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By Aimee Ellis
At Jewish summer camp (Camp Tawonga, to be specific), I felt a little different than the other campers. I wasnât raised religiously Jewish and was also from a lower income interfaith family. I attended public school with mostly non-white students and had never been to a synagogue in my life. I didnât have a clear understanding of my Jewish identity. My Jewish mother was the first in our family to stop Jewish religious practice, so she was struggling with how to best integrate being Jewish into my upbringing.
These days, my mother sometimes cries because of guilt she feels about not having provided me with a Jewish education or religious experience. I tell her itâs OK because I am the face of the new American Jewish identity. I also make efforts to encourage other Jews from interfaith and mixed race families to feel proud of their identity. I frequently hear from âJews like meâ that they want nothing to do with the mainstream Jewish community because they âarenât really Jewishâ or feel concerned theyâll be questioned, shamed or called out for not being Jewish enough.
My one Jewish connection, though, was Jewish summer camp where I didnât know the prayers, but was relieved they had a large display to read off of so I didnât feel ashamed or afraid to learn. To date, they are the only Jewish prayers I can recall from memory. As an adult, during my years working as a Jewish professional, I was astounded by the subtle difference in attitude I sometimes experienced within the Jewish community. I felt scrutinized whenever I asked questions about Jewish religious practice or shared that I didnât know much about it. It was assumed that because I was a Jewish professional, I automatically knew about the religious practice. The subtle bad attitudes I experienced sometimes caused me to feel unwelcomed and excluded.
Iâm sensitive about my lack of knowledge of religious practice and feel ashamed when I donât have special support and an acknowledgement that itâs OK if you donât know certain things. When I go to synagogue, it would mean the world to me if the rabbi stated that they wanted to welcome everyone, including those not familiar with the prayers and practice. When I donât know the prayers, I feel embarrassed and afraid someone will notice and think Iâm not a good enough Jew. As for Jewish leaders and community members already going to great lengths to be inclusive toward every kind of Jew, I salute youâit doesnât go unnoticed.
Our work is far from over, particularly with the population composure and religious practice preference changes taking place in America that are reflected within the Jewish community.Â Each and every one of us can and should continue to find new and creative ways to address these challenges. Special support systems for âJews like meâ are much needed and can make a big difference in strengthening the diversity of our community.
Aimee Ellis is a San Francisco based speaker and writer on the topic of secular, interfaith, mixed race, and intersectional Jewish identity. Linked here areÂ past articlesÂ and aÂ webinarÂ on this topic.
ByÂ SherrieÂ Bergus
On the eve of my first birthday as a grandmother, which happened to be the day of the eclipse, I wrote this manifesto down. It took courage, this but here I am. Like Thoreau before me, I headed out to reflect upon the waters of a beloved lake and declared this:
I am a grandma, not a Bubbe.
It didnât really take the momentous act of the world going dark for not quite three minutes, or this Jewish woman celebrating her birthday, to realize that my existence is light years away from that of my own Bubbe Idaâs.
Besides our DNA, so little of our experience is the same.
I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family. My husband grew up in a âmodernâ Conservative household. Both of my children wereÂ bar/bat mitzvahÂ and continued their religious studies beyond. Their education and travel landed them in different locales, both with non-Jewish partners and their own way of living Jewishly.
Of course, traditions, love, and blood still bind us all.
So I could theoretically assert that I am a Bubbe in the Land of Nanas and Omas, I could redefine the label of Bubbe and modernize it, in keeping with our family, a patchwork of cultures and traditions.
But I am sorry, Bubbe. I just cannot.
At my daughterâs engagement partyâshe was marrying a man from Montrealâmy aunt who is called Bubbe by her grandkids pressed me: âI canât wait to hear your grandchildren call you Bubbe with a French accent.â In response I whisper seethed, âI willÂ notÂ be called Bubbe.â
It just didnât feel right: My son-in-law is an atheist. My daughter, wishing to embrace her religion in her new Canadian residence has become part of the fabric of a vibrant, Reform-Jewish community. She has taught her life partner that to her, God is âyour invisible best friend.â He attends services with her and lovingly wears her hand-crochetedÂ kippahÂ (head covering). As an avid foodie/chef he enjoys cooking brisket for Rosh Hashanah, latkes at Hanukkah and celebrating the holidays through food.
Theyâre making it work.
