.com and femininecollective.com.
By Stefani Wiemann
The holiday season is upon us. Christmas music plays in restaurants, Christmas trees are displayed in stores and Santa Clause can be seen in malls. Even as a Jewish mother, I love all of this stuff. I love the holiday season, including all of the decorations, the music and gift-giving madness.
Unfortunately, we have faced some challenging situations at our children’s preschool during this time of year. For example, they have Santa visit the preschool each year in December, which, as a family that identifies as Jewish, we are not comfortable with. They also have a Christmas singalong performance, which they conveniently call a Holiday singalong anytime they are talking to me, but call it a Christmas singalong on their newsletter, calendar and website.
While we have no issue with our kids singing Christmas songs, we chose for our kids to not participate because dressing up like reindeer, elves and Santa feels like too much for us. We simply opt for our children to not attend preschool on those days, in order to avoid our discomfort and our children’s confusion. This year, however, they have added a Polar Express day, in which they are to watch a movie that depicts a boy discovering his belief in Santa, and they also added an activity of writing letters to Santa (they even put a cute mailbox in the classroom that “sends mail” directly to the North Pole).
I would hate for my kid to be THAT kid who ruins Christmas for anyone, by revealing that Santa is not real, so we choose to not tell him that. Instead, we are OK with him thinking that this man exists, with the understanding that he doesn’t visit our home.
Our family is not the only family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas or celebrates more than one holiday. Here are some thoughts I wish teachers would consider during the holiday season:
1. Have empathy when it comes to the underlying meaning of the activities that you choose and have awareness of the different religions represented in your classes. Don’t plan a class activity that implies/expects a belief in a religion that not everyone believes in. Even if you perceive an aspect of the holiday to be secular, such as Santa Clause, doing any activity that is Santa-related implies that the child believes in that character.
2. Try to plan units/lessons that are festive for the season, and not so specific to a religious holiday. There are plenty of winter-themed activities and symbols that are adorable and fun. Who doesn’t love sledding, snowmen and penguins?
3. Don’t feel pressure to make things equal when it comes to religious holiday representation. Anyone who is educated on both holidays can tell you that Christmas and Hanukkah do not hold the same religious significance. In fact, Hanukkah is only considered to be as big a holiday as it has become because it falls in this same season as Christmas. Having an equal number of Christmas and Hanukkah activities may seem like the way to go, but simply toning down the religious specificity will make it easier for kids of all religions including kids who are being brought up with more than one.
This is known as the giving season. Let’s give respect to those around us. It is the greatest gift that one can give.
By Jacob Weis
Anybody who has had even the most menial part in celebrating Christmas can probably acknowledge the beauty in it. Whether Jewish-Jewish or interfaith, families sometimes run in to the question of what they are “going to do about Christmas.” Part of the reason for this question is that people assume that celebrating Christmas may dilute their Judaism or go against their practices. Participating in Christmas may be seen as one step deeper into assimilation. Christmas may feel like what Jews “don’t do” and so there are taboos and judgement around a Jew being part of Christmas from a tree in the house to allowing children to receive Christmas presents.
I propose a different view on what it would mean for a Jew or someone in an interfaith family to celebrate Christmas. I propose that celebrating Christmas not only will be an amazing time for you and your family, but can also bridge the gap between those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t in the celebration of a worthy figure. I propose that it’s good for Jewish children and those in interfaith homes to be able to talk about Jesus and to learn the lessons Jesus is known for. This will help make children literate, world citizens but will also give the holiday season more context and enrich their own Jewish faith. Being able to learn about Jesus as a historic figure and to learn the parables that maybe one parent or cousins have grown up with will not steer them away from Judaism but will bridge some gaps, create more understanding and allow love to connect the family rather than fear of the other or fear of becoming something else.
Any excuse to gather around with friends and family and eat good food should be taken. For me this is not an opinion, this is fact. Maybe you won’t be diving into the Christmas ham, but the feeling of community is wonderful nonetheless. I take every opportunity to gather with my extended family. However, the question undoubtedly will remain, especially for the parent or grandparents who are Jewish, about what role a Jewish child can comfortably have during Christmas.
Some Jews feel awkward talking about Jesus. Jesus was a historical figure, and whether or not you feel he was the messiah, a prophet or anything more than a good person, is up to you. There has been so much bitter history of those accusing Jews of killing Jesus, blood-shed and anti-Semitism. I understand why some Jews may feel unsure about participating in Christmas. Some Jewish leaders suggest that if Jewish children mark Christmas with family who aren’t Jewish in purely cultural ways then it is “fine.” The idea is that this kind of hallmark marking of the holiday won’t confuse children and they will understand it’s about family, memories, giving, beauty and lights. But, how much richer and deeper for a Jewish child to actually learn about what Jews believe about Jesus and not be afraid to ask questions. Religions preach acceptance, and what better way to show your own family members of a different religion that Judaism promotes this tenant then to just be present in the celebration?
Acceptance, love, building bridges, sharing and learning will enrich children this holiday season. So, instead of being leery of Jewish children participating in Christmas because it will take away from their own identity, encourage an understanding of what the holiday symbols mean and explain the biblical narrative. Those who participate in this way will find shared messages and come away with a sense of family unity and peace.