Interfaith Hanukkah

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When I moved in with my husband-to-be, Christmas and Hanukkah were not big issues. The man I loved was a deeply religious Protestant minister who, after ten years as a college chaplain, was running a not-for-profit theater when we met. I was a typical non-practicing Reform Jew: after Confirmation (girls were not Bat Mitzvah in the 1960s) I taught religious school for several years, but had not entered a temple since college. My husband and I celebrated Christmas with a tree and a visit to his family in North Carolina. Because I loved the lights of the candles, I bought a tiny menorah for our first Hanukkah together.

Like so many other inactive Jews, I felt a need to link to my religious heritage when we began planning our marriage ceremony. The great Reverend William Sloane Coffin, with whom my fiancé had worked at both Yale University and Riverside Church in Manhattan, performed our wedding ceremony. Assisting Coffin was a Methodist minister, Reverend Arthur Brandenberg, who called up his years of Hebrew study in seminary to read the traditional Jewish blessings. We had two reverends because in 1982 we couldn’t find a rabbi who would perform an interfaith marriage. One Jewish cleric agreed to help us explore some of the ritual, but informed us that interfaith marriage had been proven not to work. I thought of writing to him last spring, when we celebrated our twenty-third wedding anniversary and twenty-eighth year of living together.

Hanukkah and Christmas became more significant with the birth of our only child after a six-year battle with infertility. How were we going to bring him up as an interfaith kid? I wanted our son to have a base in Judaism. I also wanted him to know and respect his father’s religious beliefs. Yet as a psychotherapist in New York City, I was aware that many of my colleagues believed that children growing up with a mixed religious background could become confused and feel ungrounded.

While my husband wanted him to know about Christianity, as well, he said, “there’s nothing in your tradition that I don’t believe in.” I started taking our son to Jewish activities in the city. Tiny Talmudim, Torah for Tots. We went to children’s services for Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Sukkot, Simchat Torah. My generous partner accompanied me to Friday nights at Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations. Having always found joy and solace in his own religion, he was thrilled that I was connecting to my own.

Still, I couldn’t find a temple with which I felt comfortable. Most seemed too dogmatic, and the few that were not appeared to have no structure at all. I wanted tradition without rigidity. Having just about given up, I started attending services at a then tiny congregation in the Berkshires where we had recently purchased a small weekend house. Twenty worshipers met in the office of a local lawyer. The young woman rabbi offered beautiful ritual with warmth. I felt as though I had come home to something I had never even known. When we prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel, tears filled my eyes.

Preparing to send our five year old to their burgeoning religious school, I told the polite voice at the other end of the phone, “I have to know one thing. He’s the child of an interfaith couple, and it’s very important to both of us that his father’s religion be respected. I grew up with the idea that it’s sacrilegious for Jews to have a Christmas tree; but in our house, not only will there be a tree, but we’ll go to Christmas and Easter and other services as a family. I need to know that his teachers and the rabbi will be able to accept and respect that before I will send him.”

There was silence at the other end of the phone. I was preparing myself for rejection when the woman said, “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that it’s a requirement for a kid to be from an interfaith family to attend our religious school, but the majority of our students are. And yes. We value all faiths here.”

It is now eleven years later. My husband, who continues to practice his own religion, is also an important and active member of our congregation. For a while our son attended Sunday school at his dad’s church, but with much thoughtful discussion decided to focus his religious education on Judaism. Valuing his father’s beliefs, he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and is now in his third year as a “young teacher” at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, the tiny shul where we started, now a large, dynamic congregation with its own building. He takes pride in his Russian and German Jewish and Scottish and Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage and questions the rhetoric of all religious groups.

Recently our son said he was thinking about becoming Buddhist. He dislikes that Hanukkah celebrates war between people with different beliefs, but he participates in the lighting of candles in hanukkiah (Hanukkah candelabra) collected and made by our family in the past sixteen years, just as he hangs our collection of ornaments on the Christmas tree each year. My husband and I are immensely proud of his ability to respect multiple perspectives and beliefs. If only world leaders had the same capacity.

Maybe we need an interfaith kid for our next president.