My daughter is a 90s kid. She grew up listening to Avril Lavigne on a CD boombox, and playing Zoo Tycoon on a family desktop with dial-up. And, she grew up with the original American Girl dolls–dolls set in different historical periods and cultures, with novels telling their stories. When we visited Colonial Williamsburg, she wore her official Felicity dress, to match the doll with a story set there. (They both have long red hair, and love animals). So when she told me this week that American Girl had just released new dolls representing the historical period of the 1990s, we both found this poignant and hilarious. And we bonded over the passage of time, and feeling old.
Alerted to this news, I read the People Magazine piece emphasizing that Nicki and Isabel Hoffman are the first twins represented in the American Girl (AG) historical doll line, and highlighting all their cool 90s accessories and outfits. There is no mention of religion in that article. And there is no mention of religion on the AG website’s rollout for the twins, or in the youtube announcing their upcoming animated series.
But then, I saw yesterday’s piece from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) with big news. And I learned that part of the backstory for Nicki and Isabel is that they are growing up in an interfaith family, with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas
The twins are modeled on real-life twins Julia DeVillers and Jennifer Roy, who are both successful authors. They are now co-writing the story of Nicki and Isabel for AG, drawing on their own experiences. Their first American Girl novel about Nicki and Isabel is due out in August, and will take place during a month when the twins celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.
DeVillers and Roy grew up Jewish, with a father who escaped the Holocaust as a child. But they also celebrated Christmas with their mother’s family. Frequently, Jewish media outlets seek to highlight the interfaith families who make Jewish choices. But Roy also tells the JTA, “People are not necessarily one thing or another these days. And while we are Jewish, we did grow up with both holidays and both cultures in our family. And that’s how we wanted our characters to be and to feel.”
I am now wondering about why the American Girl rollout online, and the People Magazine piece, don’t mention religion. One could speculate that we have reached a point where it is okay to produce dolls with fictional interfaith families, but we are still, also, at a point where it is not necessarily a good marketing choice to emphasize that fact.
Like DeVillers and Roy, I grew up Jewish, while also celebrating Christmas with my mother’s family. But as someone who has spent decades working to make space for people to claim the complexity of their identities, to claim their bothness, I cannot help but celebrate the arrival of Nicki and Isabel. There have been plenty of interfaith families in popular media in my lifetime, from plays to movies to television. But this may be a landmark in interfaith material culture. This physical embodiment of interfaith kids, in doll form, feels like an acknowledgement of my lived experience. It makes me feel hopeful that my efforts to encourage interfaith kids to raise their voices are having an effect. And the statement that “people are not necessarily one thing or another,” by a storyteller for this iconic brand, feels like progress.
I am grateful for the work of rabbis and interfaith families working for change from within. The new policy at Hebrew College is a hard-won victory, and creates a shift that benefits all interfaith families in the progressive Jewish world.
And yet, a lot of work remains to be done.
From my position as a disruptor, or even heretic, I have the luxury of being very frank: we must not desist from this work. For years, I have been pointing out the changes that still need to happen. Here, I distill that work into a to-do list:
How Progressive Judaism Must Changeto Thrive
Progressive movements and rabbinical and cantorial programs must admit and ordain students without litmus tests related to the religious identities of partners, or children.
All progressive religious institutions must uncouple gender from religious identity, by ending all reference to matrilineality and patrilineality. The gender of someone’s parents should be irrelevant to their claim on, or desire to engage with, Judaism. As I have written before, the gender binary is toxic to the future of progressive Judaism.
All progressive religious institutions must accept that parents have a right to educate their children about any and all religions in their extended family. You cannot control the identity of children by withholding education from them. This means we must end Jewish communal policies that exclude children who are being educated in more than one religion.
Progressive clergy must welcome the benefits of co-officiation at life-cycle ceremonies for interfaith families. Disrespecting another religion represented in the family by excluding it from a family celebration will not make Judaism more compelling to anyone. It will only lead to sorrow, and resentment.
