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Turning the Dilemma into a Tradition

Republished: November 15, 2010

Working in a synagogue education department, I am constantly asked by other parents what my family does in our home during the winter holiday season: Do we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas? Do we have a tree? Do we let the children get presents from Santa? Do we try to shelter our children and pretend we aren't affected by the megalomania of Christmas in America? Every parent who asks me (or anyone else) these kinds of questions is looking for reassurance that what they themselves are doing is okay. My answer is always this: we don't allow the "December dilemma" to overshadow our family's lives--in December or any other time of year.  

Alex and Ben are our sons. They are Jewish. There was never a question of how they would be raised. Greg and I discussed this long and hard years before we were even engaged, back in the day when children were still theoretical. Our children would be Jewish automatically through matrilineage, and the only religious instruction they would receive would be in Judaism. In fact, Alex is finishing first grade at a day school.

When it comes to winter holidays, we don't run into problems of whether or not to have a tree. We have a tree. What is a very real worry is what we'll do when the day comes--and it will come--that Alex asks why we have a Christmas tree if we're Jewish. This goes beyond the traditional December dilemma. We have the responsibility to instill in our children a strong Jewish identity, both in and out of our home. But we also have a responsibility to make the children understand that Daddy's family isn't Jewish, and they have traditions and holidays, too. Their non-Jewish traditions are no less important than our Jewish ones, and the one tradition that is important to Daddy is the Christmas tree and the family gatherings around the holiday.

Unlike me, whose grandparents lived 3,000 miles away on the East Coast, Greg grew up with his family all in the same town. Overnights at grandparents' homes were commonplace events. An impromptu dinner quickly became a party as the family grew. Christmas was the biggest party of all for the family--the time to pull out all the stops and all the food; the time for emotional highs and lows, for in-fighting and for in-jokes, for just gathering together and taking the time to appreciate the people around you. That was very important to Greg, especially after divorces and remarriages changed the dynamics of his family. Regardless of what went on during the rest of the year, he knew that Christmas was a constant--a time of security.

That was all Greg asked for in our many discussions about our children, our home and our family. He wanted our boys to appreciate the traditions from both sides of the family without necessarily identifying with anything outright Christian. I have spent seventeen Christmases with Greg's family. My parents have joined us on many occasions, especially when Hanukkah and Christmas have overlapped. Believe it or not, latkes fit right in on a smorgasbord table. Greg's mother's house on Christmas Eve is not so very different from my mother's house on Passover. While my mother-in-law has Swedish meatballs, pickled herring and her grandmother's Advent calendar, my mother has matzah balls, gefilte fish and the Maxwell House hagaddah.

These are traditions--important family traditions--constant, secure and something we want to pass on to our children. As we see it, our job is to make our family's Jewish identity so natural, so much a part of us, that it's not threatened by the presence of a Grand Fir in our living room for one month out of the year.



Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. 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." Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover.
Jemi Kostiner Mansfield

Jemi Kostiner Mansfield is a native of the Pacific Northwest, born in Seattle and raised in Portland. Since 1992, she has worked at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon, currently serving as education and life cycle administrator. With sons Alex and Ben, Jemi and her husband Greg live in Beaverton, less than two miles in either direction from their parents and childhood homes.

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