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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.
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.
Growing up with a dad who was a Navy pilot, my family celebrated Jewish holidays in some pretty far-flung places around the world. We gathered with other Jewish military families or new Jewish friends in whatever country we happened to be living in. Seders were lovely, multi-cultural and welcoming.
In Morocco, we sang Passover songs with Sephardic melodies. In Iceland, my parents welcomed the only other Jewish family they could find for a small, intimate seder. Stationed in Virginia Beach, we heard the hagaddah read with a southern accent.
Each year we’d celebrate with new friends in a new location somewhere in the world. Far from our extended family in Boston, seders became a way for us to feel close to something from home—Judaism.
I asked my mom Mary, who was raised Irish Catholic and converted when she married my dad, what those seders were like for her. She said, “I remember thinking, ‘So this is what it’s like to be Jewish. You’re linked to all these people around the world; Jews who come together to celebrate their ethnicity and their community.’” She had never experienced anything like it.
Then, when I was 10, my dad retired after 20 years in the Navy and my parents moved back to Boston to be closer to their families. That’s when we started going to seders at my Jewish grandparents’ home. Tovah and Jacob attended an Orthodox synagogue and kept kosher. Their seders were more serious affairs. They were completely in Hebrew and lasted for hours.
My parents, brother and I didn’t understand much Hebrew and Passover suddenly became a stressful holiday. I felt lost at the seder, often on the wrong page of the hagaddah and afraid to make a misstep. I didn’t want to read the Four Questions, terrified that I might mispronounce the transliterated Hebrew. While I respected (and still do) my grandparents’ approach to Passover, it just didn’t feel accessible to me.
Seders lost their joy for me, and so I opted to avoid them. It wasn’t until recently, with my own children, that I have started to rediscover and re-imagine the tradition, especially as an opportunity to pause and be thankful for our freedom and remember those who still are not free.
This year, my husband and I are inviting our families to a personalized, less structured seder. In addition to telling the Passover story, we’ll spend time talking about refugees in the world today, fleeing war in search of a safe place to raise their children.
We’ll explain everything to our kids as we go along and answer all their questions, so no one feels left behind. In addition to the traditional items, our seder plate will feature an orange, a symbol of people around the world who are marginalized or excluded.
Our little girl, Molly, 8, will read the Four Questions and we’ll sing songs and share stories. We’ll try to recapture the charm and magic of my family’s seders in Reykjavik, Casablanca and beyond… in hopes that our children grow up looking forward to Passover as a meaningful and inclusive holiday.
By Dana Marlowe
This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for their newsletters here.
When I explain Purim to those less familiar with the holiday, I tell them it’s kind of like Jewish Halloween. Not so much because of the history and story behind each (Purim has no ghosts), but related to the joyful spirit, costumes, food, and fun.
Full disclosure: My neighborhood doesn’t celebrate Halloween in the way other areas decorate with cobwebs, spiders, and screaming doormats. In my little suburban neighborhood nestled in Silver Spring, Maryland, the population is predominately Orthodox. I might be a bit of an outsider with my cultural Jewish upbringing and unaffiliated interfaith family, but luckily our ‘hood’ doesn’t check your synagogue membership at all. The arms of the community are always open, especially this month.
In our community, we celebrate Purim in our neighborhood with hundreds of kids running from house to house. Bedazzled with costumes of Batman and Mordechai, they load in and out of cars, dropping off and picking up mishloach manot. We have a large street in the neighborhood that closes off to have a “Purim on Fulham” festival, which is all driven by the folks who live on that long block.
The celebration doesn’t stop there. There are also countless carnivals and events held nearby. My kids love assembling the mishloach manot, handing them out to a neighborhood in a candied frenzy state. My husband, the engineer, marvels at the endless creative themes of the mishloach manot, ranging from international food themes to play on words baskets, along with LEGO groggers and gourmet hamentaschen. The excitement mounts in my house as my children stuff the paper bags and draw on the outside of the sacks—and it’s only matched by the myriad of moon bounces that pop up on street corners.
For us, it’s a fun day. The fact that we don’t do the more observant part of the holiday—like attend a megillah reading or fast beforehand—is inconsequential. People welcome us regardless, but like any neighborhood, it’s a two way street in respect. We are careful to make sure the mishloach manot include the diverse food items needed for differing blessings, and that everything has clear kosher labels. Purim is a joyful holiday. Our joy is increased by bringing Kosher wine to the meals we are invited to and by our friends translating the blessings into English for us.