Progressive clergy must stop trying to demand or extract promises from interfaith couples about how interfaith children will be raised. These promises are coercive and alienating. They are meaningless, given that we never know how the beliefs and practices of the parents will change over time. And they are futile, given that children have agency, and inevitably develop their own ideas and identities.
Families celebrating more than one religion can, and do, design interfaith coming of age celebrations for their children. These ceremonies sometimes start with, draw on, or incorporate the B-Mitzvah traditions in our heritage. Our Jewish and Christian interfaith family, along with beloved clergy, created ceremonies for each of our children (who are now 28 and 25). Over the years, I have often been asked for a coming of age ceremony template. And a reader asked again just this week. And so, I am finally posting a template!
The template below “leans Jewish” in that it includes the essence of a Shabbat Torah service, which is what many consider the essence of a B-Mitzvah. And, the whole idea of an individual coming of age, as opposed to a group confirmation, is a more Jewish than Christian tradition. Whether or not you want to include all these elements is up to your family. You can find a deeper discussion of the different choices my family made, and the choices available to you, in the Coming of Age chapter in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. There is also more of the backstory on our particular experience with our younger child, on my blog here, here, here, here and here.
For the sake of brevity, I did not include the actual prayers here, but they are widely available. I recommend including Hebrew, transliteration, AND gender-neutral English translation for every Hebrew prayer, as an educational tool, and to be most inclusive. The explanations of each prayer, important for a mixed multitude, can either be read by the reader, or simply included in the program for people to read on their own.
Interfaith Coming of Age and B-Mitzvah
Intro. Our programs started with a letter (which people can read to themselves while they wait for the ceremony to start) as an introduction from the parents. It explains the religious education and training that the young person has undergone, and thanks the various religious communities supporting them. It goes on to thank important mentors, clergy, and godparents.
Opening Song. Throughout the program, there are traditional Jewish songs for peace and Shabbat (Bim Bom, Lo Yisa Goy, Hine Mahtov, It is a Tree of Life). And, there are songs drawn from other sources (Morning Has Broken, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Let the Life I Lead, Peace Salaam Shalom).
Welcome from the clergy (in our case, both a rabbi and a minister spoke)
Opening Responsive Prayer (Led by the minister. Adapted by Susan Katz Miller from the Palo Alto interfaith families community)
Reader: We gather here as an interfaith community to celebrate the Coming of Age of (Name).
All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel, some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Our influences are many.
Reader: May (Name), and all of our children, be nourished by strong family roots, and may all the branches of our family trees thrive.
All: May they grow in compassion for all peoples and cultures, seek to heal the earth, and strive for justice around the globe.
Reader: May they use their understanding of the many different pathways to become bridge-builders and peacemakers.
All: And may we all go forward into the world, knowing in our hearts that deeper unity in which all are one.
The rabbi explains that this is a Jewish prayer giving thanks for reaching any new or important moment.
Introduce the Torah. The Torah is a continuous scroll consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each Torah is handwritten by a trained scribe, using a quill and vegetable ink on parchment. The Hebrew calligraphy used to write these scrolls has been the same for more than 2,000 years. The Torah we are using today belongs to Georgetown University, where Rabbi White is a chaplain and professor.
Barchu and Shema (led by the person coming of age)
The Shema is the central prayer of the Jewish faith. In it, Jews declare their belief in one God, who is the God of all people.
Please be seated.
V’Ahavta (led by the person coming of age)
In this central prayer, each generation passes knowledge of the law and of Jewish ritual to the next.This prayer is included on the parchment scroll inside a mezuzah, posted on the doorframe of many Jewish homes.
Aliyot. The rabbi explains that an Aliya (plural is Aliyot) is the honor of saying the blessing before and after part of the Torah reading. Leading this blessing is often considered the central act of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Aliyot by parents, grandparents, any older siblings, and finally, the person coming of age.
Blessing before the Torah
Torah Reading. (In English or Hebrew. If it’s only in Hebrew, print the English in the program).
