Creating Holiday Traditions for Your Family

By Dr. Ruth Nemzoff


Holidays are times of joy and stress. Memories are made; fantasies are not fulfilled. This is true whether or not your children have married out of your faith.

When you are Jewish and some of your family members are not, the differences that you have spent the year minimizing may come out in full technicolor.

The emotional rhythm of the year may differ for people of different backgrounds. For Jewish family members, September may bring the excitement and anticipation of the holidays. Initially, this may not be true for those from other faiths. However, because family meals are universal, inviting in-laws and their families to join in the holiday meals can serve to focus on the commonalities of your traditions. Overtime, these gatherings become a part of the year’s cycle of the extended family. They become familiar.

Those of us from interfaith families have the advantage of not having dual family obligations at all the Jewish holidays. It is up to us to make sure our children want to be with us by welcoming all their efforts and by sharing our love for Judaism without insisting that they adhere to our own way of observing. Of course, this also holds true for our family members who are Jewish.

In all families the holidays are more joyous when people appreciate each other’s efforts. Too often we focus on what others do not do for the holiday, such as not attend services. But our loved ones may be trying to help us celebrate in other ways. Just as the hagaddah, the book used during the Passover seder, suggests we answer the questions of all four sons, though they ask them in different ways, so we should try to appreciate the efforts of all our children, though they may celebrate our holidays in various ways. These celebrations may take the form of cooking, or of bringing the grandchildren to the festivities, of embroidering a challah cover, or of just asking questions. If we listen for their openness and try to enjoy what efforts are made, the results will be good for all.

In an effort to reach out to intermarried families and to help non-Jewish partners become more comfortable with the High Holidays, some synagogues have created “Learning Services” for the holiday. One such synagogue is Temple Emanuel of Newton, Massachusetts, which will offer a learners’ service on Rosh Hashanah morning. After a request by the interfaith outreach (Keruv) committee, the synagogue decided a learners’ service was a good idea not just for intermarried families, but for the whole congregation, since many Jewish members also needed to familiarize themselves with the service. While non-Jewish family members may choose not to attend, the opportunity to learn will be available for those who want to take advantage of it. Learning may feel different from worshipping to them, less threatening.

Creating warm family gatherings and encouraging your synagogue to help you educate your family members by creating a similar learning opportunity are some things you can do to ease the stress of holidays.


About Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, a resident scholar at Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center, is author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children and Don't Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family and she is an InterfaithFamily Board Member.