Raising Children With Two Religions: At Hanukkah

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I thought I would post a roundup of the many pieces I have written on how we celebrate Hanukkah in our “raising them both” family.

My interfaith kids have always loved Hanukkah, even though we also celebrate Christmas. And my mother and husband, both Christian, love harmonizing as we sing around the candles. One of my most popular Hanukkah posts was the five reasons you do not have to fear that Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Christmas.

By the time our kids were teens, we put most of the Hanukkah gift emphasis on the importance of giving to others. Although we also treated them to a Matisyahu concert one year. I later admitted that going to a rock club on a weeknight did contribute to interfaith holiday burnout that year.

Last year, I wrote an overview of celebrating Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post last year on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes relatively early (December 8th to 16th), minimizing any awkward overlap for those of us who like to keep the holidays separate.

And we do keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I am sending today to our daughter, who now lives far away in a college dorm where she cannot light candles because of the fire laws. Sigh. I know I will see my daughter at Christmas, but it is hard to realize that she will only be nearby for Hanukkah on the years of crazy holiday overlap.

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and away in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of family holiday memories. At our house, we try not to miss an opportunity to create those memories.

 

 

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 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.

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 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.

Ten Things I Love About Judaism

Kiddush Cup, photo Susan Katz Miller

Three out of four of my children’s grandparents grew up as Christians. So why am I insisting on raising my children with Judaism as well as Christianity? The philosophical, political and psychological reasons recur as themes throughout this blog. But since I recently posted the Christian stuff I love, I thought I should also list some of the things, big and small, I love about Judaism:

  1. The Music. Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin,  the Klezmatics and Shlomo Carlebach, Regina Spektor and Matisyahu. I feel a kinesthetic rush of communal joy when dancing in a circle, singing ancient, minor melodies.
  2. The Middle East Connection. Even though Israel is deeply problematic for interfaith families, I feel the pull of the Mediterranean. I belly dance, I pine for my estranged Arab sisters, I hold eggplants over the burners of my stove to make baba ghanouj from scratch.
  3. Hebrew. It’s diabolically difficult, but exposing our children to it makes their neurons sprout, right? Personally, I enjoyed puzzling it out as a child. The idea is that Hebrew will stimulate their potential for both math and mysticism.
  4. Feasting. I’m not just talking about Ashkenazi deli food here, though I admit to eating chopped liver straight out of the container, like peanut butter. I’m talking about the way food is central to Jewish practice. The sensuality of the perfumes and textures and rituals surrounding food—bitter herbs and haroset, the Tu Bishvat seder and the braided challah.  Food to Jews is both sacred symbol (thus food for the intellect), and primal earthly delight.
  5. Bibliophilia. As the publishing industry collapses in on itself like a dying star, Jews will be the last to forsake investigative reporting, editing, newsprint, reading books. I suppose it’s because the Torah is so central to Jewish practice. I intend to stand with my people and be the last one to cancel my newspaper subscriptions.
  6. Tikkun Olam. Every religion stresses community service. It’s one of the most defensible aspects of religion. But I find particularly evocative and mysterious the Kabbalistic conept of a broken world that needs to be put back together, the impulse to gather and fit together the shards of a shattered vessel. Although the original story ends with the termination of the material world: kind of a downer.
  7. Thirst for Justice. From Jewish support for civil rights in the twentieth century, to Jewish lawyers working pro bono on LGBT equality cases today, the thirst for justice creates good in our world. Is it the ancient memory of slavery? The recent memory of deadly persecution? It doesn’t matter why, it’s a good thing.
  8. Minority Empathy. On a related note, it builds character to grow up as an outsider in America: to empathize with other minority groups, to cultivate the stance of critical, thoughtful observer. To stand out is to invite discrimination, but to withstand discrimination is to become stronger.
  9. Compatibility with Atheism. I love a religion that includes a significant contingent of practicing adherents who don’t even believe in God. Personally, I’m agnostic. But I find very appealing the idea that ritual, a sense of community, even spirituality, can all be accessed by doubters and even rowdy nay-sayers.
  10. Shabbat. Turn off your cellphone, log off facebook, say no to the essential meeting. Sit and eat with family. Give thanks for light, and wine and bread. Sing, and smell the spices. All children crave this peace: Christian children, Jewish children, interfaith children.

 

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

Back to School: Dual-Faith Religious Education

Interfaith Families Project--"stained glass" made in Sunday School

Tomorrow our community of over 100 interfaith families will picnic together for the kickoff of the school year. In our Sunday School, children learn about both Judaism and Christianity. It is a radical concept, but one that is spreading to new cities each year as more and more interfaith families choose to educate their children about both religions.

My children have attended this program since kindergarten, and they are now 15 and 12. When my daughter graduated from Sunday School at the end of 8th grade, she chose to keep coming with us on Sundays and became a teacher’s helper in the kindergarten class.

Many adults grew up hating Sunday School. Our community strives to make the experience as interactive and multi-sensory as possible, using storytelling, music, art and field trips. My daughter helps the kindergartners learn songs they will encounter in synagogues and churches—the roving music teacher comes into the class with a guitar to sing “It’s a Tree of Life” as well as “This Little Light of Mine.”

My daughter helps the children with craft projects: maybe constructing a tzedakah (charity) box to put coins in. Or decorating a cloth matzoh or challah cover with fabric markers. Or making “stained glass” with translucent gels on plexiglass. In fourth grade, after learning about the Christian story of the loaves and the fishes, her class used real fish to make Japanese fishprints on T-shirts.

My son, at 12, is just entering the two-year Coming of Age program. Last year, his classes included Hebrew literacy as well as a historical and theological survey of the Jewish and Christian denominations. They went on field trips to a local Reform Shabbat service, a Jewish museum, a Quaker meeting, and a Catholic mass. Each student presented reports on different denominations. My son chose to study the Mennonites, one of the religions in his complex personal ancestry. He also thrilled his classmates in his presentation on Chasidic Judaism by showing a youtube video of rapper Matisyahu and analyzing some of his lyrics.

As my son enters the two-year Coming of Age process, we will help him to decide how he wants to mark his passage into adulthood. We know he will participate in our group Coming of Age ceremony at the end of those two years. He could also have an individual ceremony, as his sister did. Will it be labeled a Bar Mitzvah? Will he read from the Torah? Does he want a Christian confirmation? Or will it be an integrated Jewish and Christian ceremony? Does he have to choose now, at the brink of 13? Does he have to choose later? Does he have to choose? To follow the story, follow the blog!