Christmas and Hanukkah: 2014 Round-Up

Chanukiah

This year, Hanukkah ends just in time to give a day of breathing space between the eight-day celebration and the arrival of Christmas. This is how I like my December holidays: completely separate in space and time, while connected by the common threads of family togetherness, feasting, singing, and light at the winter solstice. And this year, the two holidays are just close enough that we will get to light candles for the final night of Hanukkah, and then also celebrate Christmas, with my interfaith parents and all my siblings.

It’s a busy time of year for interfaith parents, and it’s also busy for me as a source for stories on interfaith parenting. This year, I allowed a reporter to also interview my son for the first time, for a story on the blog of the PBS Newshour. This story features a Hindu and Christian family, as well as my family, as we move into a less binary interfaith landscape. They also published three of my photos, including the one of the Hanukkah menorah above. Go take a look. (Also, to catch up on the debate over use of the word hanukiyah versus “Hanukkah menorah”, search my twitter feed @beingboth).

I have an essay entitled “How Not to Spoil Your Interfaith Kids at Christmas and Hanukkah,” my debut on the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com. In this piece, I describe the efforts in our interfaith family to keep the gift-giving under control.

And in my most recent response on The Seesaw, the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith families advice column, I advise a Jewish dad who is feeling uncomfortable when his interfaith kid gets to celebrate Christmas. My response, “Let it go!”

Over at Beacon Press, in case you missed it, you can read my essay on “An Interfaith Child’s Christmas and Hanukkah” on Beacon Broadside. Also, you can order books direct from the publisher through the end of the month at 20% off (with free shipping) with the code GIFT20 . Some of my favorite recent Beacon Press books in the religion/worldview category include Faithiest by Chris Stedman, Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects by S. Brent Plate, and a new gift edition of Victor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning.

To browse through the many, many, many posts I have written on Hanukkah and Christmas over the years, on this blog and on Huffington, just type Christmas Hanukkah in the search box on this blog.

And in the new year, I’m looking forward to giving a public lecture at Claremont Lincoln University, in Claremont CA, on January 10th. Let your friends and family in the LA area know that they are welcome to attend.

I am sorry to see this year, the first full year with Being Both, the book–a year filled with lovely book adventures and important conversations with so many of you about interfaith families–come to an end. So here’s to more of the same in 2015! And in the last few days of 2014, may all your latkes be warm, and may all your lights be bright, as we head into, and then out of, the darkest days of winter.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, a great holiday gift available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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.

Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most

This time of year, interfaith families make our annual appearance in the media. The world wants to know: How do we do it all? Are we confused? Are we superficial? Are we exhausted? For readers of this blog, my current column at Huffington Post, about why we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, may seem rather obvious, but it is still stirring up a snowball fight of comments, both from people who insist we cannot do what we are doing, and people who appreciate our approach. Join the fray!

Meanwhile, here’s a series of small moments from the interfaith holiday season in our family.

Advent. I asked the kids (both now officially bigger than me, at ages 17 and 14) if they wanted an Advent calendar. They said yes. I bought the ubiquitous chocolate-filled cardboard calendar, at a suspiciously cheap price of $5. I checked that it was “made in Canada” and not in China. Nevertheless, the chocolate was so crummy that my son ran outside to spit it in the driveway.  Advent Fail. On the other hand, I have been touched by some of the Advent offerings posted on facebook by my friends, including glorious music by the Mediaeval Baebes, and a frenetic and surreal liturgical dance by Steven Colbert, which I find somehow deeply spiritual, perhaps because I know that in spite of his hilarious cynicism, he is an ardent Catholic and Sunday School teacher. Advent win.

Hanukkah. We already shopped, as a family, at an Alternative Gift Fair this year, and identified charities to fund for various nights of Hanukkah. We gave each of our two teenagers $50 to spend, and they picked out delivery of a bicycle through Bikes for the World, dental checkups for 10 Mayan children in Guatemala, one week of fresh vegetables for a local family from our local farmer’s market, and socks and underwear for our local soup kitchen.

A Sprinkling of Christmas, and Hanukkah. I made Christmas and Hanukkah cookies with a fabulous group of women friends. I try not to mix the holidays together, and I am not the least bit comfortable with the star-of-David tree-topper being marketed this year, but I think it’s kosher to let Hanukkah and Christmas cookies co-exist on a counter-top for a few seconds before they are devoured.

Christmas, with a Little Hanukkah. We trimmed our tree this week. My husband wrapped our porch with lights, and then the kids had their trip down memory lane unwrapping the ornaments. Usually, we listen to Christmas classics while tree-trimming, but because we are all still smitten with the Pink Martini holiday album from last year, we allowed a tiny bit of Christmas/Hanukkah crossover to occur when their irresistible version of Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic Hanukkah song “Ocho Candelikas” (with guest vocals by NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro) came on.

