Interfaith Children: Born This Way

I often wonder if people who are not born into interfaith families can ever truly understand, on the gut level, the positive aspects of growing up in an interfaith family. Whether we grow up practicing one religion, two religions, or no religions, as interfaith children we are nourished by parents who model the art of communication, respect for the other, and love that transcends boundaries. And often, in December, that communication and respect and transcendence involve Christmas trees.

This week, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, a blogger for The Jewish Daily Forward, wrote a post in the form of a letter addressed to me, entitled “Interfaith Mom is Wrong About Chrismukkah.” She was responding to the recent Huffington Post piece in which I explain why my interfaith family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. I respect Debra’s point of view that children being raised Jewish should not celebrate Christmas in any form. I do not believe that strategy will work for every interfaith family, not even for every interfaith family raising Jewish children, but it is a point of view that has gotten a lot of play this season.

It was interesting (and, of course, for me, heartening) to note the backlash in her post’s comment section, and on twitter, mainly from adult interfaith children, many of them with strong Jewish identities, who took great exception to the tone (and to some extent, the content) of her column.

Since Ms. Cohen has initiated a sort of virtual correspondence with me, I guess I should write back and clarify a few points:

Dear Debra Nussbaum Cohen,

I am puzzled by the headline of your story, since my family does not celebrate “Chrismukkah” or any other “mash-up” holiday. I know, as a journalist, that sometimes editors write the headlines, so maybe that wasn’t your fault. But let me respond to some of your specific concerns:

1. You write that Christianity was a radical departure from “Judaism’s basic tenets.” Many of us who have studied both religions simply don’t see it that way. I see the basic tenets of both religions as monotheism, love, and social justice. The prophet Micah, Rabbi Hillel and Jesus all seem to agree on this one. Who am I to disagree?

2. You write of the irony of “someone born Jewish” (presumably me) now “advocating” for “assimilation.” First of all, according to the Conservative and Orthodox movements, I wasn’t born Jewish (because I’m a patrilineal Jew). And I am not advocating for assimilation. I am advocating for the right of interfaith families to teach their children love for and knowledge of Judaism, even if we do not (cannot) choose Judaism as the only religion practiced in our family. Perhaps you would prefer that I just raise my children as Christians, but I am not sure why that would be good for the Jews. And I don’t happen to think it’s the best choice for my particular family, or for my children.

3. You write that interfaith families should only celebrate Christmas at the homes of their Christian relatives. But not everyone has living parents, or family close by, to host Christmas celebrations. My mother had no aunts or uncles or cousins. When my grandparents were gone, we began celebrating Christmas in our (Jewish) home with her. This was very much the right choice, for our interfaith family.

4. You write that the celebration of Hanukkah is a celebration of the fact that “to be Jewish is to be different than the American Christian mainstream.” I am troubled when Judaism is defined negatively, in opposition to Christianity. For me, Judaism is defined by ancient ritual, by the possibilities for spiritual and even mystical experience, by love of language and law and justice. Hanukkah, in our family, reminds us of the freedom we experience in America to maintain our relationship to Judaism, and the opportunity to reflect on the idea of the miraculous.

5. You write that “having a clear religious and cultural identity in the home is better for the kids.” Apparently, you are stating your opinion that interfaith parents should choose one religion. We have no robust data actually comparing children raised in different interfaith family configurations. As an interfaith child raised with only Judaism, I can testify to the benefits and drawbacks of being raised in one religion. And I can describe the benefits and drawbacks of raising my children with both. I don’t think anyone has the research to support a statement of which strategy is “better for the kids.”

6. Okay, here’s where it got kind of bizarre. In an effort to provide a little leavening to a rather weighty topic, I alluded to the well-known fact that many great Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, and added that if Christmas was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Somehow, this inspired you to retort, “Dressing as a fancy-hot-pants prostitute is good enough for Barbie…is it good enough for you?” Um, I don’t know, but comparing celebrating Christmas to dressing as a prostitute is pretty offensive, even to a “half-Christian.”

You then go on to suggest that I would be a “cooler Mom” if I played the music of Matisyahu, instead of “subjecting” my children to Irving Berlin.

Wow. Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, was one of the greatest American popular songwriters of the 20th century. (I bet you Matt Miller might even agree.) I cannot imagine what could dissuade me from subjecting my children to Irving Berlin. As for my coolness quotient, you’re picking on the wrong mom. I may not wear hot pants, but I have pronounced hipster-mom tendencies. I took my teens to see Matisyahu, live, for Hanukkah last year. We danced together under the giant electrified dreidel.