And when it comes to the other side of my family, my daughter-in-law is a practicing Catholic. A Reform Rabbi and an Episcopal Priest intricately wove together their wedding ceremony. Less than six months later, my mother passed away.
On the way to the funeral we were discussing our dinner plans for later that evening. I remembered that it was Lent. I asked her if there was anything we should avoid to make things easier for her. Quickly, she told me not to worry about her at all.
I feel awed by the way my family is marching into modernity, with such thoughtfulness. So do you see my confusion when it comes to what Iâll be calledânew traditions, new family permutations, new waysâold names?
I mean, it is 2017 and I didnât just step out of theÂ shtetl. I would love to add a unique cultural spin on my new name. If I really go back to my Belorussian roots, my little grandbabies would call me âBabka.â Nope. I canât do it. I have thought about it, but I am not a cushiony softÂ savta, nor any type of baked goods.
So I have devised the perfect solution. For now, Grandma it is. Ultimately, of course, the baby will decide.
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
âI saw Aishwarya Rai on Oprah last week. You know, the Dollywood [she meant Bollywood] actress? Stunning girl!â Then came the truth bomb: âShe told Oprah that your boyfriend already has a bride arranged for him back in India. At some point, heâs going to leave you high-and-dry, marry the girl his parents chose, and move back into their house.â
I was pretty sure Aishwarya Rai hadnât been discussing my love life with Oprah. And while my future husband didnât actually have a clandestine bride arranged in India, he also wasnât the Jewish doctor to whom my grandmother had married me off in her fantasies.
âHe seems very nice,â she said of the love of my life. âBut thatâs just how they do things.â
They. Sheâd never met an Indian person before and, on some level, I was touched by her urge to protect me, even if it was born of her own frustrating, dated brand of xenophobia.
My boyfriend and I were born at the same hospital, raised in the same town and attended the same schools. From an objective eye, we werenât some sort of star-crossed pair. Still, he wasnât white and he wasnât Jewish, and for all the many things we had in common, those two facts seemed like insurmountable differences to her. At least at first.
In the years before our engagement, I ran interference, often dispelling bizarre myths about Hinduism and Indian traditions.
âJess. Your grandfather printed out an article from the computer. It said that Hindus have 300 million gods and that they worship monkeys.Â Monkeys.â
âJess. I just watched a program about women in India. If you marry him, youâll have to get a dot tattooed on your forehead. A tattoo.Â On your face.â
Super, super false (and racist.)
Without being too pushy, I tried to create opportunities for her to see us together, to help her understand why our relationship worked, despite what she believed to be deal-breaking differences.
And hereâs where the story gets surprising: during our visits, I watched my grandmother and my husband form an extraordinary bond.
As it turned out, they shared a mutual appreciation for beautiful thingsâart, music, even fashionâand were able to talk about everything from Matisse to Mozart to Alexander McQueen. It didnât hurt that my guy had developed a masterful knack for conversational Yiddish, having grown up in a predominantly Jewish suburbâand could confidently describe an ugly dress as aÂ schmatteÂ or flowery piece of music asÂ schmaltz.Â He literally and figuratively spoke her language.
Before the wedding, we invited her to visit our apartment. It was kind of a big deal. She entered tentatively, taking in all the unmarried, interfaith sin around her. Then she stopped in front of a painting by an emerging Indian artist that my husband had acquired before we started dating; a painting that I had made a lot of noise about hating, for no good reason. She gasped.
âThe colors. The lines. Itâs soâŚsensual!â I burst out laughing, not because my grandmother had said the word âsensualâ (which was definitely hilarious), but because she had simultaneously validated my husbandâs taste in art and solidified their unexpected connection.
Over the years, my husband asked her about gallery openings in the â70s and Coney Island in the 40âs. She clipped articles for him about contemporary art exhibits and Indian actors in Hollywood. They also shared one key interestâmeâand to her delight, sheâd finally found an audience for her outsized stories about my childhood. To anyone else, she would have been bragging, but between them, she was simply affirming his good taste.
My husband was attentive to her in ways that grandchildren whoâve had the luxury of time with a grandparent too often are not. And ultimately this was what made her change her mind and deem him aÂ menschÂ of the highest order.
From birth, my grandmother and I had a special relationship. My status as the favorite grandchild was an open family secret. But by the time she passed, we all agreed that my husband had become the apple of her eyeâwe even joked about their rocky start.
