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Mixing without Blending

July 2003

One day at lunch last December, my husband said, "Moshe wants to put blue and white lights on the Christmas tree, okay?"

"No," I blurted out, incredulous.

"But you know he and his mom are uncomfortable with Christmas."

I sat and stared at him, feeling angry but not knowing why. A little screaming me, not-so-deep-inside, was saying, "Unfair! Unfair!" The argument formed quickly and not too gently in my mind. But, but, but . . . we celebrated seder without Christian symbols. (We didn't celebrate Easter or Good Friday as a family because our children were with their other parents that weekend.) We had celebrated the High Holidays according to my husband's family traditions. We had delayed putting up the Christmas tree until after Hanukkah was over, and celebrated Hanukkah without reference to Christmas or Christianity. This was our first time to celebrate a Christian holiday as a family, and the biggie at that. And doggone it if we were going to wrap Christmas in Judaism after never having wrapped a Jewish holiday in Christianity. As the frustration waned, I thought, "Breathe. Breathe. Think . . . "

"No, I don't think we should do that. It would be like putting green and red Santa Claus candles in the menorah."

Now he was angry.

"But that's different."

"Why?"

That is the biggest question for us. Is it different? Does Judaism require or deserve greater protection to survive? Should the Christian members of our family qualify or compromise their practice in respect for the Jewish family members? Is this a necessity? Is this liberal guilt? The greater question of what was right and best for everyone was colored by our particular circumstances. Davi's mother wanted him far from our home during the entire holiday period. My husband wanted Moshe to be comfortable because he had been taught to resist Christmas. This was something that had a sensitive personal twist for us that required careful consideration.

My daughters and I hadn't resisted celebrating Jewish holidays. Their dad wasn't opposed or concerned about it. Maybe it was more abstract for us. My daughters and I have had statues of Buddha and Quan Yin, Kachinas, animal totems, Tibetan prayer bells, a menorah and a print of Raphael's Madonna in our home since the beginning.

For both my husband and me, the Christmas tree/menorah analogy had hit the mark. There was no further argument, but we both began to think carefully about these issues. We decided that Judaism didn't need, and wouldn't receive, any greater deference than Christianity in our home. Despite history, intolerance and cultural dominance, in our home we would be equal and neither faith would be the minority or majority faith. Let the outside world carry those weighty issues while our home would be a haven of equality. We want our children to have a quiet contentment and pride in being who they are, while living with just one of the many differences between people that they will encounter outside for the rest of their lives.

So, Hanukkah was Hanukkah and Christmas was Christmas, and we celebrated each purely. And thanks to this year's calendar, we were able to have a completely separate "integration holiday" between the two--for the winter solstice. Everyone from both families gathered to have a mixed holiday party on the shortest day of the year. There were blue lights and Hanukkah decorations with a Christmas tree and crackers on the plates. The solstice served well to unify the holidays of light and underscore that light is universally symbolic of hope, faith and truth when times are dark. The symbolism of light was important to our two cultures: "The darkest hour is before the dawn," and "Let's shine some light on this situation."

We had found the solution for our family. First, look at whether you would want to do what you are asking of the other person. Then, look at the underlying meanings. Why do we do this? What does it mean? Take pride in our differences. Take pride in our commonality. Respect and learn from both.

We remind ourselves that we are raising a family with two religious traditions, not a blend but a mixture. The fun of celebrating religion lies in the details, and the symbolism inherent in the details does not infringe upon any other practice. The anticipation inherent in lighting the first of eight candles and the brilliance of all eight in the darkened home teaches us that faith and hope is our miracle when hope seems lost. In much the same way, the sparkle of lights on the evergreen show us that hope and faith remain even in the darkest hour, the bleakest season. From the details come the illumination of the lessons, all equally brilliant.

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. 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.) Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Jane Telluride is a mother of two daughters.

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