In short, I am doing everything I can to instill in my children an appreciation for Judaism (and Christianity). My kids feel “pleasure and pride” in both sides of their family, in both religious traditions. I hope you will surf around a little on this blog, getting to know my interfaith family. I know you would be happier if we could be 100% Jewish, but that’s just not how we define ourselves.

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17 Comments on “Interfaith Children: Born This Way”

  1. Dara Says:

    I found her essay to be condescending, rude and insulting to me as a Jewish mother. My children are Jews. However, we have an xmas tree, we exchange gifts, we bake snowmen cookies. Why? Because that was my husband’s family’s tradition (they were Catholic) and we are teaching our children that family traditions are special and should be honored. Do I feel badly, or that I am disrespecting the generations of Orthodox Rabbis in my family? Heck no. My children have two parents. Why is one parent’s identity and culture more important that the other?


  2. Dara–I’m sorry I unintentionally provoked her post. I actually understand why she finds the idea of raising children with both religions (my pathway) so threatening. It’s not for everybody, I never said it was. But the collateral damage to the interfaith parents bending over backward to raise Jewish children (with Christmas) is highly unfortunate. Again, because the blogger in question is not intermarried, it would be hard for her to have a deep understanding of the issues involved.


  3. The back and forth here has left me with all sorts of mixed emotions. As the daughter of an agnostic, “Jewish” father and a mother who identified as pagan but was raised Catholic, I spent much of my childhood trying to explain to people how I was neither Christian nor Jewish and how having Chanukah and Christmas at the same time was just my normal. My parents tried their darndest to take all the religion out of all the holidays in our house but in the end, you really can’t take religion out of Jewish holidays. Flash forward to age 17 when I decided that, in my heart of hearts, I was Jewish and then to age 23 when I went in front of a Bet Dien so that there would be fewer people in the world who would question my future children’s Jewishness as I prepared for my Jewish wedding and Jewish home. And this Jewish family, yeah we still go to my parents for Christmas – which we celebrate with my Jewish grandfather. No, there is no Christmas tree in our Jewish home and my girls understand that Christmas is not our holiday, but is Grandma’s holiday in her own way. As the adult child of an interfaith home where we truly had ALL the holidays (including Solstice), I truly feel that it is the right of each set of parents to parent their children they way they see fit – the kids will figure out what works for them in the end – trust me!

  4. Dan Orr Says:

    You’re right, of course, that people who have no experience with interfaith families are likely insensitive to particular concerns. But what Ms. Nussbaum Cohen fails to appreciate is how intelligent and flexible children can be. It seems to me that children thrive when they are given the knowledge and responsibility to make choices.

    I mean, it’s sorta like what I’ve been hearing about some school districts. Apparently, some parents want to move out of certain districts not because the academics in the school are below-par (they are actually very good), but because there are many immigrant families in the district. They feel that their kids won’t have much in common with the other kids. What a bizarre attitude. Of course, they’ll have things in common – they’ll be going to school together. Back in my day, that was enough.

    My point is that it seems there’s some projection going on in Ms. Nussbaum Cohen’s article. It’s the parents, set in their ways, who can’t deal with difference or complexity. Not the kids.

  5. Marjory Says:

    As a Jew raising Jewish children (with a Jewish spouse), I’m thrilled to read about your family’s thoughtful approach to an interfaith life. I don’t know how anyone who’s read your blog could have the impression that your family’s traditions and religious practices are a superficial “mash up.” I know lots of interfaith kids for whom Judaism seems to be an “add on” without much meaning in their lives. I’m glad that’s not the case for your kids. Now I’m off to squeeze into some hot pants and fry some latkes.

  6. David Says:

    As a young Jew(with Jews on both sides of my parental ancestry) who is interacting with interfaith teens and young adults quite a lot I can say with conviction that a lot is myth.

    It’s true that a lot of young Jews are less committed to the rituals of Judaism than they were before, but a great many are connecting with Judaism and it’s deep cultural wealth through books, arts and spirituality.

    Look, it’s not a conincidence that Jews tend to assimilate whenever we are not oppressed – because Judaism’s values are at heart humanitarian. You have to demonize your neighbours – and be able to back it up with stories of pogroms – in order to keep it very insulated.

