Hanukkah and Christmas: Slightly Cranky Transition

Today, the first snow of the season drifted gently through the air: the payoff for a week of frigid cold. As I opened the front door to sniff the mineral ice, the dog shot out through my legs and ran an illegal joy lap through the neighborhood. Standing on the porch awaiting her return, I realized it was time to rig up the strings of lights to ward off the solstice dark. Hanukkah is over, and the snow ushers in the transition to Christmas. This year, we got lucky with a nice pause between the two winter holidays, making it easier to give each celebration its due. Still, it can all be a bit exhausting.

Sometimes, being an interfaith family and celebrating two religions does impinge on our need for quiet, rest, daydreaming, doing nothing. My teens crave the 10-day vacation associated with Christmas. In my effort to create a meaningful Hanukkah this year, we went a little overboard celebrating on weeknights, and created a crisis of sleep deprivation and a scramble to keep up with homework and grades. The Matisyahu concert on a Tuesday night turned out to be particularly ill-advised. The Hasidic reggae rapper (perhaps tired himself in the midst of a week of schlepping up and down the Eastern seaboard) meandered, the sound was muddy and overwhelming, the gig went much too late, and only the giant, rotating, blinged-out dreidel seemed worth the trip. Getting up at 5:30am on the high school schedule for the rest of this week has taxed us all.

The fact that schools grant a luxurious ten-day period to recover from Christmas reminds me, once again, that our entire economic and educational system revolves around the Christian calendar, not the Jewish calendar, or anyone else’s calendar. Just saying.

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Teens: Giving for Hanukkah

This year, we shared the first night of Hanukkah with one of our “co-families.” We have no parents or siblings in our city, so this family has become part of our chosen, local tribe. Every year, they spoil us by frying latkes in their spacious kitchen, and then we all dance a rowdy hora together by the light of the Hanukkah candles.

Now that all four of our collective children are teens, we decided to start Hanukkah off this year with giving, rather than receiving, gifts. Each teen and each adult brought ten dollars from their own piggy bank or wallet. Then, around the dinner table, we discussed where to send our pooled funds. Each person made a pitch for a favorite cause. The nominees included two local homeless shelters, five international development projects, and an environmental organization.

What followed was a thoroughly philosophical and educational discussion of giving local versus giving global, coming to the rescue versus attacking root causes, and how to judge the efficacy of a non-profit.

Lacking consensus, except around the fact that they were all good causes, we resorted to drawing a project out of a hat. This year, our funds will go to helping the women affected by war in Congo. Given that Hanukkah commemorates a battle, putting money into healing the wounds of war seems just.

I won’t say my kids did not miss opening gifts on the first night. Who doesn’t like opening gifts? I am not a total Hanukkah scrooge. Last night, on the second night of Hanukkah, they did get a very nice gift. Tomorrow, they will go to our town’s Alternative Gift Fair, where non-profits set up giving booths, and they will make the rounds and each decide individually which organization to give to that night. Adolescence is all about transformation. As we watched with pride, our teens were transforming on Hanukkah from recipients to donors, from children to adults.


Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Services: Beyond the Common Ground

This week, I attended a marvelous Community Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, in a Long Island suburb that has been gathering together each year since 1940. A dozen different Christian clergy members and a half-dozen representatives from three different Jewish congregations participated. A combined choir of Jews and Christians sang an elaborate setting of the synagogue favorite, Hiney  Mah Tov (arranged by Iris Levine), and American composer Virgil Thomson‘s poetic arrangement of the 23rd psalm, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need. And together, we sang America the Beautiful.

Townsfolk in yarmulkes and townsfolk in holiday sweaters packed the service. We all felt warm and fuzzy, and progressive, reading prayers and singing songs from both Jewish and Christian traditions, not to mention patriotic anthems.

I loved it. But I also kept thinking that for our family, the service felt strangely familiar. Every week throughout the year, we sing Christian and Jewish songs, and say Christian and Jewish prayers, led by Christian and Jewish clergy, in a community filled with Christians and Jews. Somehow, when a town gathers for this type of service once each year, it’s Norman Rockwell territory. On the other hand, when the Christians and Jews happen to be married to each other and gather every week, we make people nervous.

What’s the difference? At a community interfaith service, whether at Thanksgiving, or at a Freedom Seder in the spring, Jews and Christians come together but very clearly retain their separate identities. In our interfaith families community, a large proportion of the children and a growing number of the adults identify themselves as interfaith: a label that can provoke alarm and concern.

Another difference is that community interfaith services tend to tread carefully and deliberately on the most common ground, avoiding any mention of Jesus, for instance. Christians, understandably, agree to abstain from mentioning Jesus on these annual moments of togetherness, for the sake of making their Jewish neighbors more comfortable. Jews and Christians who are intermarried, and sing and pray together each week, ultimately must wrestle with Jesus rather than avoiding him. That doesn’t mean the Jews convert. It means they become comfortable talking about the historical role of Jesus, and the spiritual role he plays for Christians in our extended families. It means they no longer flinch when his name is mentioned.

