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By Jordyn Rozensky
For some of us in interfaith homes, December can highlight sticky situations. There are questions of how to balance traditions, how to keep in-laws happy and complicated questions about religion. But December also offers a unique opportunity to embrace new traditions. In my own interfaith home, for example, each year we trim a tree made out of blue tinsel, which we fondly call our “Holiday Neutral Tree.”
Recently I met up with friends to honor Christmas and Hanukkah by baking a batch of Hanukkah themed Christmas cookies and talking with a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old about the holiday traditions in their family. (Spoiler: There’s not much of a dilemma here). In case you’re interested in trying this at home, here’s what you’ll need:
Step one: We started our afternoon by chatting about our favorite aspects of the holidays as we set out our ingredients. As the oven preheated to 400 degrees, I asked the 10-year old his favorite part about Hanukkah. “The presents. And family.” I asked the same question about Christmas: “The presents. And the tree.”
Step two: We grabbed a large bowl and started mixing. First, we combined the butter and sugar. Next, we carefully cracked the eggs and stirred in the vanilla. Finally, we took turns adding and mixing in the flour, baking powder and salt.
Step three: While the dough chilled, I turned my journalistic attention to the 5-year old. His answers were much like his older brother’s. One of the main things I noticed was that neither of the boys seemed too confused or upset about the holidays—in fact, the only concern about Hanukkah and Christmas happening at the same time was the fact that there were fewer days dedicated to holidays this year!
Step four: After the dough was mixed, chilled and ready, we rolled it out on a floured surface and began cutting the shapes. Our cookie cutters were the shape of a menorah, a Star of David and a dreidel. My next question: Do other kids at your school bake Hanukkah and Christmas cookies? Both boys looked at me and shrugged—if other families were struggling around balancing the holidays, it didn’t seem to trickle down to fifth grade or pre-school.
Step five: We placed the cookies in the oven and set them to bake for 6 to 8 minutes. While we waited for them to cook (and then cool), we paused to learn a bit about latkes and check out the Christmas tree. During this moment of perfect synergy, I turned to the parents: “I think celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah together is pretty normalized in your family. The kids seem to be pretty OK with how this all works out!”
Step six: As we mixed together the ingredients for the Hanukkah cookie glaze, I learned more about how the holidays work in this family. “When we first married, we spoke about how important Christmas was as a tradition. Ultimately, there’s not a lot of religion or church in how we celebrate—but there is a lot of tradition. If you think about it, celebrating tradition is as Jewish as it gets.”
Step Seven: We coated our cookies with glaze and got to decorating. Here’s where imagination took over—and our Hanukkah cookies turned in Hanukkah, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween AND Star Wars cookies. There wasn’t a lot of dilemma, just a lot of love, a lot of tradition and a whole lot of sugar.
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.