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Raising My Kids Jewish, When I'm Protestant

When I was younger, I never even dreamed about the complications that I would have celebrating Christmas with my wife and kids. I naturally assumed that the holiday would be experienced exactly the way I grew up celebrating it--writing Santa a letter, maybe seeing him at the mall, learning about the story of Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph--the whole nine yards.

Don't get me wrong. As a boy, these aren't the things that tend to occupy your mind, but I did have these images somewhere in the back of my wee brain. But I was way off track.

In college I met a wonderful woman and married her. The one thing I never considered as a young daydreamer was that my future wife might be Jewish! Fortunately, the woman I married, Bonnie, was also a smart woman who made sure that she and I had a game plan for the future when we had kids. We worked hard on a plan for at least a couple of years and made sure it made sense to both of us before we got married. We knew that it would be very likely that details would change when our bundles of joy arrived, but at least we had a framework.

Today, Bonnie and I have two girls--a three and a half year old and a newborn. We felt it was important to raise them in one faith, but make sure they learn about the other (faith). We talked about these decisions a lot, and for a variety of reasons decided to raise our children within the Jewish faith. During Jewish holidays I "help" them celebrate their festivities. I go along to temple, build the sukkah ( wooden hut that Jews celebrate in during the holiday of Sukkot), and help teach them the blessings on Shabbat (the Sabbath). Yes, I've even learned some Hebrew!

In return, they help me celebrate my Christian holidays. For instance, they assist me in decorating "Daddy's tree," and go to church with me on Christmas Eve. It may just seem like semantics, but it's important to get our kids to grow up thinking in these terms. They are taught that they are Jewish, but that it's okay for them to learn about and have fun with my holidays.

The first Christmases with my older daughter went just fine. She wasn't old enough yet to comprehend what was going on. However, during this holiday season my wife and I quickly learned that things would be different. It started one day in November when, out of the blue, she began asking members of our family, both nuclear and extended, "Are you Jewish?" Okay, so she was starting to categorize things. It's cool, she does this with her stuffed animals: "These three are bears, these two are froggies," etc. In early December, however, she realized that her grandparents (to whose house we travel to celebrate Christmas) were Protestant. She started putting two and two together in an appropriate three-year-old way, and realized that it's the Christians--not the Jews--who celebrate this holiday with the tree and Santa. Well, this led to one big anxiety attack that she wasn't going to get ANY presents at Christmas this year. We calmed her anxiety by reminding her of all the nice Hanukkah presents that she had just received and how, in both holidays, it's much more important to give than to receive. Bonnie and I also explained to her that, as always, she will still get a couple of small presents on Christmas day.

Santa has probably been the greatest challenge that Bonnie and I have had in our parental game plan. Our strategy about Santa certainly has been the most revised. Each member of our family gives and receives some sort of present on Hanukkah and Christmas, no matter whose holiday it is. This is mainly to prevent someone from feeling left out. In addition, it's one more time we can teach the kids about the importance of giving, as well as receiving. Imagine being eight years old and watching your cousin of another religion amass great quantities of loot while you don't get diddly.

We also ask my parents to reinforce our philosophy. We want them to follow in step when 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." We have our children believing in Santa, for now, so they don't ruin the fun for their Protestant cousins. Now, this may seem awkward for some interfaith couples, and it's certainly not right for everyone. But, believe it or not, I think our family has made it through this holiday season relatively unscathed with our bi-religious family backgrounds still intact. Fortunately for us, all of our parents have been extremely understanding and supportive. The most important thing in parenting is not what plan you put forward, but your consistency in implementing it. Besides, as my wife's stepmom pointed out, we won't make or break our children's Jewish education at Christmas. What matters most is how we reinforce their Jewish identity and teach them to be a good person every day of the year.

Now, what to do about Ground Hog's Day ....

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. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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.
Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.
Jim Keen

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.

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