December used to fill my parents with dread. My parents avoided taking us to malls in December, nervous that the amount of Christmas spirit would create confusion and discomfort for us as Jewish children with a (since converted) Christian mother. In her words, “The Christmas season is hard enough when your family is unambiguously Jewish; for us as an interfaith family, it was even more fraught.”
In years where the two holidays overlapped, such as this year, the concern for questions becomes two-fold. While visiting our family for Christmas we would quietly slip downstairs to light our hanukiah, say prayers, and share a private moment together as a family. My parents cared deeply about giving me and my siblings a Jewish education, but also about connecting with family. So when my grandfather’s only request was to continue coming to Christmas when my parents told him that we (the kids) would be raised Jewish, there was an unspoken understanding that we would celebrate our own traditions that would actively separate us from our Christian heritage.
It’s not that my parents were scared to discuss my mother’s Christian upbringing. My mom fondly would recall nearly becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, and made a point of finding a synagogue that was welcoming to non-Jewish spouses. It’s just that they wanted to maintain a strong sense of Judaism. I derived my Jewish heritage from my father’s side, and always placed an emphasis on ethics, education, and spirituality.
While I had a strong sense of self, I have always felt a self-consciousness about where my family and I stand in the Jewish community. Despite my overwhelmingly accepting synagogue, I had self-doubts about how Jewish I needed to be in order to be considered Jewish. I yearned for acceptance by the Orthodox community, who still wouldn’t consider me Jewish even though my mother became the president of our synagogue.
This speaks to a large issue within the Jewish community that comes from the controversy surrounding intermarriage and conversion. The entire basis of the intermarriage debate only allows mothers to be the arbiter of who is Jewish. This mentality ultimately has a negative effect because those who are being told to care about Judaism don’t necessarily know anything about their own religion. Further, we are pushing away those with potential to bring a deep and meaningful perspective to the Jewish community.
When we, as Jews, try to define who is the most Jewish, we inevitably exclude and place people on the fringes of our own community. I understand why so many people fret about the intermarriage; I have read the same Pew studies and been subject to the same conversations about the future of American Jews. But by focusing on interfaith marriage as a crisis for progressive Judaism, we are only pushing people out of the synagogue. Rather, we should be opening our arms to new perspectives on what it means to be Jewish, and making every effort to educate those who already identify as such. The question we should be contemplating is how Judaism is being instilled in Jewish children, not who our children are marrying. In other words, we need informed pluralism.
On Christmas eve, I, along with my family, will be stuffing stockings with my grandfather. I have come to terms with being considered an outsider in certain Jewish circles, and feel most comfortable with pluralistic egalitarian Jewish communities. Within these circles, my religious and ethnic identity is never questioned, my heritage is understood and my commitment to Judaism appreciated.
In a way, the American celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah are one in the same. They each share a strained relationship with their religious origins, but each holiday has also found some secular ways to express its identity. The battle for Judaism (really, against assimilation), will be won by learning to adapt to a new age while teaching Jews about their Jewish history and religion. Secular Jews are finding new ways to express their Judaism in ways that are true to the soul of Judaism, even if it doesn’t look like your (or my!) grandparents’ Judaism.
Gabriel Lehrman is the social media intern at the Forward. Follow him on Twitter at @LivefromLehrman