Hanukkah Chronicles: Midweek Interfaith Glitch

In the darkened dining room, our family of four gathers around the Hanukkah candles, gazing into the flickering flames and pondering our favorite, inspiring final phrase from “Rock of Ages“:  the part about “tyrants disappearing.” We have hit a groove on night four, with everyone remembering all three verses, and my husband’s gorgeous harmonies giving our a capella rendition real depth.

Then I stride into the living room and face the empty evergreen branches. “Okay, now we have to switch from the Jewish channel to the Christian channel and trim this tree.”

My fifteen-year-old daughter looks up in dismay.  “Mom, too abrupt! I hate when that happens.”

Epic fail, as the kids would say.

I am trying to provide an unvarnished depiction of the benefits and drawbacks of choosing to raise children with two religions.  Clearly, this was a moment when the drawbacks came into clear focus.  As an interfaith child, I have been celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah all my life. I’m supposed to be the expert on this. How did I find myself at this awkward moment? I was trying to do too much, failing to provide enough space for the two holidays without creating a distressing mash-up.

So here’s the good news. We have managed to say a blessing over the candles and  sing each night of Hanukkah, and there have been joyous and tender moments. On the first night, my parents, alone in Boston, got on the speaker phone so that we could sing all three verses of “Rock of Ages” in English together, my family’s tradition. In a year when the holiday does not fall during a school vacation, we appreciate the technological assist in  connecting my children to their only Jewish grandparent at Hanukkah.

On another night, we celebrated, as we do each year, at the home of some of our closest friends, a rare Jewish/Jewish family in our town. They spoiled us with both white potato and sweet potato latkes (not the kind from a box that I make). And we joined in the  hilarious and frenetic Hanukkah klezmer dancing traditional in their family.

The bad news is that it is even harder in an interfaith family to meet the challenge of making time, with school events and lessons and meetings and homework, to fit in a meaningful Hanukkah moment. And that’s where I screwed up. I saw a window in the calendar, a night when we did not have particular plans beyond lighting the candles, when I thought we could get the tree trimmed. The tree had already been waiting on the porch for several days, and was now sitting patiently inside on its stand in the corner. The nakedness of the tree had started to feel like a silent rebuke. Was I giving space to my husband, to my children, to anticipate Christmas?

In other ways, I had already minimized some of the Christmas anticipation to make more room for Hanukkah and simplify the season.  I decided years ago that we would not light Advent candles, or open a daily Advent calendar, even though these are lovely traditions, precisely because I wanted to clear space for Hanukkah.And the truth is that I felt the candle-lighting Advent tradition, in particular, felt too close to Hanukkah in its form.

So on night four of Hanukkah,  I moved a little too quickly into Christmas mode, and everyone felt it, including me. The fact that we all noticed, that it felt like a rough transition, does, ironically, reassure me that the overall plan is working. These are substantive holidays, with deeper meaning, for me, for my children. If they were superficial celebrations, the transition would not have mattered so much.

After a few awkward moments, we got into the festive trimming mode. Nat King Cole helped, as did the memories unwrapped with each ornament. Our cat hid inside an empty box and played with the crumpled newspapers. Our dog, who has perpetually worried eyebrows, paced about and looked vaguely concerned by all the unfamiliar objects. My son’s analysis: “Kitty is Christian, and the dog is Jewish.” We strive for balance, even in our pets.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

13 Replies to “Hanukkah Chronicles: Midweek Interfaith Glitch”

  1. Living in one of those rare “Jewish-Jewish” families in our shared neighborhood, and having grown up in a non-faith/interfaith family that attempted to celebrate both, I know the quandary you face trying to bring substance and meaning to both holidays. My parents failed miserably at this, which led me to an adult search for meaning and a journey to Judaism. I now deeply appreciate the ability to infuse every celebration in our home, including a weekly Shabbat, with gratitude and spirit. And I can sense you’re doing the same, just straddling the two religions. Kol hakavod, and much luck on your family’s continuing journey.

  2. We decorate the Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving so we can enjoy it for a looong time. Love the comment from the reader above who recognizes your deepest desire to infuse the holidays with meaning. That type of glitch happens in most people’s homes at some point during the holidays, no matter the holiday or the religion. Great that your daughter has the voice – and the space – within the family to name it and be respected for doing so. . .and good for you for having the chutzpah to take these risks!

