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Interfaith Families Raising Jews Still Wrestle with Role of Christmas

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, Nov. 24 (JTA)--Like every year, the Keen family of Ann Arbor, Mich., will soon festoon their home with Hanukkah symbols, light the menorah, exchange gifts and host a family party with latkes and jelly doughnuts.

And then, in the middle of all of this, the family will go into a separate room and help Jim, the family father and husband, decorate his Christmas tree and give him gifts on Christmas day.

For Jim, 36, who grew up a churchgoing Methodist, and Bonnie, 36, who grew up a Conservative Jew, the arrangement is part of an ongoing commitment Jim says the couple has "tweaked" to raise their two daughters as Jews.

"We have a Jewish home, and I happen to be a Protestant dad," he says. When it comes to Christmas, he says, the girls "realize it's not their religion; it's mine. It's like celebrating someone else's birthday."

While that arrangement may strike some intermarriage critics as convoluted at best and simplistic at worst, it reflects a reality of American Jewish life.

Interfaith families are negotiating paths they believe are creating new types of Jewish households. How, exactly, these families are changing American Jewish life culturally and religiously remains is the subject of intense debate.

"We haven't watered down the Jewish population; I've brought two new Jews into the world," Jim says, reflecting a widespread view among intermarried Jews.

Nearly half of Jews who got married during the last five years, or 47 percent, married non-Jews. That's up 4 percent from a decade ago, according to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey. Of all American Jews married today, one-third, or 1.6 million, are wed to non-Jews, according to the study. The study counted 5.2 million Jews in the United States.

The Jewish Outreach Institute, which promotes bringing uninvolved and disaffected Jews into the Jewish community, says if the current intermarriage rate continues, American Jewry soon will be dominated by interfaith couples.

Since demographers discovered in the 1970s that intermarriage was rising, Jews have argued over whether to fight the trend or embrace intermarried couples and encourage conversion or increased Jewish activity.

Intermarriage largely begets assimilation. Only a minority of interfaith couples--33 percent--are raising their children as Jews, up 2 percent from a decade earlier, according to the NJPS 2000-01.

"Studies show that families in which there is not a competing religion are more likely to have children who identify as Jewish by religion," says Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor who has studied interfaith families.

Barack Fishman, author of a soon-to-be-published book on how interfaith families negotiate the ethnic and religious character of their homes, says that having a Christmas tree in an otherwise Jewish home qualifies as conflicting religious behavior. Still, she says, the predominance of Jewish activity means the family is likely "hedging their bets" that their children will identify as Jews.

Often, lost in the facts and figures of the debate are the complexities of interfaith life, especially for those committed to raising a Jewish family.

Dozens of interfaith couples recently penned essays for a contest called "We're Interfaith Families... Connecting With Jewish Life,' run by Interfaithfamily.com, a support network for intermarried seeking a Jewish life. The essays proved insightful into some of the challenges faced by interfaith families.

Gary Goldhammer, 37, of Tustin, Calif., won first prize in the "Raising Jewish Children" category of the contest for his piece, "The Letter," a missive to his dead father.

Goldhammer was raised in Conservative and Reform synagogues, and 13 years ago he married a Lutheran woman from St. Louis. Before their wedding, his wife Christine declared without his prodding that they would raise their children as Jews.

Three years later they joined a Reconstructionist congregation, United Synagogue in Irvine, and five years ago they had a daughter, Alexandra.

Now Christine produces the synagogue newsletter, Alexandra goes to religious school on Shabbat, the Sabbath, and the family belongs to a chavurah, or informal study group. The family also celebrates Shabbat and the major holidays, and Gary is teaching his daughter Hebrew to help ease her future Bat Mitzvah studies.

When the Goldhammers visit Christine's family for Christmas, Gary says he tells Alexandra, "It's a holiday we celebrate with grandma and grandpa."

Christine has not converted, because, she says, she still believes in Jesus. Christine's parents also give their granddaughter an occasional gift with Christian overtones, such as a doll with a prayer to Jesus on it.

In part, Gary says, he is immersing his daughter in Judaism in the hopes "she'll be less inclined to explore" Christianity.

Meanwhile, Gary believes Alexandra is Jewish, not because of her DNA, as he wrote in his essay, but for her "spirit and belief."

When it comes to Alexandra's future, Gary jokes he will tell his daughter to "Do as I say, not as I do" when considering intermarriage.

"The bigger issue is to be a good person--everything else is a detail," Gary says.

It took years for Rosemary DiDio Brehm and her husband Bill to work out the details of their religious lives, including how to celebrate the holidays.

The Brehms and their two daughters, Stephanie, 16, and Danielle, 15, of Tampa, Fla., belong to Congregation Beth Am, a Reform synagogue. The girls go to Hebrew school and participate in the temple youth group. The family celebrates the major Jewish holidays.

But the family also belongs to St. Timothy's Catholic Church, where they attend Easter and Christmas mass.

While Rosemary is active both in the church and the synagogue, her husband and daughters view the Catholic rites simply "as a respectful neighbor, as opposed to a belief system," Rosemary says.

In one month, they will decorate their house with Christmas lights and a tree with "non-religious" decorations, as well as Hanukkah decorations and a menorah.

Yet her daughters do not try to equate Christmas and Hanukkah.

"They realize the High Holidays and Passover are more important," says Rosemary. "I'm wondering if we're not an interfaith family, but a multifaith family," she says.

Others with the same plan for their families take very different paths.

Until their son Harry, now 20, was born, Mark and Jane Young of Mahwah, N.J., celebrated what Mark calls a "mishmash" of religious traditions.

Mark, 53, grew up Protestant in Florida, while his wife Jane, 50, lived in a classical Reform Jewish home on Long Island, where the family lit Hanukkah candles and exchanged Christmas gifts.

When Harry was 6, Jane told one of Harry's inquiring playmates that the reason the family affixed symbols of both a menorah and Christmas tree on their door was because Harry was both religions.

"He said, 'No, I'm Jewish,'" she recalls.

The family joined the local Reform synagogue, Beth Haverim, and over the years their participation grew. Though the family kept a Christmas tree for Mark, Mark also helped revive the synagogue's men's club and recently Jane got trained by the movement to lead the temple's outreach efforts to unaffiliated Jews, interfaith couples and potential converts.

But last year, Jane decided she did not want a Christmas tree in their home.

She remembers feeling, "I just can't do this any more. It was not representative of who I am or who we were as a family."

Now Mark is considering conversion. He has attended several Reform movement biennial conventions, represented the synagogue at various events and this past Yom Kippur led a study session involving meditation.

"I've had dreams and visions of wandering in the desert," he says. "I really feel like I have a Jewish soul."

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Joe Berkofsky

Joe Berkofsky, a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers education, Jewish identity issues, philanthropy and the religious movements. He has been a reporter for the technology network TechTV in San Francisco, daily newspapers in the greater Boston area, and a contributing writer to The Jerusalem Report, The San Jose Mercury News, B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly and other publications. He was also an editor at the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and at other weekly newspapers.

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