Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
If I Can't Play Santa Claus, at Least I Can Be the Tooth Fairy: What I Need for Myself as the Christian Member of the Family
Yesterday, my five-year old daughter Gabby lost her first tooth. Actually, it was her first two teeth. They were getting crowded out by two newly erupted adult teeth and needed to be pulled. The dentist was having a two-for-one sale, so we yanked 'em.
After the tears were dried and the Popsicles slurped, I suddenly and delightedly realized, "Hey, the Tooth Fairy's got to come tonight." I explained to Gabby how the whole thing works. "You put your teeth into this little box and put it under your pillow. While you're sleeping, the Tooth Fairy comes into your room and exchanges the teeth for money."
Together, Gabby and I put the teeth into the special silver box my mother gave her. We delicately hid it under her pillow as I tucked her in. Later that night, while she slept, I tip-toed into the room, searched for the box, finally found it underneath her Pooh Bear, took the teeth out, put the cash in, and crept out the door, banging my ankle on the doll house and nearly ruining the whole effort. As I closed the door and stood there in the hallway with my wife Bonnie, a big grin came over my face.
"You know," I said, "this is a major milestone for us as parents. It's our first time playing Tooth Fairy. It's just like playing Santa Claus--all the make believe and sneaking around at night."
Then, as soon as it had come, my smile went away. "Oh, wait a minute. I don't get to play Santa Claus," I thought sadly. As a Protestant dad raising a Jewish family, my wife and kids help me celebrate my holidays, and I help them celebrate theirs. We have a great time doing it, too. But, we maintain a strong distinction between our two different religions. We do this to avoid confusing the kids (and ourselves, sometimes). I observe the Christmas holiday, not Hanukkah. My wife and daughters celebrate Hanukkah, not Christmas. We help each other with our respective celebrations.
After experiencing the fun of being the Tooth Fairy (no, I didn't dress up in a tutu), it dawned on me that, for the last five years, I had been denied the opportunity to play Santa for my kids. They don't celebrate Christmas, so I've always given them Hanukkah presents during the eight days of the holiday. There really isn't a "Hanukkah Harry" to dress up as, so I haven't had the thrill of delivering presents in the middle of the night.
However, the arrangement in our family, I reminded myself, works. I wouldn't want to change a thing--especially just so that I could fill stockings at midnight. Upon further reflection, I felt pretty happy about the course Bonnie and I had set for our family. Fortunately, I could now get my stealthy magical character fix from playing the role of the Tooth Fairy.
As the only Christian in our family, I've come to realize that I have certain needs, too. It's always a tricky line to walk to make sure that I fulfill those needs and not undermine what my wife and I have worked so hard to achieve for our family. I could be real demanding and insist that we all celebrate Christmas and Easter exactly as I did as a kid, but where would that get me? I suppose it'd get me a one-way ticket to resentmentville.
Raising a family, just like the marriage itself, is full of compromises. I care deeply that my wife and daughters' needs are met. I make sure that I deliver a consistent message about their Jewish identity. I enjoy helping Bonnie teach them about Judaism, the culture and the religion. At the same time, I also feel, in an unselfish way, that it is important to meet a few needs of my own. After all, it works both ways. I don't want to build up resentment, year after year, until I'm seventy, when I suddenly become a bitter old man. But I digress.
I do have my short list of things about being Protestant that are important to me. Bonnie knows how sincere I am in nurturing a Jewish household, and she, in return, makes sure to take care of my needs. During Christmas, I have a tree--right there in the family room. I know some people have difficulty fitting such a strong symbol into their family dynamics. However, it works well in our situation. Everyone in our house knows that this is Daddy's tree. Bonnie and the girls help me decorate it, but they know they are Jewish, and Hanukkah is their holiday. They do not celebrate both. Because of this arrangement, I feel less uptight about teaching my daughters a few things about my religion and culture. Having the Christmas tree in our home brings back a lot of happy childhood memories. Not having it would be a mistake. Being an interfaith family doesn't mean we have to sterilize the house of one of our religions. The last thing in the world I want to feel is that I can't celebrate my own holidays.
While the Christmas tree is often one of the biggest hot-button issues of interfaith families, to me it is not the most important. First of all, it matters more to my family what we do the other 364 days of the year to teach our daughters about being Jewish. Second, it matters more to me that I work on being a good Christian every day of the year. For instance, I enjoy accompanying Bonnie and the girls to temple. In addition, on Sundays and the Christian holidays, I like to go to my church. It's part of being Protestant. Occasionally, and especially on Christmas, I like for my wife and daughters to come with me. This is not because I want them to listen to the sermon and hopefully convert. I just like their company. There's nothing better than having your family around when something is important to you.
Fortunately for me, I have that support from my family. I know this is the biggest gift of all that they can give me. As the only non-Jew in the family, I sometimes wonder if I'll feel lonely, out of place, or even sheepish about observing my own religion. Because Bonnie and I try so hard to accommodate each other's needs when going about our daily lives, I've managed to feel rather fulfilled.
At 6 a.m. this morning, Gabby came running into our bedroom, jumped on top of us, and yelled, "The Tooth Fairy came! The Tooth Fairy came!" As she threw her pint-sized bear hug around my neck, I was reminded once more that, yes, my biggest needs are indeed being met.
Jim Keen is a freelance writer, best known for his works dealing with interfaith relationships. He is a principle contributor to the book, The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.