Friends and strangers alike often ask about the challenges my husband and I faced marrying outside our cultures. They assume that that our parents presented the biggest roadblocks. They didnât. Not by a long shot. The older generationâmy grandmother in particularâheld longer, more entrenched views on the importance of marrying within oneâs community, and thus they had a much steeper hill to climb to reach aÂ point of acceptance.
Thereâs that word: acceptance. Too often, we use it to describe some sort of blissful, interfaith end-game. In my experience, itâs just the cost of entry. Itâs what we need from the people we care about to maintain theÂ status quoÂ in our relationships. But beyond that threshold genuine love, messy and strong, is what we really crave. And that love can grow in unlikely, even inhospitable places.
That loveÂ grew for my grandmother as she got to know my husband, and I was more than happy to relinquish the title of favorite grandchild when she discovered it.
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
Jessica Melwani is a freelance writer and editor. A recent suburban transplant, she lives outside New York City with her husband and their two awesome, ridiculous boys. When she isn’t in the car overcoming her fear of highways and left turns, you can find her binge-watching British crime dramas or sometimes evenÂ blogging.
By Joanna Valente
Everyone enjoysÂ a good love story. Even though I infamously dislike narratives with neat, tidy endings, Iâm also a huge romantic at heart. This is why Iâm so excited thatÂ Â Kirk Douglas and his wife, Anne,Â wrote a bookÂ called Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood,Â which was released in May.
The book, which was written withÂ Marcia Newberger, centers around their long, passionate, and sometimes turbulent marriage. The couple has been married since 1954 (in Las Vegas, no less), so clearly after 63Â years, they know a thing or two about how to make relationships work. Kirk is now 100 and Anne is 98ânot only unusual milestones for anyone to reach both in age and marriage, but a happily ironic one considering what Kirk once wrote in a letter.
Four years after they were married, KirkÂ wroteÂ Anne a letter saying,Â âIf I live to be one hundred, there will still be so many things unsaid.â On his 100th birthday last year, it all came full circle when he wroteÂ âAs I have now reached that milestone, I can attest that it is still true.â
As pointed out by our sister siteÂ JTA,Â their union felt unlikely, in that Kirk was âthe son of a hard-drinking Jewish immigrant ragman and junk collector,â while Anne was âthe daughter of a prosperous German family.â When they met,Â both were recently divorced, and Kirk was engaged.Â But they were meant to be.
Because of his acting schedule, they often wrote letters to each other. Kirk referred to Anne as âStolz,â while Anne addressed Kirk as âIsidoreâ or âIzzy.â Interestingly, Anne converted in 2003 to Judaism (after 49 years of marriage!), describing herÂ mikvehÂ experience:
âAfter removing all nail polish, I entered the swimming pool and put my head under the water. I came out looking like a wet dog. But I was Jewish.Â It is time he got a nice Jewish girl.â
The book, with a foreword by their actor son, Michael, was clearly craftedÂ with love. You can see it from excerpts such as these:
This article was reprinted with permission fromÂ Kveller.com, a fast-growing, award-winning website for parents raising Jewish and interfaith kids.Â Follow Kveller on FacebookÂ andÂ sign up for their newsletters here.
Joanna Valente is the Editorial Assistant atÂ Kveller. She is the author ofÂ Sirs & Madams,Â The Gods Are Dead,Â Xenos,Â andÂ MarysÂ of the Sea, andÂ received her MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.Â You can follow herÂ @joannasaidÂ on Twitter,Â @joannacvalenteon Instagram, orÂ email her atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Liat Katz
âA Y A M,â She writes.
âUm, Maya, I think you wrote your name backwards,â I respond.
âNope, itâs just in Hebrew,â the 6-year-old says.
Maya is learning to read and write in English, while also learning Hebrew at our synagogueâs Sunday school. That makes it confusing. And sheâs left-handed too, which makes this backwards-forwards thing even harder.
The whole figuring-out-the-Jewish thing in our modern world has been complicated. Finding a Jewish community that is both warm and accepts our two-mom interfaith family was also difficult, but I think we are starting to find a rhythm.
My wife, Lisa, is not Jewish (she is a recovering Baptist), but is completely on board with raising our kids Jewish. She took time to learn some Hebrew, she helps the kids get to Hebrew school, light candles, says prayers on Shabbat, and seems to be more knowledgeable about Judaism than I am at this point. She also makes the best latkes I have ever tasted.
