Cheryl Opper has been involved with outreach interfaith programs at Temple Sinai of Sharon for over ten years. She teaches senior adult fitness classes and childbirth parent education programs.
How Can I Embrace the December Holidays without Offending My Jewish Family?
I'm Christian and my husband Neal is Jewish. We have been married for thirteen years. We have had a lot of experience over the years trying to create our interfaith holiday celebrations. Our holidays have gone from having a Christmas tree in our home, to no tree, to a poinsettia plant instead of a tree, back to a tree. It was easier to create our holiday celebrations before we had a child, eleven years ago. We have one daughter, Lindsay.
Neal and I made the decision before we were married to raise any future child we might have as a Jew. During our engagement we met with our rabbi and minister about our decision. I remember asking my minister, "As a Christian, how can I not teach my child about Jesus? Jesus is a big part of who I am." The minister said, "You are right, Jesus is a part of you. He lives in your heart. You don't have to talk about him because he lives through your love and your actions."
I remember feeling like a weight had just been lifted from my chest. The minister said that Neal and I had the opportunity as an interfaith couple to reach out to others and show them how two different religions can respect one another's differences and embrace God's love in a special way. I always think about that whenever I have the chance to speak about the many special blessings our interfaith marriage has brought to us. Neal and I have said many times that being married to a person from a different background has helped us to embrace and explore our own religions in a new way.
As we turn to this holiday season, I wonder how I can embrace the Christmas holidays without offending my Jewish family? I think that "fear" often holds us back from embracing our religion and asking for what we want for our holiday celebrations. We are afraid of hurting someone's feelings, if not our spouse's, then maybe our in-laws, or our friends. We get caught up in worrying about what will others think of us. Our fear causes stress and robs us of our ability to enjoy life. Once you are able to find a way to release the fear and tap into your heart to find out what is missing from your holiday celebrations, you will begin to experience the true spirit of Christmas and Hanukkah for yourself and your family.
Neal and I first met at the Jewish Community Center in Houston where I was the fitness coordinator. He took an aerobics class that I was teaching. We started dating in September of 1984. Our first two Christmases together as a couple were easy. I flew to Indiana to celebrate Christmas with my family. He flew to Boston to be with his family for Hanukkah. We never discussed it much; we exchanged gifts and cards and it just seemed easy. During our third year together, we got engaged, and I decided we needed a Christmas tree for my new condo. Neal seemed almost excited, like a little kid experiencing something new. It was fun until we had to wait in long lines to purchase the lights and ornaments. We couldn't decide what to put on top of the tree. I wanted an angel but Neal said that would make him uncomfortable, so we decided on a big gold bow.
We continued to have a tree in our house until our daughter Lindsay was born in 1988. Since we had decided that Lindsay would be raised Jewish, I thought it would be better for her not to be exposed to Christmas celebrations in her Jewish home. I convinced myself that flying to Indiana to celebrate Christmas with my family was all I needed.
My parents, who were very religious, always had a nativity scene on their end table in the living room. As Lindsay grew up and began to explore her grandparents' house, she found the nativity scene. She loved to play with it--especially the manger and baby Jesus, who fascinated her at age four and five. She wanted to know more about him. I told her the Christmas story of Jesus' birth. I told her that is what her mommy and Christian grandparents believe, and that Christmas was our holiday and that she could celebrate it with us. I pointed out that Hanukkah was her special holiday because she was Jewish.
Lindsay came home after celebrating one Christmas in Indiana thanking God for baby Jesus in her prayers every night. I didn't discourage it or encourage it. My Jewish mother-in-law shared with me that she was surprised to hear Lindsay thanking God for baby Jesus in her prayers. I said, "Yes, I know she really likes him." After a few months, she stopped talking about him.
For many years we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas on the surface. We went through the motions, but for me spiritually, I felt half-empty. I was afraid to create my own Christmas celebrations in my own home. I didn't want to rock the boat. I wanted more, but my fear held me back. After eight years of doing our routine "safe" holiday celebrations, I decided to listen to my heart and ask for what I wanted. I stepped out of my comfort zone and took a chance. I wanted to start my own family traditions. I didn't want to fly to Indiana for Christmas--I wanted to be in my own home. I wanted to decorate a gingerbread house with my daughter. I wanted to pick out a tree with my family and drink hot chocolate while we decorated it with special ornaments. I wanted to go to the candlelight Christmas Eve service and come home and read the story "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." I wanted to leave out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. Most of all I wanted to relive my Christmas childhood with my Jewish daughter whom I was driving to Hebrew school three times a week. I was torn between my needs and the needs of my daughter and husband. I decided to push through the fear and trust my heart.
My daughter loves our new Christmas traditions. She also loves having a family Hanukkah party, lighting the menorah and making Hanukkah cookies. She knows she is Jewish and her mommy is not. She knows Mommy celebrates different holidays. She knows about Jesus' birth. She embraces her Judaism and respects the Christian faith.
My husband acknowledges the sacrifices I have made over the years to raise our daughter as a Jew. He also understands I have needs, too, and he is willing to step out of his comfort zone to help me meet those needs. He has learned to let go of his fears and judgments over the years and really enjoys our new December celebrations.
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.