Blessing after the Torah
Reflection on the Torah portion (D’var Torah by the person coming of age)
Reading from the New Testament (read by a Christian grandparent or mentor). It was our beloved rabbi who insisted we do a New Testament reading. (Read all about this twist in Being Both).
We Remember Them (Minister. Written by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer)
At this time we remember those who are gone but are here with us today in spirit, especially (name any grandparents or immediate family members or close mentors who have died).
Reader: At the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them.
All: At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,we remember them.
Reader: At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
All: At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of the summer,we remember them.
Reader: At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
All: At the beginning of the year and when it ends,we remember them.
Reader: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
All: When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
Reader: When we have joys we crave to share, we remember them.
All: When we have decisions that are difficult to make,we remember them.
Reader: When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
All: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
Mourner’s Kaddish (Rabbi)
The Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is written primarily in Aramaic, the language spoken by the Jews living in Babylonia and Palestine in the sixth century BCE, and the language later spoken by Jesus. The Kaddish is traditionally recited for those who have died, yet there is no mention of death. Instead, the prayer praises God and promises peace. For many, the rhythmic repetition of syllables serves as a chanting meditation.
“Universal Prayer,” an interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, by Rev. Cora Partridge.
Please read together:
Great Spirit of goodness and justice, our friend. We know you by many names, and in many languages, and by the manifestations of your great works in the universe. We want your influence of goodness to develop on this earth. Please provide all of us with what we need each day. Forgive our sins to the extent that we forgive others. Give us strength to resist temptations and willful wrongdoing, and protect us from evil thoughts, opportunities, and misfortunes that beset humankind. You are the everlasting good. We thank you. Amen.
Remarks by Parents
Remarks by Godparent/Mentor
Laying on of Hands. Clergy put their hands on the head of the person coming of age to bless them, and the whole community then connects to each other in a supportive physical web. For further explanation, see Being Both.
Parting Words (Responsive reading led by minister)
Will you be there for (Name) when they need you to listen? All: We will.
Will you model love for one another and for all peoples? All: We will.
Will you surround (Name) with joy, music, poetry and art? All: We will.
Will you help them work for peace, justice and a sustainable world? All: We will.
Then go now, remembering always the community that we have become today, a community that envelopes and surrounds and supports (Name) with our love.
Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I update my growing list of Hanukkah and Christmas books, in chronological order of publication. No two interfaith families have the same way of celebrating in December. So, rather than simply listing the books, I review how each book might or might not work for your family, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.
1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, or as a starting point for deeper discussion, this book will work.
2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels “ashamed and embarrassed” in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.
3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (2012, ages 5-8) features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.
4. Eight Candles and a Tree(2014, ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.
5. Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (2015, ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have yet seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves her menorah behind on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.
6. December’s Gift(2015, ages 3-8) is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. Clara helps her Bubbe make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.
7. New this season, Happy ALL-idays (2022, ages 1-5) is a very simple board book explaining that different families celebrate different holidays in December. It features illustrations and brief rhyming descriptions of families celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and a presumably interfaith family celebrating “Chrismukkah.” The families are notably diverse (including a boy in a wheelchair, and what appear to be single parents, multigenerational families, LGBTQ parents, and interracial couples). The inclusion of an interfaith family alongside families who celebrate one December holiday is novel, and refreshing. If you like to keep Hanukkah and Christmas separate, and avoid using the term “Chrismukkah,” this, sadly, is not the right book for your family. I worry that it depicts hanging dreidels on the tree as the norm, when not all interfaith families mix the two holidays together. But if you’re Team Mashup (and many families are, when it comes to December decorations), this book could be perfect for you.
We have reached December, the last month of the third year of the pandemic. And whether you feel like you are in the mood for dancing or not, December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas. This year the dance involves new steps because the eight nights of Hanukkah end on Christmas Day. So, whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic.
Just before the pandemic, I delivered a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences. This workbook can help you in claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:
Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?
Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to any children in your life? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?
Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?
Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!
No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?
The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially in this ongoing pandemic, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.
No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of another challenging year, until we tilt again towards the sun.
Note: An earlier version of this piece was published in 2019 in Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.
The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families who celebrate both must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2022, the last night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Day. So this year, I am updating this guide because the dance will require some expert steps.
The convergence of the two holidays increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 60 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. So here are my eight strategies for a nimble Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:
1. Accept that balance occurs in the course of a year, not every day. On Christmas, it’s natural for those who celebrate both holidays to lean into Christmas. So in a year like this one, when Hanukkah ends on Christmas, why not shift the emphasis on Hanukkah to the start of the eight-day holiday? Try starting Hanukkah with mindful intention, and set the tone for the holiday early in the week, before the overlap with Christmas festivities.
2. When traveling, check your interfaith packing list. If you are going to be staying with Christian family members, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah! (And, here’s a great children’s book about an interfaith family who forget to pack their menorah). In the excitement of Christmas Eve and the exhaustion at the end of Christmas day, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone to light candles for the last two nights of Hanukkah. This is a year to enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. (And, an important safety tip: If you are going out to a church service or caroling, be sure the candles are safely burned out before you leave the house!)
3. Give Hanukkah gifts at the start. Consider frontloading gifts at the start of Hanukkah this year, rather than competing with Christmas at the end of the week. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays. Try to resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the idea of piles of Hanukkah gifts. Be confident that when they are grown, children will remember lighting the candles, as much as a game or toy.
4. Time the parties. This year, Christmas lands squarely on the last weekend of Hanukkah. So for families who celebrate both holidays but want to keep them separate, the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday December 18th, is the obvious night this year to throw a Hanukkah party without overlapping with Christmas. Personally, I can barely fry enough latkes for my own crew. So in my family, we gravitate towards the simple weeknight vegetarian (or vegan) Hanukkah supper consisting of latkes, apple sauce, and salad. And as the pandemic continues, these intimate celebrations are a wise choice.
5. Tell the Hanukkah story. The religious freedom aspect of the Hanukkah story resonates in interfaith families drawn to social justice themes. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to marry for love, and to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. And we need to stand ready to protect the right for everyone to marry without restrictions on race, gender, and religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) with English lyrics rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story, and the theme of opposing tyranny, more accessible to all.
6. Give to others. The final nights of Hanukkah this year would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more gifts that compete with Christmas gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Let children know that the legend of Saint Nicholas has him giving to the poor and the hungry. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations for both holidays this year.
7. Organize acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to reflect on how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrate these intertwined themes by planning and engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities in the new year.
8. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Many of us forget to light candles on occasion. Many of us feel judged, or still judge ourselves, for how we mark December holidays. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. Through it all, do your best to find the still, small moments that create holiday peace and joy.
Today, I am honored to post an essay from guest blogger Shai Wise. –SKM
I was tempted to have this be about how the month of December taught me more about love growing up than almost anything else. Not because of gifts – though they were nice to receive. It wasn’t even because of seeing family although we did that too. It was because my parents balanced December in a way that always made me wonder why people would ask how they “handled it” or what they did about the “December dilemma.”
And it is true that December taught me about love because my dad put up the Christmas tree. Each year my Jewish father would take the box up from the basement. He would lay it out and before he could get too far into his project my mother would take us out to a movie so we wouldn’t learn any “new words.” But that is not what stays in my memory – that isn’t what feels important. It isn’t even that my father refused to allow lights on the tree because he was afraid of fire – because he was convinced we would burn the house down if we put lights on our artificial tree – and as best I can tell we had the same tree my whole childhood.