Welcome Yule! We heard a rousing live version of Ocho Candelikas this week, at the Christmas Revels, believe it or not. Every year, the Revels weave together some of the pagan and Celtic influences on Christmas. This year’s Revels was a brave departure, as it was set in the “golden age of Al-Andalus,” on the Iberian Peninsula in the medieval period when Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures co-existed and recombined. We have been cautioned by academics, recently, not to over-romanticize this period, and the program at the show carefully pointed out that the “level of tolerance varied significantly by time and place.” Nevertheless, after years of Christmas Revels set in different historical periods and geographic settings, it was gratifying to see Judaism, and Islam, represented on the stage. And I see no reason not to be inspired in this season by the vision, however ethereal and ephemeral, of a time and place for religious harmony.

 

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.

Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community

On Sunday, our community of more than 100 interfaith families held our annual Lessons and Carols service, in anticipation of Christmas. The fifth-graders tied toy stuffed sheep and donkeys to their heads, and acted out the nativity scene. My son played djembe, my daughter sang with the choir while dandling someone’s baby on her knee. Together, we pondered the story of the the angels, the wisemen, the star.

As always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

But also, our clergy, and our members, speak from their interfaith experiences, putting each holiday into our interfaith context. For instance, this week, our rabbi spoke of what Christmas means to him as a Jew. He hears the universal message of Christmas as the existence of God in the poor, the oppressed, the excluded, the “holy other.” He sees God in the pregnant girl, the baby born into poverty, the lowly shepherds, the mysterious travellers who came bearing gifts from afar. You do not have to believe that Jesus was the only human incarnation of God to be inspired by this narrative.

For many of our members, being part of an interfaith community gives them an opportunity to connect to family traditions and history, rather than suppressing them. At our service this week, Jonathan Brown spoke of his great grandfather, who was Head Chorister in the original “Nine Lessons and Carols,” created 130 years ago in Truro, Cornwall. Jonathan explains, “The service was designed to be as inclusive as possible: non-denominational, no creeds, no ceremonies or communion.” Of course, at the time, virtually everyone in Cornwall was Christian, but the idea of expanding this tradition to include Jonathan’s Jewish wife, his interfaith son, feels somehow organic and true.

As an interfaith community, we encourage families to take children to church, to synagogue, to celebrate with extended family, to maintain their connections to ancient traditions. This week, Jonathan and his family will return to his birthplace in Cornwall, and his son will be the fifth generation to take part in the Lessons and Carols service there.

But we also know that by providing a space and time to celebrate together, as an interfaith community, we help each other through the moments of dissonance and alienation that inevitably come along with the exuberance and thrill of our pioneering cross-cultural and cross-religious relationships.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

Jewish Autumn, Christian Winter…

Fall Leaves, photo Susan Katz MillerGrowing up, my family often went apple-picking after Rosh Hashanah services. My Jewish New Year memories are intertwined with the cidery scent of apples rotting in the grass, the sound of bees buzzing, the long angle of late New England sun, and the brisk air that meant the excitement of new school clothes.

In autumn, our interfaith community celebrates Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and the harvest festival of Sukkot. It may, in fact, appear that we are giving Christianity short shrift, because the “must do” Jewish holidays are stacked up front. When prospective members come to check us out in the fall, the Jewish partner in the couple tends to feel perfectly comfortable. If I can, I give those Jewish partners a heads up that as winter approaches, they will need to reckon with Christianity.

After a transition through the mostly secular Thanksgiving period, we shift into what I think of as our Christian season, with Advent and Christmas. We celebrate Hannukah of course. But since Hannukah is not actually among the top five Jewish holidays in terms of importance, we don’t attempt to give Hannukah and Christmas equal weight. “Being both” is not about distorting either religion to create false equivalencies. We do not have a Hannukah bush, or menorahs on our Christmas tree. Instead, we celebrate Advent and Christmas with as much historical integrity and spiritual depth as we can muster, to offset the commercial Christmas so prevalent in American culture. Jewish partners learn to accept, or not, seeing their children light Advent candles, sing carols, and talk about the birth of Jesus, that nice Jewish boy.

In spring, “being both” comes to a head with the twin week-long celebrations of Passover and Holy Week. Most interfaith families know this as the season of true “interfaith dilemma.” Jews are forced to confront the idea of resurrection. Christians are forced to confront the historical anti-Semitism associated with Easter. Everyone in the family must negotiate the “chosen people” language embedded in the Passover Seder, and the horror of the drowning of the Egyptians. And we must be nimble diplomats to avoid making a mishigas of meals with extended family featuring Easter buns, matzoh balls, ham and brisket.

With the end of the school year, our interfaith community goes into sleep mode, as do many religious communities. For some strange and convenient reason, there are no major holidays in either Judaism or Christianity during the summer. Instead, many of us use this time to reflect on whether or not we will recommit ourselves to the communities we have chosen—especially those of us who are wandering Jews, wandering Christians, or both.

 

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 @beingboth.