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The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
Hanukkah is Hanukkah and Christmas is Christmas. It doesn't matter if you are intermarried or "in"-married. We can acknowledge the similar folk-religion roots of both holidays (for example, lighting lights at the darkest time of the year). But robbing the beauty of one celebration to pay tribute to another is not the answer to the holiday challenge that some interfaith families face during wintertime celebrations.
It is insufficient to suggest that Hanukkah is a minor holiday "anyhow," and "that's why it pales in comparison to Christmas." Try telling that to a child whose joy is reflected in the lights of the Hanukkah menorah, as she opens her presents, eats latkes, spins the dreidel, and sings Hanukkah songs with her family. It is only "minor" if you let it slip through your fingers and not allow it to become the powerful ingredient it can be to help develop and nurture Jewish education. (Even comedian Adam Sandler understands this idea, as seen through his various contributions to the Hanukkah songbook!) Celebrate Hanukkah--and stay away from the excuse that we can't or shouldn't celebrate it as vigorously as Christians celebrate Christmas. The method may be different, but the celebratory fervor should be the same.
So what is a family to do? While we may think of holidays as nothing more than family celebrations, keep in mind that religious identity is formed by the accumulation of religious memories. If you are an intermarried couple raising a Jewish family (and not an interfaith family), then you have an obligation to separate out your celebration of Hanukkah from Christmas (and vice versa). If you haven't yet, then ask yourself a series of questions that might help: 1. Which holiday reflects our family's religious life? 2. What are the holiday values that we want our children to carry forward into their adult lives? 3. What are the holiday memories that will provide our children with a firm foundation for living?
The formula is simple in theory, though it may take some work to put it into practice. Celebrate Hanukkah fully, but respect the Christmas celebration of non-Jews in your family. Make the separation in your mind, in your heart, and in your behavior. Talk out the decisions to be made with your children and with your partner. (Obviously, talking is mostly for older children; but doing so teaches them all.)
Most importantly, add depth to your Hanukkah celebration. Spinning dreidels and eating latkes isn't really enough to build a strong Jewish identity in children, and certainly not enough in an interfaith family where there is a Christmas tree at home (sometimes because of a non-Jewish parent) or at the home of their closest relatives, such as grandparents. Make Hanukkah a "rededication," as the translation of its name implies, to bolster a solid Jewish engagement throughout the year to come. As with all Jewish holidays, there are layers to the depth and meaning of Hanukkah. Make an effort to peel away another layer each year. A quick stroll through your local bookstore will show that there are an abundance of titles about Hanukkah, especially for young children. Each one adds its own spin to our understanding of the holiday.
In a period of eight days, Hanukkah offers us a glimpse of the Divine, an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to all that is holy in the world, in our family, and in ourselves. We hope that the lights of Hanukkah illumine your path in the world, and through your life's journey.