January 11, 2009
A year ago, I told my then 4-year-old that his father is not Jewish. As the co-chair of our synagogue's Interfaith Moms group and vice-chair of the outreach committee, I had participated in many interfaith parenting programs. I thought that if I used these ideas, the conversation would be easy.
My son and I were leaving the mall after seeing a model train exhibit. He looked at the Christmas decorations and mentioned he was excited for the holiday. Feeling that this was a good opportunity to explain the concept of an anthropological Christmas, I reminded Sammy that we are Jewish and Christmas is not a Jewish holiday. "We don’t celebrate Christmas," I said. "We help Amah and Papa celebrate." I had no intention of discussing my husband's religious identity.
"Mommy, I know Christmas is not a Jewish holiday, but we celebrate it and we're Jewish."
I heard myself say, "Well, Daddy isn't Jewish. He's Christian like Amah and Papa."
My son dropped to the floor in tears. I scooped him up and told him that I was sorry he was upset. "Daddy loves us very much and because of his love he does everything Jewish even though he's not," I said. "He helps us celebrate all of our holidays and participates in all Jewish events. We are so lucky."
"I'm not lucky," Sammy said tearfully. "I don't want to be different from Daddy. I want to be the same."
"I'm sorry you feel that way," I said. "When we help people we love celebrate it makes them feel good. It's like going to a birthday party. It's not our birthday but we go to the party, have fun and get a thank you gift."
"I don't want to be a helper. I want to be like Daddy," he sobbed.
When we got home Sammy watched a TV show. I thought that the worst had passed and was hoping we could have a calmer discussion that evening. Ironically, the episode he watched was about how one of the characters is different from his friends. Sammy said, "I have the same problem. I'm different, just like Pig." The story goes on to teach that being different can be special and how to feel good about yourself. As the show ended, Sammy said, "the difference between Pig and me is that he likes being different. I don't."
My husband and I have worked hard to build a strong Jewish identity in our son. He attends Jewish pre-school; we celebrate all Jewish holidays in our home and participate in temple events. I was upset by the conversation and feared that my son saw being Christian as more fun.
I talked to my husband about the situation. He pointed out that the Christmas piece of the discussion had a part in Sammy"s reaction. He said, "Sammy seems to think being a helper is second rate, that he's not part of the celebration. When I think about the Jewish holidays, I don't think of myself as 'helping,' I think of myself as an equal participant. We celebrate holidays and special occasions together as a family. While Christmas is not part of Judaism, my family's celebration is secular with a focus on family. Maybe it’s enough that Sammy knows that I’m not Jewish, and that Christmas is not a Jewish holiday but a holiday we celebrate as part of our family. There will be plenty of time for Sammy to learn why Christmas isn't a Jewish holiday and its religious significance to Christians."
After dinner, I tried my husband's approach. "You're right," I said. "We are all 'celebrators.' Even though we're Jewish and Daddy is not, we do celebrate all holidays as a family." Sammy said, "See Mommy, I told you none of us are helpers.”"
A few days later, I looked for the good in the discussion. I was relieved that Sammy knew my husband was Christian. While not a secret, it had not been shared. I was glad it was out in the open.
I learned that not all guidance on how to handle interfaith conversations fits every situation. Sometimes you need to adjust your approach based on your own circumstances and child’s age.
I was reminded that timing is everything. Four o'clock in the afternoon in a mall full of holiday cheer was not the time to have a discussion about Christmas or my husband's religion.
Lastly, I learned not to worry about sharing all information at once. A more detailed discussion of religious differences can happen over time, as a child asks questions; is old enough to have a more nuanced understanding or situations present themselves.
Now that Sammy knew his father wasn't Jewish he wanted to know who was Jewish and who was not. He learned that many of his friends have a parent that isn't Jewish. He liked that he wasn't the only one.
A month later, Sammy questioned me about my husband's religious identity, "Mommy are you sure Daddy's not Jewish?"
"Yes," I said.
"I'm not so sure," he responded. "He does EVERYTHING Jewish."
"I'm sure," I answered. "We're very lucky to have him."
"It's okay to say you don't know if you don't know."
"You're right," I said. "But, I know and I know he loves his Jewish family very much."