Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
This article, reprinted by permission from Reform Judaism Magazine was adapted from the essay "The Torah for the Trees," © 2007 by William Squier, from the book Blindsided By A Diaper, © 2007 by Dana Bedford Hilmer. Published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
There used to be a Christmas tree lot just down the street from where my family and I live. Actually it was a vacant lot for most of the year. But, shortly after my wife, Beth, son, Levi, and I moved into the neighborhood, a tractor-trailer truck pulled up in front of it and dumped a load of fir trees onto the sidewalk. They were organized into tidy rows, strings of bare light bulbs were hung overhead, and Christmas carols began to trickle out of a couple of tinny speakers. And for the next few months, we found ourselves living near a forest of evergreens.
Levi, who was about a year old at the time, paid the trees very little attention. But Beth and I regarded the trees, and then each other, uneasily. One of the great, unresolved conflicts of our marriage had not only been dumped onto the sidewalk, but into our laps: whether or not to celebrate Christmas in our home.
Of course we should have seen it coming: Beth is Jewish and I'm a Christian. But I thought we'd settled the issue long before Levi was born.
Back when we were first engaged, our friends took Beth and me aside and suggested the only responsible thing for an interfaith couple to do was to hash out their religious differences before marriage. So, off we trudged to the 92nd Street Y to work through the big issues with a bunch of other interfaith pairs.
At the top of everyone's list was the question of how to raise the kids. For the three or four other couples in our circle of folding chairs, this was a major sore point. They talked of being threatened by their parents with being disinherited, disowned, or reclassified as "dead to the family" if they sired progeny outside of their respective faith. These people, I thought, had real problems. On the other hand, Beth and I took all of about a minute to settle the kid question. "Wanna go with Jewish?" "Sounds good. Can we stop for ice cream on the way home?" It was just that easy.
Then, someone mentioned Christmas--more specifically, the idea of having a Christmas tree in an interfaith family's home--and I suddenly thought I saw Beth bristle. "Is that going to be a problem?" I asked her, out of the corner of my mouth. She didn't answer right away. Uh-oh. Was it possible that I wasn't going to be allowed to share a Christmas tree with my child?
This caught me by surprise because we had already lived together for several years, and Beth hadn't objected to having a Christmas tree in our apartment. Though I had to admit that she was wary of it at first. But, I attributed her initial skittishness to early childhood trauma.
Beth's family had "experimented" with Christmas when she was small--they baked a few cookies, sang a carol here and there. However, their one and only attempt at celebrating the holiday full-out nearly ended in disaster. Beth's father threw all of their wrapping paper into the hearth on Christmas morning and lit it on fire without first opening the flue. After practically burning the house down, he announced that "Jews don't do Christmas" and that was the end of that.
To make Beth feel more relaxed around the tree, I suggested that we keep it nondenominational, with lovely blown-glass pickles and "Crabby" the Christmas Crustacean dangling from its limbs. She met me halfway when it came to the points on which I was inflexible, such as proper tinsel distribution. She respected my rule that tinsel be hung strand by strand and not heaved all over the tree in clumpy handfuls.
Now, here I was, proposing that our yet-to-be-conceived offspring welcome Christmas into his yet-to-be-begun life. And I could sense that Beth was resistant to the idea. Yet, to my surprise, she agreed! I could have "my" tree! Now we could live happily interfaithfully ever after, so long as I ignored the nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right.
Levi's first Christmas was a cinch. He was only 2 months old. We took snapshots. We sang "Jingle Bells." And as our son lay beneath the tree like one of the gifts, gazing up at its branches, all felt right with the world.
The next year, thanks to that handy lot down the street, the tree got a lot taller. I added lights and brand-new ornaments. To justify the extravagance, I made sure Hanukkah got equal time. For every sprig of holly we bought a bag of gelt. There were blue-and-silver ribbons for every red-and-green bow. But, the taller the tree grew, the more the boy beneath it became a person. And everything involving Levi gained added significance.
