Jewish and A Little Bit Christmas

By Joanne Catz Hartman

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“I’m Jewish and a little bit Christmas,” my daughter’s preschool friend, David, explains when asked about his religion. My daughter, Natalie, could rightly answer the same way.

When my Catholic-raised husband and I were married by a Universalist (who happened to be married to a Jew), we sipped wine with our parents, smashed a glass, and felt we’d dealt with the “religion issue” in a way that satisfied both sides of the family. We celebrated Passover with mine and Christmas with his. Then we had a child.

Living in an area that is rich with diversity, we thought, “Why not take advantage of it, and show our child the many ways to be spiritual and the multitude of religions that exist here?” So we spent time at the San Francisco Zen Center, celebrated Chinese New Year in Chinatown, participated in Shabbat services at a temple where there were other interfaith families, and attended Christmas Mass with close friends. Yet, after this period of cultural and religious eavesdropping, I realized what we were doing was contributing to her religious confusion.

On Easter, my Jewish mother would bring Passover matzah, wrap it in a cloth napkin (the afikomen) and hide it in the garden, thoroughly confusing both the poor Easter bunny and my daughter. Great grandfather’s Kiddush cups made awfully good egg holders for those bright colored eggs to dry and be displayed. When my daughter opened her red Chinese New Year envelope and discovered gold chocolate coins inside, she exclaimed, “Hanukkah gelt!” And one winter when Christmas and Hanukkah almost overlapped, we really did trim the tree while the menorah candles burned brightly and Hanukkah songs played on our stereo. Now that she was a preschooler and becoming aware of traditions, I was, too. And the traditions my heart wanted for her were Jewish ones.

I was not a religiously confused child, but I was the only Jewish one in my entire elementary school. In the early 1970’s, before Christmas was cut from the school curriculum, no one questioned that I might feel uncomfortable singing about the little lord Jesus, but I did. The only menorah I ever saw was the one in our house and in the house of my relatives. In fact, few of my friends had ever heard of Hanukkah so my mother became the annual dreidel-teaching, menorah-lighting, Festival of Lights guest speaker. Although I was envied for having a present to open every night for a week, my not being able to celebrate Christmas was like not being allowed to eat the cake and ice cream at birthday parties. So, after much pleading, my parents reluctantly agreed to a Hanukkah bush, which meant sticking a few pine branches in our rubber tree’s pot and, the next year, adorning it with a non-denominational multi-colored paper chain. This hybrid botanical grew larger every year, eventually morphing into a ceiling-high, light-covered, tinsel-draped tree. It looked like any other Christmas tree on our block, except for the Star of David my mother insisted be placed at its top. It was, after all, still a Hanukkah bush.

Not all of our Jewish relatives saw it that way. We once dragged the tree into my brother’s room to hide it from my great aunt (who kept a kosher kitchen), vacuuming up stray tinsel to erase all trace of its path. She just wouldn’t have understood decorated evergreen in a Jewish home. After her visit, we pulled our illicit pine back out, repositioned it in the living room, and I played with my Hanukkah presents under the rainbow glow of multi-colored lights and shiny silver strands that tickled my hair.

What did I want for my daughter? For her not to feel so alone in the margins as I did growing up. She already had several friends from religiously blended families, and because of that, I thought she’d find camaraderie amongst pals who celebrated everything, or parts of everything, for whom religion wasn’t a one-word answer, but a composite of many. Noble thoughts, but entirely unrealistic; we didn’t know anyone who was “Jewolic”, or “Cathoish” or “Buddish.” By not choosing something we were treading water in a swirling current of religions, without a boat to claim our own.

We were ready to find a safe haven to climb aboard. But where? A friend forwarded an interfaith online newsletter describing a workshop at a temple nearby, hosted by a priest and a rabbi. I jumped. There were other couples struggling much more than we were, some playing virtual tug of war, others afraid that by picking one religion they’d be permanently shutting the door to the other. We all wanted to know how we could raise our children in a way where both parents felt comfortable. One idea I liked was that of keeping an ongoing dialogue on the similarities of the religions–the priest said that we’d find the differences between most of the religions to be far less than their similarities. Something the rabbi said sank in deep inside of me, that non-Jews raising their children Jewish are making the ultimate generous gift to the world. My maternal grandparents were Holocaust victims. My husband listened and lovingly said he understood. He had enjoyed the Jewish holidays and felt no strong pull to return to his Catholic roots. And his oldest sister had married a Jew, too.

We made more of an effort to get together with Jewish friends and when we were invited to seders and attended Sabbath dinners where we ate braided challah bread, I felt the pull back to Judaism, and a yearning to close the gap in my religious education. I could say the Hebrew blessing for lighting the candles at Hanukkah, but that was the extent of my Hebrew; I still referred to the cheat sheet to identify the sides of the dreidels. If I were to truly share my Jewish heritage, culture and religion with my husband and daughter, then I would also have to learn.

We spent an evening at the end of Hanukkah at one of our local temples. There were lots of latkes to eat and menorahs aglow. We sang and danced and spun dreidels and watched a puppet show. Then, family friends–she Israeli, he raised Christian–and their four daughters invited us to Rock and Roll Shabbat. There were electric guitars, a trombone, keyboard, percussion, and even though we didn’t know any of the words, we rocked along. “He’s not Jewish…, she’s just decided to convert…” our friends whispered reassuringly to my husband, as they pointed out the non-Jewish members among the congregation.

We are still visiting temples, talking with members who are interfaith, and deciding which one would be the best fit for us so Natalie might begin religious school next year. My husband and I will enroll in an Intro. to Judaism course with our friends. I’m excited about filling in the gaps in my religious education and being a part of a new community, having a place to celebrate and to learn. Sometimes, at services, I look around the faces of the congregation and see reflections of my grandmother, who’d spoken Yiddish and would like to know that one day her great granddaughter might understand a little, too.

On Christmas Eve I wanted to visit a Catholic church for a children’s Mass, for my husband, who had been so willing to spend time at temples, to honor his mother who had recently passed away, and to introduce Natalie to the story behind Christmas. My husband liked the idea and enjoyed the familiarity of some of the prayers. After the long night, on the way out of the church, as my husband held our tired daughter in his arms, she said, loudly enough for everyone behind us to hear, “Daddy, I really really liked the Hanukkah temple better!” My husband and I laughed–we’ll look at more participatory children’s Masses for Christmas Eve visits in the future. For now, I’m hoping that being Jewish and a little bit Christmas is a nice thing for her to be.

 





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About Joanne Catz Hartman

Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at jc_hartman@comcast.net.