In addition to Purim, while my husband and I often work on these holidays that are deemed of the utmost significance in Judaism, our Orthodox friends don’t judge us or make us feel wrong. There is such a deeply rooted understanding that we all celebrate our Judaism and other holidays in our own respective ways.
Purim by nature is an interfaith holiday: Esther saves the Jewish people by teaching tolerance to Ahashverosh to save her people and have them co-exist in Shushan together. I feel that same spirit of inclusion daily in our neighborhood.
In a conventional neighborhood, people are united simply by geography. Literally, of course, we share a zip code, garbage day pick-up schedule, a post office, and the same unfortunate power grid in winter storms. But a neighborhood can be so much more than a regional district. It’s a shared identity. In a close-knit community, people are united by common goals, collective activities, and group events that give the residents a sense of true belonging. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the countless instances witnessed over the past years and the holiday season. My neighbors have opened their homes, hearts, and kitchens to us during the holidays, and for Shabbat meals.
When someone has a sick family member, the neighborhood provides food. Neighborhood Facebook pages exist for toy and costume swaps as well as: “I just need one thing from Costco” which comes in handy more times than you can count. One such helpful example was when I needed to bring my older son to the emergency room when my husband was out of town for business. I posted a message and within minutes, friends showed up to babysit.
I recently heard a community described as a circle to which you feel you belong. If you’re away, that circle will miss your presence; it reaches out to you when you’re absent, and you long for it when you’re not there.
We are happy to celebrate another Purim here. Our minivan will brim with hamantaschen and smiles. As we drive up the streets sharing in the festivities, we celebrate in our own way, and our neighbors in another. And I know that just as we get pumped up to celebrate Purim, our friends and neighbors will be excited to see my interfaith family’s Easter egg hunt just a few weeks after we put away the groggers and masks. Because that’s how we, as a community, roll.
By Jared David Berezin
When our eyes begin to burn and tear up my wife and I look at each other and laugh. That’s when we know the horseradish is ready. We also bake our own homemade matzah, and the unleavened flat bread resembles pita or injera (Ethiopian bread). Preparing Passover-friendly food from scratch and arranging the seder table is a ritual my wife and I enjoy as much as the seder itself.
For many people, Passover is a journey that begins well before the first cup of wine (or grape juice). Some have been to dozens of seders in the past. Indeed, some of our seder guests may have attended a different seder (or two!) earlier in the week, while others have never been to a seder before. Regardless of a person’s experience or faith, everyone comes to the table with conscious and unconscious expectations, desires and concerns.
Ever since I can remember, Passover has always been my favorite holiday. As a restless kid, I could attend the Passover “service” (our family’s seder) without dressing up and going to synagogue, which also meant not having to sit still for an hour. My grandparents would host our family seder, and as they grew older my mother and aunt assumed the responsibility. Our family seders were always quick, predictable and familiar. I loved being surrounded by family, food and singing. As a teenager I’d just bring my guitar; it was always nice being able to simply arrive and have everything already prepared and laid out on the table.
Hosting Our Own Inclusive Seder
In my twenties, I became more curious about Judaism, particularly its intellectual and social justice elements. A few years later I met the love of my life who was raised Christian and has developed a dislike of all organized religion. Amidst my growing curiosity of Judaism and my love for my girlfriend (now my wife), I began to dream of more inclusive and meaningful Jewish moments and celebrations. I wondered what it would be like to host our own seder, one that could be welcoming for our friends of various faiths and (dis)comfort levels when it comes to religious activities.
Initially, I tried to formulate a highly-strategic seder and haggadah that would satisfy the needs of every person who might happen to join us—from Conservative Jews to Buddhists to atheists. I soon realized that although it’s important to be aware of one’s audience, I found myself drowning out my own individual spiritual beliefs and values. The early drafts were too distant from my vision of an inclusive experience; I had to accept that if I wanted to try new things, my guests and I would simply have to wander through the newness together. Fortunately, the story of Passover centers on faith and risk.
When in Doubt, Look About
When I worked in marketing years ago a colleague would often say, “When in doubt, look about.” I searched online and read through all of the haggadot I could find, along with any Passover-related information on InterfaithFamily.com and other websites. I wanted to learn how others approach the holiday, along with any stories and songs that I hadn’t heard before.
I also reached out to several friends to hear about their seder experiences, as well as my dear friend, Rabbi Lev Baesh, a longtime champion of interfaith marriage and inclusiveness, who is a consultant with InterfaithFamily. My wife and I had performed music the year prior at a seder led by Lev. He interpreted the Passover story in many different ways—social, political, economic and psychological—and helped me understand how themes from an ancient tale can become relevant and inspire urgency among people of different faiths and backgrounds.
