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Interfaith Marriages Bring Variety to Holidays

Reprinted from The (Bremerton, Washington) Sun with permission of the author. Visit www.kitsapsun.com

December 21, 2003--Every holiday season, the Rockefeller family of Bainbridge Island has a traditional Christmas tree with all the trimmings.  

They also have a large Star of David strung with lights displayed in their living room window.

Growing up with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, Rebecca Rockefeller, daughter of State Rep. Phil Rockefeller, felt her family was different, but she never thought it was difficult to live in an interfaith house.

"I think that when you're on the outside looking in, it can seem confusing," she said. "But when you're a kid growing up, you don't know it's supposed to be confusing."

Rockefeller, who identifies herself as a Jew, now has her own interfaith family, with a non-Jewish husband and a baby daughter.

They are one of the increasing numbers of interfaith households in America.

A 2001 study revealed that 22 percent of couples surveyed live in a mixed-religion household, for a total of 28 million adults.

The results were gathered from a random survey of 50,281 American households conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Although there are many mixed-religion relationships now, when she was young, Rockefeller said they knew few other interfaith families on Bainbridge Island. Her parents were in uncharted territory, she said.

Now there are classes, seminars and other support services offered for the rising number of Jewish-non Jewish couples.

There are so many mixed-religion couples that Althea Paulson, a Bainbridge Island resident, said she hardly knows any Jewish couples that don't include a non-Jew.

Paulson, a Christian, and husband Dan Mallove, a Jew, have had a two-tradition family for many years. Paulson said they worked things out by thinking, reading and talking with other couples. They were deliberate with the decisions they made about how to celebrate the holidays with their three children, now ages 12 to 17.

They have both a tree and a menorah, and give presents for Hanukkah and Christmas.

Paulson said her children told her they never felt like they had to choose one celebration over the other.

"I asked my 17-year-old what it was about this time of year that meant the most to him and he said it was the feeling of family and love," she said. "He didn't mention anything about the religious aspect."

Now that her kids are older, they celebrate both holidays less, partly because she and her husband were distressed with the amount of gift giving.

"We were afraid we were turning our kids into greedy pigs!" she said.

Paulson said the commercialism of the holidays was more of a conflict than the mix of religions.

"We realized the gift giving was the least of what our cultures had to offer," she said

The culture of Christmas presents concerns Rockefeller as well, who fears the glitz of Christmas will overshadow Jewish traditions, especially since Hanukkah is not a main Jewish holiday.

She and husband David Campbell have agreed to raise their daughter as a Jew, but still want to respect the holiday customs of both families.

"The hardest part is to respectfully set some boundaries for our family at large so that we get gifts that are appropriate for my daughter," she said.

It's a difficult line to walk because Christmas is an important event in her husband's family.

"We don't want my husband's family to feel like we are rejecting their traditions," she said.

Rockefeller is grateful to her parents for providing a good model for an interfaith marriage. She emphasized that each parent took part in each other's traditions with her father attending Jewish services and her mother playing Christmas music.

"Both my parents felt free to celebrate the holidays they wanted to as a family," she said.

Not having children is one element that lessens the dilemma of mixed-religion holiday celebrations, but there are still challenges in everyday life.

Shahid and Christine Ahmed of Bremerton are a Christian-Muslim interfaith couple.

"There are challenges, but since there are only two of us and not a whole lot of family around, we don't celebrate a whole lot," he said.

Christine observes Christmas and Shahid observes Muslim holidays, including the most important one, Ramadan, which ended in late November this year.

"We used to have a lot of arguments, but we learned to respect each other," he said.

The evidence of the success of their interfaith marriage is in the numbers.

"She's a devout Christian like I'm a devout Muslim and we've been married for 27 years," he laughed.

Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. 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. 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.)
Susie L. Oh

Susie L. Oh is a reporter with The Sun in Bremerton, Wash., and has worked for the Religion News Service in Washington, DC.

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