And I have so many images of December – of my father putting up that tree and my mother scraping wax off the menorahs. She would melt the wax and dig it out and make sure we each had a menorah fresh and clean for lighting candles. She never claimed Judaism as her tradition, she was raised Catholic and would say that it never left her. But she also said it was our tradition and she was going to make sure each holiday was observed and held in the respect it deserved. She never claimed Chanukah as Christmas but she claimed it for what it was – a holiday of revolution, resistance and light. And in preparing the menorahs, making latkes, making sure we read part of the story each night, she claimed it for my father. She loved it because she loved him, She loved it because she loved us.
But December taught me about love because of something else. It taught me about love because the December after my mother died. The first December I was home from college. The first Christmas without my mother. The first Chanukah without my mother. I received two gifts. A reminder from my father over the phone of how to clean wax out of a menorah, directly from my mother’s notes and when I got home the menorahs in our home, the dreidels were still out because my father had done his best to be my mother (even though by the time I arrived home Chanukah was over).
But there was something else. My father got out the Christmas tree and put it up. He didn’t have to. He could have decided that because my mother was gone he no longer needed to do this for her. He could have made the choice to remove himself from the task that he had done out of love for her – he could have stepped away from this one tradition and no one would have questioned him.
But he did it.
He did it because had always done it out of love for my mother. He had carried her in his heart as he put up her tree, the family’s tree, the tree that meant so much to her.
He did it because he knew that in coming home from college, having lost my mother so recently, I would need it. I would need to know that in losing her I wasn’t losing her traditions, her story and her light as well.
My father taught me about love one December when he stepped outside of his own tradition and into my mother’s story one last time so we wouldn’t lose her and her tree all at once.
Shai Wise was raised in an interfaith family in NY and now lives in a multifaith, multiracial family in WI. He has served as congregational clergy and in chaplaincy. He is a Red Sox fan who will cheer for the Brewers in a pinch.
Today, we consider a question I often hear from religious leaders:
Will interfaith families still choose “both” if our traditional religious institutions become more welcoming and inclusive?
The unspoken corollary seems to be:
Can I ignore this “being both” mishegas? It’s not really statistically significant, is it?
This question seems particularly relevant as the 10th anniversary of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyapproaches. Approaching the question from a Jewish perspective (which is how many people seem to approach the question), we benefit from the fact that Jewish organizations have spent a lot of time and resources producing data on Jewish demographics. At the Berman Jewish Data Bank, you can peruse the local community studies from cities and regions across the country. Recently, I spent some time pulling out the relevant statistic from the most recent studies, to try to understand how many interfaith couples are choosing to raise children with interfaith education, or “Jewish and another religion.”
And, indeed, a significant percentage of interfaith couples are still choosing this pathway.
How Married Interfaith Couples with One Jewish Partner are Raising Children
From the Berman Jewish Data Bank community studies *when the partner of another religion claims a religion
The variation certainly relates to the different geographic settings, but also to different ways that samples were collected and questions asked. Notably, in Louisville KY, birthplace of my Jewish grandmother, more interfaith families were found to be raising children with Judaism and another religion (27%), than with Judaism alone (24%). In other recent studies, the percentage raising children with both religions was smaller, but still significant.
In LA, the researchers broke the interfaith families into two categories: Jews married to people claiming another religion, and Jews married to people of no religion. Not surprisingly, a much larger percentage of the partners of no religion were willing to raise “just Jewish” children. In LA alone, some 12,000 children are being raised Jewish and another religion.
The LA study was also notable in devoting a brief section to actually considering the question, “What does it mean when parents describe their children as being both Jewish and another religion?” But the response to the question is very brief. The researchers simply note that in this “both” group, “Few households attend any religious services regularly, whether Jewish or non-Jewish services.” The implication is that “both” is a synonym for “neither.” But as the person who has probably spent the most time observing and researching these families, that is simply false. Using service attendance as the primary indicator of religious or spiritual depth is archaic in 2022, when a profusion of online, DIY, and home-based religious and spiritual practices are flourishing, inside and outside the Jewish world.
But the bottom line here is that every recent Jewish communal study documents that the choice to give interfaith children an interfaith education cannot be ignored. And, as we will explore, there is every reason to believe that these studies undercounted the “being both” families.