Our Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan Seder Experiment
What emerged from my research and spiritual searching was a heightened awareness of my own values, questions and priorities. The result was the creation of an imperfect and ever-changing Interfaith-Humanist-Vegan seder that my wife and I have hosted for the past four years. Most of the guests at our seder tend to be interfaith couples with one Jewish partner as well as couples and friends of other faiths. Every year we invite at least one person who has never attended a seder before.
Our accompanying interfaith-humanist-vegan haggadah, which I also revise each year, includes original writing as well as a patchwork of borrowed text, images and songs. The introductory pages of the haggadah recount the Passover story, and explore questions such as “Why Celebrate if the Story Isn’t True?” and “Why a Vegan Passover Seder?” These questions, and others in the haggadah, offer a way of inviting everyone to explore and question the Passover rituals and their purpose in our lives in new ways. Rather than dump my ideas and beliefs on my friends, I try my best to steer conversations and lead rituals that allow me to learn from them, and all of us to learn from each other. For example, rather than declare what the various items on the seder plate signify, our haggadah asks: “What do you think the items on the seder plate represent? How might they connect with oppression, slavery and freedom?” These open-ended questions for which there are no “correct” answers allow guests of all faiths to contribute their perspective and enhance everyone else’s understanding.
An Incomplete Haggadah
I think the best conversations and learning occur when people are present and looking at one another. When a haggadah has all the information we need, everyone is looking down at their booklets for hours. In contrast, our haggadah is intentionally sparse and incomplete. Before the start of the seder I ask each of our friends, individually, if they’d like to read a short excerpt of text that I provide. The readings include writings from intellectuals, feminists, rabbis, writers, activists and philosophers of all faiths, and I “schedule” them to read at different points in the seder. It’s fun to pick out certain readings that relate in some way to each of my friends. As the seder progresses and friends share the words on their respective slip of paper, we all in a way become pages in a “haggadah,” and together we make the seder complete.
Music adds a fantastic quality to any evening, and it’s a huge part of our seder. At the very beginning of the meal, rather than jump right into the Passover story, we all sing a song together. The first year we sang David Crosby’s “Music Is Love.” It’s easy since the repeated lyric is almost a chant: “Everyone’s sayin’ that music is love, everyone’s sayin’ it’s love.” My wife and I scatter percussive shakers, drums and a couple acoustic guitars around the room for folks to play, and of course, everyone brings their voices.
In addition to familiar seder songs, such as the African-American Spiritual “Go Down Moses” and Dayenu, there are a host of secular songs that touch upon various Passover themes: slavery, oppression, freedom and of course the need to continually ask questions of ourselves and our world. And on the “night of questions,” I can’t help but want to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song with questions in every verse.
Thinking About Hosting Your Own (Alternative) Seder?
For those who want to embark on your own journey of hosting a seder (or any holiday) in a new way, keep in mind that certain aspects of your alternative rituals and ideas may stir strong reactions (positive or negative) among some of your guests. Inspiration can look and sound different for each of us.
As I was planning my first seder, I remembered Rabbi Lev Baesh’s sage words: “Just remember that Moses had lots of whining to deal with in the story.” Humor is critical! I’ve laughed at myself many times during our seders, particularly when I’m taking myself too seriously, and laughter creates more laughter and openness. Dig into both the rich traditions of the past and present. Experiment. Do what feels right, and see what happens.
These types of homegrown celebrations take effort on our part, otherwise they wouldn’t exist. I think that’s part of the magic and meaningfulness: the effort, creativity, and time it takes to create a relevant and inclusive Jewish experience. My favorite moments during our seder are when I find myself wandering through the desert behind my guests who have taken the conversation in new directions.
A piece of logistical advice: A seder can be held any evening during Passover. Scheduling ours toward the end of the holiday week allows us to join my family’s traditional first or second night seder, and our Jewish guests can do the same. Beyond avoiding scheduling conflicts, setting an atypical seder date sets the stage for something new and different, and prepares your guests for a different kind of seder experience.
If you decide to create your own kind of seder, it’s important to remember that if you’re inspired and engaged, those around you will want to participate and be inspired too. Togetherness, making connections, and generating meaning is really what it’s all about. And remember, whatever happens, there’s always next year!
For more information about Passover and the seder, check out our Guide to Passover for Interfaith Families