Our interfaith family has had a pretty laid back approach to the holiday dilemma. I come from a Scandinavian tradition, so the December holidays are in many ways more cultural than religious. It was a time of year of candles and celebrations in my grandparents’ native Denmark because it also was a time of year with little daylight. The holidays dispelled some of the cold and dark. The holidays were always a special time in my family too with a visit to my grandmother where the whole big family came together and we saw cousins and second cousins we saw just once a year. And of course growing up in the Midwest I remember Christmas concerts at school and the community Christmas sing a long. These were fond memories and family traditions that I wanted to be able to share with my own child.
-Contributed by Margaret Albright, Sunday School for Jewish Studies Parent
Both of my biological parents are Jewish. When I was 4 years old, my father remarried a Christian. Every winter break when I visited my father, we would celebrate Christmas with my step-mother’s family. My childhood memories include Passover with my Orthodox grandparents in Brooklyn, NY, Hanukkah with my mother and step-father in Newton, and Christmas in California with my dad, my step-mother and her family.
Ten years ago I became part of another interfaith family, my own. My husband is a non-practicing Christian and our children are being raised Jewish. We are fortunate to have found The Sunday School for Jewish Studies, a once-a-week Hebrew school where my children learn about their Jewish identity. They learn about the holidays, eat raisins under the sukkah, spin the dreidel, light candles, and participate in Passover Seders. And, like many of their SS4JS friends, on December 25th, they celebrate Christmas.
We just can’t help it. Christmas for me is a holiday of family traditions. Visiting my step-grandparents, filling stockings, opening presents, and eating Christmas pancakes are some of my favorite memories. For my husband, Christmas is the one Christian holiday he can’t do without. My 8 and 10 year old children now have their own Christmas traditions, decorating the tree, eating candy canes and hot chocolate, visiting their Christian cousins, and of course opening presents.
And yes, my kids have asked why we celebrate Christmas if we are Jewish. My husband and I explain that for us Christmas isn’t a religious holiday, it is a holiday about family.
-Contributed by Liz Davis, Parent and Board Co-President, Sunday School for Jewish Studies
By Erica Noonan
Want to get a funny look at parties? Tell people you have a child named Dennis McCormick enrolled at the Sunday School for Jewish Studies.
First people make the most reasonable assumption: I must be a Jew who married an Irishman.
“What's your maiden name?” they ask.
“Noonan,” I say.
That doesn't clear anything up, so they peer at me a little more closely, searching for a reassuring Semitic look around the eyes and nose. It is there, so they start peppering me with questions.
So, ARE you Jewish? Which synagogue do you go to? What is the SS4JS?
At this point, I usually start babbling defensively. “Well, my dad is Catholic but my mom is half-Jewish, and a bunch of my relatives are Jewish, but I was baptized and had First Communion in the Episcopal Church, but a Unitarian did our wedding... And uh, David is an atheist, but he kind of likes the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but he put me in charge of the kids religious education because he likes to sleep late on Sunday, but I think atheism is too cynical of a view to press on children...”
The person now looks truly horrified, yet my mouth won’t stop moving.
“...um,so, anyhow, I am identifying more as an adult with Judaism, but we celebrate Christmas because the grandparents would kill us if we didn't, and we are part Christian. Uh, sort of...."
By now the person has backed away, suddenly remembering an urgent appointment to talk to someone else -- anyone else -- except me.
Oddly, traditionally raised Jewish people are often the least tolerant. There is the “you aren't Jewish enough to count” camp or the “your kids can't be Jewish!” delivered with a dismissive shake of the head. Or sometimes the discussion turns into a rather intimate genetic search-and-destroy mission capped off with, “so, WHAT was your mother’s mother?” Sometimes people sneer. Or say dismissively, "that interfaith stuff never works out."
It took years, but I have finally come to regard these folks as a gang of judgemental creeps. Because of decisions made three generation ago my kids don't get access to this thread of their heritage? Their bloodline is too muddied? Who gets the right to say that I am not “enough” of something to “count?”
My children’s grandparents passed down many excellent things -- but a well-defined relationship with God and a parochial attachment to ethnicity -- were not among them.
As children of the 1960s, my parents and in-laws thought they were doing us a gigantic favor by not imposing religious dogma or an airtight lifestyle choice. As an adult, I appreciate that.
I hope my kids are as equally grateful for the religious structure I am imposing on their generation. I want to give them access to Judaism, with its rich spiritual and intellectual heritage and its proud tradition of moral leadership and social justice. I want them to become compassionate and funny adults who love life.
So, every Sunday morning they go to SS4JS -- a place that manages to be welcoming, tolerant, yet intellectually rigorous enough so that Dennis, age 8, recently out "Alef Bet-ed" a kid belonging to one those those “real” Jewish people. (Who's sneering now, I ask you?)
Whenever I take them to Sunday School, I feel like I am making up for lost time. The kids know they can choose at age 13 what they want to be -- Jewish, Christian, atheist, or something else entirely.
I see the Sunday School, as one politician put it the context of immigration, as a path to citizenship. By then they will have earned a Jewish identity fair and square. It will be up to them to embrace it for life.