Schlepping into the Interfaith New Year

As the decade drew to a close yesterday, we dragged through the final hours of our annual odyssey through six states: an epic quest to make sure our children get to see their three grandparents, ten aunts and uncles, and assorted cousins during winter vacation. We travel by ancient minivan, praying that it holds together as we push the battered contraption past 107,000 miles. (I’m waiting for a hybrid minivan, which does not yet exist in this country, though they’ve had them in Japan for a decade.)

The trek up and down the interstate is grueling, the kids sleep on cots and couches and floors, and yet our itinerary is the same each year. We fantasize about skiing in Vermont, or going to the Caribbean, or just staying home and nesting as a nuclear family. But every year, we coax our cringing dog into the crate in the back of the van, and set off. The pull of family is stronger than the pull of adventure, or comfort, or convenience, or, really, rationality.

Why do we do this to ourselves? My husband and I both happen to hail from pathologically close families: we would rather be with our own siblings than with just about anyone else. But more to the point here, as an interfaith family committed to raising our children with two religions, we are barred by religious institutions from joining both a synagogue and a church.  And yet the urge to belong is powerful. So our primary allegiance is to an extended family bridging Judaism and Christianity, and family provides essential context and support. For my children to feel at home in either religion, they must see and hear and smell the familial connections to each religion. And that means being with family for as many of these holidays as we can muster.

Okay, so New Year’s Eve is not a religious holiday, per se. But in a year when Hanukkah fell during the school year, we stretched the Christmas trip to encompass a final gathering with my husband’s extended clan. We could have gone home earlier to celebrate New Year’s with friends, but instead we hooted at a marvelous slide show depicting four generations of the Miller clan, and joined three generations dancing to 70s music in a crowded family room.

My twelve-year-old does not remember any decade except the “oughts.” (When I made a remark to that effect last night, some middle-aged cut-up shouted that many of us don’t remember any decade except the “oughts.”) It was a tough decade–politically, environmentally, economically–and one that many of us are glad to see end.

But during this decade, we also saw a transition I have been waiting for all of my life: the arrival of the “both/and” zeitgeist. We have a biracial, interfaith President. We finally have a census that allows people to check more than one box for race. We have a tidal wave of interfaith children who will forge new religious pathways, new spiritual communities, new cultural hybrids. And we have an expanding network of family ties, as fine and strong as threads from a silkworm, weaving together more and more families from across the globe, from every race and religion.

So in this new decade, more and more of us will do the work of building and maintaining these family networks, across cultural lines and theological lines and state lines. I just hope this is also the decade when we get those hybrid minivans, so that we can schlep around, patching and strengthening our webs, without feeling so guilty about the mileage.

4 Replies to “Schlepping into the Interfaith New Year”

  1. I really appreciate your blog with your in-depth study and practice of religion. I too lead a “both/and” life,though not both Christianity and Judaism (except that all Christianity is Jewish in origin and deeply Jewish in its stories and liturgies). My “both/and” was non-religious (my family) and Christian, and I still walk this line. Neither my parents nor my children have any religion. I tell how this happened in my book, The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family. Saw your blog on SheWrites, where I just listed mine.

  2. Maggie–

    Thanks for visiting. Your book looks fascinating. Many families balance religious/not-religious: an important form of “both/and.” In our interfaith community, we often joke that the primary tension is not between Christians and Jews, but between “believers” and “non-believers.” As someone who identifies primarily as interfaith, I also hold within me the paradox of believing and not believing. Rather than being confused by this, I find it stimulates my writing and creativity.

  3. Susan, again I’m astonished at how perfectly you’ve encapsulated our family’s situation! We’ve just returned home last night from our own Big Schlep to the UK, and we also do it every single year, and for precisely the same reasons you do. Fantasizing about the Caribbean as an alternative? Yup, that’s us too!! But, like you, we will certainly continue to spend most of our discretionary income to keep these crucial family traditions going for as long as that family (and income…) are around.

  4. Rachel,
    Welcome home! Of course, the Christmas season in the UK has enviable charm. But I know, from my daughter’s first three years when we lived in Brazil, how arduous that transcontinental schlepping is. You are giving your child a huge gift in strengthening the family and cultural connections.

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