Beth's attitude about the winter holidays began to change when our son was 3. In keeping with our "decision" to raise him as Jewish, Levi was enrolled at the temple nursery school. Despite the fact that a third of the congregants in our little interfaith haven were Fitzgeralds and Carusos, more of Levi's "homework" centered around Jewish rituals. And my non-practicing wife began to wonder aloud if maybe just maybe we weren't sending Levi confusing messages with this Christmas and Hanukkah thing.
I have to admit, it really started to bug me, this change in my wife. This was not the marriage that I signed up for beneath a huppah held aloft by an equal number of Jews and Protestants. I couldn't understand how she could possibly see anything as harmless as Christmas as a threat to Levi's Jewish upbringing.
But, like the proverbial salmon swimming upstream, Beth began to feel determined, desperate almost, to provide Levi with a total Jewish identity. When Levi told people he was "half-Christian, half-Jewish," she was quick to correct him. "Religion isn't a nationality," she'd explain. "It's a belief system. And you can only be one thing." I'm not so sure that Levi understood what she was saying, but I heard her loud and clear.
I began to feel like an outsider. If we could "only be one thing," where was I in all of this? Every time I heard Beth tell someone that I had "a Jewish soul," I felt apologized for, tolerated. "Well, I thought he was Jewish when I first met him!" she'd exclaim with a laugh. Granted, I wasn't the most devout Christian on the planet, but I was something. And my soul was my own.
Things came to a head when Beth and I attended an evening for interfaith couples at our temple. This time, when we entered that circle of folding chairs, we were the pair with a real problem. As if he could sense what was on our minds, our rabbi stressed the need for interfaith parents to choose one religion for their children. If, as a family, we tried to be both, he warned, our son was likely to end up as neither.
Though much of what the rabbi was saying was an echo of what I'd been hearing from my wife, the addition of those two words pulled me up short. This wasn't about Beth. It wasn't about me. It was about what was best for our son.
Digging in my heels over something as silly as a Christmas tree suddenly seemed incredibly dumb. Beth was clearly getting a lot out of reconnecting with Judaism, and all she wanted to do was share what she was experiencing with Levi. It was the same impulse that had moved her to make compromises she felt would bring me joy--such as welcoming a towering tannenbaum into the middle of her living room.
I began to realize that my summoning up of Christmases Past had mostly to do with reliving the handful of celebrations a year that provided my family with an excuse for togetherness. That's what I was really after: that feeling of connection. The rituals, the stories, the traditions of Judaism--these had mainly to do with daily life, not special occasions. Yet, they provided the same excuse for closeness. And they did it a lot more often.
I decided then and there to give up my tree. It was debatable as to whether or not having it in our home was truly confusing Levi, but it was definitely muddying the issue for his parents. And we needed to present a united front. So, I wrapped the ornaments I'd collected over the years into tissue paper and packed them into empty cookie tins. And I recycled our strings of twinkle bulbs into my annual Halloween display.
Once Beth and I decided, for real this time, with thought, feeling and commitment, to make a Jewish home, we stopped struggling. Beth loosened up. She became comfortable with us as an interfaith couple and no longer felt the need to make a show of her religious identity. And I felt like I had become a part of my own home.
Levi, Beth and I were finally creating our own unit by building memories around the rituals and traditions of Judaism. These memories are now every bit as precious to me as those I held of Christmas.
• Levi's excitement at attending his first toddler Sabbath service, where he had so much fun, he asked if we could go to another temple the same night.
• The sound of his 6-year-old giggle mingling with those of his cousins as they hunted for the afikomen.
• The way his hoarse adolescent chuckle joined with the adults at his Uncle Jon's exclamations (repeated verbatim at every holiday meal) about Grandma Carol's brisket.
Yeah, there used to be a Christmas tree lot just down the street from where we live. But, a couple of years ago someone bought the lot and in its place they built a home. A beautiful new home.