Christmas Complications

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Alexandra goes to a Jewish pre-school five days a week, plus religious school at the synagogue on Saturdays. She says motzi (blessing for a meal) before dinner, tells our obnoxious Jack Russell terrier to “sheket b’vakasha” (please be quiet) and knows every song from The Prince of Egypt by heart.

Alexandra is a Jew.

Alexandra–we call her Alex–also goes to church with her grandparents, especially on Christmas Eve. She confuses Jesus with Moses, wants to get her picture taken with Santa Claus and knows every song from Frosty the Snowman by heart.

Alex is a Jew–with complications.

Before my wife and I had Alex, we decided to raise our children Jewish. Christine is Christian (no surprise), and while she believes in Jesus and doesn’t wish to convert, she has embraced Jewish life and culture in a way my family never did. She’s active in our havurah (informal group that worships and studies together), designs the synagogue newsletter and attends Shabbat (Sabbath) services. Thanks to Christine, Alexandra has a real Jewish home.

The only thing “Jewish” I had growing up was a Bar Mitzvah (ceremony in which a person assumes the obligations and privileges of an adult Jew), and that was just so I could get the first Atari video game system on my block. I’m trying to make up for that now, through Alex.

Because of Alex, I found my faith again. My first step was joining a havurah of interfaith couples, all with young children. Initially I thought this would help Alex connect with her Jewish heritage–but it also helped me more than I imagined.

Through our havurah, I learned that it’s okay to embrace religion and pass it on to your kids, that it’s okay to be a Jew and raise Jewish children. And I found other interfaith couples who believe that Jewish law doesn’t need to be absolute, that there is room in our religious community for Jews like my daughter, who have a non-Jewish mother.

I like going to services now–okay, I admit, I mostly go to the children’s services, which are only thirty minutes, but I also go to High Holiday services and fast on Yom Kippur. I read Jewish books and history. I’m on a journey, and my daughter is leading the way.

But the question remains: In rediscovering my Judaism, am I “making” Alex Jewish?

This isn’t about lineage–I don’t believe that mothers carry all the religious and cultural genes. Alex is a Jew because I am, because that is how she is being raised and taught. Nevertheless, she is different, I can’t deny that. The problem is, I don’t necessarily want to encourage the differences.

Alex’s grandparents–Christine’s mom and dad–respect how we are raising our daughter, albeit primarily from a moral perspective rather than a religious one. My mom is ecstatic that we decided to raise Alex as a Jew–she’s never said anything, but when I first told her four years ago, she let out a huge sigh, as if our decision freed her from a life of agony. My dad, who died when I was very young, was a Conservative Jew who was active in our synagogue. I think my mom’s sigh of relief was as much for him as for herself.

Everyone seems to be on the same page, but I still cringe when Christine’s parents take Alex to the Crystal Cathedral during their visits from Missouri (my wife often joins them, though I always find some excuse for not going). I sometimes wonder if believing in Santa and singing Christmas carols will confuse her as she gets older. And then there was that time when she repeated her grandpa and grandma’s blessing asking Jesus to join them at dinner. She doesn’t know who Jesus is, other than that he looks an awful lot like Moses, but I suppose the “Jesus” discussion will come soon enough.

I know she’s just a kid, not even in kindergarten. I know I shouldn’t worry about any of this now. Yet I’m concerned because her grandmother thinks Alex won’t get into heaven because she’s Jewish (we’ve told her not to share her feelings with Alex, but who knows how long that will last). I can’t help but wonder whether Alex’s relationship with Christine’s side of the family will cause her to question her identity. And I’m frustrated, anxious, concerned and afraid, because I know that, in the end, I can’t do a thing about any of it.

Am I making Alex a Jew? No, I’m not. Alex is a Jew. But perhaps I need to let Alex be a Jew and experience what that means for herself. Maybe then she won’t fear Judaism or hide from it as I did, but rather embrace and enjoy it.

I can’t unmake what Alex is, who her relatives are, or how she spends Christmas Eve. Nor would I want to–I love the whole package, not just the part that makes challah (bread) on Fridays.

She may become more or less religious as she gets older. She may convert to Christianity or Islam, join a cult or meditate at a Buddhist temple. She will have her own life and make her own decisions; I accept that.

And I also accept that, no matter what, Alex and I will always be connected by Judaism–complications and all.

(c) 2002 Gary Goldhammer