    As we wandered out of our ghettoes, we became professors, authors, physicists, economists, entrepreneurs and many other things. We embraced the world around us, and it embraced us. In the end, Judaism is rich, but the world holds a lot outside which is not worth missing out on.

    The best way is to give the children the best of both worlds, a robust standing in Judaism and letting them know much of the world too. If they are feeling uncomfortable in the wider Jewish community, it’s not their fault but the nasty ignorance and hatred of some people who should know better. Like those who insist of comparing Christmas with prostitutes, degrading themselves into vulgar bigots. That’s not a Jewish value.


  7. I could not figure out how to post on comment on The Jewish Daily Forward site (hmm…) but I intended to share this recommendation for those interested in the intersection of first century Judaism and Christianity:
    I would highly commend the writing and wisdom of Amy-Jill Levine to anyone interested in learning more about the commonality and differences of first century CE Judaism and Christianity. Levine is a Jewish New Testament Scholar at Vanderbilt and a much sought after educator. http://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/people/bio/amy-jill-levine
    Here is a video of her lecture Assessing Jewish-Christian Relations in which “Levine examines modern Jewish religious and cultural issues with historical rigor, critical sensitivity and a frequent dash of humor in this address at UCSD. Series: “Burke Lectureship on Religion & Society” –http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGOobQiRAa8

  8. The Hook Says:

    Great title – and post!

  9. lexy3587 Says:

    It was really interesting reading your huffington post article, the JDF article and your response to it on your blog. I’m not religious, and neither are my parents. We do christmas, because that’s what we’ve always done – the tree, the baking, the lights, santa, etc – but it isn’t anything to do with Christ or Christianity for us. I would still want to have christmas, though, even in a theoretical future in which I’m raising my children Jewish with theoretical-future-Jewish-husband. It’s my tradition, and, even without religious undertones, I enjoy it.
    It sounds like you guys are doing your best to give your children a thorough religious background that takes into account both of your backgrounds, in a way that doesn’t mush everything together into one big gift-wrapped event. Happy Hanukkah, and Merry Christmas!

  10. yogaleigh Says:

    I’m not in an interfaith family so I feel a little odd about commenting but I really enjoyed reading about the thoughtful way you work to blend traditions — have lots of friends who have had to figure that out. I believe every tradition has beauty and rightness and that everyone’s path deserves to be respected by others. I have long been puzzled as to why my choices as to spiritual path are anyone else’s business and I REALLY have yet to understand why someone should be so angry because I don’t choose their path. Even if they’re right and I’m going to hell because of my choice, what’s the problem for them? So I’m scratching my head as to why Ms. Cohen care so much about what you do.


  11. I really appreciate your thoughtful response to the Forward Column. I’ve been watching this season’s back and forth over the issue with both interest and sadness. This “December Dilemma” business seems to have almost displaced the annual “War Against Christmas” with both passion and rhetoric. As someone who was raised by two Jewish parents but outside the mainstream of American Jewry and is now raising two children with a non-Jewish spouse, I am amazed (but not completely surprised) by the anxiety and condemnation that outsiders feel about our lifestyle. We are raising our daughters as Jews, but a few years ago we chose (for a variety of reasons) to host Christmas for my husband’s family in our home. And I love it, for many reasons (which are my own damn business). It is also insulting that so many of these observers seem to assume that interfaith families make the decisions about what or how to celebrate with no thought behind those decisions, as if our lives just “happen”, out of laziness, disinterest, or ignorance. Not for nothing, I have a PhD in Religious Studies and am a professor of Jewish Studies. I assure you that my religious life didn’t just happen to me; I chose it. Thanks again for your good words. And Happy Holidays.