Why Jewish Communal Studies Yield Skewed Data on Interfaith Families
The main issue with relying on these studies to document interfaith family life is that all of them were funded by Jewish foundations or organizations, ensuring a Jewish lens. For the most part, only the Jewish partners were interviewed. The religious identities of their partners are not even categorized (Catholic? Protestant? Hindu? Unitarian Universalist?).
A primary goal of most of these funders is to figure out how to increase the number of families “doing Jewish.” There is a reluctance to come to terms with what draws family to doing both. And thus there is no insight into what multiple religious practice looks like in these families–what it means, why it is valuable. Ironically, asking these questions could only help those who seek to increase Jewish engagement.
The most limiting factor in using these studies to think about “doing both, being both” families is the sampling. In order to make sure to reach as many Jews as possible, these studies used methods including identifying “Jewish” surnames, and outreach through Jewish organizations such as synagogues and Jewish schools. Obviously, these methods are less likely to reach interfaith families with Irish or South Asian surnames. And they are less likely to reach “doing both” families that have given up on Jewish institutions that keep excluding them, or who are just more interested in online and home-based practices, or who thrive on forming their own interfaith communities. None of these families are going to pop up on Jewish organizational lists.
Furthermore, these studies do not ask, “Why are you doing both?” So they provide no insight into whether or not these couples wanted to engage more deeply, and could not find welcoming communities. There is no consideration of the idea that these families may not feel a need to affiliate with traditional religious institutions for spiritual fulfillment, or even for community support.
It is clear that interfaith families doing both or being both have been, and are going to be, undercounted and misunderstood in these Jewish communal studies.
Nevertheless, even these Jewish communal studies show that we’re here, we’re demographically significant, and we’re not going anywhere.
Children born into interfaith families have an intuitive understanding of the benefits and challenges of interfaith family life. But what happens when a child suddenly finds themselves at the center of a new interfaith family, when a parent remarries or chooses a new partner? The new blended family can be both enriched and complicated by cultural and religious differences.
Brand New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson is the first picture book to address the sudden formation of an interfaith family through remarriage, from a child’s perspective. The story, by an experienced children’s author, is told with great charm and gentle humor, and accompanied by engaging illustrations. The book is highly recommended for children struggling to adjust to a new interfaith family, or any blended family. Brand New Bubbe is a unique and important addition to the small but growing list of books written for and about children in interfaith families.
Jillian, who has grown up in a family that is not Jewish, finds her new Jewish stepdad “really nice.” But she’s not sure at first about her new grandmother: “Jillian already had a Noni and a Gram. Bubbe didn’t get the hint.” Psychologically, Jillian’s discomfort in adjusting to the new family is displaced onto Bubbe as a safe target.
Jillian, a spirited only child vaguely reminiscent of the iconic Eloise, goes on a protest strike, refusing to give in to Bubbe’s lavish affections. She worries that her beloved Noni and Gram will feel left out, or replaced. The detailed illustrations amplify the subtle humor, with a parallel plot involving the tension between Jillian’s cat and Bubbe’s small dog. When Jillian stages her protest, the cat joins in, carrying a sign protesting Bubbe’s dog.
Jillian’s mother finally intervenes to point out that Jillian is being too tough on Bubbe. Jillian ultimately works through her dilemma of how to integrate Bubbe into the family by inviting all three grandmothers to come to a soup celebration. They cook together, share the meal together, and love ultimately abounds and prevails. The moral of the story, once again, is that the more supportive people we have in our lives (and the more soup), the better. And by association, for me, the implication is that our lives can be enriched by multiple religions in one extended family.
Brand New Bubbe is enhanced by excellent recipes for Bubbe’s matzoh ball soup, Noni’s Italian wedding soup, and Gram’s gazpacho. (I judge they are excellent by the inclusion of parsnips in the matzoh ball soup). The book also includes a brief resource section, including a shout-out to The Interfaith Family Journal.
