Commentary: The holidays as an interfaith family: Trying to have a merry everything and a happy always
It was Grandparents Day at my children's school and everyone was filling out questionnaires. My daughter Indie, in second grade at the time, waited as my mother-in-law, Rose, read the question aloud. "What is your favorite holiday?" My heartbeat ratcheted. Such a deceptively simple question.
I listened nervously. "Halloween?" Rose guessed. Indie shook her head no, smiling. Rose thought some more. "Your birthday?!"
"No!" Indie said. Unable to restrain herself anymore, she shouted "It's Christmas!"
The Jewish day school classroom stilled. So did my heart, for the answer seemed like a judgment -- not on my daughter, but on me and the choices I'd made in my life.
Long before my daughter was born, I'd worried such a day would come. After years of fruitlessly dating Jewish men, I'd finally (and happily) fallen in love with someone outside my faith. Matt, though raised Catholic, had rejected his upbringing after college, eventually settling on atheism. We discussed religion frequently as we dated. Though he did not wish to convert, he admired Jewish values and philosophy and enjoyed participating in the rituals. When we stood together under the chuppah, which he built himself from trees that had fallen in our local park, he vowed to do his best to help raise our children as Jews.
In some ways, the path was easy. We attended synagogue and celebrated the Jewish holidays. My devout in-laws remained kind and respectful, attending church on their own and asking us to join them later for the celebrations in their home. After all, there is nothing inherently religious about sharing a meal.
Yet as my kids grew older and more aware, these occasions stirred the first signs of ambivalence. The commercial windfall of the Christian holidays began to chafe against the more meager rewards of the Jewish holidays. What was Hanukkah, a celebration of light and food, against the piles of presents under a Christmas tree? What was Passover and its list of restrictions against an indulgence of chocolate and Easter baskets? My in-laws respectfully omitted Santa, the bunny and Jesus from labels, but perhaps that contributed to the problem, widening the chasm between the spiritual and the material. It was no wonder my daughter loved Christmas.
My children were just toddlers when I realized how ill-equipped I was to handle the role of sole educator of all things Jewish. I quickly enlisted help by enrolling the kids in a Jewish day school. My heart swelled during those initial months as my kids blossomed under the comfort and joy of a community. I could often hear them singing to themselves in Hebrew as they ran around the house or took a bath. It wasn't long before their knowledge began to surpass mine and our roles flipped: They were the teachers and I was the student.
I'd noticed that we were not the only interfaith couple who looked to Jewish day school to solidify their children's identity. I noticed, too, on that fateful Grandparents Day, that I was also not alone in the struggle over holiday preference. Another person quickly chimed in with their grandchild's identical vote. In fact, it quickly became apparent that Christmas was perilously close to being the classroom holiday winner.
Despite my anxiety at my daughter's answer, I did not intend to change anything. I believed, and still believe, in the importance of educating children in diversity and religious tolerance. I continue to try to expose my children to as many religions and religious experiences as I can. We've attended, as guests, Catholic Mass, Episcopalian and Protestant services, and an Amish Christmas program. We've visited the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and listened as Muslim children explained teachings from the Koran during Sunday school. We invite people from other faiths to our Passover Seder as part of the 2 for Seder initiative and are delighted when we are invited to others' celebrations in return.
So, much as the worry built inside me that day, I did not chastise my daughter for her holiday preference. Instead, I shared stories of ambivalence. I told her how my mother had felt so jealous when she was a little girl that she'd bought herself a miniature potted fir festooned with gum drops and hid it in her closet. I told her about my own complicated feelings, how I often grow self-conscious, then weary, as Christmas increasingly monopolizes the radio, streets, stores and conversations from Halloween through the end of December.
I empathized, then I moved on, focusing on our own holidays. We continued to cook and prepare ritual foods together, to light Shabbat candles, to mark the turns of the Jewish calendar with friends and family. The years passed, the children grew older and one day, as spring approached, my daughter announced, unprompted, that Passover was her favorite holiday. When I asked why, she shrugged, uncertain. She didn't know, but she liked having the extended family all together, gathered around one table, talking and singing and eating late into the night.
Two years ago, the first night of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Eve. My in-laws traditionally throw a massive party on that day, a feast of the seven fishes that is tribute to their Italian heritage. My husband is charged with making his grandmother's fried eggplant and stuffed peppers, but he also fries latkes and simmers pots of homemade apple sauce, ensuring a multicultural bounty. The open-door inclusive policy often means that the party seesaws between religious contingencies. On that "Christmaskkah," the hosts had indicated in advance that anyone who wished should bring their Hanukkah menorahs. Someone cleared the mantel. One row, then another, formed with dozens of Hanukkiyahs. All together, we lit the candles and voiced the prayers. A silence followed, everyone spelled by the slow melt of parti-colored wax and the historical flicker of light.
Later that night, my mother-in-law gathered the children as she does every Christmas Eve to give them their first present, of matching Christmas-themed pajamas. As the cousins came down the stairs one by one, I gasped, laughed and then cried at the way my mother-in-law had honored the occasion. They were not wearing the typical red and green, nor was there a reindeer in sight. The eight grandchildren stood proudly in a line, tallest (oldest) to shortest (youngest), in blue and silver pajamas, the shirts emblazoned with a Hanukkiyah and the words "Shine Bright."
I do not want my children's Jewish identity to be formed via antipathy, fear, judgment or propaganda. I want their identity to be a natural-sprung choice bolstered by education, history, values and happy family memories. Exposing them to other points of view does not weaken them as Jews; it strengthens their compassion, respect and interfaith tolerance.
These days, when the Christian and Jewish holidays coincide, as they periodically do, I view it as an opportunity to educate and find common ground. If someone wishes me a "Merry Christmas," instead of grumbling at the assumption, I explain that we celebrate Hanukkah. If they're interested, I explain more, like why the holiday sometimes bumps up against Thanksgiving. Or that we mark our new year not in winter, but in early autumn. I particularly like when Purim and St. Patrick's Day coincide. Saint Paturim, if you will. My mother-in-law makes the corned beef, and we bake the hamantaschen.
Slainte! L'chaim! Happy Hanukkah! Merry Everything and Happy Always!
Molly Pascal is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh.