This essay was originally published in the Forward.
This month, many interfaith families are celebrating Christmas.
Unfortunately, there won’t be many expressions of “Happy Holidays” coming from the Jewish world.
Recently, Gil Troy described the very existence of intermarriage as “the great unspoken yet perennial source of anguish haunting the Jewish world…American Jewry’s great divider,” and said that “no Jewish community could ever survive a 70% intermarriage rate.” A Canadian rabbi described intermarriage as “an internal threat to the Jewish community.”
Some scholars even find interfaith celebrations particularly threatening. In a recently-published volume, Sylvia Barack Fishman wrote about the importance of “unambiguously Jewish households” and questioned what “raising Jewish children” means to intermarried couples. This was a continuation of her earlier assertion, in Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage, that interfaith families who “incorporate Christian holiday festivities” into their lives fail to transmit Jewish identity to their children.
Fishman says this is the case even when the families interpret these festivities as not having religious significance to them.
But when considering the significance of holiday celebrations, isn’t it essential to understand what the festivities mean for those doing the actual celebrating?
Holidays, of course, have multiple meanings, and most interfaith families view their Christmas celebrations very differently than Fishman does. To most interfaith families who celebrate Christmas, these celebrations are secular celebrations of their heritage. They are not religious or “anti-Jewish” ones and are an important part of their interfaith identities.
Earlier this month, Michael David Lucas argued that it is hypocritical for liberal Jews to celebrate Hanukkah, which he defined as a celebration of “religious fundamentalism and violence.” But he himself ended up choosing to celebrate it for “the possibility of light in dark times, the importance of even the smallest miracles,” and he might as well have chosen to celebrate it for the value of religious freedom.
Like Hanukkah, Christmas is susceptible to multiple meanings. While a religious Christmas centers around celebrating the birth of the divine Jesus, that’s not what the celebrations mean to virtually all of the interfaith families who partake.
InterfaithFamily has conducted ten years’ of December holiday surveys which found that, of interfaith families raising their children as Jews, about half had Christmas trees in their own homes and virtually all said their Christmas celebrations were not religious in nature or confusing to their children.
The important 2016 Millennial Children of Intermarriage study confirmed what InterfaithFamily’s surveys have shown: “Home observance of holidays from multiple faith traditions did not seem to confuse these children of intermarriage”; they recall holiday celebrations as “desacralized” family events without religious content, special as occasions for the gathering of extended family; “some indicated that celebration of major Christian holidays felt much more like an American tradition than tied to religion.”
A Jewish educator whose child attended a Jewish day school once wrote for InterfaithFamily that a Christmas tree is not “outright Christian,” a statement about the holiday’s meaning that has stayed with me ever since.
She had a tree in her home because her husband “wanted our boys to appreciate the traditions from both sides of the family without necessarily identifying with anything outright Christian…As we see it, our job is to make our family’s Jewish identity so natural, so much a part of us, that it’s not threatened by the presence of a Grand Fir in our living room for one month out of the year.”
In my forthcoming book, Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future, I outline three invitations that can be extended to interfaith families, which are relevant year round but especially poignant this time of year.
The first is to engage in Jewish traditions— including Jewish holidays — because they teach compelling values and can serve as a framework to help people live lives of meaning and to raise caring children. Celebrating Hanukkah as a symbol of light, miracles and religious freedom is a prime example.
But when interfaith families are involved, we also have to address Christmas. In 2011, an argument comparable to Mr. Lucas’s was made by two different writers, who argued that interfaith families who celebrate Hanukkah should not also celebrate Christmas, because the meaning of Hanukkah is to honor Jews who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism.
In a post on InterfaithFamily’s blog, one writer responded:
“I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism…. The idea that my childhood—being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father—somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child. Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community — which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.”
The antipathy that a decreasing but significant number of Jews still have for Christmas attributes a particular, religious meaning to the holiday and expresses a desire to hold tight to traditional behaviors without modification. But at this point, half or more of young Jewish adults have one Jewish parent, and almost all of them grew up celebrating Christmas similar to the way they celebrate Thanksgiving: As a secular celebration of family and food.
When Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, she was asked at her confirmation hearing where she was on Christmas Day. She joked, “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
It was funny, but we are way past the time when all Jews are at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. Probably half or more are having Christmas dinner with their relatives who aren’t Jewish. We shouldn’t decry that fact, or shy away from acknowledging it, or ascribe a meaning to it that the participants don’t share.
Successfully encouraging interfaith families to engage in Jewish life necessitates that we overcome any lingering discomfort with interfaith families celebrating Christmas. It’s okay to say “happy holidays” to them this week.