Our interfaith community uses the Venn diagram of two interlocking rings to represent the three spaces we teach and explore together. The common ground in the intersection of the two rings is a space that feels good, feels safe. But as interfaith families journeying together, we aim to explore all three spaces: Jewish, interfaith, Christian. Sometimes, venturing away from the center, into the rocky terrain of religious particularities, feels difficult. But just as often, it feels exhilarating.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas

In my doctor’s office today I heard Christmas music–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.

Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families group discusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.

This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:

1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.

So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.

2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”

3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.

4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.

5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Teens and Hanukkah: A Gift of Matisyahu

When our children were small, I started on an elaborate plan each year before Thanksgiving, roughing out our celebration for each night of Hanukkah. Some nights would involve giving to others instead of receiving presents, some nights we gave the children tiny token gifts, or practical gifts such as clothing. Some nights we would skip gifts if we were celebrating with friends: it seemed like enough to just enjoy sharing the light of the  candles and feasting on latkes. My strategy as the Jewish parent in an interfaith family has always been that Christmas presents remove some of the pressure to give Hanukkah presents, providing an opportunity to stress the non-material aspects of Hanukkah.

I now have two stylish and independent teenagers, and it’s not easy to pick out gifts for them at this point, anyway. The task is made harder by the fact that I have a real grudge against gift cards, the default gift for teens, though of course my kids love getting them. They earn their own spending money: my daughter babysits and helps teach in the interfaith Sunday School kindergarten class, my son busks on the street with his friends, playing guitar, bass and ukulele. Giving them cash gifts or gift cards seems to me to devalue the money they earn for themselves through creative and educational work, and interfere with their budding little work ethics.

So this year, I was planning to shift even further into a “post-gift” phase of Hanukkah. And then wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the perfect teen Hanukkah celebration arrived in the form of Matisyahu’s Festival of Light tour.

Matisyahu is the hippest Orthodox Jew on the planet. The artist formerly known as Matthew Paul Miller grew up as a Reconstructionist Jew in suburban White Plains, where he followed the jam band Phish and revered Bob Marley. While spending a semester in Israel, he experienced a spiritual transformation, became a Chasid known as Matisyahu, and moved to Crown Heights. Melding mystical lyrics inspired by Judaism with old-school reggae and contemporary beatboxing, Matisyahu became an indie-music darling.

As a passionate Bob Marley fan (I saw him three times in the 70s), I have to say that Matisyahu is that rare musician who can pull off a Bob Marley cover without making me squirm. More importantly, and strangely, his Kabbalistic musings and ethereal tenor voice seem to appeal across religious boundaries. My Episcopalian niece and nephew both adopted Matisyahu early on, as savvy high school and college students.

Last year, my son explored Matisyahu’s lyrics when he delivered a report on the Chasidim for his interfaith coming-of-age class. Lately, he’s been perfecting a cover of the musician’s uplifting and contagious song, “One Day.” When we have moments of adolescent and maternal conflict, my son crawls out his bedroom window onto our porch roof and sings this song to the night. I’m hoping he might perform it at his Bar Mitzvah in the spring.

But back to Hanukkah. Every year for the past four years, Matisyahu has delivered an eight-night “Festival of Light” concert stand in NYC around Hanukkah. This year, for the first time, he’s taking the Festival of Light on tour for the final three nights, with a stop in Baltimore, a city rich in Jewish history, and a city that just happens to be the birthplace of my daughter. So on the sixth night of Hanukkah, you know where to find us. I may be trying to downplay Hanukkah gifts, but have to give in to the gift of great music.

Interfaith Couples: No Longer Odd

Last Sunday,  I found myself serving as an après-theater panelist at that lively downtown institution, the DCJCC (Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center). Having spent much of my adult life as a sort of Jewish outlaw, wandering in the wilderness through two generations of intermarriage, I experienced both an illicit thrill and a sense of homecoming when I saw my bio on the DCJCC’s website.

Theater J at the DCJCC produced an affectionate and sophisticated revival of Neil Simon’s 1965 play “The Odd Couple.” Sitting between my husband and my rabbi in Theater J’s jewel-box theater, all three of us were snorting with laughter. I grew up watching “The Odd Couple”  television series in the 1970s, which wasn’t bad for television. But at Theater J, a perfect cast delivered each perfect line with perfect timing.

Then at the end of the show, I got to climb onstage and sit on the couch used by Oscar and Felix, alongside the other panelists: my husband, my two best rabbi friends, a Unitarian minister married to a Jewish woman, a Jewish woman married to a Hindu man, and a lesbian woman raised Jewish with a partner raised Catholic. Rabbi Tamara Miller organized the panel around the question of whether intermarried couples are “Odd Couples” in our society today.

