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Survey: Interfaith Families Raising Jewish Kids Can Negotiate Christmas

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 18, 2006 (JTA)--Judy and Curtis Carson light Chanukah candles in their Waxhaw, N.C., home. They also put up a tree--but not a Christmas tree, Judy insists.

"I don't think any religion has a corner on greenery," she says.

Judy is Jewish; Curtis is not. They're raising their 9-year-old son Jewish--religious school, synagogue, the works. But they also explain to him that Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa are not Jewish, and that doesn't seem to confuse him.

"We give each other small gifts for Chanukah, and he gets his big gifts on Christmas. He knows they're from daddy," Judy explains. "He knows what Christmas means, and he honors" his grandparents for celebrating it.

The Carsons' negotiation of the "December dilemma"--the tug of war between Chanukah and Christmas in intermarried households--reflects the findings of the third annual December Holidays survey by InterfaithFamily.com, a group that supports intermarried families making Jewish choices.

The survey suggests that marking both holidays in some way does not seem to affect the children's developing sense of Jewish identity.

The online survey was answered by 759 people, including 342 intermarried couples raising their children as Jews.

Within that group, 99 percent light Chanukah candles at home, 93 percent give Chanukah gifts and 63 percent tell the Chanukah story.

By contrast, while 44 percent decorate a Christmas tree and 51 percent give Christmas gifts at home-- activities the survey organizers call "secular"--just 5 percent tell the Christmas story and 18 percent attend Christmas services, two activities deemed "religious."

Yet 90 percent said they would not ask their non-Jewish relatives to refrain from giving Christmas gifts to the children. Most say it's a matter of respect for grandparents.

Survey organizers acknowledge that these results only reveal the holiday practices of a self-selecting group: intermarried families who are choosing Jewish paths for their children. But they say it indicates that these parents are able to raise their children as Jews while honoring the holiday traditions of the non-Jewish spouse, and can do so without confusing the children.

"The concept of the December dilemma is overblown," says Micah Sachs, InterfaithFamily.com's managing editor. "If you're making Jewish choices, there are good, healthy ways you can do these things, and it's not going to affect the kids' Jewish identities."

The key, says InterfaithFamily.com President Ed Case, is keeping Christmas celebrations secular, which 79 percent of respondents say they do.

Don't sweat the Christmas tree, he says. Times have changed.

"When I was growing up, Jewish identity was formed in opposition to Christmas. You don't see that anymore," he notes, adding that 75 percent of survey respondents believe their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children's Jewish identity.

Case's analysis of his survey runs counter to what other key Jewish education experts say.

"The fact that more than half" of respondents "have Christmas-related activities in the home is significant," says Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Jewish studies professor at Brandeis University.

She points to one result showing that a third of the Jewish parents who put up trees feel comfortable with it, while another third feel uncomfortable.

"There are competing narratives in the home," Fishman says.

Parents can raise their children as Jews despite such practices, she says, but "The question is, is this an effective strategy for creating Jewish adults who will create their own Jewish households?"

Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College, author of several studies on intermarried families, says those who minimize the impact of symbols like Christmas trees are deluding themselves.

"In intermarried homes that light Chanukah candles, just 32 percent are raising Jewish children when a tree is present. But when no tree is present, the Jewish child-rearing shoots up to a very respectable 73 percent," he says. "The moral is clear: For intermarried Jews to raise Jewish children, they need to celebrate Jewish holidays and avoid such symbols in the home as Christmas trees, even if they are interpreted neutrally."

InterfaithFamily.com doesn't advocate that intermarried families put up a Christmas tree, but says it's simply reality.

"Twenty years from now, there will be an awful lot of Jews who grew up having a Christmas tree in the home," Case says.

That's something the organized Jewish community might just have to get used to, some intermarried families suggest.

Cheryl Hemley, who is Catholic, and her husband Larry, who is Jewish, are raising their two young children in Thousand Oaks, Calif., as Jews. They belong to a synagogue and only celebrate Chanukah at home.

But the children receive Christmas gifts from her parents, "and we explain to our son, who is 6, as much as he can understand, that we honor Christmas" because of his grandparents, Cheryl Hemley says.

Kids get it, Hemley insists, and experts who worry that such practices will confuse children "don't know what they're talking about," unless they themselves are involved in an interfaith marriage.

"As long as you're honest with your children, and you explain things," she says, it doesn't have to be confusing.

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." 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. 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.
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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