For our oldest girlâs naming ceremony, we hired a Rabbi who was a humanist, gay, social worker, anarchist, vegan to do the ceremony in our home. Iâm not kidding. Of course he had no problem with the fact that were gay and interfaith. And the ceremony was beautiful. But beyond candle lighting and the occasional high holiday service, we did not have much of a Jewish household after that ceremony.
That was, until a couple of years ago, when we heard that kids absolutely have to start by third grade in Hebrew School to be on the bat mitzvah track. Aviva, our older child, was almost in third grade. And being a child of a Holocaust survivor, I felt compelled to partake in this Jewish tradition for all those that could not. Besides, though I am not very religious, I wanted to have our kids have a sense of belonging to a larger Jewish community.
When I lived in Israel, I could be a part of the Jewish communityâand feel Jewish by virtue of living in a Jewish land, speaking the language, interacting with the people. But here, in the U.S., going to temple seems to be where we need to connect to the Jewish community.
So we started shopping for synagogues to join. We started with the obvious ones for our familyâReconstructionist. We went to a few services and kidsâ services at a relatively local Reconstructionist synagogue. I looked around: Lots of gay families, check. Interfaith families, check. Even racial diversity (pretty unusual at most synagogues), check. Interesting services with lots of opportunities for activities, check. The only thing missing was, well, warmth. Being Gay-friendly did not make them friendly-friendly. Nobody really spoke to us, looked at us or acknowledged us, or each other, either. Not the place for us.
We checked out Reform synagogues. The communities were nice, but huge. And somehow it wasnât what I wanted. Why didnât I like it? The people seemed nice, there were a few other gay families, a bit of diversityâŚbut I realized it wasnât like the services I grew up in. The tunes to the songs were different, and the prayers were mostly in English.
So it turned out that this non-traditional family that had babies in a non-traditional way, wanted a synagogue that was moreâŚtraditional.
Looking online for a Jewish community, I stumbled upon Kehilat Shalom, a small Conservative synagogue that was about 15 miles away from our house. The Rabbi looked nice. And the midweek Hebrew class was held online, which meant we wouldnât have to drive anywhere after school every week.
I contacted the Rabbi and got a lovely response. We went to a service. No gay people, but the people were warm, asked us genuine questions, and invited us to various groups.
The services were mostly in Hebrew, and the tunes were as I remembered them. The sanctuary was beautiful, and bathed in natural light. I closed my eyes and exhaled. We enrolled our older daughter in Hebrew Schoolâand the mid-week Hebrew school class with a special Skype-type program was so helpful and you know, just like the ancient Israelites had planned.
And as I dropped her off for Sunday classes, I went in to Rabbi Arianâs office to chat. Yes, he is knowledgeable about all things Rabbinic and Halachic, but he is also surprisingly, human. I got to know him and his great wife, Keleigh. And they got to know our family. They invited our family to their house, and we invited them to ours.
Of course, I did panic when we invited the Rabbi over. What do we cook? What plates do we use? We made pizza. Vegetarian pizza. My kids started to play a pretend restaurant game and offered the Rabbi a ham and cheese sandwichâhe took it in stride.
And one Fall afternoon, there came a surprising new edition to the litany of endless childhood questions that often makes this mommy feel inadequate. In addition to my daughtersâ questions like: Why donât we have aâŚChristmas tree?âŚa daddy?âŚa beach house? they now, also ask me:âWhy donât we have a Sukkah?
As I got to talk with the Rabbi more, I began to understand conceptions of God and faith in a more relatable and fulfilling way. I discovered that maybe I want more than just Jewish culture in my life. And as the Rabbi got to know us and others in our community, he became more interested in LGBTQ issues.
In fact, he recently did a talk entitled, âReflections on Ten Years ofÂ LGBT Inclusion in Conservative Judaismâ at synagogue. And after he took a tour of civil rights sites (and the Names Project) in Atlanta, he wrote in a weekly Shabbat email and blog post: âThe unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?â
Maya is slowly learning to spell both in Hebrew and English. Aviva continues to connect via computer to her teacher and to class, and now she also connects to Judaism through an overnight camp. And as I connect to a Rabbi, a God, and a community that are both thoughtful and inclusive, I realize that our life is even more diverse and warmly Jewish than I ever expected it could be.
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.
Liat Katz, a clinical social worker, is a graduate of New Directions, a writing program offered by the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in Lilith, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, and the narrative medicine websites Pulse and KevinMD. Of herself, she says, âI write to make sense of the world I see through the lens of a mom, a clinician, a patient, a wife, and a person just muddling through life.â Liat lives in Rockville, Maryland with her wife, two daughters, four cats, and a bunny.