  3. Sue, all of us experience abrupt transitions, often daily, don’t you think? In my house, they include shutting off shoot-em-up computer games or work e-mail in favor of family stuff whether lighting Hanukkah candles or just coming to dinner. This is especially true when transitioning to religious activities given that we live most of our days in a largely secular fashion. I haven’t experienced jumping directly from Hanukkah candles to tree trimming, but somehow I imagine that the switch from Call of Duty to either is more abrupt.

    Karen, Jewish-Jewish families are perhaps not so rare around here. My block includes 5 Jewish-Jewish marriages and 5 Jewish-non plus two I’m not sure about that are probably one of each. (Actually, one of those J-J “marriages” isn’t legally a marriage given Maryland law.) Extend a block in one direction and you get 2 more J-J; one block in the other gets you 2 more J-non.

    1. Seth, I don’t dispute the demographics – I was more picking up on Sue’s comment. However, anecdotally, I will say that my 14 year old did not attend a single bar mitzvah from his peer group at TPMS and my 10 year has only one set of friends (twins) who will be having a bat mitzvah from PBES, at least for now. My 8 year old doesn’t have any J-J friends either. Most of our J-J friends come from our outside-of-the-‘hood friendships, work (in the Jewish community) and our synagogue. There is one J-J house on our block, and everyone else I know is mixed. However the numbers truly play out, it certainly gives credence to Sue’s claim that the interfaith family is a significant trend and one worth blogging about (and hopefully publishing a book about!)

      1. Karen, there’s no question in my mind that the tendency in neighborhoods like ours and in most of the US is toward an even higher rate of mixed marriages for children with Jewish heritage. My kids’ friendships are similar to those of your kids. Our kids’ associations are an indicator that our kids are likely to “marry out” (as some Jews put it) even if we didn’t.

        Sue, I don’t write “interfaith” marriages because in many or even most of these cases, “faith” is irrelevant, which is part of the point.

        1. Seth,
          Our interfaith families community is seeing more and more interfaith families who care deeply about religion/faith/spirituality. That’s why many of the over 100 local families joined our group, rather than “doing nothing.” And I know at least that many in our area who have joined Jewish communities and are very faithfully raising their kids Jewish (whether or not the non-Jewish spouse has converted).

          I just don’t want anyone to misinterpret your remark as meaning that people intermarry because they don’t think religion is important. That statement has been made in the past, and it is unfair to families who are bending over backwards to raise Jewish children, or to educate their children about both.


          1. Sue, to reinterpret what I wrote:

            I’m guessing that many people feel free from pressure not to intermarry because for them religion is unmeaningful so they marry whomever they want without regard for religion, which they should (as if they’re asking me) if that’s right for them.

            Hmm… “free from,” “not” “un…,” “without regard”: lots of negatives for one sentence.

            It’s freedom, baby, yeah!

  4. Writer friends!

    Thanks for posting articulate and thoughtful comments! And thanks for underscoring that we are all doing our best as imperfect parents.

    Judy!! I love, love, love you for dwelling in the paradox, and for staying connected through the years even as our journeys have taken us in “opposite” directions in some ways. As mothers and writers, and people who care deeply about religion, we still share so much.

  5. Susan, you are too hard on yourself. Your family is so lucky. That “awkward transition” is simply transition in its purest form, like Seth says. Not your fault. What is so great is that the kids felt free to speak and all they were really expressing is what all of us “both” types feel most of the time about most things. Bravo to you and your family

  6. Sue, as usual your writings are so honest and wonderful. And I want to say that next year you might want to explore the Advent traditions. Advent is about waiting and listening. Not about celebrating. It might be a tradition you all might like. Just a thought. And it is not about buying things. Just about remembering joy, hope, waiting, love. How good is that.

  7. Julia–

    We have done Advent in past–as I said, it’s lovely. The issue for me is that the sensory experience of Advent candle-lighting duplicates the candle-lighting of Hanukkah (and usually overlaps in timing). Candle-lighting is the essence of the Hanukkah ritual. Christmas has a ton of other rituals (both secular and religious) so I’m giving the candle-lighting to Hanukkah in our house.

  8. Susan,

    I enjoyed very much reading about your family’s interfaith experience, and your “glitch” feels nothing short of authentic and human. You obvioulsly are creating a loving space for your kids with meaningful traditions, and that’s what it is all about isn’t it?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: