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Supporting Our Partners: Shifting Perceptions of Raising Jewish Kids

May 17, 2013

Once upon a time, I had a Christmas tree. It was the year my husband and I shared a house with another couple. I, the only Jew and the only one who had never had a Christmas tree, was glad to join the festivities. We bought a widespread white pine and spent days decorating it with home-made things — strings of popcorn, cut-out snowflakes, colored balls. Christmas day, though, we went our separate ways — Anne and Ivan to their families in Boston, my husband and I to his family in Montreal. We went every year. It was one thing I had promised before we married: Christmas with his family, celebrating their holiday.

What does it mean to raise Jewish kids?

When our daughter was born, we agreed to raise her Jewish. To me, this meant joining a synagogue, having a bat mitzvah and confirmation, and no Christmas tree in our home. We continued our tradition of going to Montreal.

In 2007, our daughter married a woman who grew up in a devoutly Catholic family where Christmas and Easter were the most important spiritual and familial holidays. They agreed, though, to raise any children as Jews. For a few years, my daughter-in-law went home to Chicago for Christmas or came with us to Montreal. Then my granddaughter was born. That Christmas, they decided to stay home and, to my surprise, began their own tradition of celebrating Christmas with a tree in their home and going to church.

My recollection — which I'm sure differs from my daughter's — is that from the time they said they were having a Christmas tree, I tried to be supportive. I said, "Of course you have to have a tree; you have to support your partner." I even said we'd stay home and celebrate with them, thought they encouraged us to go to Montreal, which we did. Now they've had their second Christmas at home, and my husband and I have again gone to Montreal.

When my husband read an early draft of this essay, he asked, "Why doesn't her partner have to support our daughter? After all, they agreed to raise children as Jews."

Yes, I thought, he has a point. And I began to wonder... What does it mean to raise a Jewish child? For one friend, it's nothing more than living in a Jewish neighborhood. For another, it's keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and the holidays, and sending her children to a Jewish day school. For another, it's supporting Israel. There isn't one way to be or do Jewish; where or how should a Christmas tree fit in, if at all?

It pains me to see the photo of my granddaughter, her face aglow with happiness by the light of the Christmas tree in their home. And when my daughter told me how my granddaughter sat so quietly through the Christmas mass, in all honesty, a piece of my heart cracked. When they told me they were going to Easter services, then my heart really broke.

When I hear all the dismal news about intermarriage and how Jews don't affiliate with a synagogue or with Israel, I get scared. Almost all of my daughter's friends are intermarried; most if not all celebrate Christmas with trees, and very few are affiliated with a temple. I wonder not only what it means to raise a Jewish child, but what it means to be Jewish.

As I write this, I'm shaking my head in bewilderment, wondering how I moved so quickly from denying my husband a tree to telling my daughter she had to support her partner? But how can I not support my daughter in her choices? I have to trust her to do what's best for her and her family. I tell myself that every generation worries about changes. I tell myself that Judaism has succeeded all these millennium because it adapts, and this is another adaptation. I support my daughter and her family in their choices, yet I'm scared and sad.

Trusting in the future is hard, but I try to have faith that love, support, and communication will sustain us. What Judaism will be — if and how Judaism will exist — in the future, I can't say, but tonight I can gather with my daughter, family, and friends who have begun a havurah. Almost all of us are in interfaith relationships. Together we celebrate — at least once a month — the Sabbath, a grounding that helps us navigate through this new world.

In Judaism, this refers to a ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. In Christianity, confirmation is either considered a sacrament or a rite ceremonially performed in a church. In some denominations and churches, confirmation is understood as bestowing the Holy Spirit. In others it signifies entering adulthood. In still others, it results in church membership. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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." Hebrew for "fellowship," a lay-led group that meets for Shabbat or holiday prayer services, life cycle events, and/or Jewish learning or discussion. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. 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. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Edie Mueller

Edie Mueller has retired from teaching Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. To fill her free time, she has worked with the clergy of Temple Israel, Boston, to create new liturgy and services for the Days of Awe. She has also colored a pink streak in her white hair, and begun making jewelry under the name All That Glitters.

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