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 âHoliday Neutral Tree.â
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: Thereâs not much of a dilemma here). In case youâre interested in trying this at home, hereâs what youâll 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. âThe presents. And family.â I asked the same question about Christmas: âThe presents. And the tree.â
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 brotherâs. One of the main things I noticed was that neither of the boys seemed too confused or upset about the holidaysâin 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 shruggedâif other families were struggling around balancing the holidays, it didnât 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 latkesÂ and check out the Christmas tree. During this moment of perfect synergy, I turned to the parents: âI 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!â
Step six: As we mixed together the ingredients for the Hanukkah cookie glaze, I learned more about how the holidays work in this family. âWhen we first married, we spoke about how important Christmas was as a tradition. Ultimately, thereâs not a lot of religion or church in how we celebrateâbut there is a lot of tradition. If you think about it, celebrating tradition is as Jewish as it gets.â
Step Seven: We coated our cookies with glaze and got to decorating. Hereâs where imagination took overâand our Hanukkah cookies turned in Hanukkah, Christmas, Valentineâs Day, Halloween AND Star Wars cookies. There wasnât a lot of dilemma, just a lot of love, a lot of tradition and a whole lot of sugar.
We were late. âTwas 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 parentsâ 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 itâs not our go-to for Jewish holiday foods or items. We were lucky to find a menorah at one store the year before, though. (Whatâs 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 couldnât find cookie cutters for Hanukkah at Target. I think this exemplifies how I feel at Christmas: Takeout boxes and menorahs aside, it ainât easy beinâ 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, thereâs a part of me thatâs 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 âJesusâ 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 canât remain on the outside of the holiday and culture that surrounds us in the States. I still want to remain outside, but Iâm also inside the phenomenon.
The phrase âDecember dilemmaâ implies thereâs a conflict. But while itâs easy to say itâs external, between spending time decorating the tree or lighting Hanukkah candles, isnât it more internal? Itâs 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. Itâs making Christmas cookies and needing to avoid most of the cookie cutters because theyâre outlining the differences youâre not discussing.
Now, however, Iâm 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 itâs 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; itâs literally part of their familyâs 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.) Itâs 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 itâs 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 weâve 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. Â Maybe a little bit of teasing and schmaltz, too.
1.Â Thoroughly cream shortening, sugar and vanilla. Add egg; beat until light and fluffy.Â Stir in milk. Sift together dry ingredients, then blend into creamed mixture.Â Divide dough in half. Chill 1 hour.
2.Â On lightly floured surface, roll half of dough to 1/8-inch thickness.Â Keep other half of dough chilled until ready to use.Â Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters.Â Bake on greased cookie sheet at 375 degrees about 6 to 8 minutes. Cool slightly, then remove from pan.Â Makes two-dozen cookies.
ByÂ 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 itâs more difficult to create that same sense of excitement, though for the sake of our 8-year-old daughter, we do try.
Itâs taken all 11 years of marriage to figure out how to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, and we still donât 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 donât 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 didnât feel religious, just festive, but was definitely meant for Christmas.
My husband walked in and said, âOh, look, you decorated for Hanukkah!â 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 itâs only been bit by bit over the years that Iâve 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 Iâve made peace with it all. But we still donât 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 daughterâs 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 Lampoonâs Christmas Vacation, read âTwas the Night Before Christmas and enjoy a big Christmas celebration with my husbandâs family. I love these things, too.
Yes, our holidays are filled and busyâbut fun! And so by now we should have it all figured out, right? Well, no.
Every year we discuss (debate?) if weâre going to church for Christmas Eve with my mother-in-law. My husband is actually the one who doesnât want to go. Ironic, right? Some years we go, and some we donât.
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 weâve been known to forget to light candles a night or two. Hanukkah presents are also often less exciting. Letâs face itâone present just doesnât compare to a pile. In fact, our daughter tells us that she asks Santa for the big, expensive presents because she figures heâll bring them to her, and for Hanukkah sheâs open to whatever we want to give her. Little does she know.
So, like most things in life, in marriageâand especially an interfaith marriageâweâll keep trying and tweaking until we get it right. And by that time our daughter may be married with kids of her own!
