Going Nuclear

By Michael Brent


For Melanie and me having twins was a monumental change. Most of the changes had to do with our lifestyle. We were DINKS (double income, no kids). We lived in a suburb of a major metropolitan area and enjoyed concerts, travel and the freedom to do things spontaneously. Now we were a classic nuclear family. But for us, the impact of our twin girls on interfaith issues occurred not when they were born but later as they grew.

Like many Americans, we connected only minimally with organized religion when the girls were born. As an interfaith family, we had defined a set of celebrations that was a hodgepodge of what we had done with our individual families as we grew up. This amalgam developed over the 11 years of our marriage before we had children. My background was Reform Judaism. Melanie brought a uniquely American version of Christianity–Christmas and Easter observed secularly, focusing on family, food, and presents for Christmas, and egg hunts, baskets and pretty spring hats for Easter. It was Christianity without Jesus.

Melanie and I had been married in a Jewish ceremony by the rabbi from the congregation I went to as a child. We celebrated the High Holidays most but not all years as “freelancers,” usually going to Hillel or similar community-sponsored services based on my connections at the time with various university and college communities. We celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with college friends who were also Jewish. We celebrated Christmas with Melanie’s parents most years, usually at their house but occasionally at ours.

As we shared our holidays with each other, they became part of our interfaith family. We found our own comfortable combined observance; for example, in our house, the holidays did not co-mingle–Christmas would be in the living room while Hanukkah was in the family room. We enjoyed celebrating these holidays as an interfaith couple. Melanie enjoyed the rituals that came with the High Holidays and Passover. I enjoyed the way Melanie’s family came together to share Christmas.

We were comfortable with where we were religiously and when the girls arrived, religion was one of the few areas where there were no significant changes. Although we had expected to have a brit (circumcision) if we had a boy, we didn’t do any special religious ceremonies, either Jewish or Christian, for the girls. We looked into joining the local Reform temple but rejected it as too expensive. We had our usual Passover Seder. We missed High Holiday Services that year. Things started to change a week prior to the girls’ first Christmas, a month before their first birthday, when Melanie’s mother, Sharon, passed away unexpectedly.

Sharon always prepared for Christmas well in advance. That Christmas was no exception. Here was a joyous family celebration prepared, missing a significant member of the family. But even with her absence, or maybe because of her not being there, we found strong significance in the family message being sent by the holiday. It became extra important to provide this Christmas celebration for our children, to connect them with their roots on their mother’s side of the family. Christmas’s significance grew in our house for the next several years although still without religious content stronger than “A Charlie Brown Christmas” TV special.

When the girls were 18 months old, they started going to daycare. We were one of the few Jewish families at the center. Private daycare centers do not confront the restrictions that a public facility faces when observing Christian holidays. So at the girls’ daycare they had decorating, singing and celebrations for Christmas and Easter. To their credit, this center recognized Hanukkah by including some decorations and a song with the Christmas celebration, although it wasn’t clear if they understood Hanukkah’s meaning and difference from Christmas.

We were again comfortable with the level, style, and content of religion in our family. And once again it was the death of a parent that led us to examine our comfort level. The health of Melanie’s father, Paul, had been deteriorating since Sharon’s death. Paul’s death nonetheless was sudden and unexpected. In the months that followed his passing, we reflected on what kind of community we wanted to provide our children now that significant members of our family had passed away. We felt that a religious community would offer more comfort than a purely social community. We had little discussion of joining a church since that had not been part of Melanie’s upbringing and it wasn’t in her mindset. Melanie had grown comfortable, however, in a Jewish religious setting as part of our marriage. We, therefore, joined the local Reform temple.

We felt warmly welcomed into the temple community as an interfaith family. Our daughters started going to the temple’s daycare with the obvious different and increased religious emphasis. We felt comfortable with the lessons the girls were learning, and the exposure to Jewish rituals at this time in our daughters’ lives snowballed into greater and greater Jewish observances. They now go to a community Jewish day school, increasing still the influence of their Jewish heritage. The school leased space from our temple and we watched it on a daily basis during the year before the girls entered kindergarten. In the community Jewish day school, we found another where our children would learn a foreign language and lessons on morality and ethical behavior.

But rather than losing our Christian observances, they also became more ritualized. We purchased an artificial tree, marking not only the permanence of our family’s Christmas observance but also setting the level of celebration. New next-door neighbors invited us to become part of their large extended family for Easter, creating a new annual tradition. One of my daughters proudly proclaims that our family’s Christmas observance is her favorite holiday. Both daughters love our Easter rituals. If you ask them if they are Christian or Jewish, they will tell you, “We are special because we have Christmas and Easter the way our mother did when she was a little girl, but we, and our entire family including our mom [who has not converted], are Jewish.” This is how they see our family.

The rabbi who married Melanie and me recommended we provide any children we had with some sort of faith-based beliefs. Rabbi Sherwood’s preference was Judaism, but in his view, even other faiths would be superior to none. In the end, the children piloted the direction of our interfaith family’s religious observances and helped create the framework within which we celebrate our religious beliefs today.



About Michael Brent

Michael Brent is a stay-at-home dad. He and Melanie have been married for 22 years and have twin daughters in the fifth grade at the Contra Costa Jewish Day School. He lives in Lafayette, Calif., where he is an active participant at Temple Isaiah.