  12. Babou Says:

    As a Christian married to an agnostic, I am accustomed to cultural differences. After years of surfing the cliffs of our differences, I am happy to say that from all approaches we tried, the only one really working out is, drum rolls, what a surprise, TOLERANCE! As in “looking at differences with a kind heart instead of a condemning mind”.
    According to my own experience, being deeply rooted in whatever someone believes into (be it the existence of God or his lack of existence) helps a great deal to understand and to accept that others feel and think otherwise. More than that, maybe the cutting back of the “decoration” which prevented me of seeing the core of my faith helped me a great deal to not feel challenged and threatened through the faith (or lack of faith) of others: when you realize that every “big” monotheistic religion is founded on the kindness of the heart and mind towards oneself and others, it feels weird to build fences between you and others just because they don’t think like you.
    You see, I am living in a city where so many nationalities, cultures and skin colors are represented that my own network of friends here looks like I have taken a sample of many religions and many countries. I have a Asian Moslem friends, Black non-believer friends, European Jewish friends, European and American Christian friends… I like my friends and I know them well, so I am keen to accept that we feel and think differently on some essential things. I don’t feel threatened in any way in my religion through the fact that some friends celebrate Hanukkah right now. On the contrary, it drove me to search the web to learn what Hanukkah is, so that I know what I am doing when I wish them a happy Hanukkah. And my Asian Moslem friends will decorate a tree in their home and exchange gifts, because their children are going into a local school where the culture is essentially Christian, so they are growing up with that culture too.
    I am not at all pleading for a big cultural and religious melting pot where every single difference would disappear and where everyone of us would think that everyone else is terribly nice and loving. No. Watering down one’s religion would do nothing good. I even love differences as long as they are not menacing the cohesion of the whole. If I may say so, it’s like cultures: the difference which is sometimes menacing can be attractive too, or why would so many people visit so many foreign countries during their holidays, if not to experience something else, something different? There would be no point in traveling thousands of kilometers to find exactly what you could find right on the corner!
    I am pleading for opening ourselves to other cultures and religions with a curious and tolerant eye, instead of reacting with hardening one’s heart. Because, on the bottom of things, we all are (well at least in my very personal belief) children of God or at least children of the same planet. Would I have been born in Egypt, well then it’s pretty sure that I would have embraced the Islam. Same for Indonesia. Same for Russia with replacing the Islam through the orthodox version of Christianity.
    Well anyway, Susan, I wish you a happy Hanukkah week and your husband a happy Christmas! I loved your post and your answer to this “hardliner” journalist and I wish you well in continuing on your thoughtful way of letting your religion and your husband’s one cohabiting peacefully. :-)

  13. jewaicious Says:

    I applaud your post. As a woman raised in an interfaith family, I relate to everything you say, and fully agree with your stance.

    My father was Jewish, my mother Catholic, back in the days when if you married out of the Catholic faith, you had to agree to raise your children Catholic.

    In order for me to be considered Jewish, which I am, I had to literally convert to Judaism, even though there are Rabbis in my paternal lineage.

    I am proud to be a Jew, proud to have been raised in a multi-religious family, proud that I instilled ethics and responsibility in my children, proud that they celebrated Christmas with my mother, up until the day she died. For me, for them, it was a form of honoring her, as the Ten Commandments so state “Honor thy mother and father”.

  14. Aviva Says:

    I found your blog in a roundabout way that stemmed (I think) from your reply to Ms. Cohen. I confess I haven’t read your blog before this, although I look forward to doing so.

    I’m Jewish on both sides but married “out” to a man raised as a Lutheran. When we married in 2001, we didn’t think we wanted kids, but agreed that any we might have would be raised Jewish. Flash forward to now and we have a 7-year-old daughter attending a Jewish day school. My husband has not converted but plans to and has already taken several of the locally required classes to do so.

    I think the reason it was so important to me that my daughter be raised to be Jewish is because of the steep learning curve to convert to Judaism later. (Yes, I know she wouldn’t have to formally convert since she has a Jewish mother, but it’s still a lot to learn if you haven’t studied Hebrew as a kid.) And I don’t know how you believe both that Jesus was the messiah and that he wasn’t.

    I have a cousin who also is raising kids in an interfaith family, and they have chosen to celebrate Chanukah as a spiritual holiday and Christmas as a commercial holiday. In some ways, I think that’s unfair to Christmas, but I also understand the beauty of the Christmas trappings: the beautiful tree, the decorated house, Santa.

    I wish my inlaws lived close enough that my daughter could visit Christmas at their house. Instead, we do things like looking at the beautiful lights some people put on their house. And I’m confident that iced and decorated sugar cookies are not solely for Christmas! (Why else would they make so many cookie cutters shaped like dreidels, menorahs and Jewish stars? Although truly, I think iced cookies are fun all year round, but maybe that’s just me. :-)

    Anyway, I appreciate the food for thought you’ve offered here, and I look forward to exploring your blog!


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