Brand New Bubbe is not didactic on the subject of Judaism (or anything else). Beyond matzoh balls, there is only brief reference to the unfamiliar new holidays Jillian is experiencing, and to her exposure to new Yiddish words like kvelling and kvetching. Instead, Brand New Bubbe focuses on the child’s emotional journey–her resistance and evolution as part of a new interfaith family. Jillian expresses a kaleidoscope of feelings as she goes through this evolution–at first worried, petulant, and disruptive, but ultimately resourceful, creative, and affectionate.
By the end of the book, Jillian has assumed the role of an interfaith ambassador, working to build bridges, in order to play her part in creating a new and successful interfaith family. This feisty protagonist is a great addition to the interfaith family canon, and I hope there will be sequels. In the final pages of Brand New Bubbe, the observant reader will note the arrival of a baby, raising the possibility of a sequel on siblings in a blended interfaith family. I look forward to reading what happens next for Jillian, and Bubbe.
We have to call it big news when a generally conservative Jewish media outlet summons 10 “non-Jewish spouses” of Jews and asks them about anything. So the publication of the piece in The Tablet last week, entitled “The Minyan: Non-Jewish Spouses,” represents progress. And that’s because most of the Jewish press coverage and academic work on interfaith families has been based on interviews and surveys with the Jewish partners, and only the Jewish partners. My book Being Both, almost a decade after publication, is still a rare source on what both partners in interfaith relationships think, and feel.
I also appreciated that two of the twelve “non-Jewish” partners in this group conversation are raising children with both family religions, and that they were allowed to explain what they see as the benefits of this choice. Andrea, who was raised Presbyterian, married a Jew, and now sees herself as interfaith, explains to the group, “I think that kind of bi-literacy, bilingualism, can increase our understanding in the world. Everything is so fractional right now, so divisive. I just have hope that people who are in interreligious marriages are maybe a microcosm for how the world can bridge difference.” And Kavya, a Hindu married to a Jew, adds “it’s not that novel, the idea that our children can celebrate two deep lineages and backgrounds.”
This published conversation also adds to the growing body of literature describing the tremendous damage done by exclusion of interfaith couples, including refusal to officiate at marriages, family members who refuse to visit, and family members who refuse to attend weddings. And it adds to the literature describing the tremendous damage done by gender-based religious gatekeeping in the form of excluding children of Jewish patrilineal descent. These parents describe a refusal to perform a bris, an interfaith child raised Jewish who studied and jumped through every Jewish hoop but was still called a non-Jew, and a rabbi who ripped tefillin off a boy’s body.
All of this is important for a Jewish audience to hear. And yet, this piece is also an example of a very focused Jewish lens, a lens that distorts the experience of people married to Jews through selection bias, and the choice of questions. To start with, not one of these 12 partners-of-Jews actually currently identifies as Christian, according to the bios. So the Jewish bias is already inherent in the selection of a sample of partners who have mostly left Christianity behind. The editors also “deliberately narrowed the field to those married to Jews who care about being Jewish.” What does that even mean? In this case, it means this is a conversation primarily among people who married “practicing” Jews and agreed to put aside their own religion, or who had left their own religion, and are raising “Jewish only” children. Eight out of ten couples with children in this sample are raising children “Jewish only,” which is a huge oversampling of that subgroup.
And, note that all of the questions, with the exception of a nod to the (arguably secular) Christmas tree and Easter eggs, are about Judaism. And even the tree and eggs are discussed in terms of their effects on the Jewish partners. The discussion topics include Passover, the High Holidays, Torah study, Israel, Jewish persecution, and conversion to Judaism. These partners are asked how their Jewish in-laws felt about the marriage, but not how their own (mostly Christian) parents felt. There are zero questions about how they feel about leaving their religions behind, whether there are traditions that they miss, what their children might gain from Christian (or Hindu) extended family. In the end, it’s an interesting discussion, but it’s not really about these partners of Jews at all. It’s about (once again) what it all means for Judaism.