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Comfort and Oy! Raising Kids in a Mixed-Faith Household

(Illustration: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight.com)

When my daughter was eight years old, she came home from school troubled. “Someone in my class said that Santa is not real,” she said.

Her younger brother laughed. “But of course Santa is real! Otherwise, who’s that guy at the mall?”

Thankfully, my daughter seemed satisfied with this answer. I sighed with relief and, not for the first time, thought, “I am completely unequipped to handle this Santa stuff.”

I grew up Jewish, in a suburb of Boston. We celebrated Chanukah. We did not have a Christmas tree, or give each other Christmas presents. On Christmas day we did what all Jewish people do: we saw a movie and then went out for Chinese food. Many of the kids in my neighborhood, and in my school, were Jewish, so it never occurred to me to feel left out, or different.

I married an Episcopalian, and while neither of us is terribly religious, both of us feel it’s very important to pass our family traditions on to our children. So we celebrate both Easter and Passover, Chanukah and Christmas. Having a tree in December is a new experience for me, and I’ve loved watching my husband unpack the ornaments he saved from his childhood, hanging them next to the Popsicle-stick ornaments our children create in school.

Becoming a family isn’t about giving up one’s own identity; it’s allowing each member to enrich the whole with their own seasoning, like the vanilla I sometimes add to the batter for challah French toast.

Another new experience for me is living in a town that is predominantly non-Jewish. I now know two other Jewish women, but when my kids were in preschool, I was it: the one, token Jew who was called upon to explain Chanukah. The first year I was asked to come in and give a Chanukah presentation to my daughter’s preschool class, I arrived to find the entire school gathered in the classroom; apparently they’d never had a real live Jew around before, and everyone wanted in on the action.

My children are proud to claim the Jewish half of their identity, but they’re not stupid: they know they’re in the minority. They’ve seen me wandering through stores that sell mountains of Easter candy searching for the one lonely shelf of matzo. They know that radio stations will play hundreds of Christmas carols on repeat throughout December, but that the only Chanukah song they’re likely to hear is the one sung by Adam Sandler. They own copies of both A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, and neither of them has ever asked where the Chanukah or Passover specials are.

And so every year I do my best to make the Jewish holidays special and meaningful. We fry potato latkes on the first night of Chanukah. We visit my extended family in Massachusetts for a loud, raucous and joke-filled Passover Seder. And on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I spend hours baking challah; my children adore this dense, sweet bread, which we serve with honey and apple slices in order to wish each other a sweet new year.

I do all this so that the Jewish holidays won’t lose meaning in the overwhelming cultural emphasis on Christianity. But I wonder, sometimes, how much of an impact I’m having, when even in our own house the Jewish holidays are sometimes marginalized and overshadowed. Complicating matters is the fact that I love having an opportunity to participate in the events I was excluded from as a child — setting out Christmas stockings, dying Easter eggs. But then, my husband enjoys celebrating the Jewish holidays as well; he’s typically the one to remind me to light the candles on the menorah each of the eight nights of Chanukah, and he’s gotten freakishly good at spinning the dreidel.

Because we aren’t raising our children as exclusively Jewish, they do not experience the Jewish holidays the same way I did when I was growing up. My memories of Passover, for example, include purging the house of leavened food (chametz), the indignity of school lunches packed with a PB&J on matzo and the first glorious bowl of cereal the morning after Passover ends. For my children, Passover means family: playing with cousins they only see once or twice a year, chopping apples for charoset alongside my mother, listening to my father explain the story behind each of the foods we eat during the Seder. And if the holidays coincide such that we are still in Massachusetts for Easter, my parents, in an incredible gesture of tolerance, allow us to set out the kids’ Easter baskets, even though they are full of candy expressly forbidden during Passover.

There’s a real argument to be made that we are diluting both Christianity and Judaism by mingling the two. Before our children were born, many people sat my husband and me down and informed us that, whatever we thought about our own religion, we had to bring our children up within a church or a temple, which meant that we had to choose. This made both of us uncomfortable, because our religious traditions tie us to our parents, and our grandparents, and all of our ancestors stretching back beyond memory. Rituals are passed down from generation to generation like treasured heirlooms — my Nana’s Shabbat candle sticks, my mother-in-law’s handmade ornaments — and withholding any of them from our children feels like denying them knowledge of the rich, complex, and beautiful cultures that shaped their parents, and in turn, shaped them.

We don’t celebrate the Jewish holidays exactly the way I did as a child. The rituals have shifted, and evolved, and become uniquely ours. And isn’t that what it means to become a family? It’s not about giving up one’s own identity; it’s allowing each member to enrich the whole with their own seasoning, like the vanilla I sometimes add to the batter for challah French toast.

Several years ago, my son brought home a drawing he’d made at school. His assignment was to “draw a picture of something that is important to your family during the December holidays.” Underneath the picture was a space for a label: “This is called a [blank].” Instead of drawing one thing, my son drew three: a Christmas tree, a menorah and a sheet of cookies. Underneath, he wrote, “This is called a tradition.” I was more than proud; I was kvelling.

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