By Rabbi Ari MofficÂ
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 otherâs 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.Â In the weeks leading up to Christmas, churches observe the Advent season, which is a time of waiting and reflection in preparation for the Messiahâs coming. Christmas is also an occasion of great joy because it is a reminder of Godâs commitment to Godâs 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 â especially here in the United States.Â 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.Â 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 societyâs favorite Christmas traditions are not necessary directly related to Jesusâ 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 Tevyeâs favorite word: Tradition! There is certainly something comforting about celebrating a holiday (be it Christmas, Hanukkah, or Thanksgiving) in the way that oneâs 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 âspiritâ 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: âGod is with usâ (which is what Jesusâs 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 Godâs 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 âJoy to the Worldâ to âAway in Manger.âÂ 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 âSilent Night,â 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.Â The ways Judaism and Christianity were brought into our family home came out of many trying and eye-opening discussions between my parents.Â 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 âmake or breakâ 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 Steven Fisher
This is the story of how a Jewish couple added to and became part of our changing America. But more important, this story is about what I learned when my wife, Robina, and I were introduced via our son to a religion, culture and traditions that we thought were so different from ours. Itâs also a story about love, respect and acceptance.
On October 17, 1971, I married my high-school sweetheart. Nine years later, after two miscarriages and years of fertility treatments, our son, Jared, was born. Because we didnât want Jared to be an only child, we continued our fertility treatments and suffered another devastating miscarriage of triplets that nearly cost Robina her life. We then looked into adoption to complete our family.
While on a business trip, Robina called to tell me we had 24 hours to make a decision about adopting a little girl.Â A month later, we received a birth certificate for Judith. After completing a mountain of paperwork, we were on our way to Paraguay, South America, to bring home our little Latina daughter, Elana Judith.
Fast forward to 2006, whenÂ Jared arranged a lunch date with Robina. During lunch, Jared began the conversation with the words every mother wants to hear: âI met a girl.Â I think sheâs the one!Â Her name is Jaina, sheâs a teacher and sheâs IndianâSouth Asian, not Native American.â
Like any Jewish mother, Robina wanted our son to marry a nice Jewish girl. She was shocked and disappointed, and it showed in her expression during lunch. That evening we discussed the situation and decided to stay neutral and take a wait-and-see approach, not wanting to drive our son away.
Their relationship grew.Â Jared learned to eat vegetarian Indian food and experienced the Hindu religion and culture at Jainaâs family home and temple.Â Jaina, for her part, ate latkes and matzo brie and came to our house for Passover and Hanukkah, and attended High Holiday services at our synagogue.Â Their love grew, and in 2008 they became engaged.
Planning a wedding is difficult any time, but blending cultures and religions is a real challenge. Jaina wanted a traditional Hindu wedding, and we wanted a Jewish ceremony.Â In the end, it was decided that there would be no combined ceremony; instead we would honor both religions and traditions and have two separate traditional ceremonies with one reception to be held after the Jewish ceremony. What we learned from the process of planning these weddings was that although we came from different religions and traditions, we had so much in common.
Our families worked together on every aspect of both ceremonies and the reception. The year leading up to the wedding was crazy!Â We were immersed in Indian cultureâwe ate Indian food, learned about the Hindu religion and discussed the differences and similarities with Judaism. We attended services at both a Hindu and Jain temple, we attended Punjab ceremonies at peopleâs houses and even attended a Hindu funeral.
Jainaâs family joined us for Passover dinner, and we had our first Hanukkah party together.Â At this first party, Jainaâs niece and nephew, ages 4 and 6, surprised us by singing the dreidel song. They had learned the song at school, and from their mother learned it was a song for the holiday they were going to celebrate with Jaredâs Jewish family.
As the wedding planning evolved, we learned how the bridal party reflected the diversity of Jared and Jainaâs friends. It was made up of friends white and black, Indian and Hispanic, Hindu, Christian and Jewish. It was a snapshot of ourÂ changing America.
Today we have beautiful granddaughters. You may wonder, âWill the girls be raised Hindu or Jewish?â The answer is they will be raised learning and respecting each religion and culture, as they are part of both.Â They will learn about the mezuzah on their front door and the Hindu shrine in their house.Â Jewish and Hindu traditions will be celebrated with both families watching them with pride. Although we are not social friends with Jaina’s parents, we have become family!
Jared and Jaina are my inspiration. Together they live a life of acceptance. They are an example of how America and the world could be if we looked past our differences and embraced our similarities with understanding, respect and love.
Steven Fisher is in sales and lives in Deerfield, IL with his wife of 45 years.