Each of us answered, “no.” Collectively, as gay couples, interfaith couples, interracial couples, step-parents and adoptive parents, we don’t feel odd in 2010, at least not in our urban, progressive corner of the world. In fact, we have the chutzpah to feel we represent the norm. Rabbi Harold White suggested that rather than use the negative term “odd,” we define ourselves positively as in relationship with the “other,” keeping in mind that kadosh in Hebrew means both “holy” and “other.”

Theater J prides itself on pushing artistic and cultural boundaries, so “The Odd Couple” constitutes relatively tame fare for them. The next show to open there will be “Oy Vey in a Manger” starring the drag queens known as the Kinsey Sicks. By reflecting “The Odd Couple” through an interfaith lens, (in fact, by appearing on a panel at a JCC in the first place), I tried to provide a bit of controversy yesterday, though the audience was small. As I have often noted, many Jewish institutions find interfaith issues even more fraught than gay and lesbian issues: there are certainly rabbis performing gay marriages who will not perform interfaith marriages.

After my visit to the DCJCC this week–the first, I hope, of many–I was filled with cautious hope that some progressive Jewish institutions are finally beginning to acknowledge that those of us raising interfaith children really do want to stay connected to Judaism, despite our stubborn insistence on teaching our children about Christianity. During intermission at the play, I asked my rabbi if he would officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. His reply: “Of course.” Perhaps it is slightly, well, odd, for a child with only one Jewish grandparent to plan a Bar Mitzvah. If anyone wants to argue that it is somehow bad for the Jews for my son to learn the Sabbath prayers, bring it on!

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Thelma and Ralph, Facing the End

Ralph came from an evangelical Christian family, Thelma was Jewish. After 34 years of very successful interfaith marriage, Ralph was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, at age 64, and died a year later. Thelma started a blog, Widowsphere, in loving memory of her husband, and to chronicle her journey as a widow. Recently, Thelma contacted me to point out that I had not devoted much attention on my blog to second marriages, or interfaith marriages later in life. I also know that I have barely begun to address all of the issues surrounding death, burial, and mourning in interfaith families. I appreciate this opportunity to appreciate the inspiring marriage of Thelma and Ralph, and to launch a conversation about facing the inevitable, natural ending in a happy interfaith marriage.

How long did you date your husband before marrying, and what were your thoughts about the benefits and challenges of interfaith marriage before the wedding?

We met at a party, my first foray into the singles world after a divorce.  He called the next day and asked if he could come by, then he asked me out.  What went through my mind was, “He’s not Jewish, but he’d be okay to practice on.”  By the time we married two years later, I was more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t Jewish than with the fact that he was five years younger than me.

Who officiated at your wedding? How did your extended families respond to your interfaith marriage?

We were married by a justice of the peace, who deleted all Christian references from the ceremony at my request. My two children were nine and seven, Ralph’s son was five. I think my family was outwardly supportive but inwardly very upset.  His family was very accepting of me and my children but never quit hoping that I would convert to Christianity.  I have remained very close to them since Ralph’s death and will be visiting them next month.

After marrying, did you and your husband continue to practice your religions? Did you share any of the rituals or traditions with each other?

After we married, we joined my synagogue as a family. We always went to church when we visited his family. We celebrated Jewish holidays and we exchanged gifts at Christmas and had a dinner then because as the children got older, they were home from college at that time.  We did not have Christmas trees or any other decorations.

How did your interfaith marriage influence the children? How were they raised, religiously?

The children went to synagogue with us. I was not a particularly religious Jew, more of a cultural, ethnic Jew, although I did have a cousin who was a rabbi. Neither of us made any effort at converting the other.  We were what we were. Today, my children identify as Jewish; his son does not.

When your husband fell ill, did the interfaith nature of your marriage pose special challenges?

Just before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant, Ralph confided in me for the first time that he wanted to convert to Judaism. I don’t know if he shared this with his family. At the hospital he listed himself as Jewish and became great friends with the Jewish chaplain, but as he got sicker he returned to the faith of his childhood. His funeral and burial were in his hometown. The first time I visited Ralph’s grave, I brought a stone from our backyard garden, and explained this Jewish custom to his sisters who went with me. His family now puts stones on his grave when they visit.  We had a memorial service at the synagogue a few weeks later. I said Kaddish for him and observe Yahrzeit.

I think death is the greatest spiritual challenge and one that is rarely addressed when discussing interfaith marriage. For a long time, I felt abandoned by his return to Christianity, probably not logically.  I came to terms with it and realized he needed the comfort of Christianity as he faced death.

How do you feel when you read that the challenges of interfaith marriage are going to be too great for many couples to overcome?

My experience with interfaith marriage was a joyful one. I think the strength of our marriage came from commitment to one another and understanding and acceptance of each other’s backgrounds.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.