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Fearing the Holidays

It's difficult being in an interfaith relationship around Christmastime. Growing up, Christmas was always an elaborate celebration in my home. The whole month of December was my favorite time. I loved everything about Christmas. Although I went to CCD (Catholic education classes) and was confirmed as a Catholic, at home we were largely secular Christians. The holiday was about family more than anything else.

When discussing religion with my boyfriend Aaron of two-and-a-half years, many feelings arise. We have decided that we want to raise our future children in one religion. We have chosen Judaism because it is important to Aaron and because I don't agree with a lot of the teachings of the Church. I also want my children to be proud of their Jewish heritage. What I love about Judaism is that it's not only about how you worship God but also about what kind of person you are, and how you treat others, values that I share.

But, while I am okay theoretically with raising our future children Jewish, when the holiday season arrives I don't know what to do with the feelings of loss that inevitably arise when I imagine a future for my children very different from the one I grew up with.

One thing that made the holiday season particularly difficult last year was our decision to enroll in an Introduction to Judaism class in the fall. I have decided not to convert, but I think it's important if I'm going to raise my children in the Jewish religion that I fully understand what this means. Being immersed in the long arduous history of the Jewish people was challenging. I experienced the history of the world through a different lens and it was very surreal. I felt like the core of my soul was torn to shreds and I was trying to reassemble the pieces into something workable. My eyes were opened; I could never go back to my previous ignorance; yet I didn't quite know how to assimilate this new information. I felt conflicted over whether to hang Christmas decorations or listen to my favorite Christmas songs.

The problem with religion is that it isn't just about running down a list of items and deciding if you agree with them or not. There's this divide between what you can intellectualize and what has been imprinted into the fibers of your being. What took a lifetime to store cannot easily be changed. The memories of the emotions run very deep. Even though I have decided not to convert, I am well aware that if I am raising Jewish children in a Jewish home, then many changes are going to take place.

My parents' reaction to the Judaism class has been the most stressful to deal with. They are very hurt that I won't be raising my children as Catholics. They feel betrayed and believe they will be alienated from their grandchildren. I think they secretly fear I will convert without telling them and that I'll become a different person, unrecognizable and lost to them. Of course, that isn't true, but religion is a very complex subject for everyone. I've experienced enough of my own fears, especially in the beginning, to have compassion for theirs.

Aaron and I had discussions about my feelings and about what we would do on December 25 last year, given that it was Christmas as well as the first night of Hanukkah. The rabbi of our Judaism class was also holding a get-together at his home in the afternoon on the same day. I honestly didn't want to have anything to do with the holidays and wished we could just skip over them. I was stressed and afraid of disappointing anyone and everyone.

Finally I realized I was letting my fears take over and had to take a step back. I am in love with Aaron. There is a Yiddish term, bashert, that means soulmate. I truly believe he is my bashert. Many of the things I love about him are because of his Jewishness. I would never want him to be anything else. But in order to love him I must also be my full self. Ultimately, I gave myself permission to hang some Christmas decorations in my apartment and to listen to my favorite Christmas songs. I also bought a very beautiful Hanukkah gift bag that I couldn't pass up.

Overall December 25 went smoothly. We decided to spend the day with my family and the evening with Aaron's family. We did not attend the party at the rabbi's house. Aaron wished everyone a Merry Christmas and exchanged gifts with my family. We enjoyed eating food all day and spending time with my nephews. Later, we lit Hanukkah candles with his family and also exchanged gifts. Regrettably the time was not shared equally, but we spent another night of Hanukkah later in the week with his family. I am anticipating that it will be easier this year when Hanukkah will be completely over before Christmas Eve and we can fully share in both holidays.

Our relationship is more important than one month out of the year and it is worth the effort of working through these issues together. There is no other place I'm supposed to be than right beside Aaron. Together we will create our own family traditions.

For a perspective on this article from outreach professionals Dawn C. Kepler and Karen Kushner, read  Fear Not!

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Kim Mortellite

Kim Mortellite is studying at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., toward becoming an expressive therapist and licensed mental health counselor. She is an accomplished clarinetist and currently performs with the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. She and Aaron are engaged to be married in July 2007.

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