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.