Will Chrismukkah Ruin My Nice Jewish Kids?
The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]
So, I Guess I Celebrate Christmas Now?
This year will be the first official Chrismukkah at my house. Until last year, we always celebrated Christmas at my husband’s parents’ house, but then my mother-in-law sadly passed away this spring and the family decided it will be too much for my father-in-law to do on his own. (For the record, he is Jewish and my mother-in-law was not.) Because we are the most centrally located and organized household in the family, everyone agreed, including me, that our place made the most sense. Seesaw, I feel a guilty about bringing Christmas into our Jewish home, and yet I know it is the right thing for to do for our family all things considered. The question I have is, how bad or confusing is this for my kids? —Conflicted in Cleveland
The World’s Not a Soup, It’s a Tapestry
SCOTT PERLO: When I was a teenager, I was a voracious reader. I consumed everything: Faulkner and O’Conner and novels of the South, primly English Austen and Eliot, the broody Russians too. My parents, in their wisdom, let my mind wander as freely as it chose. To this day, my heart lives in many cultures that are not my own.
But my family life was Jewish – on that they insisted. I grew up knowing, very firmly, who I was. And though a trip to see Christmas lights wasn’t out of the question, nor was my mother’s appreciation for carols, they helped me develop a sense of what was ours and what was theirs.
That distinction has helped me enormously in my life. The world, to me, is not soup, all blended together; rather, it’s a tapestry — each thread is beautiful because it is just different enough from its neighbor. Vive la différence. Truly.
I can’t get behind Chrismukkah. I understand that many people celebrate a deracinated version of both holidays, but it feels to me like a smooshing of two unlike things together. What emerges is the Winter Festival of American Liberalism. I love the Liberal tradition, and America, and Christians, but Hannukah exists largely because a group of people fought so that they could be free of the influence of a more dominant religion and culture.
You’re in a tough spot. My guess is that Christmas is important to your Jewish father-in-law because of his love for his wife. To insist at this point would be an insult to his grief as much as a statement of identity. But I wouldn’t advise Chrismukkah going forward, and I would help your kids distinguish, as best as you can, between ours and theirs.
Rabbi Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C, a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.
It’s My First Chrismukkah Too!
REBECCA LEHRER: I am so sorry to hear about your mother-in-law’s passing. I feel your anxiety and sadness profoundly, as this happened in our family just last year. Before my mother-in-law got sick, I was very clear that we would never have a Christmas tree in our home. We would go to my in-laws at Christmas and that would be that. But of course, life being life, that’s not how it turned out. Who am I to deny my husband the one tradition and ritual that his family truly celebrates? The one that his parents treated with such love and care? So we’re hosting Christmas this year. But even though intellectually I know it’s the right thing to do, it fills me with anxiety: Having a tree in my home! I’m a betrayer! How will my children know that this isn’t their tradition?
But the thing is, and I know you know this, Christmas is their tradition, at least part of it. As a primarily Jewish household, I recommend focusing on grandma as the center of this holiday. Christmas is grandma’s holiday and the tree is grandma’s Christmas Tree. This is one very special way your children will learn about their grandmother. Each of those ornaments is a story from your husband’s life, and from his mother’s. Guide your children, and the rest of your family, to focus on family stories and Christmas memories, and not, you know, Jesus. This is also an opportunity to invite everyone, led by your children, to light the menorah together on Christmas Eve, which falls on the last night of Hanukkah this year.
You are doing your family a great service by creating a warm, welcoming environment during this difficult time. By honoring your mother-in-law, and making it clear that Christmas is a way to celebrate her traditions, I believe that your children will respect you and your values even more. It’s a mitzvah, after all.
Rebecca Lehrer is the Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, a website and consultancy representing the hybrid culture and new face of America. The Mash-Up Americans is exploring Spanglish, kimchi + more, just not on Shabbos.
Mixed Identity Messages Hurt Children
STEVEN COHEN: My answer to you takes the form of a letter to your Jewish father-in-law who will miss celebrating Christmas unless you do so in your home with your children.
My dear father-in-law,
I write this note out of angst and ambivalence, caring and love. I know that at this season of the year, you would feel deeply comforted with the continuation of your tradition of celebrating Christmas, the first one you will experience without your beloved wife, whom we all loved so dearly. I would very much like to be able to provide you that continuity. But to do so would come with great pain and concern.
As you know, we are raising your grandchildren as Jews. We care deeply that they continue their connection with our People that came into existence at least 3,000 years ago. Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture provide a rich meaning structure, a lifelong community, a system of morality and ethics. Even if we don’t all feel bound to the religious tradition, we (or at least I) feel commanded by our heritage to both live a Jewish life and provide that gift to our children.
But these days, assuring the Jewish commitment of our children and grandchildren is extremely problematic and uncertain. I know from the writings of certain social scientists that mixed identity messages can only increase the chances that our children will, in effect, cease identifying as Jews and may never evolve into genuinely committed Jews.
For all these reasons, and more, I hope you understand that we very much want you to be with us in late December, but for the sake of your grandchildren, and my own sense of Jewish commitment, we cannot celebrate Christmas at our home this December — or ever.
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.