Stop Criticizing Interfaith Families Who Celebrate Christmas

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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.

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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.

Revisiting the December Holidays

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As always at the end of the year there were a lot of stories about interfaith families and the December holidays. The topic has been covered so much that it’s hard to find much new. But Rabbi Matt Gewirtz’ Why Santa Brought The Rabbi’s Daughter a Gift was extraordinary. When his youngest daughter, who says she wants to be a rabbi, asked if Santa would visit her, and his older children called her a baby and said Santa isn’t real, he told her not to stop “believing what your heart tells you.” He leaves her a present with a note from “Santa” saying he “knew she was Jewish but she got a present because she believed in him.” Though concerned he was spiritually confusing his child, he decides that “Her relationship with the mythical was age-appropriate, helped her delve deeper into her sense of wonder,…[I]t was somehow about a connection to that which will ultimately make her feel safe and connected to the possibility of the unknown, to the potential for her to feel sure in the world of the mysterious.” I thought this was just the kind of wise and confident approach that we need more rabbis to take towards interfaith couples who celebrate Christmas.

I also loved Converts Are Constantly Asked If We Miss Christmas. It’s Complicated. The elements the author recalls with fondness are now attached to Shabbat and Hanukkah – “I continued to light candles, have gatherings with friends and family, sing special songs and give presents during the darkest days of December.” The author loved three classic Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Muppet Christmas Carol, but watching them again with “now-Jewish sensibilities” realizes that there is no Christian doctrine in any of them, and further that “those three stories are more about Yom Kippur than they are about Christmas,” given their sinful characters who face the truth about themselves and make commitments to living a different life. The author concludes, “No, I don’t miss Christmas, but I’ve repurposed a part of it to suit my Jewish life. Let me tell you about my favorite Yom Kippur movies…”

I liked two other personal stories about interfaith families whose Christmas celebrations don’t impair their Jewishness: in Holidays with the McDowells, a young man whose Jewish mother loves Christmas (with no Jesus) puts almost 100 Santas on display, while his Catholic father “in many ways has somehow out-Jewed his Jewish wife;” in The Hanukkah Tradition From My Christian Mother-in-Law, a Jewish woman gets a dreidel every year from her Christian mother-in-law.

I didn’t like How The O.C.’s Chrismukkah Became a Real Life Holiday. I’ve written several times that I don’t think that Chrismukkah, to the extent it means mushing two holidays together to make a new one, is a good idea. (Sorry to be a scrooge but I don’t think things like the “Santa Dreidel” are a good idea either.) (Or that the term “Christmasukah” is a welcome addition to the discussion, as in Christmasukah: Conservative synagogue members discuss their approach to interfaith challenges.) The author says that Chrismukkah “brilliantly combined each holiday’s best attributes,” is “an embrace of the reality of a hybrid identity,” and “the perfect outlet to navigate the tension of assimilation.” He says the three people raised in interfaith families he spoke with discussed the isolation and confusion they experienced during Christmas. But the family of one of the three treated the holidays as equals and didn’t fuse the two together.

There is still a way to go before Jews accept the idea that interfaith families can experience Christmas traditions without religious doctrine and can celebrate Christmas without undermining their children’s identity as wholly or partly Jewish. Maybe that’s why Rabbi Gewirtz’ story is so powerful, without even coming from an interfaith family. He reports that his daughter who for the time being still believes in Santa wants to be a rabbi when she grows up.

Reflecting on December 2011

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I was interviewed by a major city’s Jewish newspaper this week. The reporter asked if it had gotten “easier” for interfaith couples over the past ten years since InterfaithFamily got started. I said I thought there was more acceptance among parents of young adults who are intermarrying.

But there are still what I call “eternal” issues – not in the sense of never resolved, but in the sense that they confront each interfaith couple who is at all serious about having religious traditions together. Issues like what kind of wedding will we have, what kind of baby naming, and … what will we do in December.

This year JOI’s Paul Golin made a valiant effort to influence Jews not to tell interfaith couples not to have Christmas trees. Unfortunately it didn’t work.

Writing originally in Kveller and then in the Forward, Jordana Horn attracted a huge amount of comment by asserting that the point of Hanukkah is to celebrate people who resisted practicing any religion other than Judaism, and to celebrate Christmas is to do just that — to celebrate the birth of someone who Christians believe is the son of God.

This argument is wrong and it’s pernicious. I say it’s wrong based on the eight years of December holidays surveys we’ve done at InterfaithFamily. They consistently show that interfaith families raising their children Jewish celebrate Christmas – with almost half having trees in their own homes – but not religiously. It is a warm family time, like Thanksgiving, that recognizes the traditions of the parent who is not Jewish.

It’s pernicious because the more that Jews tell interfaith couples that they shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, the less those interfaith couples will want to engage in Jewish life and community.

Kate Bigam in a guest post on our blog said it best:

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.

People who are still uneasy about interfaith families celebrating Christmas might want to consider well-known Jewish journalist Sue Fishkoff’s experience. Sue grew up celebrating Christmas with her non-Jewish mother – and continues to do so.

I’d like to ask Jordana Horn, and Debra Nussbaum Cohen, who wrote a similarly negative piece, and those who share their views: if an interfaith couple said they were willing to raise their children Jewish, they just wanted to have a Christmas tree that they didn’t regard as a religious symbol – do you really want to tell that couple “no, not good enough, not Jewish enough, better you should go away?”

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Julie Wiener featured Sue’s essay, and if you want to see more of this debate, check out her several blog posts.

This post originally appeared on www.interfaithfamily.com and is reprinted with permission.