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Solving December's "Dilemma": Authors Tackle Interfaith Issues

Azell Murphy Cavaan is a staff writer for The Boston Herald. This article is reprinted with permission of the author. It originally appeared in the Sunday, December 9, 2001 issue of The Boston Herald.

Every year when Edmund Case, a Reform Jew, travels to his in-laws for Christmas dinner, he's sure to have a fresh batch of potato latkes (a traditional Jewish dish of potato pancakes) and a menorah in tow.

"It's important to honor and respect traditions on both sides of the family," said Case, whose adult children were raised Jewish though his wife and in-laws are Christian.

"It's entirely possible for interfaith families to raise kids as Jews while still participating in non-Jewish relatives' holiday celebrations."

In his new book, The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life (Jewish Lights Publishing, November 2001), Case and his co-editor Ronnie Friedland lay out practical advice for Jewish and non-Jewish members of interfaith families who find themselves facing the so-called "December dilemma."

"Families wrestle with the idea of stringing Christmas lights or unpacking the menorahs," said Friedland, a Jew who was married to a Christian for 17 years. "We're trying to tell people the December dilemma can be handled successfully."

Friedland and Case edit an online publication called InterfaithFamily.com. Established three years ago, the Web site receives about 20,000 visitors per month, according to Case.

Their newly released book is a compilation of what they believe to be the best articles submitted to their online magazine.

"We thought it would be nice for families facing these issues to have a resource they could refer to without being tied to a computer," Friedland said.

In the book, parents, grandparents, children, dating and committed couples, Jews-by-Choice, extended family members, rabbis, cantors, family educators and outreach professionals offer interfaith families advice based on their firsthand experiences.

Under an entry entitled "Raising My Kids Jewish, When I'm Protestant," contributor Jim Keen, a freelance writer who has 15 years experience in an interfaith relationship, explains how he handles the delicate Santa issue with his children.

"We have our children believing in Santa for now, so they don't ruin it for their Protestant cousins. We tell our children that, 'Yes, Santa brings you a couple of presents, but they are late Hanukkah presents because he knows you're Jewish.'"

Other excerpts in the book tackle such hard-hitting issues as weddings, conversion, death and mourning, extended family relationships, baby ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, stepparenting and grandparenting.

"What I love about the book is the fact that people are talking about their own experiences," Case said. "They're giving advice based on what has worked for them."

While statistics on interfaith marriages are hard to come by, spiritual leaders agree the numbers are growing and estimates range as high as 40,000 interfaith marriages per year.

Some Jewish leaders continue to frown on the practice, saying it is a threat to the future of the Jewish people. Friedland disagrees. An ability to cope with change is crucial to the future of the faith, she says. "In the past, religious groups didn't interact. But now that people are open and becoming friends with people of different racial and religious backgrounds, we must learn to be accepting of our own traditions while accepting other cultural traditions as well."

Rena Mello and Eric Lippman, who live in Newton, are among the increasing number of American couples involved in interfaith marriages. He is Jewish and she was raised Catholic. Together, they decided they would raise their 2-year-old son in the Jewish tradition.

"We thought that if we raised him participating in both religions, he wouldn't have a strong sense of belonging to either," said Mello, who plans to take Judaism classes with her husband in the near future.

While Mello and Lippman light the menorah for Hanukkah and share a Shabbat dinner most Friday nights, they also get a taste of Christianity when they visit Mello's family on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.

"The baby even gets presents from my side of the family on Christmas," Mello said. "So he'll still have the fun side of Christmas."

The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life is available at bookstores or directly from Jewish Lights Publishing at 800-962-4544

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. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") 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. Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

Azell Murphy Cavaan is a staff writer for The Boston Herald.

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